TRIVIA FROM OLIVIA: The birth of Twelve Steps
Post-Prohibition Era diagnoses of alcoholism were grim. Some believed it might be an allergy of sorts to which some were more susceptible. Most medical and psychiatric experts believed the condition was incurable and terminal. Those with limited resources were resigned to state hospitals or charities like the Salvation Army. If you had financial support you might get more aggressive treatment including the “purge and puke” method with barbiturates and belladonna.
Still most of the time those resulted in relapse and eventually death associated with the condition. In the beautiful story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when the doctor notes that the father’s death certificate will read pneumonia and alcoholism as the cause, the mother begs him to leave the word alcoholism off for her children’s sakes. It’s a heartbreaking scene.
Eventually, though, a group of alcoholics, starting with Bill W. and Dr. Bob began to experiment and find success by applying the theories of The Oxford Society to their illness. A Christian fellowship movement, The Oxford Society’s tenants were described by their founder as follows: “All people are sinners”; “All sinners can be changed”; “Confession is a prerequisite to change”; “The change can access God directly”; “Miracles are again possible”; and “The change must change others.”
Many of the beliefs of The Oxford Society were adapted for the problem of the alcoholic and although the two groups diverged in the later 1930s, many of the edicts of the twelve steps have some connective tissue to The Oxford Society.
I learned about Alcoholics Anonymous through The 75th Anniversary Edition of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Originally published in 1939, this book provides a description and definition of alcoholism as well as a step-by-step explanation of how the twelve step program works. It then relates story after story told in first person by members of the group. I can honestly say that listening to those accounts was a moving experience and I learned and gained more from The Big Book than I could ever have imagined when I started writing All the Wrong Reasons. To find out more, please check out my A Pen and a Prayer blog post here.