Reply to Arthur S., “AA History and AA Myth”

Editor’s Note: To round out our Points Roundtable on the contributions of AA historian Glenn C., we turn to the man himself! Over the next week, we’ll post Glenn’s replies to the pieces that Art S., Rich Dubiel, Bill White, and Jackie Bedzinski have published here in the last month. Our series will take us right up to Valentine’s day– at which point, everyone in America is going to need to stop loving Glenn and shift their affection to other, more properly commoditized objects! 

Arthur S. played a truly major role in one of our most important A.A. archival resources, the AA History Lovers web group (the AAHL). [1] At its height, this site had almost 3,000 listed members from all over the earth, including the United States, Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Mexico, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and India, to name just a few of the far flung lands where it had members. But the actual number of people who were affected by the web group was far higher. There were many who read the group’s postings on a regular basis without having signed up on the membership list, since anyone who had a computer and access to the internet could read all the messages.

AAHL logo (2)At least 90% of the people who had authored the best books on AA history were members of the AAHL, as were at least 90% of the top archivists, rare book specialists and other historical researchers in the field. The web group quickly gained a reputation as the most dependable single source of historical information about A.A. If you wanted to find out what the real experts said — the most knowledgeable and competent scholars and researchers in the field — the AA History Lovers would give you the best-documented and most up-to-date information known. And it would also usually be one of the first places to publish information about newly discovered documents and facts, along with notices of the most recent publications on AA history. [2]

The AAHL website operated for fifteen years, from 2002 to 2016, which brings us to another very important feature about the messages posted there. I believe it is useful to make a distinction between first generation and second generation Alcoholics Anonymous. The first generation ran down to around 1970 [3]. The second generation extended to around 2005–2017 or thereabouts [4] — these were men and women, most of whom had had at least a little bit of real contact with at least a few of the leading first generation figures.

Nancy O.

Nancy Olson on her work with Sen. Harold Hughes (2003)

In the year 2000, realizing that her own second-generation era was coming to an end, Nancy Moyer Olson founded the AA History Buffs, later renamed the AA History Lovers. From the beginning, she regularly consulted with Ernest Kurtz, the number one A.A. historian of the second generation, and by 2001, Glenn Chesnut also began to be included into what then became continual three-way discussions. When Nancy died in 2005, Chesnut became the principal moderator of the group. Through the years that followed, Arthur continued to be the researcher we all depended on to give us a reasoned answer to hotly debated questions, backed up by impeccable sources.

Now Nancy Moyer Olson, as I said, had realized by the year 2000 that we were coming to the end of the line in terms of people who knew the original founders of A.A. at first hand. The AAHL was started by her as a last-ditch effort to glean as much information as possible from these people while we could still sit at their feet and listen to them talk, and ask questions. The next generation (the third generation, which is just starting now) would be forced to rely solely on documents and audio recordings.

SStones

Lois Wilson rendering of Stepping Stones

The messages posted on the AA History Lovers between 2002 and 2016 totaled around 1,500 pages per year (on the average) when downloaded in Microsoft Word format, which would come out to over 20,000 pages, or around 45 volumes, if turned into printed books in that format. It is filled with (literally) thousands of gems of valuable historical information. This makes it one of the four most important research archives for the study of A.A. history, the other three being the New York A.A. Archives, the Brown University Archives, and the archives at Stepping Stones (Bill and Lois Wilson’s home).

Why is Arthur S. so important in A.A. history? Among other things, because he was one of the principal researchers who helped make the AAHL such an incredible source of information about early A.A. There are any number of projects that could be carried out using this archives as their basis. During the early years of the AAHL, one researcher gave the full texts of all of the early reviews he could find of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Copying these out and reproducing them in one volume would make an interesting book in its own right, and it could be accompanied by a careful analysis of things like (for example), the question of what the commonest complaint was about the book among those reviewers who panned it. What was the second most frequent? The third? And to what degree did these attacks on the Big Book reflect cultural biases or presuppositions of that period of history?

We have a list in the AAHL of all the 100 plus members of early  Alcoholics Anonymous who got sober before the Big Book was published in 1939 (including of course the authors of all the stories in the first printing of the Big Book). Someone who did a word search for these men’s and women’s names in the AAHL, and copied out those messages and organized them, would be able to produce an extremely useful reference work. And that in turn would allow the writing of books and articles, giving higher levels of analysis (much more accurate than anything we have at present) of what the earliest A.A. members were like. To which social class did they belong? What was their educational level? What kind of jobs did they hold? How many had served in the First World War?

Arthur, who contributed so much to this web group, was a highly skilled “numbers man,” who started out as a computer specialist in Silicon Valley in California, and ended up in a upper level position at one the world’s leading computer companies by the end of his life. So Arthur’s best publicly known accomplishments were his work on the retention rate in A.A., the very best statistical data that we have [5] and his magisterial Narrative Timeline of A.A. History [6], which gives the dates for all of the major events in A.A. history, and ALSO page references to any discussion of those events in the major historical studies of A.A. If you are a researcher in A.A. history, you absolutely must download a copy of this work, and use it as a constant reference work while doing your own research.

But Arthur was more than just a “numbers man.” By far one of the most interesting of the volumes that could be put together by going through and collecting material from the AA History Lovers, would be a set of all the messages which Arthur S. posted over the years. [7] He has marvelous historical insight and skill, and not only tells the reader the bare facts, but also what those facts mean.

sedona

The conversation was also inspiring.

Arthur and I first got to know one another when I was moderating the AAHL, at which point I was immediately incredibly impressed with all the messages he was sending in. He was definitely one of our very top AA history researchers. Then, at the National A.A. History gatherings which began being held in the incredible beauty of the high desert and towering mountains outside Sedona, Arizona in 2014, he and I were able to talk and share in person over several rich and delightful years.  Arthur not only has a brilliant mind, he is also a good man. I treasure, more than I can say, my gratitude at having been able to be friends with him over all those years.

I have in fact been blessed to an unbelievable degree by the chance I was given to explore and enjoy the wonders and delights of A.A. history, and meet people like him, Trysh Travis, Jackie B. of San Francisco, Rich Dubiel, and Bill White.

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[1] The web group itself is found at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/aahistorylovers. One may also read and/or download all the past messages from 2002 to 2012, as MS Word word processing .doc files or as MS Access database .mdb files at http://hindsfoot.org/aahl.html.
[2] See Glenn F. Chesnut, The History of the AA History Lovers, which may be read on line as a PDF or DOC file at: http://www.williamwhitepapers.com/pr/History%20of%20AA%20History%20Lovers%20Glenn%20Chestnut.pdf. http://hindsfoot.org/aahlhist.doc
[3] March 25, 1965: death of Richmond Walker (the second-most-published early AA author). April 1, 1966: death of Sister Ignatia. February 19, 1967: death of Father Ralph Pfau (the third-most-published early AA author). January 24, 1971: death of Bill Wilson (the most-published early AA author). June 3, 1971: death of Ed Webster (the fourth-most-published AA author).
[4] March 25, 2005: death of Nancy Moyer Olson. October 25, 2007: death of Joe McQuany. November 9, 2007: death of Bill Pittman. January 19, 2015: death of Ernest Kurtz. February 19, 2017 — death of Mel Barger.
[5] Arthur S. (Arlington, Texas), Tom E. (Wappingers Falls, New York), and Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana), Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Recovery Outcome Rates: Contemporary Myth and Misinterpretation, at http://hindsfoot.org/recout01.pdf
[6] Arthur S. (Arlington, Texas), Narrative Timeline of A.A. History, at http://hindsfoot.org/aatimeline.pdf
[7] Go to: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/AAHistoryLovers/conversations/messages or http://hindsfoot.org/aahl.html and search for “Arthur S” and “ArtSheehan@msn.com” and “arthur.s@live.com.”
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