With over 34 years of experience behind him proving A.A.’s ability to help alcoholics get and stay sober, in early 1969, Bill W. accepted an invitation from U.S. Senator Harold Hughes — a great supporter of A.A. — to address a special subcommittee of the Senate’s Labor and Public Welfare Committee. Called the Special Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Narcotics, and chaired by Senator Hughes, the subcommittee was to hold public hearings on the Impact of Alcoholism over the course of three days in July 1969, bringing broad and unprecedented national attention to the subject.
Perspectives on alcoholism were shifting in the late 1960s, and many Americans, both within and outside the scientific community, were beginning to see benefits in extended research on alcoholism as a precursor to possible solutions. Public health organizations such as the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization were addressing alcoholism in health care settings, and by the 1960s, the American Psychiatric Association had declared alcoholism an illness. Many of the government efforts to address alcoholism, however, were underfunded and underdeveloped and it was felt by many that in order to make an impact, there would have to be a concerted Federal effort, with considerable national resources devoted to the problem.
As a part of this groundswell of national attention on the problems of alcoholism, the subcommittee of Senator Hughes solicited public testimony from scientists, religious leaders, politicians, and alcoholism treatment providers. Additionally, a number of people in recovery testified, including Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes M., National Council on Alcoholism founder Marty M., and A.A. co-founder Bill W.
As the hearings began, Senator Hughes expressed in his opening remarks that the main objectives of his subcommittee were threefold:
- To dramatize to the Congress and the public the magnitude and urgency of these problems;
- To develop new approaches to helping people afflicted by alcoholism and drug abuse; and
- To develop practical legislation on a realistic financial scale not previously envisioned by the current government.
Hughes called for open-mindedness on new approaches to alcoholism, saying, “this means we cannot settle for window dressing. This means that we must disengage ourselves from the old ruts and prejudices of the past.”
He then called on the professionals in the field of alcoholism to get together for a solution to the problem, noting, “we can unite effectively if we simply keep our eyes on the main objective — to save and help human beings.”
Following the testimony of Marty M., who spoke about the founding of the National Council on Alcoholism in 1944, Bill W. kept his focus on A.A. — its history and basic approach to recovery as exemplifed in his own experience, strength and hope.
Before Bill began his testimony, however, in recognition of A.A.’s Tradition of anonymity, Senator Hughes announced to the Senate chamber, “For the next witness there will be no television. There will be no pictures taken. The next witness is Bill W. , co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Audio is fine. Yo u may photograph the Senators or you may photograph Bill W. from the back of the head if you want.”
With these ground rules articulated — the kind of ground rules that have kept A.A. members out of the public eye since the Fellowship’s earliest days — Senator Hughes continued: “Bill, you may proceed with your statement as you desire.”
Thanking the members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to appear before them, Bill added, “For me this is an extremely moving and signifcant occasion. It may well mark the advent of the new era in this old business of alcoholism.
“I think that the activities of this committee and what they may lead to may be a turning point historically. This is splashdown day for Apollo. The impossible is happening. Like my dear friend Marty, who has just spoken to you, I share with her the opinion that in this feld of alcoholism we are now seeing the beginning of the achievement of the impossible.”
Opening his remarks with a recitation of the A.A. Preamble, as “a brief and simple statement as to what A.A. is,” Bill cited some general statistics in terms of numbers of A.A. groups and estimated membership, adding, “Those statistics are of interest, but they are scarcely inspiring, because they are not as yet connected with the flesh and blood of human experience. I think the best way of presenting some of that experience would be to relate to you certain fragments of A.A. history that have a particular bearing upon this occasion.”
Tracing A.A.’s history from Rowland H.’s attempts to get sober with the help of Carl Jung and the Oxford Groups in the early 1930s, to Rowland’s connection with Ebby T., who ultimately reached out to Bill, Bill offered the subcommittee a condensed version of A.A. history — a history quite familiar to most A.A.s — punctuated by some of the details of Bill’s own drinking: “I had been in a drying-out emporium in New York City, and there my doctor, who was to make a crucial contribution to A.A., had said to my wife, ‘Lois, I am afraid, my dear, that I can do nothing. . . . He is the victim of a compulsion to drink against his will, and, as much as he desires, that compulsion I don’t think can be broken; and this compulsion is coupled with what I call an allergy.’
“‘…There is something wrong with this man physically. Therefore, the eternal dilemma has been this compulsion to drink, to the point almost of lunacy, coupled with the physical allergy that guarantees insanity and death. I think you will have to lock him up.’”
It was at this point, Bill described, that Ebby had come to visit him in Brooklyn. “At once it struck me that he was in a state of release, this was not just another drunk on the wagon. …I was deeply impressed,” Bill told the Senators, “because here was somebody that I knew had lived in this strange world of alcoholism, where I, too, was a denizen.”
Following a description of his “white light experience,” Bill explained, “With the experience came this thought, why can’t this be induced chain style? In other words, if I can identify myself with another alcoholic through this kinship of suffering, then why can’t that infate him and perhaps he will be motivated and one can talk to the other.”
Continuing with the story of A.A.’s early history, his trip to Akron and meeting Dr. Bob, publication of the Big Book, and the Fellowship’s astounding growth, Bill began to sum up his testimony with some additional statistics.
“Figures tell us that we have 5 million alcoholics in America,” he told the Senators. “This means 5 million poor souls who are in all stages of this dissolution and in the early years scarcely one of these people can be brought to believe that he is actually beginning to be sick.
“This rationalization can exist through all sorts of evidence of sickness right down to the undertaker himself. It is this mass capability of the alcoholic to rationalize himself out of this predicament. This is one of the great obstacles to bringing alcoholics toward treatment. In fact this is the obstacle that all of the remarkable agencies we now have at work are running against, how do we get these people in?”
In closing, Bill detailed that many people in recovery were working in the alcoholism feld — as recovering alcoholics, not A.A. members — and could be a resource for the future deliberations of the subcommittee. He also offered the names of some nonalcoholic friends of A.A. as potential resources.
Ending his testimony by calling for any questions there might be, Bill noted, “Of course, it ought to be observed at this point, that the virtues of A.A. are not really earned virtues. It is a matter of do or die. . . . So our dedication is first based on the fact that our lives and fortunes have been saved and we want to share this with the next fellow, knowing that it is part of the maintenance of our own recovery and life or death.”
As Bill’s segment of the hearings came to a close, in recognition of A.A.’s principle of anonymity, Senator Hughes thanked Bill W. — and the media — for the efforts undertaken in keeping anonymity in the forefront of the subcommittee’s deliberations. Said Senator Hughes, “Bill, I thank you kindly for your willingness to come forward as a co-founder of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and express the basis of its founding, its willingness to cooperate, and the hope of people over the last few decades who have found their way through this. The subcommittee and the committee are indebted to you for your willingness to do this. I want to express also the Chair’s appreciation to the press for their cooperation in honoring the tenets of your institution to retain the anonymity of the alcoholic.”
Following the conclusion of the hearings, nearly a year later Senator Hughes introduced the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Act of 1970 into the Senate — also known as the Hughes Act — that would focus federal resources to address the prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Considered a “major milestone,” the law also established the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, now the largest funder of alcohol research in the world.
Guided by the principle of anonymity and the words of the A.A. Preamble, which were entered into the public record of the subcommittee hearings — that A.A. is not allied with any organization or institution and neither endorses nor opposes any causes — Bill W. was able to participate in the public discourse on alcoholism and to share with the Senate subcommittee the experience, strength and hope garnered by A.A. that recovery from alcoholism is possible, a message to still-suffering alcoholics that is as welcome today as it was then.
From the Summer 2014 issue of Markings — Your Archives eNewsletter.
For complete issue, visit A. A. Digital Delivery.