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Ernie Kurtz, Recovery, and the Power of Story

Harvard-trained historian Ernest Kurtz loved stories. The power of story and the role of storytelling in personal identity and addiction recovery filled his writings on Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.), and they were central themes in the books he co-authored with Katherine Ketcham: The Spirituality of Imperfection and Experiencing Spirituality.

I apprenticed under Ernie’s guidance for more than two decades in hopes of mastering the art and science of historical research. Sitting across from him in his office, I must have asked Ernie a thousand questions. His most frequent response was to lean forward in his chair, eyes twinkling, arms and hands in motion, to share a story in a voice that would have done Moses justice. Ernie was at heart and above all a spellbinding storyteller.

Ernie was fascinated with how life stories were, by necessity, reconstructed as part of one’s recovery from alcoholism. He often commented on how the A.A. story style helped newcomers construct a new life story from the fragments of their brokenness. The new story helped make sense of experiences that were otherwise inextricable, helped fire hope, salvaged self-esteem, and bolstered the commitment to sobriety.

One of the many themes within Ernie’s historical research was the role of memory in storytelling—writ small (personal identity) and large (collective history). Aware that much of my recounting of the modern history of addiction treatment and recovery flowed from interviews with key players within that history, Ernie cautioned me to think of memory as more construction site than storage drawer. He often discussed the potential loss of objective history due to the filtering of memory through efforts of self-enhancement, institutional interests, and contemporary political and cultural wars. His admonition? Verify everything!

Ernie was equally intrigued by the role of memory as scaffolding for addiction and recovery. He suggested that how we select and attach meaning to events in our life exert a profound effect on our future. The selection and deselection of life events to form a coherent narrative in his view could support either addiction or recovery.  An essential feature of the journey between the former to the latter was thus a process of story reconstruction and storytelling. Ernie suggested: change the story, change the life—a process aided by both skilled clinical intervention and participation in a community of recovering people with whom one could identify.

Ernie also explored how recovery stories changed over time, marking a prolonged process of healing and reconstruction of personal character and values. In The Spirituality of Imperfection, he identified six experiences/traits expressed in these evolving stories—all keys to this long-term reconstruction of self: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, and being-at-home. As is evident, Ernie understood addiction recovery as a process involving far more than the deletion of drugs from an otherwise unchanged life.

During my last visit with Ernie before his passing, he shared with me a number of private documents. Included was 145 pages of raw notes on story and storytelling. This elaborately coded document contained quotations and summaries from all his related readings as well as many of his own reflections, only some of which appeared in his published work. I have cherished these notes for the past five years and have decided, with permission from Ernie’s wife, Linda Ferris Kurtz, to share some excerpts from these notes. Below are just a few of Ernie’s prized discoveries and reflections on story, memory, and storytelling. I share these as a way of continuing to honor what Ernie meant to so many of us. To review selected excerpts from the Kurtz notes on Story, Memory and Storytelling, click HERE.