Tom Powers’ GREAT EXPERIMENT:
Exploring the possibility that God can be known
- By Father Bill W.
Boarding a plane for New York City a few months ago, I’ll confess to having my doubts about what I was likely to find at my journey’s end. I was going to visit the home of All Addicts Anonymous, a group that had quietly spun off from A. A. nearly fifty years before. They had left, not in anger, but in a bold experiment of faith – an experiment to live out “in community” the original vision of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program.
In 1961, the little group purchased 45 acres of land in a remote section of the Catskill Mountains and set out in pursuit of their dream. They carried with them and kept alive the Four Absolutes from the Oxford Group on which the 12 Steps had been built: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. They also tookthe 10 Points of their AAA Program that captures the heart and soul of Chapter Five in the Big Book.Then they began offering spiritual help and healing to addicts of nearly every sort imaginable. They offered help to drug addicts, to compulsive smokers, to crazy eaters, to gamblers, fornicators, masturbators, depressives, worriers and to liars – in other words, to any and all of us willing to admit to having more than just a drinking problem. Their leader was Thomas E. Powers, whose original sponsor was none other than Bill Wilson himself.
Powers first showed up in New York A.A. in 1941 with his life falling apart fast. His alcoholism had already taken him to the “nuthouse” once, but he arrived in the year A.A. skyrocketed from 700 to 2,000 members so there was lots of 12-Step work to keep Tom both busy and dry. Once an up and coming copy-writer and account executive at a major New York advertising firm, Tom saw himself as a cut above the rest of the drunks he met and not nearly in as much need of seeking God’s help as they. He took the parts of the suggested Program he liked and left the rest. Tom’s recovery lasted 11 months. Then he discovered, “the part of the Program I didn’t like was the sobriety part!” Four years and seven nuthouses later, Tom washed up on the A.A. shores once again; but this time, something inside him had changed. This time he was desperate. Pain made him willing to try “the God experiment” he had previously refused. Powers made the experiment and took his last drink on October 10, 1946.
With his sobriety now on solid, spiritual footing, Tom became a close collaborator with his old sponsor. He lent his considerable writing talents to Wilson in publishing the second edition of the Big Book, A.A. Comes of Age, and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. By now Powers had embarked on a lifelong quest of digging ever deeper into study of the literature surrounding the great religious traditions of mankind. In this connection he read widely and explored the spiritual roots of A.A. to their sources both within Christianity and within some of the other great religions and spiritual movements throughout history. Originally an atheist, Powers became a Christian but never a very narrow-gaugeone. Tom said that “along the way [to recovery], I was mothered and taught by spiritual mongrels [fellow AAs of a variety of religious persuasions] … and I always maintained a close kinship to the breed.” His spiritual journey led him to study Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist and Islamic scriptures as well as the depth psychology of C.G. Jung and the challenging and often overlooked contributions of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. Tom believed deeply in the transforming power of TRUTH whenever it might be found and wherever it might lead. He believed that above all else, addicts need to connect vitally and viscerally to that TRUTH, or many of them would die.
Although the senior Tom and Bill Wilson went their separate ways in the 1960s, Bill wished him well in his search for a stronger model of recovery. While Bill maintained his stewardship of the original Fellowship he had co-founded with Dr. Bob, Tom pressed on toward the development of an application of the original principles of AA for everyone. He saw the need to hold out the hope of recovery to the increasing population of cross-addicted people, and to what ordinary AA viewed as non-addicts, or “normapaths.” This is the term Tom used to include non-alcoholics who were leading quiet or noisy lives of desperation trapped by anxiety, depression, fear, and resentment.
Over the years, Tom, along with his son Tom, Jr., proved to be gifted writers. They published an incredible number of thought-provoking and spiritually challenging articles in 24 Magazine (originally titled Way Out magazine), in which they presented material for spiritual seekers and swimmers willing to venture into the full and exciting depths of the world’s great books that can lead to God. Tom and the AAA’s that followed in his footsteps have always loved and supported A.A. for what it gave them; but they loved it enough to encourage it to be true to its spiritual roots. They still maintain close ties to their spiritual mother who gave them birth, but they’re also growing new ties to groups like the nuns from the order of Mother Theresa who labor among the poor in the slums of the Bronx, and the Bruderhof Communities whose mission involves passing on the message of God’s power to transform troubled lives.
In 1976 Tom Jr. wrote an article for 24 Magazine called, Three Ways to Work the 12-Step Program: (http://www.alladdictsanonymous.org/articles_twelvesteps.htm) In the original article, which has become a classic in AA circles, he argues persuasively as to why the original, strong version of the 12-Step Program is necessary for addicts who are prone to relapse or who suffer from multiple addictions.
The impact of my weekend meeting with the members of All Addicts Anonymous has stayed with me for nearly three months now. I doubt it will ever leave – at least, I hope it will not. What I found there, in humble and tranquil surroundings, were scores of addicts, both young and old who had found real life and real recovery through working the original, strong 12-Step Program under the care and mentoring of those who had themselves been transformed by the Power that we call God. Some had been food addicts, some were traditional treatment failures, some had been strung out on drugs and strong, mood changing medications - written off by their families as hopeless – they were now clean, off of all medications, and overcoming their numerous addictions, one day at a time. On Saturday night I joined their community for a joyous and rollicking songfest – a combination of Christian hymns and old Irish drinking songs that brought all of the addicts in attendance and all the surrounding mountains to life. On Sunday we went to their chapel and thanked God for His many blessings so generously given to those who seek Him.
Tom Powers, Sr. died sober in 2005 but his devoted friends, and the movement he founded lives on. During the coming year, I’ll be devoting this column to a series of articles examining one of Tom Powers’ most important contributions. It’s a book he titled INVITATION to a Great Experiment – Exploring the possibility that God can be known. I hope you’ll come back again next month to join me in this spiritual lab work – it’s an experiment powerful enough to change your life.
Father Bill W. is an Episcopal priest in recovery since 1972. He serves as Chair of Recovery Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, and received the 2008 Award from the Johnson Institute for advancing faith and science in addiction prevention and recovery. Send comments, contributions, and 12 Step speaking requests to RevBillW@gmail.com