Over the years, as a psychiatrist in Zurich, Switzerland, Carl Jung treated many people with a variety of mental health challenges and disorders. In 1931 he treated an American, Rowland H., who suffered from chronic alcoholism. His treatment was unsuccessful as Rowland’s condition became hopeless over time. He came to the conclusion the only possible cure was a spiritual experience.
Rowland took Jung’s advice to heart and joined the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement in the United States. About 1934, he met Ebby Thacher at an Oxford meeting and shared the treatment experiences he had with Carl Jung and his advice to seek a spiritual transformation.
Ebby had found relief from his alcoholism in the simple spiritual practices of the Oxford Group which was an attempt to return to First Century Christianity. The program Ebby described to Bill involved taking a personal moral inventory, admitting to another person the wrongs done, making amends and restitution, and making a genuine effort to be of service to others. In order to obtain the power to overcome these problems, Ebby had been encouraged to call on God, as he understood Him for help.
Bill was deeply impressed by Ebby's words, but was even more affected by Ebby's example of action. Here was someone who drank like Bill drank - and yet Ebby was sober, due to a simple religious idea and a practical program of action. The results were an inexplicably different person. A miracle sat directly across the kitchen table from Bill. It was a message of hope - that God would do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Ebby carried the message of the Oxford Group to Bill with great care and dedication---that recovery from alcoholism was possible using spiritual principles, but only if it was combined with practical actions. Bill Wilson never took another drink, and left Towns Hospital to dedicate the rest of his life to carrying the message to other alcoholics.
As a result of his own conversion experience from the Oxford principles and practices,, Bill W. adopted and adapted five of the fundamental principles into A.A. (self-survey, confession, restitution, service, and prayer/meditation). Ebby became the living proof these fundamental practices provided a conversion experience, which could result not only in sobriety but a new way of living.
Bill W.’s letter to C. G. Jung
My dear Dr. Jung:
This letter of great appreciation has been very long overdue. May I first introduce myself as Bill W., a co-founder of the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous. Though you have surely heard of us, I doubt if you are aware that a certain conversation you once had with one of your patients, a Mr. Rowland H., back in the early 1930's, did play a critical role in the founding of our Fellowship.
Though Rowland H. has long since passed away, the recollections of his remarkable experience while under treatment by you has definitely become part of AA history. Our remembrance of Rowland H.'s statements about his experience with you is as follows:
Having exhausted other means of recovery from his alcoholism, it was about 1931 that he became your patient. I believe he remained under your care for perhaps a year. His admiration for you was boundless, and he left you with a feeling of much confidence.
To his great consternation, he soon relapsed into intoxication. Certain that you were his "court of last resort," he again returned to your care. Then followed the conversation between you that was to become the first link in the chain of events that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.
My recollection of his account of that conversation is this: First of all, you frankly told him of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned. This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our Society has since been built.
Coming from you, one he so trusted and admired, the impact upon him was immense. When he then asked you if there was any other hope, you told him that there might be, provided he could become the subject of a spiritual or religious experience - in short, a genuine conversion. You pointed out how such an experience, if brought about, might remotivate him when nothing else could. But you did caution, though, that while such experiences had sometimes brought recovery to alcoholics, they were, nevertheless, comparatively rare. You recommended that he place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best. This I believe was the substance of your advice.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Rowland H. joined the Oxford Groups, an evangelical movement then at the height of its success in Europe, and one with which you are doubtless familiar. You will remember their large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others. They strongly stressed meditation and prayer. In these surroundings, Rowland H. did find a conversion experience that released him for the time being from his compulsion to drink.
Returning to New York, he became very active with the "O.G." here, then led by an Episcopal clergyman, Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. Dr. Shoemaker had been one of the founders of that movement, and his was a powerful personality that carried immense sincerity and conviction.
At this time (1932-34) the Oxford Groups had already sobered a number of alcoholics, and Rowland, feeling that he could especially identify with these sufferers, addressed himself to the help of still others. One of these chanced to be an old schoolmate of mine, Edwin T. ("Ebby"). He had been threatened with commitment to an institution, but Mr. H. and another ex-alcoholic "O.G." member procured his parole and helped to bring about his sobriety.
Meanwhile, I had run the course of alcoholism and was threatened with commitment myself. Fortunately I had fallen under the care of a physician - a Dr. William D. Silkworth - who was wonderfully capable of understanding alcoholics. But just as you had given up on Rowland, so had he given me up. It was his theory that alcoholism had two components - an obsession that compelled the sufferer to drink against his will and interest, and some sort of metabolism difficulty which he then called an allergy. The alcoholic's compulsion guaranteed that the alcoholic's drinking would go on, and the allergy made sure that the sufferer would finally deteriorate, go insane, or die. Though I had been one of the few he had thought it possible to help, he was finally obliged to tell me of my hopelessness; I, too, would have to be locked up. To me, this was a shattering blow. Just as Rowland had been made ready for his conversion experience by you, so had my wonderful friend, Dr. Silkworth, prepared me.
Hearing of my plight, my friend Edwin T. came to see me at my home where I was drinking. By then, it was November 1934. I had long marked my friend Edwin for a hopeless case. Yet there he was in a very evident state of "release" which could by no means accounted for by his mere association for a very short time with the Oxford Groups. Yet this obvious state of release, as distinguished from the usual depression, was tremendously convincing. Because he was a kindred sufferer, he could unquestionably communicate with me at great depth. I knew at once I must find an experience like his, or die.
Again I returned to Dr. Silkworth's care where I could be once more sobered
and so gain a clearer view of my friend's experience of release, and of Rowland
H.'s approach to him.
Clear once more of alcohol, I found myself terribly depressed. This seemed to be caused by my inability to gain the slightest faith. Edwin T. again visited me and repeated the simple Oxford Groups' formulas. Soon after he left me I became even more depressed. In utter despair I cried out, "If there be a God, will He show Himself." There immediately came to me an illumination of enormous impact and dimension, something which I have since tried to describe in the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" and in "AA Comes of Age", basic texts which I am sending you.
My release from the alcohol obsession was immediate. At once I knew I was a free man. Shortly following my experience, my friend Edwin came to the hospital, bringing me a copy of William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience". This book gave me the realization that most conversion experiences, whatever their variety, do have a common denominator of ego collapse at depth. The individual faces an impossible dilemma. In my case the dilemma had been created by my compulsive drinking and the deep feeling of hopelessness had been vastly deepened by my doctor. It was deepened still more by my alcoholic friend when he acquainted me with your verdict of hopelessness respecting Rowland H.
In the wake of my spiritual experience there came a vision of a society of alcoholics, each identifying with and transmitting his experience to the next - chain style. If each sufferer were to carry the news of the scientific hopelessness of alcoholism to each new prospect, he might be able to lay every newcomer wide open to a transforming spiritual experience. This concept proved to be the foundation of such success as Alcoholics Anonymous has since achieved. This has made conversion experiences - nearly every variety reported by James - available on an almost wholesale basis. Our sustained recoveries over the last quarter century number about 300,000. In America and through the world there are today 8,000 AA groups.
So to you, to Dr. Shoemaker of the Oxford Groups, to William James, and to my own physician, Dr. Silkworth, we of AA owe this tremendous benefaction. As you will now clearly see, This astonishing chain of events actually started long ago in your consulting room, and it was directly founded upon your own humility and deep perception.
Very many thoughtful AA's are students of your writings. Because of your conviction that man is something more than intellect, emotion, and two dollars worth of chemicals, you have especially endeared yourself to us.
How our Society grew, developed its Traditions for unity, and structured
its functioning will be seen in the texts and pamphlet material that I am
You will also be interested to learn that in addition to the "spiritual experience, "many AA's report a great variety of psychic phenomena, the cumulative weight of which is very considerable. Other members have - following their recovery in AA - been much helped by your practitioners. A few have been intrigued by the "I Ching" and your remarkable introduction to that work.
Please be certain that your place in the affection, and in the history of the Fellowship, is like no other.
William G. W.
Co-founder Alcoholics Anonymous
Bill W.'s letter to Dr. Carl Gustav Jung Swiss psychologist & psychiatrist -Jan 23, 1961 A reference is made on page 26 & 27 of the Big Book.
Response from Carl G. Jung to Bill W.
Dear Mr. W.
Your letter has been very welcome indeed.
I had no news from Rowland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he has adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason that I could not tell him everything was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Rowland H. But what I really thought about was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.
His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.*
How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood
in our days?
The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.
These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation
to Rowland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your
very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above
the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.
You see, "alcohol" in Latin is "spiritus" and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.
Thanking you again for your kind letter.
C. G. Jung*
"As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." (Psalms 42:1)
Both letters were first printed in the January 1963 issues of the Grapevine, a monthly newspaper published by the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous.