Kenneth G. Merrill

Some more excerpts from his
Christmas Eve broadcasts

Ken's descent into the black pit of despair

Christmas Eve Broadcast 1950

  At the end of twenty years of drinking, Ken was putting down a quart a day, waking up at two in the morning in a nameless terror, increasingly unable to carry out his responsibilities as president of a large manufacturing firm, and almost totally alienated from his family. All he could see lying ahead of him was ruin, dishonor, and death.  

  If you who may be listening have become frightened, have begun to realize that drinking is wrecking your life, have got to a point where you don't dare to face the fact for fear of what the truth will reveal, it would do you no harm to have a talk with us. We've all been there; we all know how you feel; we all know the thoughts that are torturing you. If you find that once you start drinking you can't stop, that once you start drinking you can't eat, that once you start drinking you can't get going in the morning without an eye-opener, if you wake up at two or three o'clock in the morning, chilled with sweat and trembling with nameless terror, if you find that absenteeism from work (because you just can't get there) is increasing, if you find that your domestic situation is crashing about your ears, if through alcohol your financial problem has become so mixed up that you don't know which way to turn -- if these things are happening to you, just remember there are 400 in this area who have been through the same thing. These symptoms are clear manifestations of alcoholism.

To the person who hasn't looked into the subject, it comes as a great surprise to find out that the symptoms of alcoholism are as precise as the symptoms of measles. We all act the same way, get into the same trouble and reach the same apparently hopeless complications in our lives. Each of us has known the black pit of despair. No matter how bad you are, you will find in our membership people who have been sicker, who have been in more trouble, whose outlook was more hopeless. And yet they got well.

Alcoholism is a disease. It has no moral or spiritual side whatever. It is not a question of character -- it has nothing to do with being strong or weak. It is a disease. And as a disease, A.A. has found a way to arrest its progress, permanently, to restore the man or woman to sober, purposeful and happy existence. Three out of every four who have come to us during the past eight years have been put back on their feet. A.A. is the only force in the history of recorded civilization which has been able to do this thing. With over 100,000 members and some 3,000 chapters all over the country; with fifteen years of success behind us, we feel we can make the outright statement that Alcoholics Anonymous is not an experiment. Its absolute integrity, its amazing success has been proven. If alcohol is your problem, we can show you the way out ....

Believe me, I speak from personal experience. When I came into A.A., I was on the brink of absolute ruin. I could see nothing ahead but disintegration, dishonor and death. Yet here I am making my seventh Christmas Eve broadcast! In the old days I was what we call a "quart a day" man. Yet I have been completely dry for over seven years; even the thought of taking a drink has not come into my head for the last three years. I look back on twenty years of alcoholism as a bad dream. Not altogether bad however -- for we in Alcoholics Anonymous use our dreadful pasts as a bridge of understanding to reach you who have not yet joined us. Believe me, we know the score. You will find among us such understanding, such friendliness, such helpfulness as you never dreamed existed. Drop us a line, and you may yet come to look back on this Christmas as the time when your real life began.

The dreadful loneliness of the alcoholic

Christmas Eve Broadcast 1953

  Alone even in the midst of a crowd, feeling as though no one on earth cares whether we live or die: all we can see lying ahead is suicide or the insane asylum.  

  We often make the statement that no one but an alcoholic knows what loneliness is. An alcoholic is still absolutely alone, seated at a crowded bar. Of all the forlorn, desolate, miserable, abandoned, lonely people on the face of the earth, the alcoholic is the most heartbreaking. There are men in this city, this very second, seated at bars saying to themselves "Nobody cares whether I live or die. My family won't talk to me, I've lost all my friends. Nobody has anything but contempt for me. I'm shot, I'm kaput, I'm through. A little more of this and I'll reach the end of the road where there are only two courses open to me -- the St. Joe River or [the insane asylum at] Logansport." How do I know this? Of course, because I've been there myself. Everyone in A.A. has been there. We can't make it too clear that there are no outsiders, no do-gooders, no meddlers in A.A. We're just a bunch of common drunks banded together to keep each other dry, and the magnificent part of it is, we're doing just that.  

Ken's summary of the Twelve
Steps for beginners

Christmas Eve Broadcast 1945

  People came from many miles away to attend the beginners lessons held in South Bend, particularly when Ken was the one teaching that week. Ken's approach, which was interesting, was to talk in the first lesson about making a self-inventory and seeing what we needed to do to mend our lives and make restitution for the harm we had done. A.A. is concerned with spirituality, not religion in the formal, outward sense. My motive for embarking upon the spiritual life must be, in the first instance, not an attempt to please God and gain some sort of heavenly rewards. The only motive that will work in the beginning is a truthful realization of how miserable and destructive my own life has become, coupled with the realization that the problem lies not with other people but with me. Then in the second lesson, Ken could begin talking about our own powerlessness to heal ourselves from this soul-sickness and its compulsive drinking and self-destructive behavior. Only then could the necessity become clear to us of finding a higher power upon which we could call for help.  

  The A.A. method was formulated by its founders into a program of twelve steps. In the South Bend group these steps are taught to new candidates as they come in, in three doses of roughly four steps each, in three evening classes, and candidates must complete this training in our technique before they are considered as full members.

To go into these twelve steps properly is a large order, and would take a lot of time; so for the purposes of this talk, which I am trying to keep brief, we will reduce them to three basic fundamentals. These are --
  1. We try to square ourselves. Make restitution for wrongs we have done while drinking. Most alcoholics have been loose with money, hurt their friends' feelings, made their wives and their families grievously unhappy. Although we have no feeling of shame or guilt or sin over having been an alcoholic, we do feel an ethical responsibility for bad situations we have created, and we try to atone for them.
  2. Realizing -- usually having proved to ourselves countless times -- that we were powerless over alcohol -- we humbly, sincerely and honestly ask a higher power to handle the problem for us.
  3. We help other drunks at every available opportunity. Partly from gratitude, partly from compassion, partly from the miraculous effect it has upon ourselves. When we are working with others, we are free from the desire to drink, ourselves.
There is only one rule in A.A. A person seeking membership must admit that he is an alcoholic and come to us under his own steam. Experience has shown that men pushed in by the boss, the wife, or relatives just don't get anywhere. A guy has got to admit he is licked.

The Strength of Fellowship

Christmas Eve Broadcast 1952

  "Walking, arms linked, with a line of stout fellows who stretch from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye can see"  

  This is the tenth Christmas Eve broadcast of the message of Alcoholics Anonymous to that small proportion -- possibly 1 1/2 per cent -- of this station's listeners who find alcohol an urgent and desperate problem.

Originally founded by two men, the local chapter has grown amazingly. Today some 600 members in this area have, through A.A., found their way back to a life of sobriety, purpose, and fully restored self-respect.

Why has this movement spread so rapidly? What is the secret of its effectiveness -- the restoration to normal living of hundreds of heretofore doomed people? Each success represents a modern day miracle. What ingredient do we possess which, up to the coming of A.A., was never used before?

The answer is so simple it has taken mankind centuries to find it. Yet so potent is it, that three out of four men or women who come to us find their alcoholism permanently arrested. The fact that this incredible recovery is usually followed by a quick return to a normal family life, full time employment, and a peace of mind we have never known before, does not answer the question. The question is, why does A.A. work?

The answer lies in one word: understanding. Not the knowledge of doctors, the knowledge of psychiatrists, but the knowledge one drunk has of what another drunk is going through. Look! If you, who are listening at this very minute actually know at the bottom of your heart that you are an alcoholic, you also know that you don't drink to feel good -- out of selfishness -- you drink to quit feeling miserable. Something dark and frightening within you makes it impossible for you to face life without alcohol. Do you expect anyone but another drunk to understand that? You wake up with a hangover and you've got to have a drink. Not want one, but got to have one. Your wife, your family, your friends tell you that this is nonsense. Only a fellow alcoholic knows it's true. Your acquaintances think you are arrogant, domineering, selfish about your drinking. Only we know that underneath this pathetic cockiness is a half-world of confusion, self-loathing and horror that non-alcoholics find it impossible even to imagine.

As alcoholics, our commonest complaint is that nobody understands us. By and large, this is the truest thing you ever said, brother! With one exception. We understand you.

Let's say you've tied one on for a few weeks, and in all that time you have not met one person who didn't treat you with contempt. You haven't met one person that understands you. Walk into an A.A. meeting where there are thirty-seven men and you will find thirty-seven men who understand you. I repeat, all thirty-seven understand you because every single one of them is an alcoholic himself. The minute you join us, you can be yourself -- we know exactly what you're going through because we've been there.

You've probably tried any number of times to quit drinking. Tried to do the job alone. May we draw you a little word picture of the difference between attempting to quit by yourself, and doing it through A.A.?

When you go it alone, you are like a man walking across a dark field which stretches from horizon to horizon. This field is dark and ominous and has insecure footing. You are pretty nervous before you start. As you walk along, an assailant (temptation) jumps out from behind some brush and attacks you. Instantly another springs behind you and pins your arms. A third makes a flying tackle for your knees and down you go -- drunk again. In A.A. you are walking across this same field of life. At first it still looks dangerous. But you are walking, arms linked, with a line of stout fellows who stretch from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye can see. If that same assailant (temptation) should come out slugging, it is impossible for another assailant to get behind you because you are walking locked arm in arm with thousands of fellow members. Nor can a dive be made at your ankles because of the swing of marching feet, and should temptation persist you have a guy on either side of you to help you fight.

That's the difference between trying to do it alone and doing it in A.A. In one case you haven't a chance, in the other, if you keep in step, it's almost impossible to fail.

So if this Christmas Eve finds you sick with remorse over what you are doing to others, remember we have all felt the tortures of conscience; terrified at how you have gone down hill the last few years, remember we have all known ghastly and gripping fear; not daring to think of the future because you sense only final disaster ahead, remember we have all walked with despair. Why not have a talk with us? It costs nothing to join A.A. You take no vows, you sign no pledges. You just fall in step with a gang of fellows who know where they're going.

Bear in mind that Alcoholics Anonymous means anonymous. Your identity is safe with us. Once in, all feeling of being an abandoned outcast from society will vanish instantly. Your loneliness is past -- you will find such friendship as you never know existed. Far from being a bunch of blue-nosed reformers we sometimes think we have more fun than any crowd in town.

All you have to do, to start the ball rolling, is to drop a line to P.O. Box 1342, South Bend. Once mailed, believe me, the greatest experience of your life lies ahead. So, Merry Christmas, old timer, a Christmas that CAN carry with it hope, and courage, and VICTORY.

The rich rewards which A.A. promises

Christmas Eve Broadcast 1949

  Christians celebrate the birth of the child of God every year on December 25th. For the recovering alcoholic, celebrating your sobriety date in A.A. every year is also a kind of intimate personal Christmas: rejoicing over "the day upon which the real you was born."  

  How do we work? Well, let's kind of put it backwards. What would you find if you joined us? first, it is a safe statement to say that today you feel there is no one who understands you. With us you will find dozens, hundreds, who understand you completely. Today you feel friendless, forlorn and abandoned. In Alcoholics Anonymous you will find yourself surrounded by the largest group of warm friends you have ever had in your life. Where your way today is one of misery, self-pity and despair, you will find in Alcoholics Anonymous a return of self-respect. You will achieve true peace of mind. You will run into former drinking companions who were once worse than you are now. Purpose and happiness will flow back into your life as you say to yourself, "If that guy could make it, I can." And you can.

Lastly, you will realize that the load of shame and guilt that has been riding like a black monkey on the back of your neck all these years has no reality. You will find out with inexpressible joy that down deep inside you are a pretty fine guy after all. Once you understand the disease of alcoholism and join arm in arm with the rest of us in arresting it, miraculous things will happen to you. You will regain your physical health, and look it! You will regain the affection of your family. You will have the respect of your neighbors. You will do well on your job and start getting ahead in the world at last. But above all and beyond all, you will be a fine citizen and a deeply happy person.

This can easily be your last drinking Christmas Eve. There is a way out. I repeat, there is a way out. Five hundred of us drunks like yourself have found it. Join us -- and a year hence you will look back on today as a bad dream. So merry Christmas, fella, because if you get in touch with us, Christmas from now on will not be just a day of religious observance but will also come to mean the day upon which the real you was born.

From the Prelude to Andrew M. Greeley's
Star Bright: A Christmas Story (1997)

"It was said by the very old peasants in my country -- and now it is said again -- that on some very special Christmas nights Mary and Joseph and the Child come back to earth. There is snow on the ground and the nights are cold but not too cold. The blanket of stars in the sky is like a blanket of spring flowers. The angels and the shepherds and the shepherds' children and the twelve wise men come with them."

"Twelve?" I asked. "I thought there were only three."

"We Russians know better," Odessa said, waving my question aside as a silly interruption. "It is also said that when men and women of faith who know where the cave is enter it to gaze on the child, they see something truly amazing."

"What's that?"

"They see that the face of the Child is their own face. Then they realize they are the beloved child! Is that not wondrous!"

It sounded like pantheism to me, but what did I know? I was nothing more than an Irish kid from the South Side of Chicago.



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