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Drunkard's Best Friend
Nine years ago the Post reported on the then-obscure
group known as Alcoholics Anonymous. Since that time these
self-rehabilitated men-and women-have sobered up an astonishing
number of America's heaviest drinkers. This is how they
The Saturday Evening Post, April 1, 1950
a farmer in Aroostook County, Maine announces that he is
going to bake a cake, he is speaking figuratively. What
he means is that he is bored with the loneliness of Aroostook's
vast reaches, with the county's most famous product, potatoes,
and with life in general; and that, to relieve his boredom,
he is going on a vanilla-extract bender. In order to buy
liquor he might have to drive as much as a hundred miles
over drifted or rutted roads, to reach a town uninhibited
by local option. He tipples on vanilla, which is rich in
alcohol, because it is easily and legally obtainable, in
quantity, at the nearest grocery store. Grocers in local-option
towns ordinarily do a thriving vanilla business with alcoholically
inclined agrarians, but of late the strange society known
as Alcoholics Anonymous has taken root in Aroostook and
a disturbing effect on the vanilla turnover has been observed.
wouldn't believe it, Ned," one storekeeper lamented to a
drummer on a gray day last November, " but my vanilla sales
is almost down to normal."
impact of Alcoholics Anonymous upon a community is not always
that striking, but it is doing quite well at its self-appointed
task, which, as almost everyone knows by now, is that of
helping confirmed drunks to quit drinking. The help is provided
solely by alcoholics who, through adhering to a specified
program of living, have managed to arrest their own disastrous
drinking habits. (A. A. members never call themselves ax-alcoholics,
regardless of the length of their sobriety, the theory being
that they are ineradicably alcoholics by temperament, and
are therefore always vulnerable to a relapse.)
the past few years Alcoholics Anonymous has extended its
influence overseas, and one of its more dedicated workers
is the honorable secretary of the Dublin group. A Sandhurst
graduate and a veteran of twenty-six years in the British
Army, he is still remembered in some portions of the Middle
East for his inspired work with the bottle. Now an abstainer,
he lives off his major's pension and the profits of a small
retail business. Like all faithful members of A.A., he spends
much of his spare time in shepherding other lushes toward
total abstinence, lest he revert to the pot himself.
honorable secretary is a man of few spoken words, but he
carries on a large correspondence within the fraternity.
His letters, which are notable for their eloquent understatement,
are prized by fellow A.A.'s in this country and are passed
around at meetings. One of his more fascinating communiques,
received here in October, described a missionary trip to
Cork, in company with another A.A. gentleman. The purpose
of the trip was to bring the glad tidings of freedom to
any Corkonians who might happen to be besotted and unshriven,
and to stimulate the local group, which was showing small
was the honorable secretary's chronological report:
P.M. The chairman and myself sat alone.
One lady arrived, a nonalcoholic.
One man arrived.
A County Cork member arrived to say he couldn't stay,
as his children had just developed measles.
The lone lady departed.
Two more men arrived.
One more man arrived, and I decided to make a start.
The first man arrival stated that he had to go out and
have a drink.
He came back.
Three more arrived.
Another lady, propped up by a companion, arrived, gazed
glassily around, collected some literature and departed
The chairman and I had finished speaking.
We reluctantly said good night to the new members, who
seemed very interested.
summing up, the secretary said: "A night of horror at first,
developing quite well. I think they have good prospects,
once the thing is launched."
a skeptic, the honorable secretary's happy prognosis in
the face of initial discouragement may sound foolishly hopeful.
To those already within the fraternity and familiar with
the sluggardly and chaotic character of A.A. Iocal-group
growth in its early stages, he was merely voicing justifiable
optimism. For some years after its inception, in 1935, the
Alcoholics Anonymous movement itself made slow progress.
As the work of salvaging other drunks is essential to maintaining
the sobriety of the already-salvaged brethren, the earnest
handful of early salvagees spent some worrisome months.
Hundreds of thousands of topers were prowling about in full
alcoholic cry, but few would pause long enough to listen.
years after it all began, when this magazine first examined
the small but encouraging phenomenon (Post, March 1, 1941),
the band could count 2000 members, by scraping hard, and
some of these were still giving off residual fumes. In the
nine years which have intervened since that report, the
small phenomenon has become a relatively large one. Today
its listed membership exceeds 90,000. Just how many of these
have substantial sobriety records is a matter of conjecture,
as the movement, which has no control at the top and is
constantly ridden by maverick tendencies, operates in a
four-alarm-fire atmosphere, and no one has the time to check
up. A reasonable guess would be that about two thirds have
been sober for anywhere from six months to fifteen years,
and that the rest have stretched out their periods of sobriety
between twisters to the point where they are at least able
to keep their jobs.
intake of shaky-fingered newcomers, now at its highest in
A.A. history, is running at the rate of around 20,000 a
year. The number that will stick is, again, a matter of
conjecture. If experience repeats, according to A.A. old-timers,
about one half will stay sober from the start, and one fourth
will achieve sobriety after a few skids; the other one fourth
will remain problem drinkers. A problem drinker, by definition,
is one who takes a drink for some compulsive reason he cannot
identify and, having taken it, is unable to stop until he
is drunk and acting like a lunatic.
Many of the Four Million Will Join?
is tempting to become oversanguine about the success of
Alcoholics Anonymous to date. Ninety thousand persons, roaring
drunk or roaring sober, are but a drop in the human puddle,
and they represent only a generous dip out of the human
alcoholic puddle. According to varying estimates, between
750,000 and 1,000,000 problem drinkers are still on the
loose in the United States alone. Their numbers will inevitably
be swelled in future years by recruits from the ranks of
between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 Americans who, by medical
standards, drink too much for their own good. Some of these
millions will taper off or quit when they reach the age
at which the miseries of a hang-over seem too great a price
to pay for an evening of artificially induced elation; but
some will slosh over into the compulsive-drinker class.
origins of alcoholism, which is now being widely treated
as a major public-health problem, are as mysterious as those
of cancer. They are perhaps even harder to pin down, because
they involve psychic as well as physical elements. Currently,
the physical aspect is being investigated by universities
and hospitals, and by publicly and privately financed foundations.
Some large business and industrial firms, concerned about
reduced productivity and absenteeism, are providing medical
and psychiatric aid to alcoholic employees. The firms' physicians
are also digging into the alcoholic puzzle. The most plausible
tentative explanation that any of these investigative efforts
has come up with is that alcoholism is a sickness resembling
that caused by various allergies.
has its own approach to the problem; it is successful in
only a small percentage of cases. Clergymen, using a spiritual
appeal, and the beset relatives of alcoholics, using everything
from moral suasion to a simple bat in the jaw, manage to
persuade a few chronics to become unchronic. So does one
school of institutional treatment, which insists that alcoholism
is solely the result of "twisted thinking" and aims at unraveling
the mental quirks.
the Alcoholics Anonymous approach-which leans on medicine,
uses a few elementary principles of psychiatry and employs
a strong spiritual weapon-is the only one which has done
anything resembling a mop-up job. Whatever one's attitude
toward A.A. may be, and a lot of people are annoyed by its
sometimes ludicrous strivings and its dead-pan thumping
of the sobriety tub, one can scarcely ignore its palpable
results. To anyone who has ever been a drunk or who has
had to endure the alcoholic cruelties of a drunk-and that
would embrace a large portion of the human family-90,000
alcoholics reconverted into working citizens represent a
massive dose of pure gain. In human terms, the achievements
of Alcoholics Anonymous stand out as one of the few encouraging
developments of a rather grim and destructive half century.
are prolific of excuses for their excessive drinking, and
the most frequent alibi is that no one really understands
what a struggle they have. With more than 3000 A.A. groups
at work in the United States, and every member a veteran
of the struggle, this excuse is beginning to lose its validity,
if it ever had any validity. In most cities of any size
the fraternity has a telephone listed in its own name. A
nickel call will bring a volunteer worker who won't talk
down to a drunk, as the average nonalcoholic has a way of
doing but will talk convincingly in the jargon of the drunk.
The worker won't do any urging; he will describe the Alcoholics
Anonymous program in abbreviated form and depart. The drunk
is invited to telephone again if he is serious about wanting
to become sober. Or a drunk, on his own initiative or in
tow of a relative, may drop in at the A.A. office, where
he will receive the same nonevangelistic treatment. In the
larger cities the offices do a rushing trade, especially
after week ends or legal holidays. Many small-town and village
groups maintain clubrooms over the bank or feed store; in
one Canadian town the A.A.'s share quarters with a handbook
operator, using it by night after the bookie has gone home.
Some of these groups carry a standing classified advertisement
in the daily or weekly newspaper. If they don't, a small
amount of inquiry will disclose the meeting place of the
nearest group; a local doctor, or clergyman, or policeman
some extent, the same easy availability obtains in the twenty-six
foreign countries where A.A. has gained a foothold. This
is especially true of the nations of the British Commonwealth,
particularly Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which together
list more A.A. members than the whole movement could boast
nine years ago; and of the Scandinavian countries, where
membership is fairly strong. At a recent A.A. banquet in
Oslo, Norway, 400 members celebrated their deliverance,
drinking nothing stronger than water. Throughout Scandinavia
the members bolster the program by using Antibuse, the new
European aversion drug. This practice is deplored by some
A.A. members as showing a lack of faith in the standard
A.A. program, but, of course, nothing is done, or can be
done, about it, since the program is free to anyone who
thinks he needs it and he may adapt it in any way that suits
often than not, though, disregard of the standard admonitions
backfires. A bibulous Scottish baronet found this out when,
returning from London, where he caught the spark from a
local group, he set out ambitiously to dry up Edinburgh,
a hard-drinking town. But he tried it by remote control,
so to speak, hiring a visiting American A.A. to do the heavy
work. This violated the principle that the arrested drunk
must do drunk-rescuing work himself in order to remain sober.
Besides, the Scottish drunks wouldn't listen to a hired
foreign pleader. In no time at all, and without getting
a convert, the baronet and his hireling were swacked to
the eyeballs and crying on each other's shoulders. After
the American had gone home, the baronet stiffened up, abandoned
the traditions of his class and started all over again,
cruising the gutters himself, visiting drunks in their homes
and in hospitals and prisons. Edinburgh is now in the win
column, and there are also groups in Glasgow, Dundee, Perth
and Campbeltown, all offshoots of Edinburgh.
on a large scale seems to be most common in highly complex
civilizations. These tend to breed the basic neuroses of
which uncontrolled drinking is just one outward expression.
A man in a more primitive setting, bound closely to earthy
tasks and the constant battle with Nature, is apt to treat
his frustrations by ignoring them or by working them off.
Anonymous has nevertheless caught on in some out-of-the-way
places. A liquor salesman for a British firm, who was seduced
by his own merchandise, started a group in Cape Town, South
Africa, which now has ninety members. There are also groups
in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and East
London, and in Salisbury and Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia.
The group at Anchorage, Alaska, which started in a blizzard,
has a dozen members, including one slightly puzzled Eskimo,
and there are small groups in Palmer and Ketchikan. There
is a small group in the leper colony at Molokai, nurtured
by A.A.'s from Honolulu, who fly there occasionally and
figures perhaps give too rosy a picture of the turbulent
little world of Alcoholics Anonymous. Most of the members
of any standing seem to be exceptionally happy people, with
more serenity of manner than most nonalcoholics are able
to muster these jittery days; it is difficult to believe
that they ever lived in the drunk's bewitched world. But
some are still vaguely unhappy, though sober, and feel as
if they were walking a tight wire. Treasurers occasionally
disappear with a group's funds and wind up, boiled, in another
town. After this had happened a few times, groups were advised
to keep the kitty low, and the practice now is to spend
any appreciable surplus on a cake-and-coffee festival or
a picnic. This advice does not always work out; last year
the members of a fresh and vigorous French-Canadian unit
in Northern Maine, taking the advice to heart, debated so
violently about how to spend their fifty-four dollars that
all hands were drunk within twenty-four hours. It is difficult
at first for the recruit to achieve serenity.
most groups are mixtures of men and women, a certain number
of unconventional love affairs occur. More than one group
has been thrown into a maelstrom of gossip and disorder
by a determined lady whose alcoholism was complicated by
an aggressive romantic instinct. Such complications are
no more frequent than they are at the average country club;
they merely stand out more baldly, and do more harm, in
an emotionally explosive society. Special A.A. groups in
sixty-six prisons around the nation are constantly trickling
out graduates into the civilian groups. The ex-convicts
are welcomed and are, for some reason, usually models of
good behavior. A sanitarium or mental-hospital background
causes no more stir in an A.A. group than a string of college
degrees would at the University Club; the majority of A.A.'s
are alumni of anywhere from one to fifty such institutions.
Thus Alcoholics Anonymous is something of a Grand Hotel.
ability of the arrested drunk to talk the active drunk's
language convincingly is the one revolutionary aspect of
the A.A. technique, and it does much to explain why the
approach so often succeeds after others have failed. The
rest of the technique is a synthesis of already existing
ideas, some of which are centuries old. Once a community
of language and experience has been established, it acts
as a bridge over which the rest of the A.A. message can
be conveyed, provided the subject is receptive.
the bridge and inside the active alcoholic's mind lies an
exquisitely tortured microcosm, and a steady member of Alcoholics
Anonymous gets a shudder every time he looks into it again.
It is a rat-cage world, kept hot by an alcohol flame, and
within it lives, or dances, a peculiarly touchy, defiant
and grandiose personality.
is a sage saying in A.A. that "an alcoholic is just like
a normal person, only more so." He is egotistical, childish,
resentful and intolerant to an exaggerated degree. How he
gets that way is endlessly debated, but a certain rough
pattern is discernible in most cases. Many of those who
ultimately become alcoholics start off as an only child,
or as the youngest child in a family, or as a child with
too solicitous a mother, or a father with an oversevere
concept of discipline. When such a child begins getting
his lumps from society, his ego begins to swell disproportionately-either
from too easy triumphs or, as a compensation, from being
rebuffed in his attempts to win the approval of his contemporaries.
develops an intense power drive, a feverish struggle to
gain acceptance of himself at his own evaluation. A few
of the power-drive boys meet with enough frustrations to
send them into problem drinking while still in college or
ever while in high school. More often, on entering adult
life, the prospective alcoholic is outwardly just about
like anyone else his age, except that he is probably a little
more cocky and aggressive, a little more hipped on the exhibitionistic
charm routine, a little more plausible. He becomes a social
drinker-that is, one who can stop after a few cocktails
and enjoy the experience.
at some place along the line his power drive meets up with
an obstacle it cannot surmount--someone he loves refuses
to love him, someone whose admiration he covets rejects
him, some business or professional ambition is thwarted.
Or he may encounter a whole series of rebuffs. The turning
point may come quickly or it may be delayed for as long
as forty or fifty years. He begins to take his drinks in
gulps, and before he realizes it he is off on a reeler.
He loses jobs through drunkenness, embarrasses his family
and alienates his friends. His world begins to shrink. He
encounters the horrors of the "black-out," the dawn experience
of being unable to remember what he did the night before-how
many checks he wrote and how large they were, whom he insulted,
where he parked his car, whether or not he ran down someone
on the way home. In the alcoholic world a nice distinction
is made between the "black-out" and the simple "pass-out,"
the latter being the relatively innocuous act of falling
asleep from taking too much liquor. He jumps nervously whenever
the doorbell or telephone rings, fearing that it may be
a saloonkeeper with a rubber check, or a damage-suit lawyer,
or the police.
is frustrated and fearful, but is only vaguely conscious
that his will, which is strong in most crises, fails him
where liquor is concerned, although this is apparent to
anyone who knows him. He nurses a vision of sobriety and
tries all kind of self-rationing systems, none of which
works for long. The great paradox of his personality is
that in the midst of his troubles, his already oversize
ego tends to expand; failure goes to his head. He continues,
as the old saying has it, to rage through life calling for
the headwaiter. In his dreams he is likely to see himself
alone on a high mountain, masterfully surveying the world
below. This dream, or some variant of it, will come to him
whether he is sleeping in his own bed, or in a twenty-five-dollar-a-day
hotel suite, or on a park bench, or in a psychopathic ward.
he applies to Alcoholics Anonymous for help, he has taken
an important step toward arresting his drink habit; he has
at least admitted that alcohol has whipped him. This in
itself is an act of humility, and his life thereafter must
be a continuing effort to acquire more of this ancient virtue.
Should he need hospitalization, his new friends will see
that he gets it, if a local hospital will take him. Understandably,
many hospitals are reluctant to accept alcoholic patients,
because so many of them are disorderly. With this sad fact
in mind, the society has persuaded several hospitals to
set up separate alcoholic corridors and is helping to supervise
the patients through supplying volunteer workers.
the satisfaction of all concerned including the hospital
managements, which find the supervised corridors peaceful,
more than 10,000 patients have gone through five-day rebuilding
courses. The hospitals involved in this successful experiment
are: St. Thomas' (Catholic) in Akron, St. John's (Episcopal)
in Brooklyn and Knickerbocker (nonsectarian) in Manhattan.
They have set a pattern which the society would like to
see adopted by the numerous hospitals which now accept alcoholics
on a more restricted basis.
in the game the newcomer is subjected to a merciful but
thorough deflating of his ego. It is brought home to him
forcefully that if he continues his uncontrolled drinking-the
only kind he is capable of-he will die prematurely, or go
insane from brain impairment, or both. He is encouraged
to apologize to persons he has injured through his drunken
behavior; this is a further step in the ego-deflation process
and is often as painful to the recipient of the apology
as it is to the neophyte A.A. He is further instructed that
unless he will acknowledge the existence of a power greater
than himself and continually ask this power for help, his
campaign for sobriety will probably fail. This is the much-discussed
spiritual element in Alcoholics Anonymous. Most members
refer to this power as God; some agnostic members prefer
to call it Nature, or the Cosmic Power, or by some other
label. In any case, it is the key of the A.A. program, and
it must be taken not on a basis of mere acceptance or acknowledgment,
but of complete surrender.
surrender is described by a psychiatrist, Dr. Harry M. Tiebout,
of Greenwich, Connecticut, as a "conversion" experience,
"a psychological event in which there is a major shift in
personality manifestation." He adds:
changes which take place in the conversion process
may be summed up by saying that the person who has
achieved the positive frame of mind has lost his tense,
aggressive, demanding, conscience-ridden self which
feels isolated and at odds with the world, and has
become, instead, a relaxed, natural, more realistic
individual who can dwell in the world on a live-and-let-live
personality change wrought surrender is far from complete,
at first. Elated by a few weeks of sobriety, the new member
often enters what is known as the "Chautauqua phase"-he
is always making speeches at business meetings on what is
wrong with the society and how these defects can be remedied.
Senior members let him talk himself out of this stage of
behavior; if that doesn't work, he may break away and form
a group of his own. If he does this, he gradually becomes
a quiet veteran himself and other Chautauqua-phase boys
either oust him from leadership of his own group or break
away themselves and form a new group. By this and other
processes of fission the movement spreads. It can stand
a lot of outstanding foolishness and still grow.
as such, are too individualistic to be organized, and there
is no top command in Alcoholics Anonymous to excommunicate,
fine or otherwise penalize irrational behavior. However,
services-such as publishing meeting bulletins, distributing
literature, arranging for hospitalization, and so on-are
organized in the larger centers. The local offices, which
are operated and financed by the groups thereabouts, are
autonomous. They are governed by representatives elected
by the neighborhood groups to a rotating body called the
Inter-group. There are no dues; all local expenses are met
by a simple passing of the hat at group meetings.
certain body of operational traditions has grown up over
the years, and charged with maintaining them-by exhortation
only-is something called the Alcoholic Foundation, which
has offices at 415 Lexington Avenue New York City. For a
foundation it acts queerly about money; much of its time
is consumed in turning down proffered donations and bequests.
One tradition is that A.A. must be kept poor, as money represents
power and the society prefers to avoid the temptations which
power brings. As a check on the foundation itself, the list
of trustees is weighted against the alcoholics by eight
to seven. The nonalcoholic members are two doctors, a sociologist,
a magazine editor, a newspaper editor, a penologist, an
international lawyer and a retired businessman.
the principle of anonymity is one of the more touchy tasks
of the foundation. Members are not supposed to be anonymous
among their friends or business acquaintances, but they
are when appearing before the public-in print or on radio
or television, for example-as members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
This limited anonymity is considered important to the welfare
of the movement, primarily because it encourages members
to subordinate their personalities to the principles of
A.A. There is also the danger that if a member becomes publicized
as a salvaged alcoholic he may stage a spectacular skid
and injure the prestige of the society. Actually, anonymity
has been breached only a few dozen times since the movement
began, which isn't a bad showing, considering the exhibitionistic
nature of the average alcoholic.
one of the many paradoxes which have characterized its growth,
Alcoholics Anonymous absorbed the "keep it poor" principle
from one of the world's wealthiest men, John D. Rockefeller,
Jr. The society was formed in 1935 after a fortuitous meeting
in Akron between a Wall Street broker and an Akron surgeon,
both alcoholics of long standing. The broker, who was in
Akron on a business mission, had kept sober for several
months by jawing drunks-unsuccessfully-but his business
mission had fallen through and he was aching for a drink.
The surgeon, at the time they got together, was quite blotto.
Together, over a period of a few weeks, they kept sober
and worked out the basic A.A. technique. By 1937, when they
had about fifty converts, they began thinking, as all new
A.A.'s will, of tremendous plans-for vast new alcoholic
hospitals, squadrons of paid field workers and the literature
of mercy pouring off immense presses. Being completely broke
themselves, and being promoters at heart, as most alcoholics
are, they set their sights on the Rockefeller jack pot.
sent an emissary to Akron to look into the phenomenon at
work there, and, receiving a favorable report, granted an
audience to a committee of eager-eyed alcoholics. He listened
to their personal sagas of resurrection from the gutter
and was deeply moved; in fact, he was ready to agree that
the A.A.'s had John Barleycorn by the throat. The visitors
relaxed and visualized millions dropping into the till.
Then the man with the big money bags punctured the vision.
He said that too much money might be the ruination of any
great moral movement and that he didn't want to be a party
to ruining this one. However, he did make a small contribution-small
for Rockefeller-to tide it over for a few years, and he
got some of his friends to contribute a few thousand more.
When the Rockefeller money ran out, A.A. was self-supporting,
and it has remained so ever since.
A.A. remains in essence what it has always been, many changes
have come along in late years. For one thing, the average
age of members has dropped from about forty-seven to thirty-five.
The society is no longer, as it was originally, merely a
haven for the "last gaspers." Because of widespread publicity
about alcoholism, alcoholics are discovering earlier what
their trouble is.
A.A. has achieved wider social acceptance, more women are
coming in than ever before. Around the country they average
15 per cent of total membership; in New York, where social
considerations never did count for much, the A.A.'s are
30 per cent women. The unmarried woman alcoholic is slow
to join, as she generally gets more coddling and protection
from her family than a man does; she is what is known in
alcoholic circles as a "bedroom drinker." The married-woman
alcoholic has a tougher row to hoe. The wife of an alcoholic,
for temperamental and economic reasons, will ordinarily
stick by her erring husband to the bitter end. The husband
of an alcoholic wife, on the other hand, is usually less
tolerant; a few years of suffering are enough to drive him
to the divorce court, with the children in tow. Thus the
divorced-woman A.A. is a special problem, and her progress
in sobriety depends heavily upon on the kindliness shown
her by the other A.A. women. For divorcees, and for other
women who may be timid about speaking out in mixed meetings,
special female auxiliary groups have been formed in some
communities. They work out better than a cynic might think.
development is the growth of the sponsor system. A new member
gets a sponsor immediately, and it is the function of the
sponsor to accompany him to meetings, to see that he gets
all the help he needs and to be on call at any time for
emergencies. As an emergency usually amounts only to an
onset of that old feeling for a bottle, it is customarily
resolved by a telephone conversation, although it may involve
an after-midnight trip to Ernie's gin mill, whither the
neophyte has been shanghaied by a couple of unregenerate
old drinking companions. As the membership of A.A. cuts
through all social, occupational and economic classes, it
is possible to match the sponsor with the sponsored, and
this seems to speed up the arrestive process.
the past decade or so, the society, whose original growth
was in large cities, has strongly infiltrated the grass-roots
country. Its arrival in this sector was delayed largely
because of the greater stigma which attaches to alcoholism
in the small town. Because of this stigma and the effect
it has on his business, professional or social standing,
the small-town alcoholic, reveling in his delusion that
nobody knows about his drinking-when actually it is the
gossip of Main Street-takes frequent "vacations" or "business
trips" if he can afford it. He or she-the banker, the storekeeper,
the lawyer, the madam president of the garden club, sometimes
even the clergyman-is actually headed for a receptive hospital
or clinic in the nearest large city, where no one will recognize
pattern of small-town growth begins when the questing small-towner
seeks out the big-city A.A. outfit and its message catches
on with him. To his surprise, he finds that half a dozen
drinkers in towns near his own have also been to the fount.
On returning to his home, he gets in touch with them and
they form an intertown group; or there may be enough drinkers
in his own town to begin a group. Though there is a stigma
even to getting sober in small towns, it is less virulent
than the souse stigma, and word of the movement spreads
throughout the county and into adjoining counties. The churches
and newspapers take it up and beat the drum for it; relatives
of drunks, and doctors who find themselves unable to help
their alcoholic patients, gladly unload the problem cases
on A.A., and A.A. is glad to get them. The usual intrafellowship
quarrel over who is going to run the thing inevitably develops
and there are factional splits, but the splits help to spread
the movement, too, and all the big quarrels soon become
little ones, and then disappear.
is Alcoholics Anonymous carried on with more enthusiasm
than in Los Angeles. Unlike most localities, which try to
keep separate group membership, for easier handling, Los
Angeles likes the theatrical mass-meeting setting, with
1000 or more present. The Los Angeles A.A.'s carry their
membership as if it were a social cachet and go strongly
for square dances of their own. Jewelry bearing the A.A.
monogram, though frowned upon elsewhere, is popular on the
Coast. After three months of certified sobriety a member
receives a bronze pin, after one year he is entitled to
have a ruby chip inserted in the pin and, after three years,
a diamond chip. Rings bearing the A.A. letters are widely
worn, as well as similarly embellished compacts, watch fobs
and pocket pieces.
takes A.A. with enthusiasm too. In the ranch sector, members
drive or fly hundreds of miles to attend A.A. square dances
and barbecues, bringing their families. In metropolitan
areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth-there are upwards of a dozen
oil-millionaire members here-fancy club quarters have been
established in old mansions and the brethren and their families
rejoice, dance and drink coffee and soda pop amid expensive
furnishings. One Southwestern group recently got its governor
to release a life-termer from the state penitentiary for
a week end, so that he could be the guest of honor of the
group. "We had a large open meeting," a local member wrote
a friend elsewhere in the country, "and many state and county
officials attended in order to hear what Herman (the lifer)
had to tell about A.A. within the walls. They were deeply
impressed and very interested. The next night I gave a lawn
party and buffet supper in Herman's honor, with about fifty
A.A.'s present. This was the first occasion of this kind
in the state and to our knowledge the first in the United
A.A.'s believe that this group carried the joy business
too far. Others think that each section of the country ought
to manifest spirit in its own way; anyway, that is the way
it usually works out. The Midwest is businesslike and serious.
In the Deep South the A.A.'s do a certain amount of Bible
reading and hymn singing. The Northwest and the upper Pacific
Coast help support their gathering places with the proceeds
from slot machines. New York, a catchall for screwballs
and semiscrewballs from all over, is pious about gambling,
and won't have it around the place. New England is temperate
in its approach, and its spirit is characterized by the
remark of one Yankee who, writing a fellow A.A. about a
lake cottage he had just bought, said, "The serenity hangs
in great gobs from the trees."
serene mind is what A.A.'s the world over are driving toward,
and an epigrammatic expression of their goal is embodied
in a quotation which members carry on cards in their wallets
and plaster up on the walls of their meeting rooms: "God
grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change,
courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
thought in Alcoholics Anonymous to have been written by
St. Francis of Assisi, it turned out, on recent research,
to have been the work of another eminent nonalcoholic, Dr.
Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary. Doctor
Niebuhr was amused on being told of the use to which his
prayer was being put. Asked if it was original with him,
he said he thought it was, but added, "Of course it may
have been spooking around for centuries."
Anonymous seized upon it in 1940, after it had been used
as a quotation in the New York Herald Tribune. the fellowship
was late in catching up with it; and it will probably spook
around a good deal longer before the rest of the world catches
up with it.
The Saturday Evening Post
April 1, 1950