Remembering Ernie Kurtz

Bill InterviewingErnieKurtz5_2008Ernest Kurtz, the Harvard-trained historian best known for his landmark works on the history of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), spirituality, shame, and the growing varieties of addiction recovery experience, died on January 19, 2015.  The published biographical essay, obituary, and tribute I penned following Ernie’s death reviewed our prolonged collaborations and identified the import of his intellectual contributions and the role he played within the modern history of addiction treatment and recovery.  It seems fitting on this first coming anniversary of his death to add a few additional reflections on the man and what he meant to so many of us.       

It is hard for me to think of Ernie without thinking of the final months of his life.  He and I spent those final months completing his final contribution in defiance of the pancreatic cancer that was devouring his body.  Our final collaboration was an invited essay for the journal Religions on the subject of secular spirituality.  We suggested in this essay that there was a form of spirituality shared across religious, spiritual, and secular styles of recovery within A.A. We noted that this embracing spirituality was reflected in the experiences of beyond (horizontal and vertical transcendence) and between (connection and mutuality) as well as in six facets of spirituality (Release, Gratitude, Humility, Tolerance, Forgiveness, and a Sense of Being-at-Home).  In this final contribution of his life, Ernie wanted to celebrate the growing varieties of A.A. experience and add legitimacy to secular styles of recovery within and beyond the fellowship of A.A. 

I found many things remarkable about our final months working together.  I was struck by Ernie’s anger at the growing public attacks on A.A. from authors revealing a shallow knowledge of A.A. history, philosophy, practices, and the latest scientific research on A.A. At the end of our work on this essay, Ernie added an opening line within the introduction that was quite out of character for him in its expression of emotion in an academic article:  As long-tenured scholars of the very varied literature on A.A., we find ourselves sick and tired of hearing too often, over too many years, observers (they can hardly be called “students”) of Alcoholics Anonymous decrying its lack of scientifically demonstrated value and its apparent reliance on some nebulous entity called “spirituality”.  

Another impression from those final months was Ernie’s intellectual fierceness and the clarity of thinking he could regularly muster in our meetings—all amidst his physical decline, cancer treatments, and growing discomfort and pain.  At the end of each of our last phone meetings to work on the paper, I asked myself, “How does he do that?” 

A third remaining impression is the courage with which he so consciously faced this final stage of his life.  The worries Ernie shared with me about dying were his sadness about the emotional pain and disruption his passing would bring to his wife Linda; beyond that, he shared more than once, “I am ready.” There was a desire to be of service to others as long as possible by completing his final work in progress and by assembling the online collection of his writings in hopes they would be of benefit to future A.A. historians.  If there was any regret in that regard as he faced the end of his life, it was that his definitive 1979 history of A.A. had not yet been updated by himself or others.  Plans for that project that were underway were put on hold following the cancer diagnosis. When Ernie and I talked about any legacy he or I might leave, he was fond of quoting Bansky that each one of us dies twice—the first a physical death and the second the last time someone speaks our name.  We both shared the hope that we might extend the latter through those who we had mentored.  It wasn’t that our names would achieve lasting recognition; it was that the distinctive work on the history of A.A., A.A.’s contributions within the history of ideas, and the exploration of the varieties of A.A. and broader recovery experiences would have life after us.  

Ernie’s passing has been quite disorienting to me this past year–beyond the expected grief in response to the loss of a dear colleague and friend.  I had benefited so much from Ernie’s mentorship and our subsequent collaborations for more than two decades.  And there was my sense that he always had my back—that I could count on him to help me sort out difficult questions that arose within my and our work.  In the months following Ernie’s death, I experience a loss of intellectual energy and found it harder to take on projects of substantial challenge, but, over time, I found that I had spent so much time listening to Ernie and observing his approach to intellectual problem-solving that I could still call on him.  He had become a mentor within—a still living presence for me.  I still feel his physical loss, but there is a new sense of his presence that transcends this loss. 

Richard Gere eloquently described this kind of loss experience and its enduring influence. “It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character.”  Ernie’s passing brought such a limp to many of us—a limp we can affectionately cling to as he continues to live through the profound influence he exerted on each of us and the world.  Within the future world of addiction treatment and recovery, it is doubtful a day will arrive when the name of Ernie Kurtz is last spoken.   We could all wish for such a fate. 

Note:  The collected books (links and full copies), papers, interviews, video presentations, and blogs of Ernest Kurtz are available here and here.