AA originated on the worst night of Bill Wilson’s life.
It was December 14, 1934, and Wilson was drying out at Towns Hospital, a ritzy Manhattan detox center. He’d been there three times before, but he’d always returned to drinking soon after he was released. The 39-year-old had spent his entire adult life chasing the ecstasy he had felt upon tasting his first cocktail some 17 years earlier. That quest destroyed his career, landed him deeply in debt, and convinced doctors that he was destined for institutionalization.
Wilson had been quite a mess when he checked in the day before, so the attending physician, William Silkworth, subjected him to a detox regimen known as the Belladonna Cure—hourly infusions of a hallucinogenic drug made from a poisonous plant. The drug was coursing through Wilson’s system when he received a visit from an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who had recently found religion and given up alcohol. Thacher pleaded with Wilson to do likewise. “Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to God,” Thacher counseled his desperate friend. Wilson, a confirmed agnostic, gagged at the thought of asking a supernatural being for help.
But later, as he writhed in his hospital bed, still heavily under the influence of belladonna, Wilson decided to give God a try. “If there is a God, let Him show Himself!” he cried out. “I am ready to do anything. Anything!”
What happened next is an essential piece of AA lore: A white light filled Wilson’s hospital room, and God revealed himself to the shattered stockbroker. “It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing,” he later said. “And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.” Wilson would never drink again.
At that time, the conventional wisdom was that alcoholics simply lacked moral fortitude. The best science could offer was detoxification with an array of purgatives, followed by earnest pleas for the drinker to think of his loved ones. When this approach failed, alcoholics were often consigned to bleak state hospitals. But having come back from the edge himself, Wilson refused to believe his fellow inebriates were hopeless. He resolved to save them by teaching them to surrender to God, exactly as Thacher had taught him.
Following Thacher’s lead, Wilson joined the Oxford Group, a Christian movement that was in vogue among wealthy mainstream Protestants. Headed by a an ex-YMCA missionary named Frank Buchman, who stirred controversy with his lavish lifestyle and attempts to convert Adolf Hitler, the Oxford Group combined religion with pop psychology, stressing that all people can achieve happiness through moral improvement. To help reach this goal, the organization’s members were encouraged to meet in private homes so they could study devotional literature together and share their inmost thoughts.
In May 1935, while on an extended business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson began attending Oxford Group meetings at the home of a local industrialist. It was through the group that he met a surgeon and closet alcoholic named Robert Smith. For weeks, Wilson urged the oft-soused doctor to admit that only God could eliminate his compulsion to drink. Finally, on June 10, 1935, Smith (known to millions today as Dr. Bob gave in. The date of Dr. Bob’s surrender became the official founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In its earliest days, AA existed within the confines of the Oxford Group, offering special meetings for members who wished to end their dependence on alcohol. But Wilson and his followers quickly broke away, in large part because Wilson dreamed of creating a truly mass movement, not one confined to the elites Buchman targeted. To spread his message of salvation, Wilson started writing what would become AA’s sacred text: Alcoholics Anonymous, now better known as the Big Book.
The core of AA is found in chapter five, entitled “How It Works.” It is here that Wilson lists the 12 steps, which he first scrawled out in pencil in 1939. Wilson settled on the number 12 because there were 12 apostles.
In writing the steps, Wilson drew on the Oxford Group’s precepts and borrowed heavily from William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, which Wilson read shortly after his belladonna-fueled revelation at Towns Hospital. He was deeply affected by an observation that James made regarding alcoholism: that the only cure for the affliction is “religiomania.” The steps were thus designed to induce an intense commitment, because Wilson wanted his system to be every bit as habit-forming as booze.
The first steps famously ask members to admit their powerlessness over alcohol and to appeal to a higher power for help. Members are then required to enumerate their faults, share them with their meeting group, apologize to those they’ve wronged, and engage in regular prayer or meditation. Finally, the last step makes AA a lifelong duty: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” This requirement guarantees not only that current members will find new recruits but that they can never truly “graduate” from the program.
Aside from the steps, AA has one other cardinal rule: anonymity. Wilson was adamant that the anonymous component of AA be taken seriously, not because of the social stigma associated with alcoholism, but rather to protect the nascent organization from ridicule. He explained the logic in a letter to a friend:
[In the past], alcoholics who talked too much on public platforms were likely to become inflated and get drunk again. Our principle of anonymity, so far as the general public is concerned, partly corrects this difficulty by preventing any individual receiving a lot of newspaper or magazine publicity, then collapsing and discrediting AA.
AA boomed in the early 1940s, aided by a glowing Saturday Evening Post profile and the public admission by a Cleveland Indians catcher, Rollie Hemsley, that joining the organization had done wonders for his game. Wilson and the founding members were not quite prepared for the sudden success. “You had really crazy things going on,” says William L. White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.
“Some AA groups were preparing to run AA hospitals, and there was this whole question of whether they should have paid AA missionaries. You even had some reports of AA groups drinking beers at their meetings.”
The growing pains spurred Wilson to write AA’s governing principles, known as the 12 traditions. At a time when fraternal orders and churches with strict hierarchies dominated American social life, Wilson opted for something revolutionary: deliberate organizational chaos. He permitted each group to set its own rules, as long as they didn’t conflict with the traditions or the steps. Charging a fee was forbidden, as was the use of the AA brand to endorse anything that might generate revenue. “If you look at this on paper, it seems like it could never work,” White says. “It’s basically anarchy.” But this loose structure actually helped AA flourish. Not only could anyone start an AA group at any time, but they could tailor each meeting to suit regional or local tastes. And by condemning itself to poverty, AA maintained a posture of moral legitimacy.
Despite the decision to forbid members from receiving pay for AA-related activity, it had no problem letting professional institutions integrate the 12 steps into their treatment programs. AA did not object when Hazelden, a Minnesota facility founded in 1947 as “a sanatorium for curable alcoholics of the professional class,” made the steps the foundation of its treatment model. Nor did AA try to stop the proliferation of steps-centered addiction groups from adopting the Anonymous name: Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous. No money ever changed hands—the steps essentially served as open source code that anyone was free to build upon, adding whatever features they wished. (Food Addicts Anonymous, for example, requires its members to weigh their meals.)