Today (June 10, 2015) marks the 80th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous. In popular culture and even among those who are a part of “the program,” AA is seen as a useful oganization, or as a set of support groups for people who are trying to follow the directions of a particularly enduring self-help book. Of course, to some it is seen as a cult. But all of these views miss the important genesis of this spiritual movement.

I use the term “spiritual movement” with care, for I believe that is what it is. It is spiritual in nature and it is a movement in the strictest sense of the word: a polycentric, wide ranging, collective sense of direction marked by complementary actions toward a common goal and with no central director but instead many smaller coordinating entities and individuals.

Nowadays, when someone has a good idea about how to do something, they may write a book that sets forth their principles. It will often be structured in ways similar to a workbook or a textbook. It may have boxes sprinkled liberally throughout, questions to ask oneself after each chapter, even spaces for notes. Then the person or group who published it will set out to develop some kind of organizational structure based on that. Even when gently and empathetically directed, this is a prescriptive organizational enterprise and it has at its core the model of school: We know something that we are going to teach you, and your job is to learn it.

AA came about differently.

Beginnings: An Insight

AA started with an insight that one of the co-founders (Bill W.) had while in a New York alcoholic asylum after literally losing all. He had had what he saw as a spiritual awakening and felt that this may well help keep him away from a drink when all else had failed. (He had been visited by a friend who had joined the now-defunct Oxford Group, which was an evangelical Christian movement started in 1908. This started him thinking spiritually.) But Bill’s further insight was that only by trying to help other alcoholics would he himself be able to stay sober. So he started looking for drunks to try to help. He had no real success in terms of helping people, but his insight held: he himself stayed sober.

Dr. Bob (r) and Bill W. (l)

Dr. Bob (l) and Bill W. (r)

On a business trip to Akron in 1935 that fell apart catastrophically, Bill was at loose ends in his hotel. A big talker, he had been trying to corner the market on rubber and his deal was in shambles. He had no money to pay his hotel bill. He could use a drink. He hovered in the lobby, looking into the hotel bar on one side, and at a church directory on the other. For some reason he chose the church directory and started dialing. Not looking for a sermon — he thought churches would be good places to find alcoholics he could help. When the chips were down, his original insight held: he’d better go help someone, or he might drink.

Eventually, after much dialing, he got put in touch with a local doctor who had also pretty much lost all (Dr. Bob, the other co-founder). Dr. Bob had been trying to stay sober to no avail, and had almost lost his practice completely. They met. Bill told Bob what he knew about alcoholism: that it was like a disease over which he had no control, that one had to figure out a way to seek power greater than oneself, and that in order to keep any kind of sobriety one had to try to help others. Because Bill was a fellow alcoholic and had been through the same wringer Dr. Bob had, he listened. Bill knew what he was talking about where (it seemed) all the previous moralizers did not. Bill was not forcing anything on Dr. Bob, just telling him his experience and what worked for him.

Dr. Bob felt his problem was behind him and the two began to help others. Bill stayed in Akron. They sought out drunks and tried to help them. Bob eventually took a business trip during this time, and got drunk. He came back with his tail between his legs and a renewed sense of purpose. He had to work harder at this thing, which didn’t even have a name.

AA’s “birthday” is seen as that day, the day of Dr. Bob’s last drink. June 10, 1935.

The book Alcoholics Anonymous was not even an idea at that time. It would not be written until 1939.

Practical Work

What Bill and Dr. Bob did was to continue to try to find and help alcoholics. A small group grew up around them, and they spent almost all their time together, like people in a lifeboat. They started to meet together at night, drinking coffee and smoking, and sharing with each other so they could collectively stay sober. At first they met in local Oxford Groups, but eventually split off and met on their own. As each person achieved sobriety, they began to try to help others. There was nothing written down, no organization, no rules to speak of. Just hard, practical work. Dr. Bob was sneaking patients into hospitals so they could sober up, and the administrators of such facilities were looking the other way because it seemed to work. (Bill eventually went back to New York and this same kind of growth happened there, too.)

Eventually, when it seemed clear they were onto something, Bill wanted to create a huge (and moneymaking) organization complete with treatment centers. Others were skeptical and thought this might ruin what they had. They had a vote. The group was not interested — but they would be willing for a book to be written that would set forth what they had been doing thus far in order to stay sober. (This idea passed by just one vote.) The book “Alcoholics Anonymous” came from this decision — collectively written, a literal effort to capture what they had been doing for the last four years that seemed to be working.

A Movement Today

Since publication of that book, AA has grown remarkably. But it has maintained its practical roots and remains a movement. It has, by design, as little organization as is possible, only such that is necessary. Its functions are governed by a simple set of traditions that keep all power (what little there is) in the hands of local groups and places the central office in a service role, answerable to the collective conscience of AA groups and members. Anyone who has run or worked in organizations knows this is no way to run an enterprise, as it makes decision-making enormously difficult. But it is how a movement can retain its essential character as a group endeavor run by no one person and democratically aimed.

I find this history remarkable both for how amazingly that small 1935 meeting has grown into a global phenomenon that has literally saved millions of lives, but also for how unlike other organizational stories it is. AA is not the story of a centrally directed organization coming to power. It is the story of a social movement.

I used to know someone who was the “town drunk” (his words) in a port town on a remote island nation. A merchant marine vessel docked there. On that ship was a recovering alcoholic. He had with him a pamphlet he had gotten from the central office (one of its duties is to publish such pamphlets). My friend came into contact with the seaman (who, as a good AA member, was seeking people he could help get sober). The ship left port. My friend was left behind. He and his friends started meeting together and talking, basing their interactions on that one pamphlet. AA now thrives on that island nation. Not because they wrote to New York to get permission, but because they started working together, and it seemed to work.

Happy birthday, AA.