Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous

Jung is credited with having set the course for what today is known as Alcoholics Anonymous. No, not the founder of A.A. – that was a joint effort from Bill Wilson, a stock broker (alcoholic) and “Dr. Bob” an Akron, Ohio, M.D. (also a confessed alcoholic).

It was Bill Wilson who told a story of one of Jung’s patients, “Roland,” who was helped by Jung. Roland then associated with the Oxford group of the day (in the 1920s I think). It was Wilson who likewise in his attempt to get sober visited the Oxford groups, meeting Roland, who informed Wilson of Jungian psychology and the need for change at depth. Wilson later had one of these “conversions” — not to be confused with emotional stage healings as seen on T.V. Wilson’s “spiritual experience” led him to form A.A. with Dr. Bob. in the 1930s. I have found much of “Jung” in A.A. philosophy — not the “pop-rehab-behavioral-Skinner-type” A.A. as preached by what seems to be nearly every “social agency” that deals with alcoholism and drug addiction, but rather A.A. at its deeper levels as suggested by Wilson and others in the early AA’s in their understanding of the “spiritual” necessity — a complete renewal of the mind in order for recovery to come about.

There is a one or two line mention of Jung in A.A.’s text book (the Big Book), “Alcoholics Anonymous?” (pp. 26, 27.). When Roland reportedly asked Jung if there was any sure way for an alcoholic to recover — truly recover, Jung is quoted as saying, “Yes, there is. Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotional rearrangement within you. With many individuals the methods which I employed are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description.”

It seems that Jung’s pronouncement that the only hope for Roland was a “spiritual experience” was the final straw in Roland’s treatment. He was deflated to the point of “giving up.” As a result he had the “rearrangement” and later explained it to “Ebby” who in turn explained it to Bill Wilson who explained it to Dr. Bob, who formed what became A.A.

Jung played a vital role in the eventual formation of what people now recognize as A.A. At last count, I counted over 140 Twelve Step programs patterned after A.A.: e.g. Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and many more. Jung’s ideas have obviously traveled far more than possibly even some mainstream analysts may know.

Credit for this information should probably go to those before me who led me in the right direction to discover it, particularly Ernest Kurtz with whom I spoke briefly a number of years ago about his book, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1979: Hazelden Books, Center City, Mn. 55012). Kurtz’s notes on Jung’s role in A.A. are found on pages 8 and 9 and in a couple of wonderful footnotes on the subject on pages 252 & 253, notes 5 – 8. Kurtz quotes from a 1961 letter written by Bill Wilson to Jung and from Jung’s reply, which was published in an A.A. monthly magazine, “Grapevine” (Jan. 1963 and Nov. 1968(?)) All–or I would suspect most–of the official documentation on this may be found by contacting A.A.’s main office in New York and the Hazelden folks in Center City, Minnesota.

Jung, no doubt, did wonders in moving along the world of psychotherapy, but he did even more than that in my opinion. He helped make it possible through a set of circumstances (unconsciously on purpose, so to speak) to have an organization, and many more like it, that has helped millions upon millions to recovery. Many, even in A.A., especially the “newer” A.A. members, do not know Jung’s part in the whole picture.

Read Wilson’s letter to Jung, here and Jung’s reply, here

4 comments On Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous

  • Congratulations on the Jung/Wilson/conversion article. Aside from your spelling of Rowland Hazard’s name erroneously, you have touched on a key to Wilson’s early A.A. thinking. And there’s lots more to the story, based on intensive recent writing and research. My new title The Conversion of Bill W. (See http://www.dickb.com/conversion.shtml) lays out the sequence: (1) Jung’s prescription for conversion as a solution to Rowland’s chronic alcoholic mind. (2) Rowland’s joining the Oxford Group, never having a conversion, but grasping their principle of working with others. (3) Rowland had read the William James Varieties of Religious Experience book, as had Carl Jung; and the book is replete with accounts of alcoholics cured in missions through conversion experiences. (4) Rowland carried that message to Ebby Thacher and lodged Ebby in Sam Shoemaker’s Calvary Rescue Mission. There Ebby went to the altar, made a decision for Christ, and was converted to a born-again Christian. (5) This information was conveyed to Bill Wilson who saw and believed that Ebby had been converted and went to the Rescue Mission for the same solution. And he got it. He made a decision for Christ, said he was reborn, and thus was also converted. But Bill had been told by Dr. William D. Silkworth that Jesus, the Great Physician, would and would cure alcoholics. (6) Bill meandered drunk for several days. checked into Towns Hospital under Dr. Silkworth’s care, said he believed he should call on the Great Physician for help and did so. (7) The result was Bill’s so-called “hot flash” conversion experience–almost identical in content and description to that which his grandfather Willie Wilson had had in Vermon on Mount Aeolus, was converted, and never drank again. (8) Consulting Silkworth, Bill was told that he too had had a genuine conversion. (9) Ebby or Rowland had brought a copy of William James’s book to Bill in the hospital; and Bill spent most of the day devouring it. He finally concluded that his conversion had been genuine. (10) And as verified on page 191 of the Third and earlier editions of the Big Book, Bill carried this message: “The Lord has been so wonderful to me curing me of this terrible disease that I just want to keep telling people about it.” And that is what Bill did – at Towns, at the Mission, at Oxford Group meetings; but Bill lacked the power and persuasiveness. When the message was taken to Akron and Dr. Bob, the story was different. And conversion – the surrender to Jesus Christ upstairs in the middle of the one meeting a week – became a required element of early AA membership in the Christian Fellowship. And it worked!

  • I would add a few additional points recovered from my 19 years of research into A.A.’s Christian roots. First, a number of Christian organizations or people paved the way for the A.A. approach. They are the evangelists, YMCA, Christian Endeavor Society, Salvation Army, Rescue Missions, much later, the Oxford Group and Rev. Samuel M. Shoemaker. Second, the religious background of both Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob as youngsters in Vermont. Both had families that stressed conversion and Bible study. Both had connections with the YMCA. Ebby Thacher made a decision for Christ at the Calvary Rescue Mission, told Bill about it, also told Bill about Rowland Hazard’s discussions with Carl Jung, and prompted Bill to go to Calvary Rescue Mission, make a decision for Christ, write that he had been born again, and think about calling on the Great Physician for helpl, then going to Towns Hospital, deciding to call on the Great Physician for help, and then having his white light experience where he sensed the presence of God and observed, “So this is the God of the Scriptures.” Bill never again doubted the existence of God and never again drank liquor. The two new ressearch elements are that Bill’s Grandfather Willie Wilson (a real alcoholic) had, before Bill was born, gone to the top of Mount Aeolus in East Dorset, Vermont. Willie cried out to God for help, had a white light experiencer, announced to the family church that her had been saved, and never drank again. Moreover, before Bill ever heard of Carl Jung or was visited by Ebby Thacher, Dr. William D. Silkworth a death sentence–if you continue to drink, you will die or go insane. Silkworth told Bill on this third hospitalization that the Great Physician Jesus Christ could cure Bill of Bill’s alcoholism. As to Dr. Bob, he was deeply involved with his family in the North Congregatgional Church of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was educated to the importance of salvation and Bible study by his family, his church, his Sunday school, his Christian Endeavor Society group in the church, his YMCA connections, and by the village’s previous Great Awakening of 1875. Both Bob and Bill went to New England academies–Bob to St. Johnsbury Academy, and Bill to Burr and Burton Academy. There, daily chapel was required. Weekly church attendance and Bible study were required; and, in Bill’s case, a four-year Bible study was required and attended by Bill. Details can be found in the titles Dr. Bob of Alcoholics Anonymous and The Conversion of Bill W. (http://www.dickb.com/titles, shtml). It might be added that Dr. Carl Jung’s view of “conversion” was not the same as the conversion to Christ ideas that Bill and Bob had been taught. God Bless, Dick B.

  • It is hard to even imagine how many lives have been saved thanks to the numerous addiction recovery support groups that are now readily available to those in dire need of help. In my family alcoholism is like a disease that has been passed down from generation to generation for as far back as those still living can remember. It rips and tears families apart everyday and it has to be controlled in order for the cycle to be broken. This is why I encourage my family members to be a part of our own support group as well as to join an addiction recovery group anonymously.

  • Does this mean that they’re going to create a jungian archetype for the recovering alcoholic? lawlz!

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