Review of Living the Twelve Steps: Change Ourselves and Change the World

Author: James Duncan
Published by: Baico Publishing, 2005
Review by: Jack McLean
Review published in: Peace and Environment News (July 2005)

As prelude to this review of James Duncan’s recently published book, a sobering reminder is in order. Alcohol is still by far the most widely abused drug in the world. The statistics on the cost of treating all aspects of alcohol abuse are truly mind-blowing. In the United States alone, 40-60 billion dollars is spent annually. But how does one calculate the cost in broken lives? Although the medical profession has been unable to treat this disease successfully, Alcoholics Anonymous, with its ramified Twelve Step Programs and related organisation Al-Anon, have achieved some remarkable results. A.A.’s current numbers have been estimated at over two million members worldwide. The membership of some 260 spin-off Twelve Step societies, which treat a broad range of drug addictions and other conditions, has been given as a conservative ten million. Al-Anon, for families and friends of alcoholics, has some 400,000 members.

What is not so well-known is the fascinating story behind the founding of A.A. by Bill Wilson (Bill W) and Dr. Bob Smith (Dr. Bob) in Akron, Ohio in 1935. That story is engagingly told by James Duncan in his newly published Living the Twelve Steps: Change Ourselves and Change the World. This book assumes a semi-scholarly tone with its comprehensive research, occasional footnote, appendix and bibliography, but it proves readable and informative. Its occasional testimony assures the reader that its author wants to stay in the realm of personal, lived experience. Over seven chapters, Duncan brings to light both the history and precepts that account for A.A.’s restorative abilities.

One particular feature of this book is noteworthy. Duncan views these voluntary, mutual aid societies as having a potentially greater impact on the self and the world than their immediate goal — the recovery of the addict, an admittedly challenging and delicate task. He argues that A.A. and other Twelve Step programs are effective engines for self-and-societal transformation, as members come out of their groups to join the world as full citizens, applying their principles to “all our affairs.” In Chapter Six he considers the wider use of Higher Power Mutual Aid as a model for global social organization and spiritual/ecological renewal. Implications for what he calls “Blue Green Politics” and participatory democracy are laid out in the seventh and last chapter. All told, he sees a wider influence for this “movement” than recovery alone.

I was intrigued to find two intellectual giants of the 19th and 20th centuries looming large in the background of A.A.’s history. The psychologist-philosopher William James and the great Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung played an indirect but nonetheless significant role in A.A.’s 1935 founding. James contributed a key term to the A.A. lexicon “higher power,” taken from his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Members who are uncomfortable with the God word can refer instead to their higher power, “the God of our own understanding,” although many members are unapologetic about calling their higher power God. James’s book provided Bill W. with a large dose of the spiritual wisdom dispensed by A.A..

In a 1961 exchange of letters between Bill W. and Carl Jung, Bill W. wrote that the “astonishing chain of events” that led to the founding of A.A. in 1935 actually started in Jung’s consulting room circa 1929. Jung treated an alcoholic named Rowland H. and told him frankly that any medical or psychiatric treatment would be powerless to cure his craving for alcohol. Jung counselled that only a “spiritual or religious experience” could allay his thirst. He advised Rowland H. to “place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.” Rowland H. went on to join the Oxford Group in 1931, a circle advocating spiritual and moral reform, and achieved sobriety. The O.G. became the parent organization of A.A. Ebby T., an old friend of Bill W., had also joined the Oxford Group in 1934. Bill W, Rowland H. and Ebby T. became the first nucleus of the organization that was founded when Bill W. met Dr. Bob in 1935.

The other key figure from whom the founders drew their wisdom was “the gentle Russian prince,” Peter Kropotkin, anarchist and naturalist, author of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Kropotkin contributed a key operational principle to A.A., that of “benign anarchy.” The phrase is Bill W.’s, but the idea of anarchy was borrowed from Kropotkin. It refers to the lack of organisation that allows A.A. meetings to be conducted along free-flow lines that dispense with the need for an institutional hierarchy or recognized leaders who have decision-making power and authority over others, thus focussing attention on process rather than personalities. Kropotokin’s central notion of “mutual aid,” which Duncan contrasts with Darwinian competition for survival, underscores the basic, modus operandi of Twelve Step societies. Duncan expands it to “higher power mutual aid” which alludes to the addict’s dependence on God/Higher Power and the succour that is offered by other addicts.

Perhaps James Duncan’s most original angle on the movement is found in Chapters Three and Four. Here the author draws both broad and specific parallels between the Higher Power Mutual Aid of Amerindian traditions and the more recent Twelve Step variety. These parallels correct misperceptions of Amerindian culture by Europeans such as Darwin. Also included are approaches to the raising of children and ecology.

All in all, I was rewarded by this read. A previous intimation was clarified and strengthened by Duncan’s book: the key to success for A.A. and the other Twelve Step societies is grounded in the fact these associations are founded on God-given, universal, perennial, spiritual principles that continue to prove effective. Healing is their work — healing of both body and soul.

    Jack McLean (Jack McLean is a Bahá’í scholar and poet living in Ottawa)

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