Remembering Ernie Kurtz

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 AA Agnostica, 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 on 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 Kurtz is a 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)

Agnostica

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 AAAgnostica.org. 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!


William White Remembers Ernie Kurtz

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  1. John S January 19, 2016 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    If you haven’t seen this video, it’s well worth watching.

  2. Joe C. (@Rebellion_Dogs) January 19, 2016 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Nice work bob k. Bob will be a guest on Rebellion Dogs Radio soon and we had a good chat about Ernie’s affection for heathens in AA. On Rebellion Dogs site right now, is an speech that Kurtz gave in Akron in 1997 and it’s worth a read. There’s a link you can download @ http://rebelliondogspublishing.com now.

    Ernie talks about three forces that he felt at the time were harmful to AA’s purposes. Here’s one of three that he talks about. Of course this one plays to our crowd a bit as it’s always nice to see “the other guys” getting a tongue-lashing:

    There have recently appeared people who in pursuit of a particular agenda tell A.A.’s story in ways that distort its history. A bit later I shall mention three such distortions, but here let me frame some points in the context of a very real concern over the Oxford Group enthusiasts who try to provide historical underpinning for what has become a movement to Christianize Alcoholics Anonymous by reinterpreting A.A.’s early history.

    Some of these zealots at times directly denigrate the contributions of Sister Ignatia and Father Dowling in their single-minded, indeed narrow-minded, attempts to prove that A.A. came out of ‘Bible Christianity.’

    … The Chrisitianizers, in their single-mindedness, seem blind to the other sources of AA ideas and practices.  Their hearts are pure, but this distortion of AA history is especially perilous at a time when AA is being categorized as “a religion” by some U.S. Judicial Jurisdictions.

    The problem is that this can make it more difficult for some alcoholics who need the fellowship and its program to find help.  The earliest AAs were dedicated to keeping the door to AA open as wide as possible.  AA’s story has been one of the progressive widening of that already open door, and anything that works against that seems untrue to that story, especially when justified on the basis of a very faulty understanding of AA history.

    Ernie was doing more than his fair share in AA stewardship. We all have to pick up the slack with his passing. It’s nice to see this tribute.

  3. Tom Corrigan January 19, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Thank you Bob for reminding me of those wise ones, who to this day, give me inspiration.  You are one of those truth seekers that help us all see a little clearer.

  4. Laurie A January 19, 2016 at 12:22 pm - Reply

    I read ‘Not God’ in the first or second year of my sobriety in the 1980s and it blew me away. I had the great privilege of corresponding with Ernie over the years and in 2007 sent him a copy of the book published by the British GSB to mark the British Fellowship’s 60th anniversary which I edited. 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.’

    He was immensely generous and a firm believer that we tread innumerable paths to faith. As well as backing agnostic/atheist interpretations of the AA way of life he wrote a foreword to Mitchell K.’s biography of Clarence Snyder ‘How it worked’ which describes the Christocentric way most early members understood the program. Although he didn’t agree with all Mitchell K.’s polemic he took the view that there is room for us all and was happy to endorse the book. The epitome of Live and Let Live. A great man.

  5. Thomas Brinson January 19, 2016 at 11:15 am - Reply

    Indeed, Bob, thank you for this poignant remembrance of Ernie Kurtz, who valiantly spent much of his last years advocating for the legitimacy of secular means of recovery within AA. One of his last projects, working with Bill White, his co-author, was to publish an essay Recovery Spirituality,  which includes his strong advocacy for our secular way of working 12-step recovery as being as legitimate a way of working the AA program as any religious-based method of recovery.

    He is indeed sorely missed, but as William White poignantly writes in his essay, Remembering Ernie Kurtz, on this anniversary of his passing, the abiding spirit of his work  remains alive and well within each of us, who remember his dedication to historical accuracy, regarding both the origins as well as the progress of Alcoholics Anonymous as it has continued to evolve throughout the past 80 years.

    His efforts will provide ample evidence to counter the pervasive narrowing of the scope of AA during the last 20 or so years to apply only to those who profess faith in the Christian god of white men of privilege, who formed the Oxford Group wherein AA started in 1935, but shortly afterwards left, both in New York and the Midwest.

    I remain most grateful for Ernie Kurtz. Presente!

  6. Mark C. "Mark In Texas" January 19, 2016 at 10:19 am - Reply

    Thank you, Bob!

    Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous,” is a superlative gift to the Fellowship at large.

    As far as I’m concerned it is a MUST read especially for we heathens.  There is nothing like it for gaining a wider, more comprehensive view of the Fellowship than “Not God.”

    I was in AA about a week when an old guy came up to me and said, “Your an academic sort of guy right?”  I said, “Yeah, I guess so, for better or for worse, seems to be how I am wired from my earliest memories.”  He suggested I read “Not God” by Kurtz.  I ordered the book immediately….since I was grabbing onto “take what is suggested, keep what you can use, and leave the rest.”

    In many ways, “Not God” is major reason I am still involved.

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