Remembering Ernie Kurtz

Ernie Featured

By bob k

Catholics priests are not among those who one would expect to find heading a list of crusaders for the freethinker movement in Alcoholics Anonymous. Nonetheless Ernest Kurtz, ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1961, was a dear friend of, an enthusiastic proponent of the work being done there, and of the “gate-widening” cause in general. His passing as the result of pancreatic cancer, on January 19th, 2015, touched our hearts.

Kurtz 101

Ernie Kurtz (September 9, 1935 – January 19, 2015) was born in Rochester, New York. He was three months younger than AA. Ordained to the priesthood in 1961, he ran a parish for five years before going to Harvard, where he attained a Masters degree in Philosophy, and ultimately a PhD in The History of American Civilization. His 1978 doctoral dissertation was published the following year as Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous. This book remains THE definitive account of the original 12 Step organization.

Sadly, many, many, many AA members have never seen the book, as it is not “conference-approved literature,” and is almost never found on a group’s table of books and brochures. “Not-God,” which I would argue should be read by every AA member, sold only 65,000 copies in its first 35 years in print. As Roger C. once said to me, “If you want a book that sells, don’t put “agnostic” or “history” in the title.

Alcoholics Anonymous was, in the 1970s, in the process of compiling archives in its New York City headquarters. Through relentless urging, Ernie Kurtz, Harvard PhD candidate and onetime resident of Guest House, the rehabilitation center for Catholic clergy, was eventually granted full access to these previously unexamined records. “Not-God” was the result.

Ernie left the priesthood in the late 1970s to pursue an academic career that took him to the Universities of Georgia, Michigan and Chicago, Loyola, and also to Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies. While teaching at the University of Georgia, Ernie met and married Linda Farris, the love of his life.

Dr. Kurtz was an old school inter-disciplinary scholar whose work touched the areas of philosophy, theology, and psychology, as well as history.

His other writings include The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, and a 2014 sequel, Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling. Both of these books were co-authored with Katherine Ketcham, who recalled being asked at the first interview, “Can you work with someone who gets crabby? I get crabby.”

Ketcham later confirmed, “He was crabby, he was brilliant… and I loved him more than I can put into words.” There was clearly some perfectionism in the Imperfection co-author. Ernie was not without insight into his own peccadilloes, and uttered a memorable self-deprecating line in 1996. “History and imperfection are my specialties – not necessarily in that order.”

The Collected Ernie Kurtz is an anthology of 12 academic papers and speeches on a variety of topics, all diligently researched, and written with a superb clarity of expression. Chapter 3, “Bill W. Takes LSD” is the consummate exposition on this controversial matter. “If perfection is your goal, don’t go looking for models among the members – or even the founders – of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (p. 49)

Shame and Guilt is a booklet, a long essay, but deeply perceptive. “The ‘should’ of shame arises from within, from the nature of the human as essentially limited, yet craving infinity.” (p. 35)

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Ernie Kurtz was ever mindful of the many paths to recovery, and was a great supporter of the “agnostic AA” movement. From time to time he would post comments on essays that appeared on AA He was effusive in praising the writings of two particularly hard-assed atheists, Roger C. and Joe C. (not related). Their various writings drew Kurtz paeans I would die for.

In some pathetic quest for self-esteem, one day I was scoping out the comments section on a piece I had written about Charles Towns, and there it was – the GOLDEN TICKET!! – an Ernie Kurtz comment!! Unfortunately, there was no song of praise. He schooled me for some shoddy sentence structure which rendered one of my brilliant points less than crystal clear. As I scatted and bopped through some lame excuses, something occurred to me, and I wrote “OH MY GOD!!!! I’m talking with Ernest FREAKEN Kurtz!!!”

(The one month suspension from the Head Heathen for writing “OH MY GOD” was worth it!!)

Ernie liked that, and that I continued to call him “Ernie Freaken Kurtz.” He later remarked that a sense of humor was a sign of good recovery. He may have been making amends later, when in an act of exceptional grace, he agreed to write, with Bill White, a foreword to my own little amateurish history book. That foreword contains some classic Kurtz philosophy:

Story and storytelling lie at the very heart of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA’s basic text and voices within meetings across the globe “disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” From the catalytic meeting between two desperate men in the mid-1930s to today’s growing varieties of AA experience, the history of AA is a story about stories and the healing power of mutual storytelling. Anyone wishing to truly understand AA must look first, not to ideas, techniques, or studies, but to stories.

On the anniversary of his passing, I feel especially sad for his gracious widow, Linda, and for his dear friend and colleague, Bill White. Turning over the coin, I marvel at his brilliant legacy, and I treasure my own small foray into this exceptional man’s world.

After all, folks, he was Ernie Freaken Kurtz!

6 Responses

  1. Jim says:

    Great article. Two of my favorite books are The Spirituality Of Imperfection and Not-God.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, we in AA secular recovery lost a most valuable ally and friend who spent the last years of his most accomplished life advocating for the legitimacy of those of us who have agnostic, atheist or freethinking beliefs being full-fledged members of AA in accordance with our history and Traditions. He, indeed, is sorely missed, but we have the legacy of his life’s work to sustain us.

  3. Maureen F. says:

    I too have enjoyed and benefited from reading “Spirituality of Imperfection”. It welcomed me to the human race. Thanks to Ernie for sharing himself and his writings.

  4. Denis K says:

    Thanks for writing this Bob,
    I read ” Not God” shortly after it was published; interestingly I discovered it on a literature table at an AA meeting at the old Kingsway group in Toronto. I found Ernies book inspiring which led me to appreciate and value the wonderful fellowship I had joined. In later years I found “The Spirituality of Imperfection” to cause an enormous boost to my understanding of my own spirituality and well being.
    Back then, the people who took care of the Kingsway Group literature had a separate table for non conference approved literature which provided an interesting and informed selection of recovery oriented reading; some inspiring and some not so inspiring but something for everyone’s tastes.
    For several years here in Vancouver I had a separate literature table at my home group; it was quite popular till a couple of AA cops made a big fuss about it and I had to close it down.
    The AA groups that hold fast to the Conference Approved only nonsense are not serving their members at all by their silly rules……SAD!!
    Over the years zealots have told me that the only book I will ever need to read on Recovery is the Big Book. My retort has always been, If the Big Book is the only book you have ever read, check your pulse, you may be dead!

  5. Linda Kurtz says:

    Thanks so much for your lovely remembrance and for your book, which I keep handy as a reference. Thanks also for feeling sad for me; I’m feeling pretty sad for myself today, but your piece helps me to know that I share my sadness with others who haven’t forgotten.

  6. Pat N. says:

    I’m grateful Ernie was here, and regret never meeting him. “Spirituality of Imperfection” is one of the 3-4 most significant books of my long life.

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