and the Twelve Steps
by A. Orange
Chapter 27: Bill and Dr. Bob start A.A.
The standard Alcoholics Anonymous story is that Bill was wandering around the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Akron, feeling depressed and thinking about drinking. He stood in a lobby where there was a hotel bar at one end of the lobby, with music coming out through the saloon doors, and at the other end of the lobby was a public telephone, with a plaque on the wall that listed many of the local churches and their ministers. Bill was torn between going into the bar and having a drink, or calling a church for help, for someone to talk to.134
Bill wrote that, as he was considering drinking, he thought:
"But what about his responsibilities — his family and the men who would die because they would not know how to get well, ah — yes, those other alcoholics?"
So, the official A.A. story goes, Bill went to the telephone and picked out a minister supposedly at random — Reverend Walter F. Tunks — and called him. Rev. Tunks allegedly gave Bill a list of 10 names to call, and Bill tried them all, he said, without finding a fellow alcoholic to talk to. Bill said that the last person Bill called was a Norman Sheppard who in turn sent him to Henrietta Seiberling, who was a friend of a drunken doctor in town — Doctor Robert Smith.134
Henrietta Seiberling and Dr. Robert Smith just happened to also be members of the Oxford Group, and she welcomed him and told him "You come right out here." Henrietta arranged an appointment for Bill to see her alcoholic friend Dr. Robert Smith the next day, because Dr. Bob was already passing-out drunk that day.
Bill declared that "In retrospect, it all seems as though it had been divinely ordained."135
Bill Wilson met Doctor Robert Smith, a tragic wrecked old alcoholic and discredited doctor, the next day. The two of them took a liking to each other. They spent the afternoon and evening talking about their mutual problem with alcoholism. Dr. Bob didn't drink while talking with Bill Wilson that evening.
Henrietta was so impressed that she arranged for Bill to stay in Akron longer and longer, just to help keep Dr. Bob sober. Henrietta Seiberling really loved Bill Wilson in the summer of 1935, and considered him a "God-send" and "manna from Heaven" for his help in sobering up Doctor Bob. (She would later become one of Bill's harshest critics, after she got to know him better.) Bill ended up staying in Akron for all of the summer of 1935, living rent free and happily unemployed, getting free food and cigarettes and spare change from somewhere.
Bill talked Doctor Bob into quitting drinking, and then, together, they set out to convert other alcoholics to their Buchmanite religious beliefs. They were convinced that religious mania — that is, joining the Oxford Group — was a working cure for alcoholism.
During the spring and summer of 1935, Bill and Bob started up their "Alcoholic Squad" of The Oxford Group — the "anonymous bunch of alcoholics" that would eventually become Alcoholics Anonymous. They went recruiting in the hospitals of Akron where Dr. Bob's status as a doctor got them access to alcoholic patients.
The book Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers describes how Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson shoved their new "treatment" on A.A. Number Three, Bill Dotson, when he was in the hospital, and forced Oxford Group religious conversions on other alcoholics, no matter whether they wished to be converted or not:
... they thought it a good idea to have a preliminary talk with his wife. And this became part of the way things were done in the early days: Discuss it first with the wife; find out what you could; then plan your approach. It should be noted, as well, that the alcoholic himself didn't ask for help. He didn't have anything to say about it.
Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were such arrogant Oxford Group recruiters that they actually felt entitled to shove their Oxford Group cult religion quack cure on sick alcoholics regardless of the patient's wishes or beliefs — the patient didn't get any say in the matter of religious conversion. (That is still the attitude of many so-called counselors and therapists today.)
Nan Robertson described Doctor Bob's method of treating new alcoholics and recruiting them for the Oxford Group:
Hospitalization was considered to be a must. Bob would circumvent hospital rules against putting alcoholics in private rooms by concocting another diagnosis and smuggling them in so that he could work on likely prospects without distractions.
Alcoholics Anonymous publicity like the Hallmark made-for-TV movie "My Name is Bill W." tells the story that Bill W. and Dr. Bob started Alcoholics Anonymous immediately, and went recruiting for Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron hospitals. That is simply not true at all. William Borchert, the author of the screenplay, was rewriting history there. The Bill and Bob team were recruiting for the Oxford Group. There was no such thing as "Alcoholics Anonymous". Borchert also failed to mention the fact that the cult founder and leader, Dr. Frank Buchman, was attending Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies and Sieg-Heiling Adolf Hitler while Bill and Bob recruited new followers for him.
The truth is that Bill and Bob were convinced that the Oxford Group had the cure for alcoholism, and The Answer was to become a religious maniac: "The only radical remedy for dipsomania is religiomania." During the Spring and Summer of 1935, Bill and Bob recruited new members for the Oxford Group cult religion. The newly-recruited alcoholic Oxford Group members usually attended the Oxford Group meetings at the large Westfield home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams. But before they could attend, they had to "make a surrender". Dr. Bob actually demanded that the sick alcoholics get out of bed at the hospital and get on their knees before him, and "surrender to God", before they were allowed to go to their first Oxford Group meeting. Dr. Bob was a religious nutcase.
The story that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob started Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 is a complete fairy tale — no truth to it whatsover. Bill and Bob started recruiting for the Oxford Group in 1935. And over in Cleveland, Clarence Synder was soon doing the same — recruiting more alcoholics for Dr. Frank Buchman's religious cult. Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith and Clarence Snyder built up their "bunch of anonymous alcoholics" group within Frank Buchman's Oxford Group cult for the first two or three or four years (two in New York, four in Akron, three in Cleveland), until Frank Buchman's other disciples grew tired of them. The alcoholics weren't rich (except for the young Firestone Tire Company heir Russell Firestone); they weren't famous; they couldn't be manipulated through guilt induction; they mainly wanted to just recruit more poor down-and-out alcoholics; and the other Oxford Group members didn't like them. The alcoholics were poor, shabby, and smelly, not the kind of crowd that you want to be seen with at the Waldorf-Astoria. Not the kind of people you want attending your meetings with kings and queens and dukes and earls and lords and ladies and barons and millionaires.
The whole Oxford Group strategy was to convert rich, powerful, and famous people, and then publicize their names for all they were worth, in order to attract more rich, powerful, and famous people (who could, presumably, give Frank Buchman big donations). Shabby down-and-out penniless alcoholics who wanted to stay anonymous didn't fit in with Oxford Group meetings held in glittering palaces like the Waldorf-Astoria and the Plaza Hotel.
Eventually, the Oxford Group started hinting that Bill Wilson and his alcoholics should take a hike.
Rev. Sam Shoemaker remained above the fray, but gave tacit permission to his assistant for him to edge the alcoholics out by slandering the Wilsons and declaring that they were "not maximum", and instructing the alcoholics at the Calvary House mission not to attend the Oxford Group meetings at the Wilsons' house.
Robert Thomsen wrote a fairly good book about Bill Wilson,
called simply "Bill W.",
which is good in spite of Thomsen's very pro-A.A. bias and occasional twisting of the facts in favor
of Bill Wilson.
Thomsen was presumably an unpublicized A.A. member, because he
was a personal friend
and co-worker of Bill Wilson's for the last 12 years of Bill's life.
Thomsen's account of everything is always 100% compatible with
the standard party line, which isn't surprising when you consider
the fact that the book is said to be based on a set of autobiographical
tape recordings that Bill Wilson made before his death.
Nevertheless, the book provides a lot of interesting details
about the history of A.A., like:
One evening Bill discovered that alcoholics from the mission had been forbidden to come to Clinton Street, and at the large O.G. [Oxford Group] gatherings it was bandied about that, after all, the Wilsons were not "really maximum," a phrase that was foreign to Bill and Lois, but nonetheless upsetting. Finally, what was referred to as the divergent work of this secret group became the subject of a Sunday-morning sermon at Calvary. Yet, in a curious way, instead of distressing Bill and his associates, this criticism stiffened their resolve.
"Clinton Street" was Bill and Lois' house, where Bill was holding Oxford Group meetings for alcoholics. The "mission" was Calvary House, Sam Shoemaker's Episcopal church at 4th Avenue and 21st Street in New York City. The phrase "not maximum" was a slur that meant that someone was not totally committed to following the dictates of the cult leader, Frank Buchman (although the official explanation was, of course, that someone was not totally committed to doing "the Will of God"). The Oxford Group came to see Bill Wilson as doing his own thing, and not "God's Will", so he was increasingly unwelcome at Oxford Group meetings. That is hardly surprising, considering Bill's stubborn, willful arrogance and his messianic complex, as well as his obsession with alcoholics.
Bill Wilson and Lois felt that that denunciation was tantamount to an expulsion from the Oxford group. Bill and Lois took their crowd of alcoholics and left in the spring of 1937. Sam Shoemaker and Frank Buchman then claimed that they had been betrayed by Wilson's sudden desertion, and would not talk to the Wilsons for many years afterwards.
The Oxford Group also had attitudes and practices which added up to a highly coercive authority. This was exercised by "teams" of older members. They would gather in meditation and receive specific guidance for the life conduct of newcomers. This guidance could cover all possible situations from the most trivial to the most serious. If the directions so obtained were not followed, the enforcement machinery began to operate. It consisted of a sort of coldness and aloofness which made recalcitrants feel they weren't wanted. At one time, for example, a "team" got guidance for me to the effect that I was no longer to work with alcoholics. This I could not accept.
That's kind of funny, in a way. Bill Wilson was not bothered by Frank Buchman praising Adolf Hitler and creating a big furor and publicly embarrassing the whole Oxford Group. That was okay; neither Bill Wilson nor Doctor Bob quit the Oxford Group in protest when Frank Buchman thanked Heaven for giving us Adolf Hitler. They didn't have any problems with Frank Buchman's Fascist leanings, or anything else about that strange cult. (Bill Wilson stayed in the Oxford Group for another year after Frank Buchman's "I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler" newspaper inteview, and Dr. Bob stayed in for another three years.) Bill and Dr. Bob were happy true believers in Buchmanism, such happy true believers that they would duplicate it and make it into their own cult. (Or more accurately, they just stole a branch of the Oxford Group cult and made it their own.) But when the Oxford Group elders tried to tell Bill Wilson what to do, and expected Bill to obey orders, well, that was unacceptable...
Undoubtedly, the bad feelings between William Wilson and the Oxford Group were mutual. The Oxford Group wasn't big enough for two over-bearing, arrogant, deceitful, insane cult leaders like Frank N. D. Buchman and William G. Wilson, both of whom were going to do whatever they damn well pleased...
Doctor Bob, on the other hand, stayed in the good graces of the Akron Oxford Group for two years longer, before making a clean break of it. So did Clarence Snyder.
Then Bill and Dr. Bob and Clarence Snyder set up their own independent organization, with the same religious beliefs, customs, and practices as the Oxford Group, except that now Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob and Clarence Snyder provided the leadership, not Frank Buchman.
[Also see this short biography of Bill Wilson, written in answer to the question of what Bill Wilson's motives were.]
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization.
Also, there was Frank Buchman's public admiration of Adolf Hitler and too-cozy friendliness with the Nazis, and the Oxford Group was increasingly being criticized for arrogance due to the Oxford Group's belief that they alone were sane and getting direct messages from God while everybody else was insane, and also for undercutting other churches, hypocrisy, gross dishonesty, self-congratulatory sanctimoniousness, and an inability to tolerate criticism. So Bill thought it best to not mention that Alcoholics Anonymous ever had anything to do with Frank Buchman...
In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson proudly bragged about connections to William James and his book Varieties of Religious Experience, and to Carl Jung, and claimed that they were the philosophical parents of Alcoholics Anonymous. But William James and Carl Jung really only contributed one single line, one single idea, each (at most, if that). Bill got the idea of intense, soul-shaking religious experiences in times of great stress, pain, sickness and despair from Varieties. And Bill supposedly got the idea of substituting religious mania for alcoholism — substituting religiomania for dipsomania — from Carl Jung. But that's it. Everything else that made up Alcoholics Anonymous came from the Oxford Group, or other temperance societies that came before A.A..
Bill Wilson carefully hid the whole Oxford Group history of Alcoholics Anonymous when he wrote the opening chapters of the Big Book. Years later, after people had forgotten about Frank Buchman, Wilson allowed a few more details and hints of those early days to slip through the filter, and appear in semi-official A.A. literature.
Poor old Frank Buchman got very little credit, just two tiny mentions for the Oxford Group, only in the Forward to the Second Edition in 1955, even though he contributed almost everything else that makes up the theology and philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous. So it goes. Such is life in the evangelist's game.
Six months earlier, the broker45 had been relieved of his drink obsession by a sudden spiritual experience, following a meeting with an alcoholic friend who had been in contact with the Oxford Groups of that day.
Though he could not accept all the tenets of the Oxford Groups, he was convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.
That is hardly a ringing endorsement, and it is deceptive as can be. That is like pointing at your mother, and saying, "Yes, I met that old woman, and talked to her on more than one occasion, but I couldn't agree with her about everything."
And, actually, Bill Wilson did accept all of the tenets of the Oxford Groups. The only one that he didn't accept was the one about having Frank Buchman and the other Oxford Group elders as his bosses, to be obeyed in all matters, large and small. Bill Wilson was and remained a true-believer Buchmanite for his whole life — a Buchmanite who was just bad at following orders. That statement about not being able to accept all of the tenets of the Oxford Groups was a very dishonest statement — a dodge to avoid being identified as a Buchmanite or being associated with Frank Buchman and his Oxford Groups.
Bill later described that practice of deception like this:
...drinkers would not take pressure in any form, excepting from John Barleycorn himself. They always had to be led, not pushed. They would not stand for the rather aggressive evangelism of the Oxford Group. And they would not accept the principle of "team guidance" for their own personal lives. It was too authoritarian for them. In other respects, too, we found we had to make haste slowly. When first contacted, most alcoholics just wanted to find sobriety, nothing else. They clung to their other defects, letting go only little by little. They simply did not want to get "too good too soon." The Oxford Groups' absolute concepts — absolute purity, absolute honesty, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love — were frequently too much for the drunks. These ideas had to be fed with teaspoons rather than by buckets.
So don't tell newcomers the whole truth; don't tell them what membership in the cult really entails, or what the cult is; just dole out the real facts a tiny bit at a time — only a teaspoonful of truth at a time — to keep them coming back for more meetings and indoctrination.
Bill Wilson inserted many new stories into the second edition of the Big Book in 1955, including the story "He Thought He Could Drink Like A Gentleman", by Abby G. of Cleveland, which mentions the Oxford Group. By that time, the furor over Frank Buchman, the Oxford Group Movement, and Moral Re-Armament had died down, so Wilson allowed one more small mention of the Oxford Group to slip through the filter. Abby's story tells us that in the early days of A.A. in Akron:
I had attended several of these meetings before I discovered that all of those who were there were not alcoholics. That is, it was sort of a mixed bunch of Oxford Groupers, who were interested in the alcohol problem, and of alcoholics themselves.
"Early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and nowhere else."
Where did the early AAs find the material for the remaining ten Steps? Where did we learn about moral inventory, amends for harm done, turning our wills and lives over to God? Where did we learn about meditation and prayer and all the rest of it? The spiritual substance of our remaining ten Steps came straight from Dr. Bob's and my own earlier association with the Oxford Groups, as they were then led in America by that Episcopal rector, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker.
Note that Bill was still being deceptive and dishonest there: Frank Buchman was still extremely unpopular when Bill wrote that, hated by many for his Hitler-praising fascism and draft-dodging ways, so Wilson invoked the name of Dr. Samuel Shoemaker as the leader of Frank Buchman's cult religion. But all of the "spiritual substance" that Wilson was talking about came straight from Frank Buchman, and Frank Buchman was really the leader of the organization. It was almost irrelevant who the manager of the American branch was, but Sam Shoemaker's name sure sounded better than Frank Buchman's.
Bill was being deceptive and dishonest there in another way too: "The early AAs" did not "find" the material for the 12 Steps. Bill Wilson just wrote down the standard recruiting and indoctrination practices, like the "Five C's", and the "Six Practices of the Sane", that the Oxford Groups used to "change" the minds of new recruits, and convert and indoctrinate them in the ways of Buchmanism. The early A.A.s did not "find" the mind-bending practices that are in the Twelve Steps. They did not discover, by trial and error, some methods that worked to make alcoholics quit drinking. (The story that they did is another historical falsehood that William Borchert put in the script of "My Name Is Bill W.".)
There was one more reason, which never came out publicly: Frank Buchman, founder and leader of the Oxford Group, was not only trying to influence political and business affairs on an international level, but was regarded by some as being in sympathy with Hitler, following a widely publicized interview with Buchman in 1936.
Frank Buchman publicly declared to a New York daily newspaper, the New York World Telegram, "I thank Heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler...", and AAWS only says that Buchman "was regarded by some as being in sympathy with Hitler". Now that's good old-fashioned stereotypical alcoholic minimization and denial.
And what do they mean by
"There was one more reason, which never came out
[Also see Charles Bufe's description of how the AAWS staff quoted Frank Buchman out of context to make him sound less like a Nazi sympathizer.]
No, unfortunately, that isn't quite true.
Buchmanism lives on in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and the whole host of other twelve-step programs, and it is far, far more popular and more powerful now than it ever was when Frank Buchman was alive. Alcoholics Anonymous simply is Buchmanism, dressed up in a shabbier suit of clothes. (Not in a new suit of clothes — that's what Frank Buchman's millionaires were wearing. Bill's down and out alcoholics were dressed in ragged threadbare old suits. A.A. is downscale Buchmanism.)
I recall that Shakespeare, in the
play Julius Caesar, had Mark Anthony say,
"The evil that men do lives after them;
That surely is true of Frank Buchman and his sick, weird, twisted cult religion. Like a vampire that you can't even kill with a wooden stake — one that to your horror keeps rising again from the grave — Buchmanism refuses to die. Frankenstein's monster may be dead, but Son of Frankenstein lives on...
Last updated 22 February 2019.
Copyright © 2019, A. Orange