‘Distilled Spirits’: The untold story of how Alcoholics Anonymous became an all-American spiritual movement

Don Lattin is one of America’s most important chroniclers of untold stories that are shaping our religious culture. A veteran journalist based in San Francisco, his previous books have thrown open windows into one mysterious spiritual movement after another. Earlier, we highly recommended his book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. That book told the strange story of how four of the most important spiritual voices of the late 20th century passed through a powerful and painful convergence at Harvard.

Don steps back a couple of decades in his new book: Distilled Spirits. In today’s wide-ranging interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, Don talks about how this new book finally reveals the connections between three major figures: Bill Wilson, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. The result of their creative collision, among other things, shaped one of the most important grassroots spiritual movements in American history: Alcoholics Anonymous.


DAVID: Let’s begin by explaining why your book is a “must read.” When I first saw your new book, I wondered: Why would general readers want to learn about these three fairly obscure guys? Now, having thoroughly enjoyed your book, the answer is obvious to me: You’re telling an untold story about Alcoholics Anonymous and the subsequent host of 12-step groups that touch millions of men and women every day. From its founding in the 1930s, AA really represents a huge change in American religious life, right?

DON: It’s one of the most important spiritual movements of the 20th century and I’m not alone in that assessment. Aldous Huxley called Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson the greatest social architect of the 20th century. That’s high praise, indeed, coming from someone like Huxley! Wilson is important not just because he founded AA and helped millions of people that way. His work also is important because his ideas inspired what sociologists of religion call the small-group movement.

DAVID: A huge number of our ReadTheSpirit readers are involved in small groups. From 12-step groups to Sunday school circles to library book clubs, from men’s breakfasts to women’s groups there are millions of these circles.

DON: That’s right and scholars who study these movements tell us that what came out of the 1930s shaped today’s widespread interest in small groups—some of which meet in people’s homes, some of which meet in churches or synagogues, meditation groups, some affiliated with religion and some not. After all of the research for this new book, I have to agree: Bill Wilson was a genius.

DAVID: There is a long-running debate about whether AA and 12-step programs are “religious” or “spiritual” or “secular.” Your book is fascinating because you look at the interconnections between a huge host of people in the first third of the 20th century. We encounter World War I, Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Woolf, the strange histories of a number of famous drugs, Hindu immigrants and the Vedanta Society. This true story is one strange ride. I’ve been writing in this field for decades—and I discovered lots of things in this book that I never knew! For example, I’ve written about Bill Wilson over the years, but I never new that he read William James. In other words, he was studying one of the founding figures in trying to understand spiritual movements.

DON: Bill Wilson wasn’t just reading William James. He was reading William James the day after he had an important revelation at an asylum for alcoholics in New York. That’s where he had these visions and formative ideas about starting Alcoholics Anonymous. So, Bill Wilson was reading William James, we know, at the exact moment when he was more open to new ideas that at any other time in his life. A friend had given him a copy of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Bill Wilson read it cover to cover. James is a very important influence on the development of Alcoholics Anonymous.

DAVID: The famous phrase—“Higher Power,” the god of your own understanding—is popularized through AA. It sounds so simple, yet it was a revolutionary idea. For two millennia, Christians liked to beat themselves bloody over fine distinctions about the nature of God. Here was permission to envision your own version of God.

DON: Yes, that’s one reason Wilson and Huxley and Heard are so important. They influenced each other and laid the foundation for this revolutionary idea of what today people like to describe as the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. Today in AA, the Higher Power is defined in many, many different ways. There are even people who take a secular view of this. GOD could be defined as Group Of Drunks, the community itself. But these early thinkers who influenced each other—Huxley, Heard and Wilson—they definitely had a serious interest in studying the mystical and divine.


DAVID: So let’s turn to Huxley for a moment. If our readers know anything about him, they probably recall the guy who wrote Brave New World, which they were forced to read in high school. But Huxley was so much more! He came from a very famous family. He was a journalist, a poet, a screenwriter, a broadcaster. He was a pacifist and an early proponent of using drugs to alter consciousness. He was British but also lived in the U.S. and helped to bring Asian religious traditions, specifically Hinduism, to America.

So, my question to you is: What conclusion did you reach after all your research into Huxley’s life? Was he a serious scholar—or a restless amateur? Did he know what he was talking about?

DON: Really, we should think of Huxley as one of the last great polymaths. This was a long line of brilliant thinkers who were interested in everything. They studied science. They studied religion. They studied other disciplines. In the modern age of increasing specialization, it’s hard to appreciate that they were interested in studying everything. They were finding connections between different disciplines that, today, people aren’t as well equipped to find.

Huxley was part of the Lost Generation that was so deeply influenced by World War I. In Huxley’s early writings as a young novelist, he focused on satire and had no interest in religion or spirituality or philosophy. It really wasn’t until Huxley met Gerald Heard in 1929 that he developed this interest in religion and spiritual disciplines that would consume him later in life. One reason that Heard is so important to this story is that he got Huxley interested in these realms. In 1945, Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy, a book that was so important in helping people to look for common spiritual truths. In my book about Huston Smith and the Harvard connections—we see that it was Heard’s influence on Huxley that led to Huxley’s strong influence on Smith and later generations.

DAVID: That influence continues to this day. We recently featured a new interview with the very popular Catholic author Richard Rohr, whose writings reach back to The Perennial Philosophy.


DAVID: Some religious people scoff at the idea of “spiritual but not religious”—and the notion that we can feel free to describe our own version of God, our own Higher Power. Yet, this idea is very serious stuff for millions of men and women, right?

DON: People who come into Alcoholics Anonymous don’t have a lot of time to worry about the fine points of theology. They don’t want doctrinal distinctions. These people are desperate to save their lives. They need something that works—and they need it now. Wilson called it “a faith that works.”

I called this book Distilled Spirits for a number of reasons—one is a reference to a letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson in which Jung pointed out that the Latin word for alcohol is spiritus. Jung wrote: “You use the same word for the highest religious experience as for the most depraving poison.”

DAVID: In your book, you call spirits “double-edged swords.”

DON: What’s so interesting to me is that a lot of people who hit bottom with addiction or alcoholism realize that this really is a spiritual thirst in their lives—trying to fill up an emptiness in themselves. Some people call it a “God-sized hole in the heart.” The spiritual aspect of this is very, very important, but you’re right—it’s not about doctrine or dogma. It’s really about your own powerful, personal spiritual experiences. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or part of no religious belief system at all.


DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, these days, we regularly review important television debuts—and we’re now the publishing house of faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty. Your book makes it clear that Hollywood has been a spiritual melting pot since its origins. Your book includes brief appearances by Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and others. Heard and Huxley were part of that melting pot, right?

DON: Yes. And, actually, I’ve thought of doing a book called Holy Hollywood about the whole history of spirituality in Hollywood. Lawrence Wright’s new book is called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. He has a chapter in his book about this general theme of religious movements in the movie industry.

The main thing to realize is: These connections go back a very long way. From its earliest history, Hollywood attracted a lot of creative people with lots of money—people who were famous for challenging the prevailing notions of their day. A major Vedanta center was set up in Hollywood in the 1920s. We might think of this as a missionary movement within Hinduism and of course Huxley and Heard were very interested in exploring Vedanta. A lot of the spirituality we think of as “Sixties Spirituality” really dates back to the 1920s. Another way to say it is: The 1920s were a lot like the 1960s in many was.

DAVID: You’re mentioning the Asian connections that certainly were a big part of the inquiries Huxley and Heard were undertaking in California. But this movement also connects with America’s distinctive positive-thinking and self-help movements as well, right?

DON: Yes, there are a lot of similarities and cross overs. One place these lines all connect is William James. In a way, all of these movements we’re talking about are very American approaches to religion—very utilitarian. Give me a religion that works. That’s what I want as an American. Today, many people say: I want personal growth from my spirituality. It’s a very consumerist mentality and it connects with all the ways people market spirituality in America. In my earlier book, Following Our Bliss, I give a lot of examples of the ways that ‘60s notions of therapeutic, utilitarian and consumerist spirituality have come to define a lot of religion today. You see this influence in lots of churches today.


DAVID: Finally, we should explain to readers of this interview that Distilled Spirits also is a personal story. Perhaps readers may have sensed, already, from the tone of your comments that you understand all of this from a first-hand perspective. Woven into the fascinating historical stories you give us here, you reveal that you were addicted to drugs and alcohol for many years. This book also is about your own journey into 12-step culture.

So, let me ask: I’ve known you as a colleague in journalism for many years. How did you come to this difficult decision of including yourself in the book? Traditional journalism avoids the word: “I.”

DON: This book actually didn’t start with me in the pages. The idea was really to write a prequel to The Harvard Psychedelic Club. These three guys who readers will meet in the pages of Distilled Spirits are the ones who created a situation that allowed Huston Smith, Timothy Leary, Ram Das and Andrew Weil, much later, to collide in the way they did at Harvard.

Because this new book is published by the University of California Press, there were early readers who provided their reactions. One of the scholars who read my proposal said: “This is interesting but why is Don Lattin interested in these particular people? Why do they matter to this day?”

Well, the answer is: I understand their importance because I’m one of the people helped by what they started so long ago. Of course, I do make it clear to readers: I didn’t know these three guys: Huxley, Heard and Wilson. I didn’t meet these guys. They were really my grandfather’s generation.

But the decision to weave my story into the book really allows readers to see clearly why their lives and ideas are still so important today. Many people’s lives depend on what they started.


ReadTheSpirit recommends all of Don’s earlier books, which are both compelling to read—and reveal surprising corners of America’s spiritual heritage.

SPIRITUAL STATE OF THE MILLENNIUM: Don and co-author Richard Cimino look at emerging trends—from “mix-and-match” forms of religion to the rise of women’s voices in leadership in Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium

THE DARK SIDE: American religious history is full of tragedies, as well as triumphs. Don tells the story of a tragic offshoot from mainline religion in Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge

PRODUCTIVE COLLISION OF FOUR LIVES: In today’s interview, above, we already have recommended The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

THE POWER OF THAT ‘SIXTIES’ VIBE: From Esalen through New Age to Dharma Kids, Don traces the ties that still bind us in the quest we like to call Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today


Don’s Internet hub is his professional website: http://www.DonLattin.com But, you’ll mainly want to seek out his newest online project—a blog for Spirituality & Health that he simply calls Spiritual Search.

(This interview originally was published at https://readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural diversity.)

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  1. Duncan Newcomer says

    Really fascinating. I believe AA is the real church in many ways. To read of these spiritual and intellectual and emotional roots is rich indeed!

  2. Al Bamsey says

    Thanks for the Lattin interview. I simply want to add that if people are interested in distilled spirits in history they may enjoy Daniel Okrent’s Last Call, an amazing story of the rise and fall of prohibition in this country. If you read it you’ll be surprised by the strange bedfellows that fought for the prohibition of spirits (in this case distilled) in our country’s history.

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