A Tribute to Ernie Kurtz

Ernie Kurtz

By Roger C.

Ernie Kurtz died on January 19 of this year at the age of 79. A memorial service was held for him on April 22 at Dawn Farm, a rehab facility, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

* * *

Ernie is most well known as the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous which was his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University and published in 1979 by Hazelden.

Everything about this book is fascinating, including how he came to write it. Ernie was given full access to the AA archives which were just being put together at that time and he helped Nell Wing organize and catalogue its contents. Today that kind of unlimited access to the archives is virtually impossible.

The book is itself a treasure. It is broken into two parts: “The History” and “The Interpretation”. A favourite chapter is VIII, “The Context of Religious Ideas”, where Ernie wrote about the Oxford Group and its evangelical pietism with its “deep aversion to all emphasis on human strengths with a profound objection to any stress upon merely human sufficiency”. Sound like anything you have ever heard in the rooms or in, say, the 12 Steps?

Like “No human power”?

In Ernie’s obituary in The Fix, Regina Walker writes:

As an historian and researcher, Kurtz explored the social conditions and influences of the 1930s, Depression-era America in which AA was founded, and sought to place the institution and movement within that historic context. In addition, he explored the psychological and religious underpinnings of the group and emphasized that regardless of the individual’s religious or spiritual belief system (or lack thereof), it was crucial for the alcoholic/addict to realize he/she was “Not God.”

Thus the name of the book.

That this history exists is essential. Otherwise there is no doubt that people would be making stuff up about AA’s history to suit their own interests and beliefs. We are grounded in the reality of AA’s early history and growth and that is thanks to one person and one person alone, Ernie Kurtz.

* * *

Ernie was a priest. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and only left the Catholic Church in the late 1970s.

He was also an alcoholic.

“Slipping into his own alcoholism, he was admitted to Guest House’s 3-month treatment program for priests in 1975 after continuing to drink following detoxification at the Harvard Infirmary”. (William White, “Ernest Kurtz: The Historian as Storyteller and Healer,” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly) It was in fact while attending AA meetings that he became interested in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the above-mentioned article by Bill White, he reported: “I was going to these AA meetings… I became very interested in the source of the ideas upon which AA was founded. I began to investigate AA History and the further I got into it, the more fascinated I became”.

After leaving the priesthood, Ernie began teaching at the University of Georgia where he met Linda, and they were married within a year. In 1990 they moved to Ann Arbor where they have lived for the past twenty-five years.

* * *

Ernie became friends with Katherine Ketcham and Bill White, with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life.

With Katherine, he co-authored two books: The Spirituality of Imperfection (1992) and Experiencing Spirituality (2014).

Linda Kurtz

Linda Kurtz at the Memorial Service

I reviewed The Spirituality of Imperfection in November, 2011, a few months after this website was first launched. In retrospect it wasn’t much of a review. Ernie immediately noted that I had used the review pretty much to tell my own story in early recovery. But to my surprise, he wasn’t offended; in fact, he thought it was appropriate and beneficial: the subtitle of the book is, after all, Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. As Bill White reports in his Personal Tribute to Ernie: “Ernie was a lover of stories and had a profound belief in the healing power of personal story reconstruction and storytelling”.

Ernie became Bill White’s friend and mentor when, in the early 1990s, Bill began writing Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction and Recovery in America. Looking for counsel, Bill was referred to Ernie. “I had no way of knowing that what I expected to be a brief consultation on the history of AA would evolve into a prolonged mentorship, multiple professional collaborations, and an enduring friendship.” Slaying the Dragon was originally published in 1998, and a second edition of the book was released in 2014. The book is essential for anyone interested in the history of addiction and recovery. With some 560 pages, it is well written and contains a huge wealth of information.

There were indeed “multiple professional collaborations” between Ernie and Bill. Three of these were published on AA Agnostica:

In the last article, originally posted on Bill White’s website, Selected Papers of William L. White, Ernie and Bill commemorate the third anniversary of this website. “As historians dedicated to documenting the growing varieties of addiction recovery experience, it is fitting that we take a moment to acknowledge this milestone within the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).”

Looking at the history of efforts to accommodate atheists and agnostics in AA, the professional collaborators note, “AA Agnostica’s efforts to forge a secularized framework of recovery within AA thus has historic import”.

* * *

From the very beginning, Ernie was a friend of AA Agnostica.

Bill White, professional collaborator with Ernie Kurtz.

Bill White, author of Slaying the Dragon and professional collaborator with and friend of Ernie Kurtz.

In 2011, after my home group was booted out of the local GTA Intergroup, I began to write A History of Agnostic Groups in AA. Information and contacts that could help were hard to find, virtually impossible. Finally someone (Bill White, of course) referred me to Ernie Kurtz. I didn’t know who Ernie was at the time, to be quite frank.

But Ernie did everything he could to help. This didn’t come without occasional advice and cautions. He made it clear, for example, that he would not have any respect or tolerance for an article that was an attack on Alcoholics Anonymous.

I heard him.

When I published the article, Ernie was generous and effusive in his praise:

(A) magnificent work — clear, concise, respectful, insightful.  I appreciate your work, and I am sure many others will. I also hope, with you, that this information will help atheists and agnostics in other, smaller places to be able to find comfort in AA…  The fellowship owes you a debt of gratitude, though it may take time for them to realize that.

I have said this repeatedly but let me say it again: I never would have completed the essay without the support that Ernie provided. Having by then lapped up his Not-God book, I had a total respect for Ernie and he thus legitimized my efforts in a way that could not have been done by any other person.

And why would he do this, a former priest? As Bill White reports in his Personal Tribute to Ernie, “He was particularly interested in the growth of secular spirituality within AA, as represented by such groups as Atheists and Agnostics in AA (Quad A) and AA Agnostica”.

* * *

But let’s not get carried away, nor mislead.

Ernie was interested in, and supportive of, ALL paths to recovery.

This included both “secular and religious alternatives to AA” (Personal Tribute, Bill White) and those within the fellowship of AA who believe that God plays an essential role in their recovery and their day-to-day sobriety.

This fascination with a multitude of recovery methods goes back at least to 2005 when Bill and Ernie co-wrote an article which was reviewed on AA Agnostica in January, 2012, The Varieties of Recovery Experience.

And this fascination continued: Bill reports that Ernie said that if he were to write another book about AA, it would be called The Varieties of AA Experience.

For Ernie, it was all about recovery, no matter how one got there:

…that strength could rise from the acknowledgement of weakness, that wholeness could rise from brokenness, that authentic connection and community could rise from the most severe forms of estrangement and isolation, that envy and resentment could give way to forgiveness and gratitude, that grandiosity and self- hatred could both give way to self-acceptance and humility, and that injury to others could give way to service to others. These poignant lessons he found within his observations of men and women recovering from alcoholism…

He led the effort by Faces and Voices of Recovery to create a Guide to Recovery Mutual Aid Resources that catalogued secular, spiritual, and religious mutual aid groups in the United States. Ernie was one of the few people who commanded wide relationships and respect across these boundaries. When Ernie reflected on these diverse pathways of recovery, he saw more similarities than differences. (Personal Tribute, Bill White)

And this was well reflected at his memorial service at Dawn Farm on Stoney Creek Road in a rebuilt barn in Ypsilanti. The service opened and closed with prayers by Father Terry Dumas. Bill White “chaired” a host of people who came to the podium to pay their respects to Ernie.

One of them was one of Ernie’s sponsees, who wept openly at the podium.

Another was Joe C., the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life, the Foreword to the book having been written by Ernie.

Another was a man who described himself as the “Bishop of Books”. Ernie became “the shepherd of AA”, he said. He continued, “The shepherd means so many things. The shepherd is the one who looks after the one sheep who is lost. The shepherd cares for the whole flock”.

That captures my understanding of Ernie Kurtz. He believed that no one in recovery should be given up for lost. The helping hand should be there for everyone, everywhere, always, and that applies to every single person: the whole flock.

21 Responses

  1. Phyllis Halliday says:

    We were saddened to hear of Ernie’s passing and send our deepest condolences. Regrettably, no one from our Boards or GSO staff were able to attend Ernie’s service as it was held the same time that we were participating in our 65th General Service Conference in New York.

    There were many of us at G.S.O. that knew him and fondest reflections of him are numerous. Our G.S.O. Archivist in particular recounted what a pleasure it was to get to know Ernie and how, for many years, we shared a mutual respect and an enduring professional relationship – a relationship that continued to flourish since our archives opened in 1975, where Ernie met Nell Wing.

    Ernie’s work documenting the history of Alcoholics Anonymous is revered by us and many, many researchers. Visitors to G.S.O. would often mention Ernie’s work with affection and admiration. One Staff member recalled a member who traveled from Ireland to G.S.O. with a worn copy of Ernie’s book that he treasured and which, as he shared, had helped him appreciate the history of our Fellowship.

    Ernie has touched many minds and made an invaluable contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous. As time goes on, I am sure his efforts will continue to be valued and appreciated and will continue to enlighten members of the Fellowship and our friends.

    Phyllis Halliday
    General Manager
    General Service Office US/Canada
    A.A. World Services, Inc.

  2. Courtney S. says:

    As an Agnostic I have for years admired those in our fellowship who have perservered. From Jimmy B. to the present we all have had a difficult journey. Dr. Kurtz and “Not-God” were touchstones that provided me with hope and understanding.

    I am saddened as all are at our friend “Ernie’s” passing.

    I remain encouraged, however, by the Articles and musings of AA Agnostica. The Authors and contributors are indeed fighting “the good fight” !

  3. Christopher G says:

    Just phenomenal to read AA history in this light. Thank you all. I’m sure Ernie’s final wishes would be for all of us to pass it on which is what we are doing.

  4. Linda Kurtz says:

    Thanks for your swift and complete reporting on the memorial service for Ernie. I worked so hard on it that I must have been in a daze while it was happening. It helps to have your recollections, especially Joe’s comments on the contingency God which was the subject of Father Terry’s homily. I feel that Ernie is near. Right before he died, I took three pictures of him with Jim Balmer. One of them magically appeared on my desktop and is still there. It will probably be there as long as I have this computer. I intend to keep his office like it was, except that it will be neat and organized and not the way he left it with every intention of coming back later.

  5. Duncan says:

    What an example Ernie Kurz was. I had never heard of him until I joined this site. Then I read some articles etc but I did not know he was an alcoholic and thought that he was one of the seemingly millions who make money out of others’ misery.

    Well I was wrong and it gave me hope that others like him will follow.

  6. Laurie A says:

    I read Not-God after I got sober in 1984 and began corresponding with Ernie soon afterwards.

    In 2007 I sent him a copy of the book I edited to mark AA’s 60th anniversary in Great Britain. He wrote, “Thanks for the very, very well done diamond jubilee book ‘Share and Share Alike’. The historical articles are really a genuine treat to have. The book is even better than my friend’s praiseful description of it.”

    Ernie epitomised open-mindedness, which we are told is one of the essentials of recovery. He encouraged all strands of recovery – in and out of AA. For example, as well as “endorsing” AA Agnostica, he wrote the foreword to Mitchell K.’s biography of Clarence Snyder, whose sponsor was Dr. Bob. Of “Akron-style” AA Mitchell wrote:

    In April 1939 up to 14 Cleveland AA’s were driving to Akron for meetings of the Oxford Group alcoholic “squadron”. Most of the Cleveland alcoholics were RCs and the church hierarchy did not want its members taking part in open confession, i.e. without a priest. They were warned that they would be excommunicated if they continued to attend the Protestant Group meetings. Clarence discussed the problem with Dr Bob who did not want to upset the Oxford Groupers and said nothing would change. Clarence did not want to disobey his sponsor but he also feared that the RC members would drink again without the support of the Group. Eventually he found a new meeting place at someone’s house in Cleveland and started holding meetings there. He said, “We’ve got the (Big) Book, the 12 Steps and the Four Absolutes so we don’t need the Oxford Group any more.” Dr Bob told him, “You can’t break this thing up.” To which Clarence replied, “We’re not breaking anything up. All I’m interested in is something with more universality so that anyone can belong whether they have a religion or believe anything or not.” Shortly afterwards Clarence announced the Clevelanders would start their own group. He said, “This is not gonna be an Oxford Group. It’s gonna be known as Alcoholics Anonymous. We’re taking the name from the book, and only alcoholics and their families are welcome. Nobody else. (i.e. non-alcoholic Oxford Groupers).”

    The first meeting was held on May 11, 1939, a month after the Big Book was published. Clarence recorded that the Akronites came to the meeting at Cleveland and tried to break it up. “One guy was gonna whip me. I want you to know that this was all done in pure Christian love. AA started in riots. It rose in riots.” He described how the Cleveland meetings were conducted. “Not too much stress on the spiritual business.” He believed that overt spirituality belonged between the AA ‘baby’ and his/her sponsor. Prayer and Bible reading only at home.” (The New York AAs left the Oxford Group in 1937. The Akron members did not leave until later in 1939 when Dr Bob told Bill W. they had finally dropped the “shackles” of the Oxford Group.) All this shows the fundamentalists are on shaky ground in claiming they are guardians of “Akron-style” recovery; it was evolving from the start.

    Maybe Ernie’s greatest quality was his humility. He was faithful to Traditions 11 and 12; as far as I know, when writing under his full name he never mentioned his AA membership.

  7. Tommy H says:

    Well done, Roger.

  8. Thomas B. says:

    Such a fitting tribute to a giant of a man, a giant of a historian, a giant of a human being, and lastly a giant of a recovering alcoholic, who through his day to day life as well as his professional life exemplified our “code of love and tolerance.” Thank you, Roger !~!~!

    Though contrary to one of AA’s Promises, I do so regret that I never had the opportunity to meet him in the flesh and only know him through his work, Not God, of course, but also his and Bill White’s recent articles that support and validate our Quad A stream of recovery so effectively.

    I did not know, Roger, that Ernie was instrumental in helping Nell Wing and AA establish the Archives. I first received easy access to the Archives in 1982 to do research on a book about Ebby, with Margaret McPike, at whose drying out farm Ebby lived the last two years of his life and where he died sober in 1966.

    During the 80s and 90s, I was friendly with Nell Wing, who had in her New York City Stuyvesant Town apartment 35 legal-sized boxes of unpublished correspondence, memoranda, unpublished articles and other materials she had collected over her years as Bill’s secretary and the first AA Archivist.

    These included notes and an initial manuscript of a book she told me about that she and Bill were collaborating on the last years of his life, which dealt with generic spirituality to reflect all the wisdom traditions of the world, not just the narrow “evangelical pietistic” Christian viewpoint, as Ernie describes it, of the Oxford Group and “Akron-style AA” that is reflected in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.

    So far, I have not been able to discover any information about this “hearsay” manuscript that Nell told me about, either in the AA Archives nor in the archives of Stepping Stones. A query on the AA History Lovers list serve has also garnered no information. Though I suspect that it has been sequestered, I shall continue to search for information about it. Another regret I have is that while he was still alive I did not query Ernie about it.

    What many people, both ardent believers of “Akron-style AA” as well as hardcore atheists, fail to appreciate is that throughout his life, Bill W. changed and evolved from his early beliefs dominated by the Oxford Group theology. By 1937, he and other struggling members in New York determined that they needed to disassociate from the Oxford Group and it’s Four Absolutes, so as to become more inclusive to all seeking recovery from alcoholism. Bill’s evolution of thought and belief can be determined by a close reading of his later writing, especially his articles for the Grapevine and voluminous correspondence.

    Ernie, perhaps, knew and appreciated Bill’s evolution more than anyone else. This, perhaps, partially explains why he was able to be so all-inclusive in his view of what the essence of AA throughout its history has always been. He passes on to us the responsibility to keep the historical record about the all-inclusive tradition of AA alive and well for succeeding generations of suffering alcoholics, who seek recovery in AA.

  9. Martin N says:

    Ernest Kurtz was also a friend and supporter of LifeRing (LifeRing Secular Recovery). He embodied that noblest fraction of the AA universe that cheers on whatever works, regardless whether it fits AA doctrine. The world is a darker place without him.

  10. Anton D says:

    At the beginning of the article, it states:

    “Ernie was given full access to the AA archives which were just being put together at that time and he helped Nell Wing organize and catalogue its contents. Today that kind of unlimited access to the archives is virtually impossible.”

    I have come across several other references in AA Agnostica articles that indicate AA has “sealed” its historical data and does not allow further availability. Can someone provide additional details about why this has happened?

    • Thomas B. says:

      Anton, let me refer you to page 416-17 of the 1991 Expanded Edition of Not God, where Ernie notes that certain materials and the “3rd” degree of both Bill W.’s correspondence and that of Alcoholics Anonymous are closed to all.

      As I stated in another comment, it’s my belief that certain material, in particular a manuscript that Nell Wing told me she and Bill had worked on for several years dealing with generic spirituality, has been sequestered by AA.

      At the recent Pacific Region AA Service Assembly in Utah, I queried a trusted servant with longtime sobriety, who served as a delegate, a trustees and general manager during the 90s and 00s, concerning this manuscript. He gave me somewhat of a riddle in reply, saying that the General Service Office during the last years of his life had to save Bill from AA, as well as save AA from Bill. My interpretation of this remark is that if there ever was such a manuscript, it has been determined that it shall not see the light of day for the general membership of AA.

      Perhaps, I’m wrong — I certainly hope so, because I shall continue to try and find information about this “hearsay” manuscript.

  11. Pat N. says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I’ve admired Ernie Kurtz since first reading Not-God, and especially The Spirituality of Imperfection, which is heavily underlined/highlighted in my case (and I love anything that involves Katherine Ketcham). But I didn’t know most of the biographical info you provided, and admire him even more now.

    I especially value learning that he had been a priest, and apparently continued to hold religious views (?) I think it’s important for us nonbelievers to recognize that some of our most important bonds are with religious people with a universal spirituality, like Ernie Kurtz and Ward Ewing. If we truly believe that there are many paths out of the swamp and up the mountain, we need to respect and listen to those who are more classically religious.

    And thanks for the tip about Annette Smith’s book, which I look forward to reading.

  12. Joe C. says:

    Father Dumas conducted the Homily and he talked of his last visit and conversation with Ernie. Ernie was talking to the theologian about, what Ernie was calling at the time, “the God of Contingency” and the Father grappled openly with what Ernie may have meant. Of course the Catholic Priest was limited to monotheistic interpretation but he did his best.

    Like “not-God” and other Ernie-isms, “contingency God” is beyond the rigidity of theology, science or academia and falls into poetry. Ernie was not a binary thinker and while he might’ve had something specific in mind, for me, he has left me to muse one last time. It is one of numerous ways he made the world a richer place, through his body of work and is example of love and reason and discipline.

    I am not embarrassed that I suffer from hero-worship where this man was concerned. Like any hero, he made me want to be a better man and I miss how much more safe I felt in a world that included Ernie Kurtz. He touched my life and to those with whom he was “a part of” day to day life, my heart goes out you. In this regard, words of sympathy are outside my grasp.

    And Roger, thanks for this fitting tribute and for your great company on the journey to and fro Ann Arbor.

  13. John F says:

    Just ordered: “Not God!” Thanks!

  14. John M. says:

    Thanks so much for bringing this to us Roger. So many AAers would truly embody the words, “Keep an open mind,” if they knew more about Ernie or read his books.

    Although we WAAFTs may not have needed Ernie’s approval, it was certainly strengthening to know that he valued us as fully equal and welcome members in AA.

  15. Mark in Texas, Mark C says:

    Thank you Roger! Yours is a fine tribute to an extremely important scholar for we AA’s.

    I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Kurtz but through his books. Had it not been for “Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous,” I would have left the fellowship. I started reading that work at about 2 months sober.

    Kurtz’s distinction between the “Akron” style of AA, and the “New York” style of AA, was and is a foundational concept in understanding AA as a whole. Those two seemingly irreconcilable approaches run through our history, and they are certainly in conflict today. Not much changes, though change is rather constant. Another paradox of our Fellowship that I enjoy.

    For those feeling rather beleaguered under the constant barrage of “Akron” style AA preachments in their home groups, Mr. Kurtz’s “Not God” is perhaps “the” necessary study if they want to keep their seats.

    It is said the winners get to write the history. Mr. Kurtz’s historical efforts will show the Akron style AA’s pronouncements to be historically false. Why? Those revisionist histories tell only half the story.

    Thanks again for all you do!

    Mark in Texas

  16. life-j says:

    Ernie has surely had a lot of positive influence on AA, and I think Not-God is a great book. I read it with much interest, even though I found a few of the more academic passages rather difficult, but no less worthwhile.

    As for The Spirituality of Imperfection, I thought it was such a great title for a book that I had to read it, but I was quite disappointed. After reading about 30 pages of it I realized the rest of the book was pretty much going to belabor the same point with not much variation, and I couldn’t finish it. Should have been a 25 page article instead. I wouldn’t recommend it, though I would recommend Not-God any day to an AA person with some stamina for reading. Of which there are fewer every day, unfortunately.

    I never met Ernie, but I did see some you-tubes where he talked, and they were a real peaceful experience to watch.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Hey life-j !~!~!

      At the Beyond Belief meeting in Portland today I met a couple of your compadres from down in the Laytonville, CA area, Dennis and John (?), who visited our group today. They mentioned the difficulties you folks have experienced with an ardent Big Book believer at your Intergroup.

  17. Annette R Smith says:

    Wonderful tribute! Captures the essence of Ernie’s character and the brilliance of his writings.

    I too was led to Ernie (after many years as a social worker and mh therapist working with alcoholics and being an ardent supporter and associate of AA) by reading “NOT GOD,” a marvelous revelation! When I returned to grad school for a PhD in Sociology, I sought him out for consultation. I became friends with both him and Linda (a sister social worker).

    Both provided me with strong encouragement to turn my thesis into a book, for which Linda wrote the Foreword. (Look forward to your review soon)!

    Like so many others, I will miss Ernie. But I am grateful that his wisdom will live on in his writings!

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