My Name is Charlie Polacheck


By Nick H.

Hello my name is Nick and I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober since February 15, 1991.

I had the privilege of knowing Charlie Polacheck in the last 12 years of his life when he moved to Austin to be with his three sons who had serendipitously moved to Austin from Los Angeles over the years. Charlie was a communist. He was an unavowed Marxist. He was a great friend of Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie. He knew them in Greenich Village. He had a great story about Pete Seeger renting a horse and cart to move him from one apartment to another in Greenich Village in the 1930s and how Woodie Guthrie was drunk all the time.

Charlie ended up out in California and in February of 1970 he had a heart attack and that inspired him to quit drinking vodka and switch from vodka to sherry because the doctor told him that he needed to be drinking less. So he decided that how he would do that is he be drinking the same amount but just of sherry instead of vodka.

Charlie PWhat he didn’t realize was that his wife was going to Al-Anon meetings and he got suspicious about what his wife was doing when she was sneaking out in the evenings. And he said, “Where are you going?” And she said, “I am going to an AA meeting”. And he said “Well, I am going with you”. Because he really didn’t believe she was going to an AA meeting. But anyway she tricked him into going to an AA meeting.

And he went and he was horrified. It was at a Roman Catholic Church and it was full of God stuff and he ran into someone on Venice Beach the next day and he said “I heard you went to an AA meeting last night” and he said “Yeah, and I am never going to another one as long as I live. It was horrible”. And he said, “Well, which meeting did you go to?” “I went to this meeting at a Catholic Church.” “Oh, well, you need to come to my meeting.” And Charlie said, “No, I am not going to go to any AA meeting anymore”. And he said “No, no, you need to come to my meeting. You will really enjoy it”.

So the guy broke him down and took him to the meeting and yes it was different, it was a little toned down and so Charlie Polacheck sobered up September 16, 1970 in Los Angeles. During this time his sons started moving to Austin so he was going to regular AA meetings and gritting his teeth through the parts that he didn’t like but he was at a very open and accepting meeting in Los Angeles. But when he was in Austin, Texas, around 1976-77, he found that there was a freethinking, we agnostics type meeting at Morseland Group in Austin, Texas. It was led by a member of the Physics Department at UT. There was also another tale, I don’t know if it was apocryphal but there was somebody from NASA who was also a member of that meeting. I had a friend whose father used to go to that meeting.

He went there and then what he decided is what I will do is I will take their format and see if I can get some people to start a meeting. So he gets their format and he starts talking to people and at one point he kind of forgot about it and then he went back to Austin and the meeting had folded. He decided that was his key to start a meeting. So he started the first “We Agnostics” meeting that is still going on in Hollywood, California, in 1980. That meeting in Hollywood was the inspiration for many other AA We Agnostics meetings.

Now he wasn’t a big fan of the Big Book and he wasn’t a big fan of Chapter Four. But he decided that he need to call the meeting “We Agnostics” so that there was some tie to Alcoholics Anonymous in general. In the group that Charlie helped start with me called “Children of Chaos” we had a Big Book study and it was just miserable reading Chapter Four because Charlie would read a few paragraphs and share how he just hated Chapter Four. How it was pedantic, paternalistic, condescending, badly written. I would just give up and say, “Okay, let’s just go to the next chapter”.

CharlieSo Charlie helped start these meetings in Los Angeles and they spread throughout the Los Angeles area and then in the year 2000 Charlie came to Austin, Texas, to retire. Charlie went to every single AA meeting that he could and that’s where I met him at a dying readers group. He would always hand out a piece of paper with his telephone number on it and say “If you ever need any help with AA just call me”.

He had stacks of these pieces of paper that he would hand out to people. I was with him for the first six weeks of starting the first We Agnostics group in Austin, Texas, which he started in August or September of 2001. And then in May of 2002 he helped me to start the Children of Chaos meeting here in Austin.

He was a big, important part of starting these meetings and he said that there were three things that you could boil the Steps down to: unconditional love, consistent responsibility and rigorous honesty. Those were the three aspects that Charlie Polacheck said you could boil the Steps down to, and those were the Steps he took every day.

He never called himself Charlie P in meetings, he called himself Charlie Polacheck otherwise people wouldn’t know who he was and he was never afraid to go to a mainstream AA meeting and say “Hello, my name is Charlie Polacheck and I am an alcoholic and I am an atheist”. He was an iconoclast for Austin AA for his last 12 years and he made himself known throughout the AA community.

Those are my remembrances of Charlie. I got to be there for his last chip in 2012 and I was sad to see him go. He was only 98 years old when he died. That’s my remembrances of Charlie.

Thank you.

This was the second talk of three main talks at a workshop on the history of secular AA at the We Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers International AA Convention in Austin, Texas, in November 2016.

You can read more about Charlie here on AA Agnostica: Father of We Agnostics Dies.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, it is up to the family to decide whether the anonymity of an alcoholic shall be maintained after she or he is deceased. Given Charlie’s approach to this very issue, it was not a difficult decision.

13 Responses

  1. Diane I says:

    Hi Allan:

    I have almost 40 years of sobriety in AA and felt and acted the same way as you at the meetings. I also knew nothing about agnostic AA meetings until I found one on line in my area last March. I checked it out and have been going ever since. It is a breath of fresh air! I hope you can find one where you live!

  2. Allan B says:

    Thank you for your stories and messages. I am new to this idea but have been sober for almost 30 years. As a geologist, agnostic, and free thinker, I have always found the god thing of AA difficult to swallow. I still go to meetings but I don’t talk about my belief or lack there of, as I am afraid of being shunned. I am encouraged by those who have the courage to stand up in AA and voice their own agnostic views. Please keep doing it and maybe some day I will have the courage to do the same. Perhaps then AA will be there for my grandchildren and the new crop of young agnostic addicts.

  3. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks so much, Nick, for this heartfelt remembrance of Charlie Polacheck. He is as important a figure to we agnostics, atheists, and free-thinking believers in AA as Jim Burrell, AA’s first atheist, and needs to be memorialized as such. This article helps to do that — thanks.

    He serves as an outstanding model for all of us, in that he would always refer to himself at traditional AA meetings as an alcoholic and and atheist. The more of us that do that, as daunting as that may be, the more normalized our non-believing path of recovery in AA will become in traditional AA — it will help widen the doors of AA for everyone.

  4. Kit G says:

    At AA Beyond Belief share it with John S or Roger C on AA Agnostica.

  5. Roger says:

    Kit was referring to AA Beyond Belief… Check it out, it’s a wonderful website.

    AA BB

  6. Eric L says:

    Is that a bulletin board? Where can I find it?

  7. Bob K. says:

    Pieces like Nick’s illustrate why I am very proud of my association with this website. The caliber of writing here over the years has been remarkable.

    Very nice work.

    I don’t know why it is, but the people who got sober in 1991 are the absolute cream of the AA crop!

  8. Bob K. says:

    I hope that your rejection letter is every bit as lovely as mine. 🙂

  9. Kit G says:

    What a great paragraph! Would love to read the whole thing. At least publish it on AABB.

  10. John H says:

    Dear Nick: Thanks for your piece and the great pics. In the early 1990’s I would be in LA frequently on business and somehow I was given Charlie’s number and we would talk from time to time. This was in the early years of our We Agnostics group in DC (started in 1988) and Charlie was very supportive and helpful in regards to encouraging our efforts here which are still ongoing all these years later. His advice and support will always be remembered.

  11. life-j says:

    Well, Ami was saying we just have to keep sending in stories, and while they won’t publish all, the more we send the more we will get published, so thanks for doing it. You’re saying it very well.

  12. Jenny T says:

    I just love this remembrance. Thank you so much. It gives me some greater connection with AA. I learned my politics from the songs of Pete Seeger in the 1960’s. I saw him live in London twice and I play his tracks most days now. I wish we had some freethinking meetings here in Britain. I agree with Charlie about Chapter 4. I bought the book ‘Came to Believe’ expecting it to be more up to date and it’s just as bad.

  13. Eric L says:

    Thank you for sharing. As an agnostic, chapter 4 has been a thorn in my side for years. I recently sent a letter to the Grapevine in response to Oct 2016 edition regarding atheist and agnostic members. The following is a paragraph from that letter:

    I believe that relegation of us by mainstream AA is, in large part, owed to the chapter “We Agnostics” in the Big Book. In this chapter, agnosticism is constantly maligned as a sufficient place to begin while never being fully accepted as mindset capable of long-term sobriety. Instead, the authors of the Big Book place an expectation of conversion upon agnostics. Sure, you can start off as an agnostic. It is even common because “About half our fellowship were exactly that type.” Further in the chapter, however, comes its central thrust, one which I find untenable and even evangelical in its purpose: “for deep down in every man, woman, and child, is the fundamental idea of God.” So the agnostic and the atheist then, according to the logic of the Big Book, by rejecting this “natural” inclination, are portrayed as willful conspirators against God, or as God is reworded in the next paragraph, “The Great Reality.” The implication is that agnostics and atheists, because we don’t believe, are out of touch with reality. I find this rather odd when you consider that proponents of God have throughout history denied scientific advances that have shaped the understanding of reality many of us have today.

    I doubt whether the Grapevine will publish my letter, but it was cathartic and helpful to write nonetheless.

    I am so glad I found; it has been a lifeline for me and I use it often in my morning routine.

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