Remembering a Modern Twelve Step Legend
Faster than we can say 2015, fall will fade to winter and we will once again be looking at the year in review – the defining moments and the who’s who
list of those who have fallen. In January of this year, Ernie Kurtz died (1935 – 2015). Kurtz was a modern day Twelve Stepper – one of those who came after both the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) cofounders had died. To Twelve Step historians, both academic and hobbyists, Kurtz’s 1979 Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous was our Saturday Evening Post. In the same way that Jack Alexander’s 1941 Saturday Evening Post article made AA a household word, Not-God gifted this first Twelve Step fellowship and modality with a greater credibility in both academic and professional circles.
This book may not have been a must-read in early recovery in our particular mutual-aid society of choice or in treatment, but your counselor may have read it. And if she didn’t read it, you can bet the executive director of your treatment center or whoever designed your treatment program more than likely has Ernie’s book in her or his bookshelf.
Born Ernest Kurzejewski in Rochester, New York – the same year Bill W. and Dr. Bob met – Ernie became an ordained priest in 1961. After five years in a parish, a restlessness or perhaps a calling, led Kurtz to Harvard for post-graduate studies in philosophy and later, in the history of American civilization. What we know today as the book, Not-God, was Kurtz’s PhD dissertation.
If you hold dear the role of Divine Providence in our recovery from addiction, Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous might be easily dismissed as irreverent sarcasm. I assure you that, much like the thoughtful wording of the late Ernie Kurtz, there is more meaning in the title than meets the eye. Kurtz reminds me of Joseph Campbell, the erudite author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces (2008) and The Power of Myth (1991). Campbell could disseminate literary, social or religious constructs down to their flaws and finitudes, yet still be in
awe at the magnificence of it all.
In “Part One: The History, Introduction” ofNot-God we see what Kurt meant by his title:
The term Not-God is the term around which this history of Alcoholics Anonymous is recounted and its interpretations offered . . . ‘Not-God’ means first ‘You are not God,’ the message of the AA program . . . [and]
that AA, as fellowship lives out and enables. The fulfilling of the implications of being not-God, the living out of the connectedness with others . . .
So, while this St. Bernard’s Seminary and College graduate’s belief in the supernatural need not be challenged, the effectiveness of what Dr. Bob and Bill W. offered each other, which has been repeated millions of times over the past 80 years, did need challenging. Individually, we had to get off our high-horse to understand our limitations; and any two of us flawed individuals can achieve what thousands of us alone could never muster – lasting sobriety.
Kurtz used the double meanings of “not God” and “Not-God” to describe both the phenomena of alcoholism and AA recovery in the fewest possible words. This use of the double meanings is so much more than just a disciplined account of history; it is poetry.
Again, while Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957) and Pass It On (1984) are meaning-packed trips down memory lane for AA members, Not-God offers an academic validation. AA is so much more than what happened then – AA is here, and AA is now.
The living legacy of what started as AA and is now a tapestry of mutual aid modalities woven into our social norm remained a keen interest to Ernie. He was sought after as a collaborator by those who could stomach his journalistic standards. Bill White and Ernie Kurtz were a dynamic duo of commentary on policy and priorities of the addiction and recovery infrastructure. Together, these two produced studies and journal articles that have helped shape the addiction and treatment complex of today. In Bill White’s tribute to Ernie, we get a taste of what it might have been like to work closely with Dr. Kurtz:
Mentoring under Ernie’s guidance was not for the faint of heart. I ended many a session with a piece of work bruised or battered, but always believing I could and would do better. Faint praise was not Ernie’s style. Those seeking a warm and fuzzy father figure and blind adoration of their capabilities were quickly dismissed of any such expectations. He had very high expectations, and he didn’t brook fools. His feedback was extremely pointed, lacking any attempt at sugarcoating, but, when he saw potential, his challenges to elevate the quality of one’s research, thinking, and writing were quite inspiring.
Writer Katherine Ketcham was one who endured Ernie’s unabashed editorial critique. She teamed up with him, not once, but twice. Where the history of AA had so beautifully been recorded by Not-God, Twelve Step members found much to identify with in The Spirituality of Imperfection (1993) and the follow up and Ernie’s last published book, Experiencing Spirituality (2014). Imperfection and spirituality – who would have thought to team up these two words? But the words express so astutely how AA isn’t something that happened just back in the day. It is an ongoing history happening in our lives and home groups right now.
Ernie met his wife, Linda, while teaching history at the University of Georgia. For their last 25 years together, they lived in Ann Arbor, where both taught at Michigan State University. In September of 2013, Ernie was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer. Linda and Ernie’s sister, Mary Ann, were at his side when he died in January. Ernie was working on the final touches of a foreword that Bill White and he were drafting for my friend Bob K.’s first book, Key Players in AA History (2015).
Ernie loved alcoholics and addicts more than he loved alcoholism and addiction. He was mode and modality neutral, standing up for harm reduction as much as abstinence, atheists as much as fellow Catholics and a wider gateway versus an exclusive membership. He fostered his own spirituality of imperfection from far and wide.
A memorial was held at Dawn Farm treatment center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where Ernie was no stranger. Father
Terry Dumas shared in his homily about his last meeting with Ernie Kurtz and how Ernie referred to a “Contingency God.” Father Dumas had struggled to understand exactly what that meant. I just smiled over another turn of phrase, just another of what we called “Ernie-isms.” A God of contingency is another poetic offering – imaginatively rich beyond reason – which I will savor for the rest of my years. Bill White remembered Ernie, “My heart weighs heavy in the face of Ernie’s absence, but I draw great comfort from the memories of our work together and the many gifts he left us all.”
Many others spoke, including his wife and sister. Some talked about a fond peer-to-peer relationship that would be missed. His sister, Mary Ann, told us of her big brother riding her to school in the basket of his bike, and she read from one of his favorite inspirations, The Velveteen Rabbit. That passage was as moving a moment for me as anything I’ve ever seen written on addiction or recovery.
While I am privileged to have known Ernie – he wrote the foreword to my daily reflection book, Beyond Belief – I didn’t (couldn’t) treat him as a peer. Having been moved by his works for so many years before actually meeting him, hero worship had already set it. He would ask me to call him, “Ernie,” but I preferred “Dr. Kurtz.”
As we do with our heroes, I felt nothing too terrible could happen in a world with Ernie Kurtz in it. His love, reason and dedication seemed infinite. We’ve all got some slack to make up for now. His body of work is still with us. Thank “Not-God” for that, whatever that may mean to each of us.
Joe C. is a radio host and writers of financial, music and recovery lifestyle feature articles. Sober since 1976, Joe wrote the first daily reflection book for nonbelievers, freethinkers and everyone – Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life (2013), to which Dr. Ernest Kurtz wrote the foreword. To contact Joe C.,