Ernest Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer

Ernie and Bill 2008

Ernie Kurtz died on Jan 19, 2015. He was born on September 9, 1935, the same year that AA was founded. 

The Historian as Storyteller and Healer was published a number of months ago and when Ernie read Bill’s piece, he is reported to have said: “Did you ever feel you were reading your own obituary?  All I can say is, I should be so lucky!” 

Ernie was a friend and supporter of AA Agnostica and had on occasion offered his comments on a few of the posts. In 2011, he described A History of Agnostic Groups in AA as a “magnificent work — clear, concise, respectful, insightful”. Ernie wrote the Foreword to Joe C.’s book, Beyond Belief, and, at the time of his death, he and Bill were co-authoring a Foreword to bob k’s book, Key Players in AA History. 

He will be missed.

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Reviewed by John M.

History and imperfection are my specialties – not necessarily in that order.
(Ernest Kurtz, 1996, quoted by William White)

Addiction and recovery researcher/author, William White, has recently written about his colleague and friend, Ernie Kurtz, for the  Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly entitled, “Ernest Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer.”

It is with great pleasure that I have the opportunity to draw your attention to Bill White’s tribute to Ernie Kurtz.

Whoever has read anything by Ernie Kurtz will appreciate Bill’s article in that we get to know a little bit more about the man himself who contributed so much to our understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous, its history and “how it works,” as well as Ernie’s extensive contribution to the idea of spirituality and the medium of story telling.

Interestingly though, White’s piece on Ernie Kurtz is written for a professional journal that the majority of alcoholics in the fellowship of AA – who may benefit the most from it – may never read.

Even those among us who search out academic literature to see what professionals are saying these days about addiction and recovery might never think to look at the Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, much of which is accessed by subscription only. AA Agnostica editor, Roger C., had the wherewithal to find it and forward it to me. White’s article in the Quarterly is available for free (see below).

Before getting into some of the details of White’s article, let me note that White is caught in a kind of dilemma in much the same way that Ernie Kurtz found himself in whenever he would write about the value of Alcoholics Anonymous for academic audiences and for scholarly journals.

The dilemma, or irony, is that when writing to explain the tenets and principles of AA to a non-alcoholic, especially an academic audience, one risks explaining an ideal version of AA which may not be the AA understood and practiced by the actual membership in any consistent manner from group to group, coast to coast, or even from country to country.

In short, does the membership’s practice, in fact, lag behind Kurtz’s understanding of what AA is all about? For a couple of examples, see Kurtz’s “Alcoholics Anonymous: A Phenomenon in American Religious History” and “Why A.A. Works: The Intellectual Significance of Alcoholics Anonymous” at  The Collected Ernie Kurtz (hindsfoot.org).

Perceiving this possible dilemma (and I think this could also be said of much of Bill White’s work), Ernie Kurtz has always been honest about who his target audience is in order to accurately report what AA is and is not.

From the beginning of my study of the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, my main purpose has been not to tell AA’s story to its members but to introduce its reality to academic and other professionals. I am gratified that AA members recognize their story in my research. But my chief aim has been and remains to offer accurate knowledge of a very important reality that is too often ignored or misunderstood. (1)

Ernie

Click on the image to see a great interview with Ernie: A Reverence for History

Although vastly knowledgeable of what AA history tells us about its practices and principles, Ernie Kurtz was indeed wary of telling the members of AA what they should think and how the fellowship itself should evolve.

He understood as well as anyone committed to AA’s 12 Traditions and 12 Legacies that that’s the business of the “group conscience” and AA’s general service structure.

White tells us that when once called upon to write about historical “corruptions” of AA messaging, Kurtz agreed “with some trepidation” to attempt to define the history and characteristics of “real AA”. Yet when we hear “real AA”, we often have very good cause to be suspicious and skeptical – hence even Kurtz’s trepidation. As is often said about economists, if you put six alcoholics in the same room, you are likely to come up with ten versions of what “real AA” is.

Still, since Ernie Kurtz is so knowledgeable about the history of AA and what works in the program, can we, despite our own “trepidation,” ignore Kurtz’s wealth of knowledge and wisdom. White’s article does much to lend credence to my own sense that a better understanding of Kurtz’s interests, commitments, and knowledge of AA’s history and significance may help us all to reflect on our own understanding, practice, and relationship to Alcoholics Anonymous.

We can appreciate Ernie Kurtz’s books that are written for the general public like Not-God, The Spirituality of Imperfection, etc., but what about Kurtz’s other works that give us access to Kurtz’s vast understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous? Are his academic papers primarily for, and limited to, the education of professionals who, Kurtz acknowledged, sometimes “look down on Alcoholics Anonymous?” Or for those who need, and genuinely seek, to understand AA within the larger social framework of addiction and recovery are we also in need of finding the “complete” knowledge, wisdom, and experience of Ernie Kurtz?

I would suggest that websites like AA Agnostica can render an invaluable service to the fellowship of AA for the very reason that the “wisdom” of Ernie Kurtz can be made accessible to the membership by bringing, in this instance, this “academic” article by Bill White to a forum that would not normally get the attention of the general AA readership.

And here, I think you’ll find that Bill White has rendered us an immeasurable service by writing about his friend and colleague in a form that AAers are most comfortable with – a story, here a story of Ernie Kurtz.

In his narrative of Ernie Kurtz’s remarkable life, White begins with Kurtz’s early “love of learning and teaching” relating how as a kid, Ernie, would get his neighbourhood friends together and tell them all about something he had just learned. Moving on through middle and high school to college where Kurtz eventually graduated with a BA in philosophy, then, ordained into the priesthood in 1961, and then leaving the priesthood for a career as a History professor, Ernie, we are told, “ploughed a very wide and wandering path”. The reader will appreciate the meaning of Kurtz’s “very wide and wandering path” when we find, throughout the article, that Kurtz would ever be mindful of the “many paths to recovery” (i.e., the varieties of recovery experience) and that his ability to gather together a diverse group of addiction and recovery professionals was consistently and graciously applied throughout his career.

Ernie Kurtz

Ernie Kurtz (1935-2015) Author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous

We are often suspicious of professionals who promote their own programs, often considering theirs as the best at hand, but Kurtz was never a  recovery ideologue – especially not with respect to AA even though he had always unswervingly argued for AA’s recovery efficacy and historical significance in the field of addiction and recovery.

For instance, in terms of an example showing Kurtz’s ability to work with those whose addiction and recovery modelling is not normally associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, White introduces us to Ernie’s co-authored article with the prominent Motivation Interviewing pioneer, William Miller, called Models of Alcoholism Used in Treatment: Contrasting AA With other Perspectives with Which It Is Often Confused (williamwhitepapers.com).

White tells us that many in the alcoholism field were astonished to see these two names appearing together (Miller had some earlier criticisms of certain AA customs) but the collaboration of these two dedicated proponents of alcohol recovery stands, historically and significantly, White emphasizes, as “the first crack in the ideological walls that dominated the polarized thinking about alcohol policy and alcoholism treatment in the second half of the 20th century”.

More specifically, Kurtz and Miller cut through much of the myth and many of the distortions of what AA said or did not say by presenting a well-documented article which concludes with a clear summary of what Alcoholics Anonymous does  not say:

AA writings do not assert that: (1) there is only one form of alcoholism or alcohol problem; (2) moderate drinking is impossible for everyone with alcohol problems; (3) alcoholics should be labeled, confronted aggressively or coerced into treatment; (4) alcoholics are riddled with denial and other defense mechanisms; (5) alcoholism is a purely physical disorder; (6) alcoholism is hereditary; (7) there is only one way to recover; or (8) alcoholics are not responsible for their condition or actions. (Miller & Kurtz, 1994, p. 165)

And many of us may not be aware that when the founder of Moderation Management, Audrey Fishline, was involved in a head-on crash while intoxicated that killed a father and his young daughter, Kurtz gathered 34 prominent individuals from the diverse (and often opposing) fields of the addiction/recovery communities to publish a public statement seeking to quell the frenzy of blame (directed at either AA or MM) which subsequently proliferated on the internet and in published editorials. As White tells it:

This straightforward statement, signed by people no one would expect to appear together, quieted the frenzy and stands today as a historically important footnote in the American debate about moderation versus abstinence in the resolution of alcohol problems. Ernie Kurtz was the common relational link to those 34 people.

(For two current articles about the tragic events, life, and recent suicide of Audrey Fishline see The Fix: Remembering Audrey Kishline: The Founder of Moderation Management and New Details Emerge About Audrey Kishline’s Death.

Besides telling us about many other ways in which Ernie Kurtz was able to work with colleagues and contribute to the varieties of recovery experience, we are also told of Ernie’s many remarkable achievements beginning with his early interest in AA as typified by his PH. D dissertation, its approval as a worthy topic by Harvard’s thesis committee, and GSO’s support in giving him access to AA archives that was unprecedented at the time. We learn, if we had not already known, that the dissertation was published as  Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous for the general public by Hazelden Publishing.

Next came Shame and Guilt: Characteristics of the Dependency Cycle which White argues stands as one of the best pieces on this subject and predates so much of the “pop psychology and pop therapy” that typifies much of the “commodification” of addiction and recovery treatment which Ernie often disdained as examples of base materialism and a profit-motive orientation of aggressive marketing.

It is little wonder that given the context of a base materialism represented by the fictional Gordon Gekko  Wall Street milieu of the 80’s, Ernie along with Katherine Ketcham would delineate the parameters of spirituality and personal authenticity by publishing  The Spirituality of Imperfection, a text William Miller considers “a masterwork”.

All this and much more is told by White in this tribute to his friend, mentor and colleague. Wherein my review of this narrative may lose the flow of story-telling, White’s telling does not. And what better way to write a tribute to Ernie Kurtz than to relay his achievements through the power of story which Ernie valued so deeply.

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  1. Ernest Kurtz, “Why A.A. Works: The Intellectual Significance of Alcoholics Anonymous,” p. 1.

You can read the entire article by Bill White in the Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly right here: Ernie Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer.

The Fix published a wonderful story by Regina Walker about Ernie Kurtz and his writings: RIP Dr. Ernest Kurtz.

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The following obituary was published in the Ann Arbor News:

Kurtz, Ernie Kurtz, Ernest 9/9/1935 – 1/19/2015 Age 79, died Monday January 19 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Ann Arbor, MI.. He was the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous (1979), The Spirituality of Imperfection (1992) and Experiencing Spirituality (2014) with Katherine Ketcham, Shame and Guilt: Characteristics of the Dependency Cycle (1981), 90 Meetings in 90 Days (1984), A.A.: The Story (1988), and The Collected Ernie Kurtz (1999), as well as a multitude of monographs and articles on the intellectual significance of A.A., recovery, and spirituality. His collected papers are available at http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/ernie kurtz/. Ernest Kurtz was born in Rochester, NY, the son of Edward and Josephine Kurzejewski. He entered St. Bernard’s Seminary and College where he earned a BA in philosophy and then entered the priesthood in 1961 and served as a priest in Our Lady of Good Counsel parish in Rochester, New York from 1961 to 1966. He entered Harvard University in 1966, where he earned Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization in 1978. He is survived by his wife of thirty-four years, Linda Farris Kurtz of Ann Arbor, and his sister, Mary Ann Kurtz Allen of Concord, MA. Not God was originally a Harvard doctoral dissertation completed in 1978 and then published as a book by Hazelden in Center City, MN. The book has been read by scores of recovering people and their families as well as researchers and scholars over the years and is still in print. His research in the A.A. Archives was unprecedented and informed much of the A.A. story he told, but in addition, Kurtz’ analysis of the source of A.A.’s ideas, the origins of the “big book,” its development in the Great Depression directed attention to the fellowship’s historical significance in the larger context of American history. Kurtz’ analysis of A.A.’s spirituality helped many members appreciate A.A.’s understanding of a higher power and the Twelve Steps and to see how they differed from formal religion. Kurtz left the priesthood in the late 1970s and took his first post-Ph.D. teaching position at the University of Georgia in 1979. He taught for many years at the Rutgers University Summer Schools on Alcohol Studies and at the School of Social Service Administration Summer Institutes. He taught briefly at Loyola University of Chicago before becoming Director of Research and Education at Guest House in Lake Orion, Michigan. He later moved to Ann Arbor where he consulted at the Center for Self-help Research and with researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. He will be remembered for his lectures and workshop presentations throughout the United States and the rest of the world, and later for his mentorship to many new scholars in the field and for his contributions to the AA History Lovers webgroup. His work continued up until four days before his death. A memorial service is scheduled for April 22, 2015 1 PM at Dawn Farm on Stoney Creek Road in Ypsilanti. Donations in his honor can go to Dawn Farm at dawnfarm.org/donate-now/

Published in Ann Arbor News from Jan. 22 to Jan. 25, 2015


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Ernest Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer — 15 Comments

  1. There was a nice piece today on POINTS. Written by Bill White – very personal.

    John, thanks for delivering your healing words at Whitby Heathens Monday night. I don’t know if you noticed the guy in a wheelchair near the back of the room, but he is now walking briskly.

    • Thanks (I think) Bob. It was a pleasure to be able to pinch-hit for Joe C. as the speaker for the 1 year anniversary of your group, Whitby Freethinkers.

      Eric T. has just reminded us that we now have a WAAFT group for every day of the week in the Toronto GTA. Great news for anyone needing/wanting a secular meeting here in Toronto.

      I have just been informed that a new WAAFT group will be starting up on February 11th, north of the city in Newmarket.

  2. I am always a bit surprised at how few people in AA, even those who “love AA history” have ever read his Not-God. It is still my favorite source for AA history, and I tout it whenever I get the chance! RIP, Ernie.

  3. Ernie Kurtz’s work “Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous” appeared during my very early recovery and made me think there was room for me in AA. Unfortunately, a huge number of people in AA, maybe 99 percent of them, have never read a word of it. I am grateful to Kurtz for encouraging me to stay sober. After 41 years sober, I finally am starting to think I really don’t fit in with what has become “mainstream” AA people. That saddens me.

    • HI Tim,

      In Bill White’s article, he indicates that in the 3 decades since publication, and through 3 editions, 65, 000 copies had been sold. I was initially surprised by these numbers and thought the number would have been far larger.

      Compare this with 250, 000 copies of The Spirituality of Imperfection sold, although I realize that this text is of interest to a wider audience than just alcoholics.

      • Hi John,

        Many things contribute to the poor sales of Kurtz’s work: Hazelden’s own lazy marketing, the title, and eventually the difficulty of Ernie’s academic writing.
        Had Hazelden called the work “A History of Alcoholics Anonymous” then subtitled it “How AA Thought Fits in the History of Theology in America”, he probably would have sold ten times as many copies.

  4. Thanks so much, John !~!~!

    Such a loss, indeed, but one of my earliest spiritual lessons in recovery was “It/We/All comes to pass, not to stay !~!~!”

    He is surely and sorely will be missed, but I agree with Joe who challenges us to step up to fill the vacuum of his passing and to emulate his wonderful and admirable respect and tolerance for all points of view.

    I am greatly humbled and will forever cherish his comment on my blog here “A Fellowship of the Religious?” and his response to Dick B. who took a swipe at him that he was most privileged to be among us here on AA Agnostica.

    The spirit of his well-lived life will live on in each of us as we continue his legacy with us within AA . . .

  5. Ernie K. was a very kind hearted man whom supported wAAfts within recovery. Before WAFT IAAC occurred the steering committee came under different controversies. Ernie not only supported the steering committee but was excited by WAFT IAAC’s historical role within AA. Ernie to showed his support for WAFT IAAC and the difficult tasks that the Steering Committee was facing, he wrote this blog for our website, http://waftiaac.org/we/ . I personally found it moving and hope others enjoy it also.

    • Ernie’s great virtue was his open-mindedness – ‘we tread innumerable paths’. As well as endorsing WAFT he wrote the foreword for Mitchell K’s biography of Clarence Snyder, the born-again Christian and hard-line Big Booker. I read ‘Not God’ when I was less than a year sober and had the privilege of conversing with Ernie over a number of years. I sent him a draft of my agnostica posting Hallowed Be The Big Book and his email reply was dated December 16, about a month before he died. Bill W wrote, ‘… the answer seems to be in education – education in the schoolrooms, in medical colleges, among clergy and employers, in families and in the public at large… Neither preaching nor moralising nor other efforts at reform have ever made much impression on alcoholics but factual education about the malady has shown great promise …Now who is going to do all this education? Obviously, it is both community job and a job for specialists. Individually we AA’s can help, but AA as such cannot, and should not get directly into this field.’ (Grapevine, March 1958) AA ‘should not get into this field’ because it would distract from our primary purpose – Tradition 5). Ernie was the great educator par excellence. More than that he was ‘happily and usefully whole’; perfect in his imperfection. We’ll miss him but he’ll be forever there in our spiritual DNA.

  6. John,

    Thank you for your work on this article and for providing links which lead to a great article. I feel a loss. I don’t feel like that about most people I have never met, but understanding his significance in the overall journey that we in recovery are on…his share, his contribution, his humanity and indeed his imperfection. He feels like a brother through and through.

  7. Words fail me in my sadness at reading this news. I was honored to be asked to do some fact-checking for the good man in connection with a planned update/rewrite of “Not-God.” I have mixed reactions to the Ernie’s passing – first the pleasure at not yet finding anything needing correction and second at losing a man whom I knew only by his writings, email, and a few phone conversations. I will treasure his email calling me a young whipper-snapper because I was two years younger. Ernie, I will miss you greatly.

  8. John, was I glad to hear that you had this assignment. Nicely done my friend. All of us have to step up a little more, now.

    Ernie said that if he could bequeath anything it would be reverence. In a world that values irreverence, he offered us the example of respect – not worship – how to honour and revere imperfect virtue. Like Joseph Campbell, Allan Watts and others, Ernie Kurtz showed me how to be critical of something and see the beauty in it.

    • Thank you, Joe. I must say that I have had so much fun and much enlightenment recently by listening to your podcasts on Rebellion Dogs Publishing.

      How’s that my fellow WAAFters for some shameless promotion of my friend, Joe C’s, website!

  9. My belief is he understood Bill well enough to know how he would feel about this part of the fellowship – who are we to judge?
    I belong to A A History lovers and have followed Ernie for a long time and have read most of his writings if not all – I too do and will miss him – in service. Norm