Review of World Awakening: A.A. and Higher Power Mutual Aid

Author: James Duncan
Published by: General Store Publishing House, 2011
Review by: Jack McLean (unpublished)

James Duncan’s World Awakening: A.A. and Higher Power Mutual Aid explores one of the many practical therapies that has already proven its effectiveness, and will no doubt continue to contribute to the transformation of the individual and with it world spiritual renewal. The title of his book points indirectly to that fascinating dual phenomenon that modern civilization is experiencing. Entire nations have turned away from God to embrace materialism and secularism, just two in the strange company of modern false idols, but a new era of global spiritual awakening is unmistakably dawning.

The panoply of pathological symptoms that afflicts the world today, whose root cause is a universal spiritual malady, could be multiplied here. But suffice it to say that one of these many symptoms is the subject of this book: addiction. Countless millions of souls have sunk in its wreckage. But for those who have turned their ruined lives over to what is called in A.A. parlance one’s “Higher Power,” spiritual health and equilibrium, and with it, sanity, sobriety and serenity can be attained. Ultimately, addiction can turn out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise: spirituality, love, happiness and a productive life well-lived, unknown before, can be found. Often, relationships once broken by addiction can be restored.

This book assumes a semi-scholarly tone with its comprehensive research, footnotes, appendices and bibliography, but it proves readable and informative. Its occasional testimony assures the reader that its author wants to stay in the realm of the personal, lived experience. Duncan brings to light both the history and precepts that account for the Twelve Step method’s restorative abilities. World Awakening: A.A. and Higher Power Mutual Aid makes its case for the what Duncan views as both therapeutic tool and spiritual philosophy.

This book serves as wake-up call and sobering reminder. 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 staggering. In the United States alone, 40-60 billion dollars are spent annually treating alcoholism and its related diseases. 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 remarkable results. A.A.’s current numbers have been estimated at over two million members worldwide. The membership of some 400 spin-off Twelve Step societies, which treat all of a broad range of drug and other addictions and co-dependent behaviours, has been given as a conservative ten million. Al-Anon, for families and friends of alcoholics, has some estimated 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 the following pages. I was also 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. and the Twelve Step programs.

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 OG became the parent organization of A.A. and indirectly the Twelve Step programs. 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. and Twelve Step 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 the expression 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.

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 penultimate chapter seven. All tolled, he sees a wider influence for this “movement” than recovery alone.

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 programs. These parallels correct misperceptions of Amerindian culture by Europeans such as Darwin. Also included are approaches to the raising of children and ecology.

Little known to this writer—and uninformed readers may find these data shocking — were Darwin’s allegedly racist views as exposed in Appendix, in which Duncan compares Darwin to Kropotkin. See especially the section “Was Darwin Racist?” However, it may be cold consolation to say that it was not unusual for eighteenth and nineteenth century European scientists, clerics and philosophers to look down upon aboriginal peoples as being subhuman. In Hegel’s Philosophy of History, for example, Chinese, East Indian and especially African peoples are treated to morally harsh, negative value judgements. By contrast, “the German world” is presented as being the superior model, even with respect to other European nations, of “the Christian principle” and “freedom.”

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

I close this review with a short reflection on the catastrophe that was visited on the islands of Japan in 2011. Anne Thomas, a Buddhist Reiki Master living in Sendai, who experienced the total devastation that followed in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, wrote in an e-mail of March 14, 2011 that has since gone around the world: “…there is indeed an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world right at this moment….I can feel my heart opening very wide….This wave of birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent.”

Yes. Every new birthing is hard and yet magnificent. May the healing that is offered through the Twelve Step method in the following pages assist the reader to attain that new birth that must inevitably accompany true spiritual awakening.

    Jack McLean (author and independent scholar)

Comments are closed.