Richmond Walker and the
Twenty-Four Hour Book
Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)
|Talk given at the 8th Annual National A.A. Archives Workshop, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Sept. 27, 2003. Posted as a gesture of appreciation for the planners and participants in this excellent conference held this past weekend amidst the palm trees and sunshine and good A.A. fellowship of sunny Florida.|
The three most published A.A. authors are Bill W., Richmond Walker, and Ralph Pfau, in that order. Ralph, who lived in Indianapolis, became in 1943 the first Roman Catholic priest to get sober in A.A., and under the pen name "Father John Doe," wrote the fourteen Golden Books along with three other books, all of them still in print and read by A.A. people today. Richmond Walker got sober in Boston in May 1942, and later moved down to Daytona Beach in Florida, where in 1948 he published Twenty-Four Hours a Day, which became the great meditational book of early A.A. from that point on.
The old timers in my part of the country say without hesitation that they got sober by using two books: the Big Book and Richmond Walker's Twenty-Four Hour book. Phrases and topical advice from both books are sprinkled throughout everything they say when they talk about their own experience of the program, and when they give advice to newcomers. A.A. people carried the little black book with them everywhere they went. It was always considered permissible to read from the Twenty-Four Hour book during A.A. meetings, and to base the discussion on a topic from that book. By 1959, it had sold over 80,000 copies, which means, given the number of people in the program at that time, that roughly fifty percent of the A.A. members owned their own copies, and most of the rest had attended meetings where it was read from or used. As of 1994 (the latest figures which I have), it had sold six and a half million copies (see note 1).
In the Big Book, the eleventh step said "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out." But there were only a handful of extremely short prayers in the Big Book to use as examples, and even if one added the Lord's Prayer and the Serenity Prayer, this was still an unworkably short list. Early A.A. people often used the Methodist meditational book called the Upper Room, and listened to the radio broadcasts of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, but they had nothing of their own. The traditional western books on spirituality and meditation were, most of them, tied to the life of the medieval monasteries and convents and religious orders, and were not tailored to people who were married and had jobs in the secular world, nor were they, most of them, designed to deal with people who had suffered the kinds of trauma, violence, internal torment, and degradation which many alcoholics had experienced. There was an acute and desperate need for something which would teach recovering alcoholics how to pray effectively, and how to meditate on the spirit of the twelve steps.
So Rich produced a little book which I myself would put on my short list of the world's ten or fifteen greatest spiritual classics -- and I include eastern as well as western writings in my assessment. I have been a scholar and a professional in this field for forty years now, and I have seen an incredible number of people make far more spiritual progress in their own lives by meditating daily on that little book, and accomplish this far more quickly, than with any other spiritual work I know of.
The Walker family background
Richmond Walker's world during his youth centered on the wealthy city of Boston, the grand old homes on Beacon Hill, the fancy new houses in Brookline, and the political power residing under the shiny gilded dome of the great state house overlooking the green grass of Boston Common. Rich's family were personal friends with presidents of the United States, like William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. The family money and political prominence came from Rich's Grandfather Walker, who had started out in Worcester, forty-four miles west of Boston, and made his fortune in the shoe manufacturing business. He was not only a successful and wealthy businessman, but got himself elected to the U.S. Congress as the representative from Worcester, and spent many years in Washington continually building his political power in the halls of Congress (Ld 2).
Rich's father and mother (his mother also came from a moneyed manufacturing family) lived in a new house in the fashionable Boston suburb of Brookline at 108 Upland Road at the time Rich was born. Rich's father also went into politics, and got himself elected to the Massachusetts state legislature as the representative from Brookline, where he eventually rose to be speaker of the house from 1905 to 1907 (Ld 1 and 3). He ran for governor of Massachusetts once and failed, and in 1912 decided to run again. He was a Republican, and personal friends, as we have said, with both President Theodore Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft. 1912 was unfortunately the year the Republican party split in half. Taft controlled the old machine politics and the patronage system, and easily obtained the Republican nomination at the convention. Teddy Roosevelt, in outrage, formed a third party, nicknamed the Bull Moose party, made up of reformers and progressives and the honest politicians, and made his own separate run at the presidency.
The Massachusetts Statehouse,
looking down on Boston Common
Rich's father cast his lot with Teddy Roosevelt and the break-away Bull Moose party, but alas, half of the Republican vote was not enough to gain Roosevelt the presidency nor Rich's father the governorship (Ld 3). Rich turned twenty during the summer of that year. At one level, this was very heady stuff: your father, a prominent and well-known politician, running for governor, the whole house abuzz with talk of the bitter split between Taft and Roosevelt at the national political level, and with major political figures regularly dropping by either to plan strategies with Rich's father, or to try to shift him over to their side with threats or promises. And after the bitter results of the election came in, and when it became clear that the family had gone down in humiliating defeat, the atmosphere of depression, resentment, and hurt must have been overwhelming. That was the year, 1912, and that was the situation in which the twenty-year-old Rich started drinking and trying to flee into the bottle.
Rich's childhood and youth
That was the catalyst, but the pressures had already been there since Rich was a small child, and he had already become, long before that point, a very unhappy and rebellious person. He was one of six children, he explained. Joseph was the eldest, born in 1891, then came Rich, who was born on August 2, 1892, then Dorothy (who died of diphtheria while still a baby), and then George, Katharine, and Evelyn. The baby Dorothy's death created a psychological barrier of some sort, which separated Joe and Rich later on from their three younger siblings and created a special linkage between the two older brothers. It is doubtful whether the parents paid much attention to the two boys at all for a while, as they fell into the throes of grief over the death of Dorothy, and only slowly began recovering. Joe, a year and a half older, weathered it better than Rich, who was at an extremely vulnerable age. Poor Rich became convinced from that point on that his parents neither loved nor cared for him at all, and began acting accordingly, which only made matters worse (Ld 5).
His older brother Joe was the only one in the family whom he felt close to, but he resented even Joe: "I always played second fiddle to my brother Joe," he said, in part simply because of the age difference, but Joe was also "stronger and better loved than I was." Rich felt unnoticed and always shoved into the background, so he isolated himself more and more. He says that he became "a lonesome kid who felt he was not loved enough or appreciated enough by [his] mother and father. They considered me a problem child, which I was." He misbehaved and rebelled to try make his parents notice him (Ld 5, see also10).
Rich felt that his family did not love him, and this may have been partly just a misunderstanding in his own head, but he also said that, although they were skilled and brilliant politicians and businessmen, at a deeper level they were people who did not understand love in the true sense, real love, the kind he later discovered in A.A. There was too much emphasis on surface things, grand (and fairly impersonal) social schemes, and personal achievement, and not enough real caring about other human beings at a deeper level. As soon as he was old enough, he went off rebelliously and pretended that they did not even exist.
He and Joe were both sent off to private schools, Joe to Volkman's School in Boston, and Rich to St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island. Rich then went to a very prestigious school, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, which had been founded in 1785. In the world's eyes, he was an enormous success at every point along the way. The problem was that Joe had gone to Yale instead. No matter how well you did at Williams College, it could not compare to a degree from Yale. Rich had once again been surpassed and outshone by his older brother (Ld 6 and 10).
And yet Rich had been enormously successful, so bright that he was able to finish college in just three and a half years -- magna cum laude, with a Phi Beta Kappa key -- and then take a grand tour through the great historical and artistic centers of Europe (Ld 6). He was a highly educated man, as shows up repeatedly in his Twenty-Four Hour book, knowledgeable about literature and science, art and psychology, philosophy and theology -- but he regarded himself as a failure.
He won a gold medal for his ability in classical Greek, which is important, because it meant that he had read and understood Plato. In the Foreword to the Twenty-Four Hour book, Rich explains how he took God Calling, a work of traditional Christian piety, and converted these religious statements into what he called "universal spiritual thoughts," which make up part of the small print sections at the bottoms of the pages in the Twenty-Four Hour book. It was not the beliefs of a specific religion which he was interested in, but the Platonic ideas which lay behind them, which were equally accessible to people of all religions, or no particular religion at all.
It was the vision of the sunlight of the spirit in Plato's parable of the cave which Rich was trying to teach, and the eternal ideas which became visible when the prisoners in that cave managed to escape the dark shadow world in which they had been enchained, and finally emerged into that radiant light above. And like all good Platonists, he realized that the material world was a complex hall of mirrors, reflections of reflections of reflections of those shining eternal truths, which were alive with the Eternal Life.
Rich also learned in college about the German philosopher Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 created the central problem of all subsequent western philosophy and theology. Our human minds are imprisoned in a box of space and time, as Rich comments repeatedly in his Twenty-Four Hour book, and the normal scientific method does not allow us any contact with the eternal and infinite ground of the universe which lies outside this box.
But he also learned, at first or at least at second hand, about the German philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who had proposed ways to get past the barrier which Kant seemed to have erected. In his Twenty-Four Hour book, Rich talks in language sometimes reminiscent of Jakob Friedrich Fries or Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes of Rudolf Otto or the early Karl Barth, sometimes of Albrecht Ritschl or even Adolf von Harnack. These theologians taught us that, in spite of the Kantian problem, we could still obtain some sort of real contact with God via Ahnung (the realm of intuitive knowledge and the hints we could see in the world around us of the infinite), Gefuehl (the realm of feeling and emotion), and by focusing on the moral dimension of human life. This kind of knowledge could only be expressed in symbol and metaphor, in Platonic images and icons and parables and what Rudolf Otto called ideograms ("picture writing"), but it was real knowledge also, just different from scientific knowledge.
In spite of his brilliance in school, Rich was not the kind of person who hid in the library and did nothing but study all the time. He was able to use the family political skills to get himself elected class president, captain of the football team, president of his fraternity -- whatever kind of recognition he set his eye on. And yet, in spite of all the time he spent participating in sports and various social groups, and his ability and enormous skill in manipulating other people, he had no one with whom he was genuinely close. In the lead which he gave at an A.A. meeting in Rutland, Vermont, in 1959, he says:
|"Although well-respected, I did not make class friends. I was wrapped in a cloak of reserve; there was a wall between myself and other people. I did not go halfway to make friends, and there was no love in my life. In fact, true love has always been a mystery to me. As a child I was not loved, and as a result I have never learned to truly love others. I was poorly adjusted to life, being self-contained, egocentric, immature, easily hurt, and overly sensitive."|
It was the typical alcoholic mind-set: feeling alone even in the midst of a crowd, and unable to feel any real sense of connection with others. He was incredibly thin-skinned and wore his feelings on his sleeve: even a slight word could wound or enrage him to the core (Ld 10-11).
He began drinking when he was halfway through college, and yet at first he regarded himself as a very controlled and moderate drinker. "I thought that those who drank a lot were very foolish." Then, after leaving college, he began to drink more and more heavily, and he began to feel even more isolated (Ld 8). As he says in the reading for January 30 in the Twenty-Four Hour book:
|"A drinking life isn't a happy life. Drinking cuts you off from other people and from God. One of the worst things about drinking is the loneliness . . . . Drinking cuts you off from other people, at least from the people who really matter to you, your wife and children, your family and real friends. No matter how much you love them, you build up a wall between you and them by your drinking. You're cut off from any real companionship with them. As a result, you're terribly lonely."|
|Underneath the surface egotism, the aura of apparent total self-confidence, the glad-handing, the shrewd massaging of other people's fears and desires, was an inferiority complex which turned every achievement to dust in his mouth. In the reading for June 6, he comments:|
|"Alcoholism is usually a symptom of some underlying personality problem. It's the way we alcoholics express our maladjustments to life. I believe that I was a potential alcoholic from the start. I had an inferiority complex. I didn't make friends easily. There was a wall between me and other people. And I was lonely. I was not well adjusted to life."|
And what did Rich mean by that interesting phrase in his 1959 lead, "true love has always been a mystery to me"? (Ld 11) He did not mean it in the romantic sense, where the man sends a Valentine to a woman with a gushy, sentimental message talking about how "when I found you, I found true love at last." He talked repeatedly about not being loved when he was a child, and not knowing how to love anyone else, even family members or friends his own age, in any kind of truly deep way.
He talked about this twice in his Twenty-Four Hour book. March 5th says that he finally discovered that the kind of real love he lacked in his life could only come from the indwelling of God in the human heart, a divine love which drove out fear and pathological dread of closeness with other human beings: "There is no room for fear in the heart in which God dwells. Fear cannot exist where true love is or where faith abides." But we need even more than that. In the reading for May 21, Rich says that we not only need God, we also need the fellowship of the program in order to be healed and to learn how to share, which is one of the most important parts of loving. A.A. taught him how to share with others.
After finishing up at Williams College in June of 1914 (Rich turned twenty-two that summer), he threw himself into drinking and parties in a way he never had before. As he put it in his lead (Ld12), "I found that drinking loosened me up and allowed me to enjoy the company of others -- especially drinkers like myself. Soon alcohol became a crutch to me, which enabled me to enjoy life: the companionship of girls, parties, football games, and all of my activities."
Rich pointed out in one of the essentially autobiographical sections of the Twenty-Four Hour book, the reading for April 4th (see also June 24), that his out-of-control alcohol consumption was a symptom, which pointed towards an even more serious underlying disease. People who came into A.A. not only had a drinking problem, they had an even more destructive thinking problem:
|"Every alcoholic has a personality problem. He drinks to escape from life, to counteract a feeling of loneliness or inferiority, or because of some emotional conflict within himself, so that he cannot adjust himself to life. His alcoholism is a symptom of his personality disorder. An alcoholic cannot stop drinking unless he finds a way to solve his personality problem. That's why going on the wagon doesn't solve anything. That's why taking the pledge usually doesn't work."|
Sgt. Bill S., the Air Force sergeant who came into the A.A. program on Long Island in 1948 (the year Rich wrote the Twenty-Four Hour book), explores the nature of the kind of emotional conflicts which Rich was talking about in the book he recently wrote, On the Military Firing Line in the Alcoholism Treatment Program. Old-time A.A. people knew that we had to do two things in order to be healed: we had to quit fighting God and start making a little better friends with him, and we had to deal with all the character defects and personality problems which underlay our alcoholic compulsion. Not either-or, but both-and.
Rich put the problem very simply: "Alcohol is our weakness," but underneath that is the seething morass of "our unstable emotions." So Rich partied and he played, a son of the wealthy and prominent, and if he seemed to be drinking a tremendous amount, he and everyone else just put it down to youth.
From the First World War to successful
young Boston businessman
The United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917. Both brothers went into the service. Rich served honorably; he was put in the Medical Corps, and eventually commissioned as a second lieutenant. He ended up as adjutant of Evacuation Hospital No. 54, which meant that he knew at first hand the horrors of the men who had been maimed and mutilated, and were coughing out their lungs from having breathed poison gas. But Rich himself never got overseas. His brother Joe on the other hand was in the Marine Flying Corps, there with the dashing new airplanes which so caught the public's fancies. So Joe was with the modern equivalent of knights in shining armor on noble white chargers, the most romantic of the romantic, while Rich stayed home and took care of the injured. Once again, Joe had outdone him (Ld 6).
But Joe was the one person in the family who continued to love him most, the one who tried to take care of him. So Joe talked Rich into joining him in starting their own wool business (see note 2), the Walker Top Company, where Rich worked in one capacity or another for the next thirty years. Presumably the family money and connections gave them their start-up. In his lead, he says that "We had a house on Beacon Hill, with a Japanese servant, and we did a lot of entertaining. Although I went to the office every day, I never was much of a businessman -- it did not really interest me." It was the parties and the drinking that interested him. Beacon Hill, rising to the side of Boston Common and the Public Gardens, was where the old elite of Boston lived, the upper crust of one of the most snobbish cities in the world. The two brothers were already wealthy businessman even though they were just in their twenties. They seemed to have risen to the very heights of worldly success, and for Rich at least, it was all one big party that would never end (Ld13).
Marriage to Agnes
But after several years of partying on Beacon Hill, shortly before his thirtieth birthday, he made an effort to do what he regarded as growing up. On May 8, 1922 he married Agnes, who was a Bostonian like himself, and someone who seemed to like a good party as much as he did (Ld 14, also 7). Neither of them told anybody about it. They simply went off to New York city and had a simple ceremony at the Little Church Around the Corner, as it was called, and then came back to Boston and rented an apartment in Brookline. The part of this story that is especially strange and bizarre -- the part that makes it clear that Rich had very serious psychological problems of some sort by this point -- is that Rich never bothered to tell anyone in his family that he was married until Hilda, their first child, was born. He says that the family accepted this block-busting news just fine. So there was no hint that Agnes was fundamentally socially unacceptable to the family, or that marrying her was in and of itself an act of rebellion. In Rich's version of the story at least, he seems to have just decided perversely that he was not going to tell anyone that he had gotten married (Ld 14).
Joe in particular instantly came to Rich's support, and built them an extremely nice new house in the Chestnut Hill section of Brookline, over in the Boston suburbs. Joe, the family caretaker, attempted to make everything right again. Rich and Agnes ended up having four children: Hilda, Caroline, John, and David. Rich of course did not stop drinking, and looking back at that period of his life from thirty-some-odd years later, he realized that he had never really spent any time with his wife or their young children. He had married in the first place because he felt so alone, and so desperately wanted human companionship, but once he had it, he continually fled from it and went out drinking instead (Ld 7, also see 8).
Once he and Agnes were ensconced in their fancy new house, Rich decided to make his partying bigger and more extravagant:
|"We became friends with a family who lived nearby, and together we went on several trips to the West Indies, Havana, and Canal Zone. I was drinking a lot on these journeys, and my alcoholism was becoming more evident as time passed. After we had been married for two years, I bought a summer cottage in Siasconset on Nantucket Island, where we spent our summers. Our friends there were a heavy drinking crowd, and my alcoholism developed rapidly."|
It should be said that one reason for the trips abroad was that the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act had introduced the Prohibition era to the United States by the beginning of 1920, and alcohol was illegal for fourteen years, all the way down to the end of 1933. This did not mean that alcoholics could not obtain alcohol whenever they wanted -- it could easily be smuggled in by boat onto the beaches of Nantucket Island, where Rich indicates that he was able to get all he wanted to drink every summer without any problem -- but a nightclub in Havana, Cuba could operate a good deal more openly, extravagantly, and flamboyantly than a speakeasy in a dark basement in Boston. And you could pretend that there was more glamor to it that way too.
Rich talked about the fancy nightclubs and the romantic trips to the tropics in some of the autobiographical sections of the Twenty-Four Hour book, and took pains to make it clear that the reality was not so glamorous at all, if you looked at the whole picture (24H 2/6–2/7):
"A night club crowded with men and women all dressed up in evening clothes looks like a very gay place. But you should see the men's room of that night club the next morning. What a mess! People have been sick all over the place and does it smell! The glamour of the night before is all gone and only the stink of the morning is left."
"A long mahogany bar in the tropical moonlight looks like a very gay place. But you should see the place the next morning. The chairs are piled on the tables and the place stinks of stale beer and cigarette stubs. And often we are there too, trying to cure the shakes by gulping down straight whiskey."
In his Twenty-Four Hour book in the January readings, particularly the 25th, Rich stressed that this was an unnatural and abnormal way of living, that craved an artificial life of continuous excitement and a hyper kind of "good times" feeling for every waking hour.
The worst of it though, Rich said, was the long-term effect of his drinking on his family and his career and his mind (24H 2/18): "After I became an alcoholic, alcohol poisoned my love for my family, it poisoned my ambition in business, it poisoned my self-respect. It poisoned my whole life, until I met A.A. My life is happier now than it has been for a long time. I don't want to commit suicide." Such a simple, poignant way of summing up what A.A. did for him: I no longer am tormented by such pain and self-hate that I yearn to commit suicide now.