Moment of Clarity: Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous, by Ian McCabe

Is Alcoholism Primarily a Spiritual Illness? The 12 Steps as a Spiritual Journey of Individuation


As part of my research journey for my book, Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous, I travelled to Akron, Ohio to visit the home of Dr. Bob Smith, one of the co- founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.  On a tour of his home, the guide asked if anyone knew what the peculiar black stick was in Dr. Bob’s bedroom.  I explained it is a blackthorn shillelagh (pronounced “shi-lay-lee” – a wooden walking stick associated with Irish folklore) given to Bill Wilson as a present for Dr. Bob when the former visited Ireland.

DSCN1325.12635301_large- blackthorn shillelagh (1)

a blackthorn shillelagh

The guide was grateful to have a name for this odd object. She told me it was that very morning that she had decided to bring something precious with her that she had received from Dr. Bob’s hospital where he had treated over 5,000 alcoholics.  She felt that she had to give it to someone that day and she gave it to me.  It was a religious medallion of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, given out by Irish-born Sister Ignatia Gavin to recovering alcoholics leaving the hospital after de-toxing.  She would give them the medallion and make them swear that before picking up a drink they would first return the medallion to her.  The psychology was of course to allow that moment of clarity to intervene— to lengthen the time of the choice, to increase the length of the moment to decide not to drink. So, in this way, the moment becomes a minute, the minute an hour, the hour a day, and eventually one day at a time.

The medallion reminded me of when I was a student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco; my teacher, Steve Goodman, a specialist in Buddhist Psychology, explained that in Buddhism there is the concept of a “moment of choice”, occurring before we make a decision. He elaborated that decisions cannot be impulsive or instinctual. There is a moment of choice before action is taken. This concept can also be applied to addiction: to drink or not to drink, to use or not to use. In Buddhist Psychology, that moment, perhaps only a nanosecond, gives us time to pull back and reflect. That decisive moment, lying in between the thought and the action, is called respect and the longer the time between making and acting on the decision, the more self-respect grows.

In Christian terms, that moment of decision can be called “grace”. When the positive energy of Goodness or God enters that moment, His or Her presence is felt. That Goodness is available for every decision and the more we tune into it the more we can be guided by it. Carl Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the co-founder of A.A., advising him that ordinary mortals need “protection from above” to resist the power of Evil in the world.

“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.” (Carl Jung’s Letter to Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, 30th January, 1961)

Wilson always recognised Jung’s synchronistic part in the formation of A.A..  Earlier that month he had written to Jung, “Please be certain that your place in the affection, and in the history, of our Fellowship is like no other” (Letter dated 23rd January, 1961).

Mayflower_Phone-The pay phone from the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel (2)

The pay phone from the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel

During my visit to Akron I visited the foyer of the Mayflower Hotel where Bill Wilson made his renowned decision in 1934 about whether to drink in the bar or make a phone call to ask for help to remain sober. Having failed in a grandiose business deal, he was deflated, down to his last ten dollars and in the depths of despair. He had been sober three months. He stood in the middle of the hotel lobby, packing back and forth between the “gaiety” of the bar and the phone, and debating. He made a monumental decision. Instead of going into the bar, from that hotel lobby he made a call to one of the Ministers listed beside the phone. He then went to his room. He made eleven more phone calls and eventually connected to Dr. Bob who became the co-founder of A.A.

Standing there in the same foyer some 80 years after Bill Wilson made his choice, I felt the hairs rise up on the back of my neck as I immersed myself in Bill Wilson’s moment of decision — to drink or not to drink. I was and am so grateful that he made the right choice for the almost two million alcoholics and their families and the numerous fellowships that base their format on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today the foyer of the Mayflower Hotel is a U.S. national monument. It is open to members of the public. The hotel itself, which was once the grandest Five Star hotel in Akron, is now fittingly a half-way house. The bar is gone but a replica of the famous phone remains in the foyer. The decline of the hotel represents a symbolic, enantiodromiac rise and fall that is indicative of the material and spiritual stories of many alcoholics.

I kept the medallion of the  Sacred Heart for a year. One day a woman was telling me of her apparently hopeless, relentless battle with alcohol and I felt an utter sense of helplessness – I wondered what I might say to help her, and remembered that all I had to do was to be there as a witness – however that didn’t seem enough, instead I took the medallion from my wallet and pressed it into her hand and then told her the story. Two years year later she is still sober.

37161Ian Mc Cabe,  PhD, PsyD, is a Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and a Zurich trained Child and Adult Jungian Analyst. While training at the Haight Ashbury Alcohol Treatment Centre in San Francisco he studied Alcohol and Drug abuse at the University of California, Berkeley extension. He has worked as a Clinical Psychologist with Addiction Response Crumlin, Dublin, and is the Managing Director of the Irish-based Charity the Jung Institute for Free Analysis for Children, and is also Clinical Director of  His latest book, Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous: The Twelve Steps as a Spiritual Journey of Individuation, has recently been published by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

‘Ian McCabe’s book on the relationship between Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and Jungian Psychology is scholarly, well written, well researched and documented, and brings to light a significant historical context. I would recommend it to any serious student of A.A. and Jungian Psychology.’
— David Schoen, New Orleans Jungian Analyst and author of The War of the Gods in Addiction: C.G. Jung, Alcoholics Anonymous and Archetypal Evil

‘Carl Jung’s serendipitous role in the founding and formation of Alcoholics Anonymous is a fascinating story that until this book has never been fully told. Ian McCabe offers a thoughtful and even-handed analysis of the similarities and the differences between Jung’s path to psycho/spiritual integration and Bill Wilson’s 12-step program for sobriety and spiritual rebirth.’
— Don Lattin, author of Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk

‘In the course of discussing Carl Jung’s influence on Alcoholics Anonymous, this book boldly challenges many details about A.A.’s founders and sources, and the varied remarks of those believers and unbelievers who have busied themselves attacking the religious origins of A.A. It enables readers to examine each of a wide number of diverse sources that have often been lacking in coherent research and writing, and helpfully opens the door to A.A. and its roots.’
— Dick B., author of The Good Book and the Big Book: A.A.’s Roots in the Bible

‘This book is essential reading for newcomers and old timers alike. It is a fresh take on the greatest gift that could be given to an addict, which is the 12-step programme. This book rings true and it resonates with a phrase I heard on my first day when I was a newcomer 30 years ago: “Let us love you until you can learn to love yourself”.
— Tom, A.A. member, Kew, London


What are we really looking for?: AA ‘This way out’ ad

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