New York Times – June 25th, 1939
by Percy Hutchinson
Alcoholics Anonymous. 400 pp. New York: Works Publishing Company. $3.50
Lest this title should arouse the risibles in any reader, 1st let me state that the general thesis of “Alcoholics Anonymous” is more soundly based psychologically than any other treatment of the subject I have ever come upon. And it is a subject not to be neglected, for, irrespective of whether we live under repeal or prohibition, there will be alcohol addicts, precisely as there are drug addicts. It is useless to argue that under one legal condition or another the number will be less or more. When populations are to be reckoned in the million, fractions cease to count. Under prohibition alcohol will be manufactured and bootlegged, as it was during our late “noble experiment,” precisely as narcotics are today smuggled and bootlegged. It is, consequently, the individual only who has to be considered, not the problem of supply and dissemination.
Alcoholics Anonymous is unlike any other book ever before published. No reviewer can say how many have contributed to its pages. But the list of writers should include addicts and doctors, psychiatrists and clergymen. Yet it is not a book of personal experience, except in a limited sense, any more than it is a book of rules and precepts. Whether the author of any given chapter can be physician or addict, the argument comes back to a single fundamental; and that is that the patient is unable to master the situation solely through what is termed “will power,” or volition. One contributor, who thought he had “got by” on a diet of milk, one day said to himself that he could safely add a little whiskey to his lacteal nourishment. He did. And then a little more, and then a little more.
In the end, he was back to the Sanitarium. His “will” was operating one-hundred percent, yet there was a fallacy somewhere. It is to root out this fallacy and supplant it that this book has been compiled. The present reviewer, since this is no ordinary publication, believes it only fair that he should state that at one time he advanced fairly deeply into the field of psychology and he is free to state that the entire superstructure of “Alcoholics Anonymous” is based on a psychology of volition that he himself once advanced but which was never universally acceded to. And that is what we glibly call “will,” and usefully so in general practice, should for scientific accuracy be reduced to more elemental terms. And, such an effort made, what results? Just this.
That volition, “will power,” tracked to its source, is the automatic and irrefutable working of a dominating idea. Consider Napoleon, the man of indomitable will. What does it, in this final psychological analysis, come down to? It comes down to the fact that so exclusively did Napoleon’s mind contain the idea that he was the man of destiny that there was no room for any other idea, so that every act, every “willed” action, was the unconscious result of, flowed from, that idea. Here, then, is the key to “Alcoholics Anonymous,” the great and indisputable lesson this extraordinary book would convey. The alcoholic addict, and why not change, should it seem we have become too intense, to “the drug addict,” cannot, by any effort of what he calls his “will,” insure himself against taking his “first dose.” We saw how the chap with his whiskey in milk missed out.
There is one way for our authors, and but one way. The utter suffusion of the mind by an idea which shall exclude any idea of alcohol or of drugs. Better, let us say the usurpation of the entire ideational tract by this idea. The idea itself may be, perhaps, fairly trivial. Such as: I do not like alcoholic drinks. In fact, my stomach revolts at their mention. Those who appear to dominate these pages apparently would not subscribe to so simple a formula as I have proposed. But my point is that it might be sufficient; and I base this on the book itself, provided only that their thesis flood, so to speak, the entire ideational tract. Yet would that be possible? Or possible for long? That is the question. And, as a matter of fact, those several authors give it short shrift.
I have advanced it solely to exhibit the stark psychological trail on which we have walked. The thesis of the book is, as we read it aright, that his all-embracing and all-commanding idea must be religious. Yet, here again, should the reader pause, for the writers are talking of what William James called “Varieties of Religious Experience” rather than matters of individual faith. There is no suggestion advanced in the book that an addict should embrace one faith rather than another. He may fall back upon an “absolute,” or “A Power which makes for righteousness” if he chooses. The point of the book is that he is unlikely to win through unless he floods his mind with the idea of a force outside himself. So doing, his individual problem resolves into thin air.
In the last analysis, it is the resigning word: Not my will, but Thine, be done, said in the full knowledge of the fact that the decision will be against further addiction. Most readers will pass this book by. Yet of such a majority many might not be amiss in turning its pages. There but for the grace of God, goes _____. A few will reach for it furtively. It is a strange book. The argument, as we have said, has a deep psychological foundation.
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