Bookmark and Share

Jung, Oxford Group helped influence
spiritual roots of AA

In 1961, Bill W., cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote a letter to one of the world's
most famous psychiatrists, Dr. Carl Jung. This letter described a chain of events that changed Bill's life and influenced the spiritual emphasis of Alcoholics Anonymous -- events in which Jung played a key role.

It all began, Bill wrote, in a 1931 conversation between Jung and a hopeless alcoholic named Roland H.

Roland-young, gifted in business, rich-had tried every "cure" for alcoholism available at the time. All his attempts failed. In despair, he traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, and placed himself under the care of Dr. Jung for nearly a year.

Jung was blunt. He told Roland that any further medical treatment was pointless.

Stunned, Roland asked if there was any other hope.

Jung held out only one- -- that Roland experience a "genuine conversion," a spiritual transformation. According to Jung, such experiences were rare among alcoholics. But alcoholics who had them stopped drinking.

This shred of hope was enough for Roland. He returned home and began his spiritual search.

Bill, in his letter to Jung, told of his firsthand knowledge of conversion. For Bill, it happened in 1934 during his last "detox" at Towns Hospital in New York City. At that time, Bill was also an alcoholic at the end of his rope. Dr. Silkworth, Bill's attending physician, laid out the options to Bill's wife: She could let the authorities lock Bill up, watch him go insane, or let him die.

Bill knew the doctor's prognosis. "My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit," he wrote to Jung. "All at once I found myself crying out, 'If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything.'"

At that moment, Bill wrote, his hospital room seemed to flood with white light. "I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. 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. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man."

Silkworth encouraged Bill to hold on to this experience, whatever it was. Bill did, and never took another drink.

Released from the hospital, Bill immediately began work on two tasks: understanding that "white light" and helping other alcoholics to experience something equally powerful.

He got help with the first task from the writings of psychologist William James. James described conversion experiences in detail-including accounts from recovering alcoholics. Bill read these accounts eagerly, finding direct correspondences with his own experience.

For the second task, Bill borrowed heavily from the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement that Rowland also joined. Bill embraced many of the group's principles, which required members to:

However, Bill and Oxford members later parted ways. The Oxford Group got political, endorsing a lot of people for elected office and the Oxford program was too black-and-white. Bill wanted a suggested program-not a list of requirements.

In this spirit of tolerance, Bill started talking about a "Higher Power" as the source of conversion experience. This Higher Power could be the God of the Christians. But it could also be any source of help that an alcoholic would accept.

Eventually Bill invited Roland and several more friends to form their own group, one that would focus strictly on helping alcoholics stay sober. And this group, Bill noted with gratitude in his letter to Jung, became the international movement that we now call Alcoholics Anonymous.

 
Saving updates...