I’m reading the new biography of William James by Robert Richardson. It’s a “think” book, a biography of James ideas. Those of us in AA a while learn that James, “Varieties of Religious Experience” was a formative text for Bill Wilson. He talks about that in the Big Book and references it again in the “Twelve and Twelve.” But where does it enter the story? And why is it so important in the history of AA?
Turns out that we have to give James some credit for AA. We all know that Bill W. was a salesman and a bit of a hustler. He tells some of those tales on himself in “Bill’s Story” in the front of the Big Book. There he is on his motorcycle with Lois codependently clinging to his back or riding in the sidecar. Off they go to investigate industries so Bill can sell the research back to his broker friends. There’s a joke I’ve heard told many different ways about Bill as a sales man first. It goes something like this: We are lucky that AA was founded by the team of Dr. Bob and Bill W. because if it was left just to Bill W AA would be a franchise today and would have a pyramid sales plan like Amway, but if it had been left to Bob, there’d still be just one meeting and that would be in Akron on Thursday nights.
So we back up again: begin at the kitchen table in Brooklyn. Bill is drinking and Ebby is glowing with the light of new found religion. Ebby is carrying the message of the Oxford Group that he received from Rowland H. who got the goods from Carl Jung. Bill sort of dimly understands what Ebby has experienced and why this might be important, he starts to grasp that he’s gotta have a transformation. So when he is next ready for another try at drying out he appeals to the famous Dr. Silkworth and in the beginning conversations Bill says to Silkworth: “Read this book”, handing him William James “Varieties”. Bill knows from Ebby and Rowland that he’s got to have a conversion experience and James text is a menu and a cookbook of conversion experiences. Bill takes an idea, an intellectual text and marries these in treatment with Silkworth.
What James has contributed to the mix is the idea of “ego deflation at depth”. As repugnant as that term sometimes seems it is at the heart of making change. And crucial to note, “Ego deflation” was not born in AA as we sometimes talk of it. It comes from William James rigor at taking apart how one has a spiritual (religious) experience.