Bill W.'s Correspondence with Carl Jung

Version G 11/15/96

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Editor’s note: The origins of Alcoholics Anonymous transcend the meeting of Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. in Akron, Ohio. There is also much more to our beginnings than the Oxford Groups. A seminal influence came from Dr. Carl Jung of Switzerland through his client, Rowland H. Bill W.’s boyhood friend, Ebby T. was, in turn, guided by Rowland, and, of course, Ebby’s experience with Bill we all know from Chapter 1. of the Big Book. 

The first copy of the correspondence which came to our attention spelled Hazard's first name as Roland.  However, both E. Kurtz and Bill's biography, Pass In On, spell it as Rowland.  Another source, which presently fails recollection, confirmed the spelling with the "w", so we have spelled it that way. Maybe it was pronounced with the "w" silent.

The tale that follows is that of Dr. Jung responding to Bill’s communication thanking him for his initial influence.


Behind his desk stood a file cabinet, containing the outlines, "Main Events," "High Points," all the constant reminders of his desire to get the record straight, and it may have been his consciousness of them that prompted his letter to Dr. Carl Jung in Zurich.

He began by introducing himself and apologized for his long overdue expression of gratitude for the critical role Jung had played in the founding of AA. He reminded Dr. Jung of Jung's conversations with Rowland H. in 1930, and then, in the simplest way, he related what had happened to Rowland after he left Zurich: Rowland's spiritual awakening, his meeting Ebby and carrying the message to him, and Ebby's carrying it to Bill. It was not a long letter but he got everything in: the chain reaction and some details of his own experience at Towns. And he ended with the statement that Jung's place in the affection and history of AA was like no other.

Within a week, Bill had a reply from Jung:

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

I remain

Yours sincerely

C. G. Jung*

"As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God." (Psalms 42:1)


There is no way--Bill himself found no way--to express what this letter meant to him. It was a confirmation of all that he, with no formal training, no real guidance, through his own intuition had come to believe. It was that and more. It came at a moment in his life when he needed it, only a few weeks after the death in St. Louis of Father Ed Dowling, the man who more than any other had understood his search. ("The divine dissatisfaction, the beautiful unrest that would keep him going, reaching out always . . ." )

Ever since his early AA days, when Bill had read Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he had looked on the great doctor as not wholly a theologian, nor a pure scientist, but as someone who seemed to stand with him in that strange no man's land that lay between. And now he had passed on the formula: spiritus contra spiritum.

Bill kept the Jung letter as a talisman. In time it was copied, read at meetings, reprinted in The Grapevine, but the original stayed in his top desk drawer and, sometimes, even though he knew it by heart, he would open the drawer, look down at the signature and reread a phrase. 


Ed. note. After we discovered the correspondence above, we encountered some related material in Ernest Kurtz's outstanding A.A. history, NOT - GOD.  If you have not read this book, you will find it authoritative and full of information you cannot find elsewhere.  This passage begins on page 8.


Sometime in 1931, another man, a young, talented, and wealthy financial wizard, had found himself on the verge of despair over his inability to control his drinking. Having attempted virtually every other “cure,” he turned to one of the greatest medical and psychiatric talents of the time, traveling to Zurich, Switzerland, to place himself under the care of Dr. Carl Gustav Jung. For close to a year, Rowland H. worked with Jung, finally leaving treatment with boundless admiration for the physician and almost as much confidence in his new self.

To his consternation, Rowland soon relapsed into intoxication. Certain that Jung was his last resort, he returned to Zurich and the psychiatrist’s care. There followed, in Bill Wilson’s words written to Dr. Jung in 1961, “the conversation between you [and Rowland] that was to become the first link in the chain of events that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous.” That conversation, in Wilson’s and Jung’s later memory, had made two points. “First of all, you frankly told him of his hopelessness, so far as any further medical or psychiatric treatment might be concerned.” Second, in response to Rowland’s frantic query whether there might be any other hope, Jung had spoken of “a spiritual or religious experience — in short, a genuine conversion,” cautioning, however, “that while such experiences had sometimes brought recovery to alcoholics, they were . . . comparatively rare.”

Concerning the first point, Wilson wrote to Jung: “This candid and humble statement of yours was beyond doubt the first foundation stone upon which our society has since been built.” In response to the second statement, which offered a slender thread of hope, Rowland had joined the Oxford Group, “an evangelical movement then at the height of its success in Europe.” In recalling to Jung this channeling of his idea, Wilson — who was linked to Rowland H. through their mutual friend Ebby T. — stressed the Oxford Group’s “large emphasis upon the principles of self-survey, confession, restitution, and the giving of oneself in service to others.”

Within the Oxford Group, Rowland had found “the conversion experience that released him for the time being from his compulsion to drink.” Returning to New York City, he joined and became active in the Oxford Group at its United States headquarters — the Calvary Episcopal Church of Rev. Dr. Samuel Shoemaker. Alcoholics had not been a primary interest of Oxford Group adherents in America or in Europe, but Rowland chose to devote to such sufferers his efforts at living out and promoting his own conversion experience. Thus, in August 1934, hearing that his old friend Ebby T. was threatened with commitment to an institution because of his drinking, Rowland H. intervened, and with his friend Cebra G., pledged for Ebby’s parole, leading him to the Oxford Group and so to his first period of sobriety.


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