How Jung gave me the power to save my life
WHEN I visited the famous psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung’s son, Franz, some years ago, I was very taken with the inscription over the front door.
It had been put there by Jung Sr himself and it read: “Called or not called, God is always there.”
It’s the sort of statement that his mentor, the great Sigmund Freud, might not have approved of and it marks Jung as a mystic, whereas Freud was very much a pragmatist, obsessed with sex and sceptical of the metaphysical.
Born in Switzerland on July 26, 1875, Carl Jung remains one of the seminal thinkers of the 20th century. The reason for my visit to the Jung family home in Kusnacht was that, although many people don’t know it, Carl Jung was involved with the beginnings of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship that saved my life.
Jung was instrumental in the founding of AA and, through a series of letters to AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson shortly before Jung died on June 6, 1961, he was also involved in the development of the AA movement.
Jung maintained that an alcoholic’s craving for alcohol was “the equivalent of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God”. As he explained: “Alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience, as well as the most depraving poison.” Jung said the most helpful formula for an alcoholic wanting to stop drinking was spiritus contra spiritum, “spirit against spirit, power against power”.
Jung maintained that to get and stay sober most alcoholics needed to find a power or a force greater than that of alcohol.
This is why, in AA, members, even those like me who are atheists, often talk about finding or using a “power greater than oneself”, which in many cases is the AA group to which they belong.
Jung’s contribution to AA began in his Zurich office in 1932 when he had some sessions with an American alcoholic, Roland H. Instead of offering Roland any encouragement, Jung told his patient that there was nothing he could do for him and stressed his utter hopelessness as far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment was concerned.
Coming from someone he so much admired, the impact on Roland was immense. When he asked if there was any alternative, Jung told him that a spiritual experience might be his only hope. This might change him when nothing else could. But Jung cautioned that, while such conversion experiences sometimes brought recovery to alcoholics, they were rare. The substance of Jung’s advice was that Roland place himself in a religious atmosphere and hope for the best.
Back in the US, Roland joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement, later known as Moral Re-Armament, which emphasised the principles of self-analysis, confession, restitution and the giving of oneself in service to others. In this atmosphere, he was temporarily released from his obsession to drink.
Feeling that he could help other alcoholics, Roland and another member chanced upon Ebby, an old school friend of Wilson. Ebby had been threatened with lifetime committal to an institution. With Roland’s help, Ebby became sober, for a while.
At this time (1934) Wilson, a New York stockbroker on the skids, was threatened with permanent committal himself. Fortunately, his physician was William Silkworth of the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City, who had previously dried Wilson out a number of times.
For years, Silkworth had been saying alcoholism was an illness that had two components: some sort of metabolism difficulty, which he then called an allergy, which explained the phenomenon of craving; and an obsession of the mind that compelled the sufferer to drink against their will and interests. Though initially he thought it possible he could be of help, Silkworth was finally obliged to tell Wilson of the hopelessness of his condition. After leaving hospital, and despite all his efforts, Wilson drank more compulsively than ever. Ebby came to see him. Wilson, who had long regarded Ebby as a hopeless case, was impressed by his friend’s abstinence. After three more weeks of uncontrolled drinking, Wilson returned to hospital in December 1934, when Ebby visited him and again told him his story.
Aware of the futility of his own efforts, Wilson recounts that he cried out: “If there be a God, will he show himself?” There came upon him a sense of release, which he describes in the language of mystical illumination. From that moment until his death in January 1971, he never drank alcohol again.
Silkworth took great pains to convince Wilson he was not hallucinating: “Something has happened to you (that) I don’t understand. But you’d better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.” After his discharge, Wilson tried to save other alcoholics, but with no success. Yet, by talking with other alcoholics, he had remained sober himself. Silkworth suggested that, rather than stressing his spiritual experience, Wilson should first explain in detail the progressive nature of his own condition.
Soon afterwards, alone on a business trip in Akron, Ohio, and afraid that he would drink again, Wilson tracked down another alcoholic with whom to talk. This was a surgeon, Bob Smith, who had also been in touch with the Oxford Group, but whose attempts at staying sober had failed. When Wilson, following Silkworth’s advice, told of his own experiences of the hopelessness of alcoholism, Smith accepted defeat and, after a brief relapse, stayed sober until his death in 1950.
Wilson and Smith’s example established throughout the world groups of sober alcoholics whose primary aim was to solve their common problem and to help others to recover from alcoholism.
Four years after their meeting, Smith wrote: “Of far more importance (than the medical information Wilson gave) was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I ever talked who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism, from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language.”
AA began on June 10, 1935, in Akron, then spread to New York, Cleveland and all across the US, after which it went to Ireland and then to Australia.
Although Jung was not involved in formulating AA’s 12 suggested steps of recovery, the great Swiss psychoanalyst nevertheless played a pivotal role in the foundation of what remains the most successful self-help group of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, including his memoir, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey, and the political satire Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State.