Florence was the first woman to get sober in AA, even for a short time. She came to AA in New York, in March 1937. She had several slips, but was sober over a year when she wrote her story for the Big Book. (Silkworth.net, Biographies, “A Feminine Victory”)
A Feminine Victory
“I am praying for inspiration to tell my story in a manner that may give other women who have this problem the courage to see it in its true light and seek the help that has given me a new lease on life.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 217) This is the noble sentiment expressed in the very first paragraph of A Feminine Victory, the only story of a woman alcoholic in the 1st Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Florence would not believe she was an alcoholic – “my mind simply refused to accept it. Horrors! How disgraceful! What humiliation! How preposterous! Why, I loathed the taste of liquor – drinking was simply a means of escape when my sorrows became too great for me to endure.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 217)
Her husband was a drinker and had been “a man Bill knew on Wall Street.” (Silkworth.net) “He had always been a drinker; I had never known anything about it until I was almost thirty years old and he gave me my first drink.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220) Florence thought the various misbehaviors of her husband were responsible for her own drinking, but when they divorced, she was the one who ended up in the alcoholic ward of a public hospital.
Florence’s drinking had started with parties, “speakeasies,” and cocktails after matinees. “Then came the morning when I had my first case of the jitters. Someone suggested a little of the ‘hair of the dog that bit me.’ A half hour after that drink I was sitting on top of the world, thinking how simple it was to cure shaky nerves. How wonderful liquor was, in only a few minutes my head had stopped aching, my spirits were back to normal and all was well in this very fine world.” (BB, 1st Edition, pp. 218-219)
Morning drinking increased in frequency and amounts to where she was making excuses at afternoon bridge parties, or luncheons, for having liquor on her breath. At evening parties she found the drink service too slow. Later she was cancelling events, and still later, “simply forgetting that there were engagements at all; spending two or three days drinking, sleeping it off, and waking to start all over again.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220)
There were periods of abstinence, that “would last anywhere from two weeks to three or four months. Once, after a very severe illness of six weeks’ duration (caused by drinking), I didn’t touch anything of an alcoholic nature for almost a year.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 220) Suddenly, things were worse than ever.
Bill Wilson surely was drawing on Florence’s story when he wrote, “To be gravely affected, one does not necessarily have to drink a long time nor take the quantities some of us have. This is particularly true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn into the real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few years. Certain drinkers, who would be greatly insulted if called alcoholics, are astonished at their inability to stop.” (BB, 4th Edition, p. 33)
Twelfth Stepped by Lois
When she ended up in Bellevue Hospital, her husband brought Lois Wilson to visit her “hoping that she could help. She did. From the hospital I went home with her. There, her husband told me the secret of his rebirth.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 221) Bill may have been overly aggressive in selling her the “God idea,” and she resisted. Bill backed off, and Florence was sent off to stay with another alcoholic and his wife. A gentler approach led her to turn to God in a sincere and earnest prayer.
Unfortunately, what she only describes as “‘an incident’… put me on the toboggan again. I seemed to feel that the hurt of that incident was too great to endure without some ‘release.’” (BB, p. 222) This relapse prompted an in depth examination and confession of her fears, remorse and shame. Sadly, some time later, a rainy day worked its way into her mood and she wallowed in a case of the blues.
There was liquor in the house, and Florence was alone. Feeling the temptation, she started to read from the Bible and “Victorious Living.” She prayed. “In a half an hour I got up and was absolutely free of the urge to drink.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 223) It somewhat detracted from this “miracle,” when she was drinking again a short time later.
On that occasion she called Lois, and ended up back at the Wilson’s for three more weeks. She finally gave up the notion of doing her own “fixing,” and was sober about a year when the book came out.
Ultimately, A Short-Lived Victory
“I know that my victory is none of my human doing. I know that I must keep myself worthy of Divine help. And the glorious thing is this: I am free, I am happy, and perhaps I am going to have the blessed opportunity of ‘passing it on.’ I say in all reverence – Amen.” (BB, 1st Edition, p. 225)
Regrettably, as the Big Books were rolling off of the Cornwall Press, Florence was again drinking.
The story of the woman who had argued vociferously against “One Hundred Men,” a title being considered for the book, eventually named Alcoholics Anonymous, does not have a happy ending. Florence had moved to the Washington D.C. area, where she was to have helped Fitz M. “Our Southern Friend.” There she met, and married, an alcoholic who unfortunately, did not stay sober. She started drinking again and disappeared.
In April 1943, “Fitz M. identified her at the morgue.” (AAHistoryLovers.com)
There is a much circulated story that Florence Rankin Kalhoun had committed suicide, but that is uncertain. The death certificate “does NOT state that her death was a result of suicide.” It was possibly meningitis, in an alternative view.
Florence had been born on December 17, 1895, making her three weeks younger than Bill Wilson. At the time of her death, she was 47 years old.
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.