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What is “AA History”?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: Following up on last week’s post about the Alcoholics Anonymous National Archives Workshop, Points this week welcomes the comments of Guest Blogger Ernie Kurtz, the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1979) and the pre-eminent historian of AA– a title that, as he notes below, he is eager to shed. 

The Apex of Antiquity: Coffee Pot from Bill W. & Dr. Bob's First Meeting (Brown University Libraries)

“What is AA history?”  It is (at least) two things:  (1) the story of the AA fellowship and its program from its founding in 1935 to the present, as researched, examined, and studied according to the canons of historical investigation;  and (2) the equally ongoing research into and investigation of AA antiquities – details apparently only marginally related to the continuing story but of interest to hobbyists and antiquarians.   To its credit, the “AA History Lovers” listserv (founded by Nancy Olson in 2000 and maintained by Glenn Chesnut of the Hindsfoot Foundation) generously serves both.

Both kinds of AA history are valuable to understanding the fellowship – perhaps moreso than is the case with many other phenomena that have similarly enthusiastic followers.  For one never knows when an apparently context-less antiquity—a stray newspaper article, an amateur publication—will shed sudden new light on a previously ignored aspect of AA’s continuing story, something that may even have resonance for how some practice its program today.

Let me illustrate with examples of each of the three phenomena mentioned:  the strictly historical, the pretty solidly antiquarian, and items that straddle those categories.

Big Book-- Big Mistake?

First, we have strict historical investigation:  what actually happened when the struggling fellowship met in Akron in October of 1937 to decide whether to act on co-founder Bill Wilson’s plans for hospitals, paid “missionaries,” and a book?  The answer has implications for how we understand AA’s commitment to “forever non-professional” mutual aid.  Available evidence suggests that the pages covering those key days in 1937 have been removed from the diary of Wilson’s wife Lois.  What can we piece together from what we know of Lois’s diarying habits and other comments on that meeting, then and later?  Can more information be found about either of these?

In the second, antiquarian, category there is the precise location of the grave of Henrietta Seiberling, the Akron matron who introduced co-founders Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith.  Thanks to recent geo-spacing technology, we now have its precise latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates.  Fascinating information, to some, but not strictly “history.”  And yet  .  .  .  .Similarly, what about the arrangement of the furniture in the great room at Stepping Stones, Bill and Lois Wilson’s Westchester home, and the tid-bit that Bill Wilson often lay on the floor near the heating register during conversations with guests.  Was Bill chilled?  Or is this another example of what Henrietta Seiberling acerbically described as Bill’s habit of “never standing when he could sit, never sitting when he could lie down?”  And if either of those, so what?

H. Sieberling, Memorial# 59252532

Finally, those details that sit between the historical and the antiquarian.  Now that we have a pretty good idea exactly what books were in the library of co-founder Dr. Bob Smith, can we locate any evidence as to which he read, which he read more than once, and which he particularly loved?  “Petty” details like this offer valuable insights into the intellectual traditions that informed AA.  Or what about the travel itineraries of the early AA members who were in sales.  Can we find more of those, or get more detail about the few that we do have?  How AA came to some locations, and how the fellowship spread within them and the surrounding area is still a blank for many places. Establishing with some certainty the migratory habits of early AAs might help to explain commonalities in the way AA is practiced across the nation and around the globe.

For this historian, aged and disabled beyond the requirements of strictly historical research, thinking about that third category arouses the greatest interest:  how to harvest the work of the cadre of diligent AA antiquarians in ways that will illuminate our growing knowledge of AA history?  When does an apparently miscellaneous fact become the key missing piece in some yet unfinished picture of the early fellowship?

Not-God: Maybe Not Current

Finally, a confession:  I find it almost embarrassing that Not-God remains regarded as “the authoritative” history of Alcoholics Anonymous.  That book is now 32 years old!  A significant number of the members of at least one AA group here in Ann Arbor are younger than that.  And so much has been learned in the interim–some from smaller histories, more from the ceaseless digging by committed antiquarian researchers.  I have large hopes that a person who recently completed a film on AA history will now turn to writing a totally new history of the fellowship and its program.  We really need one. For history flows:  it never stands still.  Given the realities of human nature, there is always more to learn.  “The whole truth,” about anything, is never available as we trudge this earthly path.  And that is not a sadness, but a joy – an ever-present invitation and urging to study that which we love, on any level, from any perspective.  The only requirement for how this works is, unsurprisingly, honesty.

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