Ernest Kurtz- “AA’s Ablest Chronicler”

It was with great sadness that I read of the sudden death of Dr. Ernest Kurtz in January of 2015, the Harvard historian who lit a fire in me to understand how AA came together and how the spirituality of the program works.

While it was never clear if Kurtz personally identified himself as an alcoholic, he did come to identify very closely with our fellowship much as Dr. Silkworth did. For those who wish to go deeper, The Collected Works of Ernie Kurtz and especially Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous are mandatory reading. His books are not approved literature, though they nearly were– he refused to take out his exploration of Bill Wilson’s experiments with LSD and earned the ire of the Home Office —  he is the only non-member of AA to ever receive unedited access to our archives (and that’s saying something!)

He will be greatly missed.

What kinds of things did he write for academia? Here’s an example: The Social Thought of Alcoholics

For those who are interested, I found this wonderful obituary and tribute article by Regina Walker.

RIP Dr. Ernest Kurtz

By Regina Walker 01/25/15

Ernie Kurtz—a friend to The Fix, and the author of Not God-A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, died unexpectedly last week. The Fix remembers Dr. Kurtz and his achievements.

 “To deny our errors is to deny ourself, for to be human is to be imperfect, somehow error-proneTo be human is to ask unanswerable questions, but to persist in asking them. . . ” —Dr. Ernest Kurtz, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning

On January 19, at the age of 79, Dr. Ernest Kurtz died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Ann Arbor, MI. An historian and former Roman Catholic priest, he is perhaps best known today for his many writings on alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous, addiction, and spirituality—works informed by his academic brilliance, his deep concern with human spiritual life, and his own struggles with alcohol.

He was crabby, he was brilliant, he had the heart and soul of a giant.

Dr. Kurtz spent much of his professional life focused on the advancement of the understanding of addiction and recovery; particularly in the area of spirituality and the role of spirituality in recovery. He was born in 1935—the same year Alcoholics Anonymous was founded—to Edward and Josephine Kurzejewski; he would later write, “Eight years of grammar school in a German parish shortened that name for practical use.”

Kurtz is considered to be the outstanding thinker of the AA tradition’s second generation, as well as its ablest chronicler—a man who played a constant leadership role in pushing the movement toward the highest professional standards of history writing, and supplied some of its most influential interpretive concepts. His ideas are considered vitally important to anyone who wishes to understand AA history during the period following Bill Wilson’s death in 1971.

Kurtz earned a BA in philosophy at St. Bernard’s Seminary and College and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1961. It was while serving as a parish priest in Rochester that Dr. Kurtz’s own struggles with drinking came to a head—he was admitted in 1975 to Guest House, a residential treatment program for Catholic clergy that was founded in 1956 by nationally renowned mystery writer Austin Ripley, himself a recovering alcoholic with many friends in the Catholic Church. (Guest House was originally funded with help from the Archdiocese of Chicago.)

He received his Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University in 1978. While a Ph.D. student at Harvard, Kurtz was the first researcher to be granted full access to the archives of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz would later write—as recounted in Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly by William L. White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America—that:

“I was going to these AA meetings . . . I became very interested in the source of the ideas upon which AA was founded. I began to investigate AA history and the further I got into it, the more fascinated I became . . . on one of my visits back to Guest House, my former counselor suggested that I should discuss my interest in AA history with Dan Anderson at Hazelden. When I met with Dan, he expressed enthusiasm and informed me that AA was about to establish an archive that would include all of Bill Wilson’s correspondence. Now that’s a graduate student’s dream – getting access to previously unviewed correspondence of some historically significant person.”

Kurtz was able to work with the AA archives thanks to Nell Wing. As Bill Wilson’s secretary, Wing gave Kurtz unlimited access to the AA archives, with the approval of the AA Archives Committee (Kurtz would later recall that, ” . . . the approval from the Archives Committee was much tougher than my committee at Harvard.”) He researched his dissertation while assisting Nell Wing in organizing and cataloguing the AA archives, and his dissertation was approved in 1978.

His doctoral dissertation was published as the book, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous but the book’s publication was not without challenges. The AA board of trustees expressed concern over the book’s recounting of Bill Wilson’s experiments with LSD. Kurtz agonized over the passages in question – as a recipient of AA’s generosity in terms of access to its archives, as well as a beneficiary of the program itself, he had no wish to publish anything that might, as he put it, “do something that might be injurious to AA.” Kurtz finally decided to leave that part of his account intact.

Kurtz left the priesthood in the late 1970s and began teaching at the University of Georgia in 1979. He also taught briefly at Loyola University of Chicago before becoming, remarkably, Director of Research at Guest House, where he had once been a client.

He eventually moved to Ann Arbor, where he did research within the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan and at the Center for Self-Help Research. From 1978 to 1997, Dr. Kurtz served on the faculty of the Rutgers University Summer School of Alcohol Studies and from 1987 to 1997 as a lecturer at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

Dr. Kurtz was the author of numerous books beyond Not-God including Shame and Guilt; The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning(coauthored with Katherine Ketcham); Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling (also co-authored with Katherine Ketcham), and The Collected Ernie Kurtz.

Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous was the first comprehensive history of the founding and development of Alcoholics Anonymous and is considered by many to be the authoritative work on the subject. As an historian and researcher, Kurtz explored the social conditions and influences of the 1930s, Depression-era America in which AA was founded, and sought to place the institution and movement within that historic context. In addition, he explored the psychological and religious underpinnings of the group and emphasized that regardless of the individual’s religious or spiritual belief system (or lack thereof), it was crucial for the alcoholic/addict to realize he/she was “Not God.”

John Moryl, Librarian at Yeshiva University, New York, described The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning as follows:

“The aim of this book is to explain the underlying spiritual—although not necessarily religious—principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Part 1 presents the emphasis of this spirituality, which is the recognition and especially the acceptance of humans as imperfect beings. Part 2 tells how the founders of AA put spirituality to use. Part 3 discusses the benefits: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, and forgiveness. On nearly every page, the authors retell stories and provide anecdotes from various sources: ancient Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Greek, and more. One need not have an interest in AA to benefit from this fine introduction to spirituality. ”

Dr. Kurtz’s co-author on this book as well as Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling, Kathy Ketcham, shared with The Fix that, “Ernie was sharp in all senses—he was brilliant, sharp-witted, intense, and sometimes snappish, sarcastic, critical, prickly—and my role was to ‘smooth’ things over, making his wisdom accessible to a large audience and, sometimes, even often, to tone down his ‘bite’ (which he called ‘bullheadedness’). When we first talked about working together on The Spirituality of Imperfection, back in Nov/Dec 1988, he said, ‘I get crabby. Can you work with someone who is so crabby?'”

Ketcham went on, “He was crabby, he was brilliant, he had the heart and soul of a giant (and the thundering voice to match), and I loved him more than I can put into words.”

Ms. Ketcham recalled one of their favorite stories:

“I recently heard a story of someone asking a monk, ‘What is your life like as a monk?’” The monk replied, ‘We walk, we fall down, someone helps us up. We walk some more, someone else falls down. We help them up. That’s pretty much what we do.'”

In his book, Shame and Guilt, Kurtz explores the differences between these two painful, but inevitable emotions and experiences. Both guilt and shame involve feeling “bad”—feeling bad about one’s actions (or omissions) in the case of guilt and feeling bad about one’s self in the case of shame. Though targeted to addicted and recovering readers, this short, easy-to-read book explores the universal, though somewhat esoteric, landscape of shame and guilt in a clear, easily accessible and contemplative manner, which is relevant to all.

The Collected Ernie Kurtz includes 12 articles written between 1982 to 1996 that explore his thoughts on addiction, alcoholism and spirituality. Of this tome, William L. White remarked,

“Here under one cover is Kurtz at his best: historian, gadfly, teacher, interpreter, and master storyteller. This is must reading for any student of Alcoholics Anonymous and the evolution of spirituality in America.”

Dr. Kurtz will be remembered as a leading historian of Alcoholics Anonymous and an authority in the fields of the history of religious ideas and addiction.

Kurtz once said of himself that he was an expert on history and imperfection—but not necessarily in that order.

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