By bob k
How could Bill W., Grand Poobah of sobriety ever have allowed himself to join the Learyesque acidheads and “turn on, tune in, and drop out?”
(Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, p. 164)
Twenty-five years ago, O.J. Simpson was just an ex-football player, a commentator, and a car rental spokesperson. While some of his movie acting may have bordered on the criminal, he had not yet been the centerpiece in 1995’s “trial of the century”. Fifty years ago, Simpson had no national notoriety at all. There had been no NFL rushing record (1973), nor even the Heisman Trophy (1968) awarded to the best college football player in America.
Sixty years ago, O.J. Simpson was just another black kid in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. There had as yet been no “If it does not fit, you must acquit”. There had been no “Miami’s got the oranges, but Buffalo’s got the ‘Juice’”. In a very real sense, O.J. Simpson was not yet O.J. Simpson.
Of course, it is difficult, if not impossible, to erase from the American consciousness, the various events that brought both fame and infamy to the onetime young kid in “the projects”. Perhaps it is even more difficult to imagine a time when LSD was not yet LSD, as we are familiar with it today. Timothy Leary’s admonition to “tune in, turn on, and drop out” has been with us since the mid 1960’s.
When Bill Wilson first tried LSD, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, in 1956, the LSD world of Timothy Leary and hippies was fully ten years away. LSD was a lab experiment. The street drug incarnation of LSD simply hadn’t yet happened. In a very real sense, in 1956, LSD was not yet LSD.
In the 1970s, “Ernest Kurtz was given full and complete access to the archives of the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous in New York. His unhindered research, coupled with extensive interviews of surviving early members and friends of AA, has resulted in an account with documented accuracy”. (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, About the Book, p. vi)
Mr. Kurtz came to the study of history after professional experience in both religion and psychology. His study of the genesis and the workings of AA led to a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard University, in 1978.
In the course of this research, details of Bill Wilson’s LSD experimentation were uncovered. “An AA trustee had asked me to consider excluding that part of my dissertation (Not-God) from publication, but after consultation with my mentors, I decided to retain it as an essential part of the story.” (The Collected Ernie Kurtz, p. 39)
Dr. Albert Hoffman
The chemical, d-lysergic acid diethylamide, was first produced in 1938 by a Swiss research chemist employed by Sandoz Laboratories, now Novartis, since a 1996 merger. Dr. Albert Hoffman only later, in 1943, discovered LSD’s properties. Hoffman’s findings “attracted interest, for scientists saw in LSD-25, as it was then called, ‘a drug which would make a normal person psychotic.’ That implied a chemical basis for insanity”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 41)
A chemical cause suggested a possible chemical cure. Sandoz began clinical trials and marketed the substance, from 1947 through the mid-1960s, under the name Delysid as a psychiatric drug, thought useful for treating a wide variety of mental ailments, ranging from alcoholism to sexual deviancy. Sandoz suggested in its marketing literature that psychiatrists take LSD themselves, to gain a better subjective understanding of the schizophrenic experience, and many did exactly that and so did other scientific researchers.
A Time Magazine feature in 1954 had produced a flood of attention to the Sandoz product. “In the 1950s, LSD was widely thought to have psycho-therapeutic potential. Research…was undertaken by some of the most prestigious medical and scientific institutions in the country.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 177)
Hoffer and Osmond
Doctors Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond worked in a mental hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, “treating alcoholics as well schizophrenics, and their interest centered on patients suffering both disorders. These were their toughest cases, for the schizophrenia seemed to impede the kind of insightful experience thought to be required if an alcoholic was to stop drinking”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 41)
In 1952, the clinicians began to incorporate the use of LSD in their treatment. The “initial intention was to induce a psychic experience similar to delirium tremens, or DT’s, in the hope that it might serve to ‘shock’ alcoholics out of their dependence on alcohol… LSD was considered as a last resort, to be tried with otherwise unreachable alcoholics… In the aftermath of the DT’s, some alcoholics with whom all intervention efforts had failed were capable of understanding the desperation of their condition and responding to treatment”. (Hartigan, pp. 177-178)
Bill Wilson was “extremely unthrilled” when he first learned of the Canadians’ research through his friend, Gerald Heard. He opposed giving drugs to alcoholics.
The psychiatrists discovered that the main effect of the drug was to bring on an experience of illumination… (which) seemed to allow some of their patients who had previously resisted ‘the spiritual’ to accept it and thus to ‘get’ the AA program.
The results reported by Hoffer and Osmond fascinated Wilson. When LSD was given to alcoholics in mental hospitals, ‘of whom AA could touch and help only about five percent, they had about 15 percent recoveries.’ One of the Canadian studies reported a recovery rate of 70 percent. (Collected Kurtz, p. 42)
Bill Wilson had replaced his thirst for alcohol with a passionate thirst for helping alcoholics. He “had learned, in those first twenty years, that the main obstacle to drunks ‘getting’ AA was ‘the spiritual’”. (Collected Kurtz, p. 42) Here also was an increased hope for helping those previously considered somewhat outside of the prime target market.
Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. (AA Big Book, p. 58)
The Common Sense of Drinking has been acknowledged as having been a powerful influence on Bill Wilson’s understanding of alcoholism. The author of the 1931 publication, lay therapist Richard Peabody, had strongly advised against working with “psychotics.” Wilson had some experiences which confirmed Peabody’s concerns. Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers relates the tale of Eddie R., the very first Akron “prospect”. Eddie was “a borderline mental case” according to Smitty, Dr. Bob’s son.
After a variety of misadventures including wife-beating, escapes and chases, a threatened suicide, and a knife being brandished at Anne Smith, they gave up on Eddie. The LSD trials were achieving decent success rates with this most unpromising demographic.
“Bill became enthusiastic about the potential, saying ‘Anything that helps alcoholics is good and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.’ That was typical of his openness to new ideas and therapy.” (Grateful to Have Been There, Nell Wing, p. 81)
On August 29, 1956, Bill Wilson took LSD in a laboratory setting. “When Bill took LSD, use of the drug was legal. He first took it as a participant in a medically supervised experiment with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley in California.” (Hartigan, p. 178) To return to the point of the early paragraphs, this was a full ten years before Timothy Leary’s “turn on” revolution. There was no incense burning, no Jefferson Airplane on the stereo, and it is highly unlikely that Bill was wearing bell bottoms and a tie-dyed t-shirt.
In a very real sense, LSD wasn’t LSD yet.
Its use was limited to hospitals, clinics, labs and universities.
“Here, then, is one clear reason why Bill Wilson experimented with LSD: he was seeking still further ways of helping alcoholics, specifically those alcoholics who could not seem to attain sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous because, apparently, they could not ‘get the spiritual’.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 42) Support for this research came from a surprising source. When one of his parishioners expressed concern to Sam Shoemaker, the reverend consulted his superior, Bishop Pardue who “declared himself ‘in utmost sympathy with what (Bill) is doing.’ The bishop, Shoemaker reported to Wilson, ‘is convinced that the biochemical factor is of the greatest importance…half our problems are bio-chemical and do not go back to sin and cannot be wholly governed by prayer’.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 43)
Wilson was insightful in noting, “the probability that prayer, fasting, meditation, despair and other conditions that predispose one to classical mystical experiences do have their chemical components”. (Wilson letter to Shoemaker, 1958) “Bill W. was himself drawn to seek ways of making more available the ‘sudden and spectacular upheavals’ that although not necessary seemed very, very useful.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 45)
“Wilson faced the classic problem of religious mystics: how to speak of that which cannot be captured by words? AA spirituality is founded in an experience of release, a free-ing – the sense that one has been saved… The co-founder felt a responsibility to make that deeper less glib experience available to a wider population of alcoholics… Bill realized… his own background in matters of ‘the spiritual’ was hardly typical.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 46)
There was an additional benefit ensuing from the LSD trials. “I am certain that the LSD experiment has helped me very much… I find myself with a heightened color perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depression.” (Letter to Gerald Heard, 1957)
Once more, we return to our attempt to capture the perspective of the time. “The 1950s were not the 1990s… Far from keeping secret his experience with LSD, AA’s co-founder judiciously but eagerly spread the word, inviting not only his wife and his secretary but also trusted friends to join his experiments… Clearly, Bill experienced no sense of shame or guilt over his activities… Bill was still seeking a cure for alcoholism… a way of helping more alcoholics get sober in Alcoholics Anonymous… one more facet in his persistent pursuit of ‘the spiritual.’” (Collected Kurtz, pp. 40-41)
Bill had “a major enthusiasm for LSD, and, later, for niacin, a B-complex vitamin”. (Hartigan, P. 9) There were of course, objections from a variety of sources and pressure to “cease and desist”, which ultimately, but grudgingly, he did. A clear consensus of when the experimentation was halted is not available. Matthew Raphael and Nell Wing have the end in late 1959, Kurtz the early 1960s, and Francis Hartigan has the activity continuing well into the 1960s.
Cool Wind A’blowin
“Perhaps the best understanding of addiction presents it as an attempt to fill a spiritual void with a material reality.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 48) Twenty years of working with alcoholics had convinced Bill Wilson that his Towns Hospital “hot flash,” whatever the exact cause, had given him an advantage over those not sharing such experiences themselves. If LSD could produce some sort of transformative event, then the AA founder was interested in looking into it. Hoffer and Osmond’s early results were encouraging.
A friend of mine, saved from alcoholism, during the last fatal phases of the disease, by a spontaneous theophany which changed his life as completely as St. Paul’s was changed on the road to Damascus, has taken lysergic acid two or three times and affirms that his experience under the drug is identical with the spontaneous experience which changed his life – the only difference being that the spontaneous experience did not last as long as the chemically induced one. There is, obviously, a field here for serious and reverent experimentation.(Aldous Huxley to Father Thomas Merton, 10 January 1959)
Although pure of motive, the LSD experimentation may indicate a lack of good judgment, or the alcoholic’s common propensity for flying headlong into projects with an enthusiastic intensity, perhaps indicative of the “malady”.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!!
“The ‘lesson’ of Bill Wilson’s experimentation with LSD? If perfection is your goal, don’t go looking for models among the members – or even the founders – of Alcoholics Anonymous.” (Collected Kurtz, p. 49)
Ours is truly, a spirituality of imperfection.
Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.