REGIONAL DIFFERENCES: NYC, LA, DFW, DEEP SOUTH, ETC.
“By one of the many paradoxes which have characterized its growth, Alcoholics Anonymous absorbed the “keep it poor” principle from one of the world’s wealthiest men, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. The society was formed in 1935 after a fortuitous meeting in Akron between a Wall Street broker and an Akron surgeon, both alcoholics of long standing. The broker, who was in Akron on a business mission, had kept sober for several months by jawing drunks–unsuccessfully–but his business mission had fallen through and he was aching for a drink. The surgeon, at the time they got together, was quite blotto. Together, over a period of a few weeks, they kept sober and worked out the basic A.A. technique.
By 1937, when they had about fifty converts, they began thinking, as all new A.A.’s will, of tremendous plans–for vast new alcoholic hospitals, squadrons of paid field workers and the literature of mercy pouring off immense presses. Being completely broke themselves, and being promoters at heart, as most alcoholics are, they set their sights on the Rockefeller jack pot.
Rockefeller sent an emissary to Akron to look into the phenomenon at work there, and, receiving a favorable report, granted an audience to a committee of eager-eyed alcoholics. He listened to their personal sagas of resurrection from the gutter and was deeply moved; in fact, he was ready to agree that the A.A.’s had John Barleycorn by the throat. The visitors relaxed and visualized millions dropping into the till. Then the man with the big money bags punctured the vision. He said that too much money might be the ruination of any great moral movement and that he didn’t want to be a party to ruining this one. However, he did make a small contribution–small for Rockefeller–to tide it over for a few years, and he got some of his friends to contribute a few thousand more. When the Rockefeller money ran out, A.A. was self-supporting, and it has remained so ever since.
Although A.A. remains in essence what it has always been, many changes have come along in late years. For one thing, the average age of members has dropped from about forty-seven to thirty-five. The society is no longer, as it was originally, merely a haven for the “last gaspers.” Because of widespread publicity about alcoholism, alcoholics are discovering earlier what their trouble is.
As A.A. has achieved wider social acceptance, more women are coming in than ever before. Around the country they average 15 per cent of total membership; in New York, where social considerations never did count for much, the A.A.’s are 30 per cent women. The unmarried woman alcoholic is slow to join, as she generally gets more coddling and protection from her family than a man does; she is what is known in alcoholic circles as a “bedroom drinker.” The married-woman alcoholic has a tougher row to hoe.
The wife of an alcoholic, for temperamental and economic reasons, will ordinarily stick by her erring husband to the bitter end. The husband of an alcoholic wife, on the other hand, is usually less tolerant; a few years of suffering are enough to drive him to the divorce court, with the children in tow. Thus the divorced-woman A.A. is a special problem, and her progress in sobriety depends heavily upon on the kindliness shown her by the other A.A. women. For divorcees, and for other women who may be timid about speaking out in mixed meetings, special female auxiliary groups have been formed in some communities. They work out better than a cynic might think.
Another development is the growth of the sponsor system. A new member gets a sponsor immediately, and it is the function of the sponsor to accompany him to meetings, to see that he gets all the help he needs and to be on call at any time for emergencies. As an emergency usually amounts only to an onset of that old feeling for a bottle, it is customarily resolved by a telephone conversation, although it may involve an after-midnight trip to Ernie’s gin mill, whither the neophyte has been shanghaied by a couple of unregenerate old drinking companions. As the membership of A.A. cuts through all social, occupational and economic classes, it is possible to match the sponsor with the sponsored, and this seems to speed up the arrestive process.
During the past decade or so, the society, whose original growth was in large cities, has strongly infiltrated the grass-roots country. Its arrival in this sector was delayed largely because of the greater stigma which attaches to alcoholism in the small town. Because of this stigma and the effect it has on his business, professional or social standing, the small-town alcoholic, reveling in his delusion that nobody knows about his drinking–when actually it is the gossip of Main Street–takes frequent “vacations” or “business trips” if he can afford it. He or she–the banker, the storekeeper, the lawyer, the madam president of the garden club, sometimes even the clergyman–is actually headed for a receptive hospital or clinic in the nearest large city, where no one will recognize him.
The pattern of small-town growth begins when the questing small-towner seeks out the big-city A.A. outfit and its message catches on with him. To his surprise, he finds that half a dozen drinkers in towns near his own have also been to the fount. On returning to his home, he gets in touch with them and they form an intertown group; or there may be enough drinkers in his own town to begin a group. Though there is a stigma even to getting sober in small towns, it is less virulent than the souse stigma, and word of the movement spreads throughout the county and into adjoining counties. The churches and newspapers take it up and beat the drum for it; relatives of drunks, and doctors who find themselves unable to help their alcoholic patients, gladly unload the problem cases on A.A., and A.A. is glad to get them. The usual intrafellowship quarrel over who is going to run the thing inevitably develops and there are factional splits, but the splits help to spread the movement, too, and all the big quarrels soon become little ones, and then disappear.
Nowhere is Alcoholics Anonymous carried on with more enthusiasm than in Los Angeles. Unlike most localities, which try to keep separate group membership, for easier handling, Los Angeles likes the theatrical mass-meeting setting, with 1000 or more present. The Los Angeles A.A.’s carry their membership as if it were a social cachet and go strongly for square dances of their own. Jewelry bearing the A.A. monogram, though frowned upon elsewhere, is popular on the Coast. After three months of certified sobriety a member receives a bronze pin, after one year he is entitled to have a ruby chip inserted in the pin and, after three years, a diamond chip. Rings bearing the A.A. letters are widely worn, as well as similarly embellished compacts, watch fobs and pocket pieces.
Texas takes A.A. with enthusiasm too. In the ranch sector, members drive or fly hundreds of miles to attend A.A. square dances and barbecues, bringing their families. In metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth–there are upwards of a dozen oil-millionaire members here–fancy club quarters have been established in old mansions and the brethren and their families rejoice, dance and drink coffee and soda pop amid expensive furnishings. One Southwestern group recently got its governor to release a life-termer from the state penitentiary for a week end, so that he could be the guest of honor of the group. “We had a large open meeting,” a local member wrote a friend elsewhere in the country, “and many state and county officials attended in order to hear what Herman (the lifer) had to tell about A.A. within the walls. They were deeply impressed and very interested. The next night I gave a lawn party and buffet supper in Herman’s honor, with about fifty A.A.’s present. This was the first occasion of this kind in the state and to our knowledge the first in the United States.”
Some A.A.’s believe that this group carried the joy business too far. Others think that each section of the country ought to manifest spirit in its own way; anyway, that is the way it usually works out. The Midwest is businesslike and serious. In the Deep South the A.A.’s do a certain amount of Bible reading and hymn singing. The Northwest and the upper Pacific Coast help support their gathering places with the proceeds from slot machines. New York, a catchall for screwballs and semiscrewballs from all over, is pious about gambling, and won’t have it around the place. New England is temperate in its approach, and its spirit is characterized by the remark of one Yankee who, writing a fellow A.A. about a lake cottage he had just bought, said, “The serenity hangs in great gobs from the trees.”
The serene mind is what A.A.’s the world over are driving toward, and an epigrammatic expression of their goal is embodied in a quotation which members carry on cards in their wallets and plaster up on the walls of their meeting rooms: “God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, courage to change things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” [The Prayer For Serenity]
Originally thought in Alcoholics Anonymous to have been written by St. Francis of Assisi, it turned out, on recent research, to have been the work of another eminent nonalcoholic, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, of Union Theological Seminary. Doctor Niebuhr was amused on being told of the use to which his prayer was being put. Asked if it was original with him, he said he thought it was, but added, “Of course it may have been spooking around for centuries.”
Alcoholics Anonymous seized upon it in 1940, after it had been used as a quotation in the New York Herald Tribune. The fellowship was late in catching up with it; and it will probably spook around a good deal longer before the rest of the world catches up with it.”
The Saturday Evening Post
April 1, 1950