The Hungry Housewife Who Founded Overeaters Anonymous
Was it hard to hand over control of your "baby" to a board of trustees in 1962?
[laughs] I just went along with it—actually it was a very good business move—it was AG’s [the first chairman of OA’s board] idea. He was a businessman in the oil industry and he had a great grasp of the needs of a corporation. No, I don’t recall that it was a difficult thing for me.
That’s pretty selfless. It took Bill W. much longer to do the same.
Oh yes. AA started in ‘35 and he didn’t turn it over to a board of trustees until around 1950. We absolutely did that much sooner and it’s the best thing that happened to us. It helped us grow.
You detail a number of issues in your book that sparked great controversy among OA members. Which of them was the biggest threat to the fellowship’s unity?
Carbo was the biggest difficulty. [Some members believed abstinence from certain carbohydrates should be official policy, while OA doesn’t endorse any one diet plan.] We still have it going on. Accepting anorexics and bulimics was another one. That was years in the making. Well in the end that is still going on also, but it’s not nearly as controversial as the carbohydrate one. Incidentally, I myself had to come around to accepting the anorexics and bulimics as well as the overeaters, because they are compulsive eaters too. It took me years.
You come from a Jewish background, but wrote that you were “a skeptic, an intellectual,” who cut most of the “God” parts out of the original OA 12 Steps. But later that changed. Are you a practicing member of any religion now? And how important is that to following the 12 steps, in your opinion?
Oh I’m still Jewish, yes. I think a belief in God, or at least some kind of higher power, is necessary.
Have you visited many of the OA fellowships around the world?
I did about 30 years ago and 20 years ago, with my husband—he’s been gone a long time. He and I travelled a lot, seeing different OA groups in London, Paris, Stockholm, Ireland, Israel, Italy—everywhere. And when I read the reports—I still get the results of the conferences—and at the last one they read out the Serenity Prayer in nine different languages. That has to be a gift from God. I get cards where people in a whole convention sign a card and write a message to me, and it’s just… I don’t even know how to describe how I feel. You’re getting the brunt of it, as I haven’t talked to anyone like this in a long time!
When you look back on everything you achieved with OA, what gives you the most satisfaction?
You know, I talked to my friend who’s working on the OA website here in Los Angeles and he said in one month—in one month!—of our website being up we had 70,000 hits. 70,000! You know there were three of us [when OA was founded], then there were 10 or 12 of us when we got to the Paul Coates show. I just can’t get over it.
Paul Coates’ Confidential File was the TV show you and some of the other very early OA members appeared on in late 1960, which sparked the initial publicity that helped you grow so fast—that was the one time you broke your anonymity at a media level, wasn’t it?
Yes. I’ve never done it again—I’ve done radio, but that’s different.
What’s happening in your life at the moment?
Well, I’m in a rehab facility, right now. I haven’t been home in about five months and I haven’t been to OA. I talk to people—and they still call me for advice—but I haven’t been to an OA meeting in at least a year. Except I went to the birthday party. That was very difficult for me. My son-in-law helped me up on the stage. I was in a wheelchair. I’m having a very rough time with this cancer and it’s so… It’s in remission right now. It’s a cancer of the bone. [In fact, it is multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma cells. She is close to being declared in remission.]
There will be a lot of people wishing you well. What would you say to people out there who are in the same place you were in, in 1959?
You won’t know, until you try it, whether or not you find OA helpful. But I think it’s the only way to go. I’ve seen so many lives changed by OA—and mine, too.
Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix. He is a British writer who now lives in Brooklyn. He previously interviewed Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern and wrote about how to smuggle drugs into prison.