Addiction, 110, 1205–1206


Ernest (Ernie) Kurtz, 1935–2015

Ernest Kurtz, the Harvard-trained scholar best known
for his definitive history of Alcoholics Anonymous
(AA) [1], died at the age of 79 on January 19, 2015.
His later studies focused on guilt and shame [2], spirituality
and its role in addiction recovery [3] and the
growing varieties of AA and addiction recovery experience
[4–6]. He remained active as a seminal thinker,
teacher and mentor, with his last book [7] completed
in 2014 and his last scholarly paper [8] completed only
days before his death.
Ernie was born in 1935—the year AAwas founded—in
a German neighborhood of Rochester, New York, the oldest
child of Edward and Josephine Kurzejewski. He attended St
Bernard’s Seminary and College in Rochester and was
ordained as a Catholic priest. During his parish work,
he took psychology courses at the University of
Rochester and then entered Harvard University, where
he completed a PhD in the History of American
Civilization in 1978. Having himself been treated for
alcoholism in the mid-1970s, the potential for studying
AA arose when AA established an archive containing
all of its previously unavailable historical
documents. After convincing his Harvard dissertation
committee and the AA Trustees’ Archives Committee
of the need for a scholarly history of AA, Ernie completed
his dissertation and subsequently revised and
published it as a book.

Following publication of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics
Anonymous in 1979, Ernie served as Director of Research
and Education at Guest House, taught at the
University of Georgia and Loyola University of Chicago
and later served as an Adjunct Research Scientist at the
University of Michigan’s departments of social work and
psychiatry. In the 1980s he left the priesthood, married
Linda Farris and established himself as one of the premier
alcoholism educators at venues such as the Rutgers University
Summer School of Alcohol Studies. In the early
1990s, Ernie began exploring how the core spiritual experiences
of recovery within AA (release, gratitude, humility,
tolerance, forgiveness and being-at-home) might hold
meaning for a much broader audience. This led to collaboration
with Katherine Ketchamon the book, The Spirituality
of Imperfection, which has sold more than 250 000
copies, and its recent follow-up, Experiencing Spirituality.
Ernie’s most noted work, Not-God, marked the beginning
of his decades-long research on AA and the broader
history of alcoholism recovery. Much of this work involved
debunking misconceptions about AA and elucidating the
differences between AA and professionally directed addiction
treatment [9,10]. Ernie believed recovery mutual aid
and professional interventions each had value as an aid to
long-term addiction recovery, but that their integrity and
value were diminished when their distinguishing characteristics
were diluted or lost. Ernie found the growing
pathways of long-term addiction recovery cause for celebration,
whether it was in his support of atheists and agnostics
in AA or his support of those establishing recovery support
alternatives to AA, including his early support for the development
of Moderation Management. He played a leading
role in the development of the Guide to Mutual Aid Resources
developed by the US-based recovery advocacy organization,
Faces and Voices of Recovery [11].

In his explorations of AA and spirituality, Ernie always
returned to the transformative power of story reconstruction,
storytelling and story listening. In a recent interview,
he noted: ‘All stories require a context, and for the kind of
stories told in A.A.—spiritual stories, however weird that
claim may sound to some—there is something about an
A.A. story that makes sense, that can be truly heard, only
within a community of listeners, of fellow hearers who are
making an effort to identify with the story-teller, to absorb
her or his story into their own’ [12].

Ernie was above all a teacher, mentoring generations of
scholars wishing to explore the history of AA and the
larger history of addiction recovery. It is hard to find a thesis
or dissertation on AA or recovery mutual aid that does not
acknowledge his contributions and guidance. Ernie repeatedly
challenged those of us working on advancing the
history of addiction treatment and recovery to adhere to his
six suggested guidelines: (1) tell the story chronologically,
(2) tell the story in context, (3) document the historical evidence—
all the evidence, (4) clearly separate fact fromconjecture,
(5) tell the story from multiple perspectives and (6)
localize and personalize the story [13]. He demanded a rigorous
level of scholarship and could be harsh when that
standard was not met, but he always raised the quality of
work of those he mentored.

Ernie’s intellectual curiosity was wide-ranging, but he
often returned to the subject of AA’s historical significance
within the larger history of ideas and what AA meant to
those suffering from alcoholism.He insisted that ‘A.A.’s revolutionary
contribution was not medical diagnosis of the
“disease” of alcoholism but its insistence that the most important
reality in the life of the alcoholic, sobriety, could not
be attained alone’ [14]. As historian, teacher,master storyteller,
research colleague and friend, he gifted us with his
intellect, his integrity and his open offers of assistance.
Chestnut Health Systems,
3329 Sunset Key Circle, Unit 203, Punta
Gorda, FL 33955, USA

1. Kurtz E. Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Hazelden: Center City, MN; 1979.
2. Kurtz E. Shame and Guilt: Characteristics of the Dependency
Cycle. Hazelden: Center City, MN; 1981.
3. Kurtz E., Ketcham K. The Spirituality of Imperfection. New
York: Bantam Books; 1992.
4. White W., Kurtz E. The varieties of recovery experience. Int J
Self Help Self Care 2004; 3: 21–61.
5. Strobbe S., Kurtz E. Narratives for recovery: personal stories in
the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous. J Groups Addict Recover
2012; 7: 29–52.
6. Flaherty M. T., Kurtz E., White W. L., Larson A. An interpretive
phenomenological analysis of secular, spiritual, and
religious pathways of long-term addiction recovery. Alcohol
Treat Q 2014; 32: 337–56.
7. Kurtz E., Ketcham K. Experiencing Spirituality. New York:
Tarcher Penguin; 2014.
8. Kurtz E., White W. Recovery spirituality. Religions 2015; 6:
9. MillerW. R., Kurtz E. Models of alcoholism used in treatment:
contrasting A.A. and other perspectives with which it is often
confused. J Stud Alcohol 1994; 55: 159–66.
10. Kurtz E. Alcoholics Anonymous and the disease concept of alcoholism.
Alcohol Treat Q 2002; 20: 5–40.
11. Guide to Mutual Aid Resources. Available at: http://www. April 24, 2015.
12. WhiteW. Ernest Kurtz: the historian as storyteller and healer.
Alcohol Treat Q 2014; 32: 458–84.
13. White W. Spirituality and addiction recovery: an interview
with Ernie Kurtz. Adv Addict Recov 2014; 2: 22–9.
14. Kurtz E. The Collected Ernie Kurtz. Wheeling, WV: Bishop of
Books; 1999.
1206 Obituary
© 2015 Society for the Study of Addiction Addiction, 110, 1205–1206