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Narcotics Anonymous: New Beginnings


Betty T. left treatment at the Narcotic Farm in 1950 and shortly thereafter began correspondence with Houston S., Danny C., and AA co-founder Bill W. about her interest in starting a support group meeting for addicts in Los Angeles. Betty, a nurse, was addicted to narcotics and then alcohol and Benzedrine before beginning her recovery in AA on December 11, 1949. Her interest in starting a recovery support group for addicts grew out of her own personal background and the growing number of people in AA she witnessed experiencing problems with drugs other than alcohol. On February 11, 1951, Betty hosted the first Habit Forming Drugs (HFD) meeting at her home – a special closed meeting for AA members who were also recovering from other drug addictions. These meetings continued weekly, then monthly, then as a special meeting for newcomers hosted as needed over the next few years.

Betty became concerned over whether such a special meeting within AA or a special group separate from AA was needed. She discussed this question in a series of letter exchanges with AA co-founder Bill W. in 1951 and 1955, sharing her growing sense that a separate group was not needed for AA members with drug problems. She agreed with Wilson that addicts who were not also alcoholics could attend open AA meetings but could not become AA members or attend closed AA meetings. That left open the need for a group for “pure addicts,” but Betty felt she was not the person to start such a group, that Addicts Anonymous was not being accepted in Los Angeles, and that Danny C.’s New York-based Narcotics Anonymous groups were not adhering to the 12 Traditions (e.g., Danny C.’s use of his full name in the press). She particularly objected to new groups that dropped “alcohol” from the Steps: “They do not stress the danger of alcohol as a substitute for drugs!”

The exchanges between Betty T. and Bill W. afford a window into the ambivalent attitudes of AA members toward drugs other than alcohol. Betty was quite candid about the “pill problems” she was observing in AA, and she was quite encouraged early on by the effects the HFD group was having on AA:

Throughout the L.A. area and as far down as San Diego the addict [who also admits he or she is powerless over alcohol] is one of us … many older members of AA that never told of a problem with drugs, are openly speaking of it at the meetings … I know that many narcotic and barbiturate addicts are sponsored in various groups by members of AA, and they never see an addicts group!

Bill W., for his part, frequently noted the strong mutual aversion between alcoholics and “dope addicts” and reported that in some areas, there had been “violent opposition to drug addicts attending AA meetings.”

Such ambivalence and resistance is evident in early AA newsletters of this period. For example, the 1953 issue of The Night Cap, a newsletter from the Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Antonio, Texas, notes: “It is our studied conclusion that there is no place in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous for the narcotic or barbiturate addict.” In a 1954 issue of The Key, a patient describes attitudes toward addicts in Las Vegas AA meetings: “all manner and kinds of people are made welcome, the thieves, conmen, crooked gamblers … , but ‘NO DOPE ADDICTS’ are permitted there.” Such declarations did not change the fact that many people addicted to drugs other than or in addition to alcohol were finding recovery within the fellowship of AA.

Betty T. was not the only one writing Bill W. in these years about the problem of drug addiction. Lynn A. corresponded with Bill W. about a Narcotics Anonymous meeting she started on December 23, 1954, in Montreal after correspondence with Danny C. At the heart of her letters was the idea that using the term “addiction” instead of “alcoholism” could further widen the doorways of entry into recovery and allow AA to help a greater number of people. She even pleaded with Bill to concede that he was an alcohol addict. 

In July of 1952, Jack P., a member of AA’s Los Angeles Institutional Committee, sent a letter to Bill W. informing him of a request that had come to AA from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to help start a “Narcotics Anonymous” group in the Women’s Division of the County Jail. Jack went on to note that he and Mrs. Bea F., chair of the local AA Institutional Committee, were helping start such a group as private individuals and not as AA members. The planned meeting of NA was held at the Unity Church on Moorpark Street in Van Nuys. One of the AA members attending was Jimmy K., who took over the leadership of this group in July of 1953. Jimmy would later say, “… we started long before NA was a reality, even in name … we grew out of a need and we found those of us who were members and had come into AA and found we could recover.”

Another group that met briefly in the early 1950s was called Hypes and Alcoholics (HYAL), some of whose members were later involved in the founding of Synanon – the first ex-addict-directed therapeutic community.

When Bill W. was repeatedly asked for guidance on starting groups for “mainline addicts” he suggested that “bridge members” (AA members who were also recovering from drug addiction) could serve as catalysts to develop such support. As it turns out, that is precisely what happened. The man who served as this bridge in the summer of 1953 was Jimmy K. – widely considered the founder (or co-founder) of NA as it exists today.

Jimmy K. and the Birth of Today’s NA

Jimmy K. was born April 5, 1911, to James and Lizzie K. in Paisley, Scotland, his family having first migrated from Ireland in the mid-1830s. The K. extended family was a close-knit Irish Catholic clan in which drinking, singing, dancing and storytelling were woven into the fabric of daily life. As a child, Jimmy K. befriended a Mr. Crookshank, the “town drunk.” When Jimmy later visited Mr. Crookshank in a local asylum, he vowed to his mother that he would one day help men like Mr. Crookshank. What would have been unclear then was the arduous path required to fulfill that oath.

Jimmy’s father migrated to the United States in 1921, and two years later, Jimmy, his mother, and four younger siblings joined him. The family settled first in a working class neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia and later relocated to California. Jimmy progressed from sneaking sips of paregoric and altar wine as a child to daily runs of whiskey and pills through his young adulthood. A self-described “lone wolf,” Jimmy’s excessive use of codeine, pills and alcohol had left him “bankrupt physically, mentally and spiritually” and an “abject failure as a man, a husband, and a father.” It was in that state that he began his recovery in AA on Feb. 2, 1950.

Like Houston S., Danny C., Betty T. and Jack P., Jimmy developed a passion for helping others recover. Every encounter for him was an opportunity for service. Jimmy’s daughter Cathie recalls an incident in which an intoxicated driver crashed into her car while it was parked in front of the family home. Jimmy brought the drunken man into his home, offered him a cup of coffee, and as the police took him away, encouraged the man to get some help and offered his assistance. An NA member would later say of Jimmy, “There was something very magical about the way Jimmy carried the message – when people got close to him, their natural inclination was to recover.”

When Jimmy K. began attending AA in 1950, he introduced himself as an “alcoholic addict” and developed an early interest in helping those with multiple addictions. He attended early meetings of Habit Forming Drugs and Hypes and Alcoholics and communicated with Danny C. in the early 1950s about Danny’s activities with NA in New York City. His involvement in the meetings that Jack P. first hosted led to creation of a Governing Committee.

On Aug. 17, 1953, the first organizational meeting of the group met at 10146 Stagg Street, Van Nuys, California, with six people present (Frank C., Doris C., Guilda K., Paul R., Steve R. and Jimmy K.). Jimmy K. was nominated as and accepted the role of Chairperson. The group named itself “San Fernando Valley Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous,” but when AA informed the group on Sept. 14, 1953, that the AA name could not be used, the name was changed to Narcotics Anonymous – a name suggested by Jimmy based on his knowledge of NA in New York City. The NA bylaws, passed Aug. 17, 1953, state: “This society or movement shall be known as Narcotics Anonymous, and the name may be used by any group which follows the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Narcotics Anonymous.” An “Our Purpose” statement was incorporated into the NA bylaws from The Key:

Our Purpose

This is an informal group of drug addicts, banded together to help one another renew their strength in remaining free of drug addiction.

Our precepts are patterned after those of Alcoholics Anonymous, to which all credit is given and precedence is acknowledged. We claim no originality but since we believe that the causes of alcoholism and addiction are basically the same we wish to apply to our lives the truths and principles which have benefited so many otherwise helpless individuals. We believe that by so doing we may regain and maintain our health and sanity.

It shall be the purpose of this group to endeavor to foster a means of rehabilitation for the addict, and to carry a message of hope for the future to those who have become enslaved by the use of habit forming drugs.

Minutes of early meetings reflect: concern for traditions; establishment of closed and open meetings; restriction of speakers to those recovering from drug and/or alcohol addiction; and plans for a wide variety of community promotional activities (e.g., development of signs, meetings with heads of Narcotics Divisions of local Police Departments, outreach to social workers, lectures in local schools, newspaper ads). An ongoing meeting was established by the NA organizational committee. The first meeting held Oct. 5, 1953, at Cantara and Clyborn Streets at a place called “Dad’s Club” in Sun Valley, Calif., drew 25 people. Attendance at early meetings ranged from 10 to 35. In a further connection to pre-NA roots on the east coast, a collection was taken up some time in late 1953 for Jimmy to attend a conference in Lexington.

Many problems plagued this early effort. Personality conflicts ensued, and all original members of the NA organizing committee had resigned their leadership positions by the end of 1953. Negotiations with local police were required to minimize surveillance and harassment of those attending meetings. The first NA group moved to “Shier’s Dryer” – a sanitarium for alcoholics, and NA members continued to attend AA meetings in addition to the one NA meeting per week. Most people entering NA at this time were heroin addicts, and people approaching NA without a history of heroin injection were viewed as having questionable addict credentials. As one early NA member describes:

We came strictly from the streets, if they used anything other than heroin, we didn’t think they were addicts for real. Cause our definition of an addict was that person who stuck that spike into his arm.

NA meetings were often held in people’s homes for lack of any place else to meet – a coffee pot and set of Depression glass cups moving from location to location. Jimmy K. continued his contact with NA during these early years, but avoided leadership roles due to his alarm over changes that were occurring within NA.

There were significant differences between the modes of operation in New York and California NA groups. New York NA members, more “pure” morphine or heroin addicts, had little concern about alcohol and little contact with AA. In contrast, three of the California founders of NA had histories of alcohol and other drug addictions, brought in prior affiliations with AA, and emphasized strict adherence to the Steps and Traditions as adapted from the AA program. When NA groups veered from those principles, those so-called “bridge members” left NA and returned to AA. Danny C.’s east coast meetings and the west coast groups shared the name Narcotics Anonymous, but they were not the same organization, with East Coast NA exerting only a peripheral influence on the west coast NA that evolved into NA as it is known today.

The new NA that was rising on the west coast maintained a fragile existence throughout its first six years, but its future was by no means assured. One of the things that influenced its fate was a choice of words.

The Steps

The adaptation of the steps of AA as a guide to recovery from other drug addictions is not as straightforward as it might seem, and the nature of these adaptations exerted a profound influence on the subsequent history of NA and the larger arena of addiction recovery.

Lacking enduring leadership in the face of constant patient turnover at Lexington, the steps of Addicts Anonymous vary across time. A 1951 volume of The Key presents Steps One and Twelve as follows:

Step One: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and drugs—that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step Twelve: Having had a spiritual experience (or awakening) as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics and addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Here, we see a substitution of the phrase “alcohol and drugs” for AA’s “alcohol” in Step One and “alcoholics and addicts” for AA’s “alcoholics” in Step Twelve. By 1959, The First Step read, “We admitted we were powerless over drugs … that our lives had become unmanageable,” and the Twelfth Step read, “carry this message to addicts.”

Members of the Habit Forming Drugs group in Los Angeles, as a special meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, used AA’s Twelve Steps, but Betty T. did pen “12 Suggestions That May Be of Help to Anyone Addicted to Drugs.” Her suggestions emphasized the absolute and permanent (“no compromise”) need to abstain from alcohol, drugs and all medications not prescribed by a physician knowledgeable about addiction.

Since the early New York-based NA existed as independent meetings without a unifying service structure, the Steps varied by group. Most early New York City NA meetings, as well as Cleveland NA (1963), used the 12 Steps that were outlined in the Addicts Anonymous pamphlet, Our Way of Life, which substituted the phrase “powerless over drugs” for the phrase “powerless over alcohol” in Step One, and substituted “carry this message to narcotic addicts” for “carry this message to alcoholics” in Step Twelve.

A 13 Step version can be found in the early 1960s literature of NA groups from Fellowship House in the Bronx and in a newsletter from the New Look Group of Narcotics Anonymous held at the State Prison of Southern Michigan (Jackson, Mich.)—the latter one of several prison groups Rae L. helped start by mail. 

  1. Admit the use of narcotics made my life seem more tolerable, but the drug had become an undesirable power over my life.
  2. Come to realize that to face life without drugs I must develop an inner strength.
  3. Make a decision to face the suffering of withdrawal.
  4. Learn to accept my fears without drugs.
  5. Find someone who has progressed this far and who is able to assist me.
  6. Admit to him the nature and depth of my addiction.
  7. Realize the seriousness of my short-comings as I know them and accept the responsibility of facing them.
  8. Admit before a group of N.A. members these same shortcomings and explain how I am trying to overcome them.
  9. List my own understanding of all the persons I have hurt.
  10. Take a daily inventory of my actions and admit to myself those which are contrary to good conscience.
  11. Realize that to maintain freedom from drugs I must share with others the experiences from which I have benefited.
  12. Determine a purpose in life and try with all the spiritual and physical power within me to move towards its fulfillment.
  13.  God Help Me! These three words summarize the entire spirit of the 12 preceding steps. Without God I am lost. To find myself I must submit to Him as the source of my hope and my strength.

Use of the 13 Steps by some NA groups on the east coast continued into the mid- 1960s. The New Look NA group, which was started in 1959, shifted in 1968 to the use of west coast NA steps and literature.

Within the emerging California-rooted NA, there was considerable debate in 1954 over how to phrase the steps. Jimmy K. prevailed in these discussions in getting the phrase “our addiction” inserted into the first step rather than such alternatives as alcohol and drugs, narcotic drugs or drugs. This is somewhat remarkable in light of the fact that addiction was a word rarely heard in the AA circles but that exerted such an early influence on NA. This innovation is also of considerable historical significance. NA Trustees would later note:

Drugs are a varied group of substances, the use of any of which is but a symptom of our addiction. When addicts gather and focus on drugs, they are usually focusing on their differences, because each of us used a different drug or combination of drugs. The one thing we all share is the disease of addiction. It [defining NA’s First Step in terms of addiction] was a masterful stroke. With that single turn of a phrase the foundation of the Narcotics Anonymous Fellowship was laid.

AA, New York-based NA, and later 12 Step groups staked their institutional identities and the process of mutual identification on a particular drug choice. In contrast, the NA rising on the west coast in the early 1950s forged its identity and internal relationships not on the shared history of narcotics (the dominant drug choice of early members), but on a shared process of addiction. Jimmy K.’s writings are very clear on this singular point:

Addiction is a disorder in its own right… an illness, a mental obsession and a body sensitivity or allergy to drugs which sets up the phenomenon of craving, over which we have no choice, as long as we use drugs.

This had three effects. First, it addressed the frequently encountered problem of drug substitution by embracing renunciation of all drugs, including alcohol, within the concept of recovery. Second, it opened the potential for people to enter NA with drug choices other than opiates. Third, it explicitly defined addiction as a “disease” and the addict as a “sick” person.

This early understanding is revealed in the Narcotics Anonymous Handbook developed by NA members at Soledad Prison in 1957.

At our meetings of Narcotics Anonymous, we join together in fellowship, where we tell our stories in an effort to arrest our common disease—addiction. Here [in NA] we have come to realize that we are not moral lepers. We are simply sick people. We suffer from a disease, just like alcoholism, diabetes, heart ailments, tuberculosis, or cancer. There is no known cure for these diseases and neither is there for drug addiction. But, by following the principles of Narcotics Anonymous completely, we can arrest our disease of addiction to narcotics.

NA’s definition of the problem as a process of “addiction” that transcended one’s drug choice and required a common recovery process may be viewed by future historians as one of the great conceptual breakthroughs in the understanding and management of severe alcohol and other drug problems. This is all the more remarkable coming at a time that substance-specific disorders were still thought to be distinct from each other, as were their treatment and recovery processes. In addiction, NA found an organizing concept similar to the 19th century concept of inebriety and anticipated future professional efforts to create such an umbrella concept (e.g., chemical dependency) and future scientific findings that addiction to multiple drugs is linked to common reward pathways in the brain.

For Jimmy K. to have made this conceptual leap in the early 1950s is a remarkable achievement deserving of wider recognition from the scientific and professional communities. What this meant within the NA experience as NA grew across the country was expressed by one of the early NA members in Philadelphia:

We wanted the door to be as wide open as possible. We wanted to drop all that street shit: “I’m cooler than you because I shot meth, and you just drop Black Beauties.” We had to come to the point: “We’re all addicts. Drugs kicked our asses, and it really doesn’t matter whether you’re strung out smoking reefer every day or you’re shooting a couple thousand bucks of heroin a week.” It’s about addiction – drug addiction.

The contemporary emergence of “addiction” and “recovery” as conceptual frameworks for the professional field of addiction treatment and as frameworks for the larger cultural understanding of severe alcohol and other drug problems and their resolution is historically rooted in NA’s formulation of its 12 Steps in 1954. However, this breakthrough did not assure NA’s survival as an organization.

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank all of those who agreed to be interviewed for this project and the many NA members, especially: Benny L., Bo S., Bob G., Catherine R., Chris B., Chris M., Dale S., Danny M., Dave F., George H., Joe P., Jim H., Jim N., Johnny S., Kermit O., Mike R., Ron H., Roy P., Steve and Lois R., Stuart S., and Walter D, who provided us copies of archival documents, tapes, photographs, or connections to oral history resources. We also extend a special thanks to Anthony Edmondson, Stephan Lantos, and Steve Rusch of Narcotics Anonymous World Service, Inc.; Michelle Mirza and Steven D’Avria of the Archives of the Alcoholics Anonymous General Service Office; and Scott Bedio of the Salvation Army Archives and Research Center for their assistance in acquiring copies of key historical documents. A special thanks to Dr. Al Mooney, Jimmy Mooney, Dr. Robert Mooney, Fred Morrison, Barbara Morrison, Nancy Morrison Baird, Virginia Coker, Dr. Sid Sewell, Geraldine Sewell, Sally Sewell Hudson, and Mary Smith. Finally, an enduring debt of gratitude to the many NA “long-timers” who served as reviewers of early drafts of this history.