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The Hungry Housewife Who Founded Overeaters Anonymous

Half a century ago, a housewife named Rozanne S. launched Overeaters Anonymous in her dining room, building it into a huge movement worldwide. Now 81 and battling cancer, she recalls the highs, lows and bitter controversies along the way.

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The Hole Truth: OA now has 56,000 members in 75 countries

By Will Godfrey

06/09/11

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In 1959, wearing a size 20 at a height of 5’2”, Rozanne S. had an amazing idea, inspired by a visit to Gamblers Anonymous in support of a friend of her husband: to create a fellowship, modeled on AA, which would mean people with compulsive eating problems would no longer have to carry the stigma alone. She persuaded two other woman—Jo S. and Bernice K.—to join her for the first ever meeting of Overeaters Anonymous, in January 1960. Under her stewardship in the guises of Founder, National Secretary, Board Member and inspiration, Rozanne’s organization—which she ran from her small dining room in West LA in the early years, personally answering thousands of desperate letters and phone calls—mushroomed into an international fellowship, with over 54,000 members in 6,500 groups across 75 countries. She recorded her experiences in her 1996 memoir Beyond Our Wildest Dreams, and also wrote the OA handbook, I Put My Hand in Yours—the first paragraph of which became known as Rozanne’s Prayer.

At the age of 81 she now finds herself in a Los Angeles rehab facility, recovering from breaking her leg in a fall and undergoing chemotherapy—in a battle she seems to be winning. In a cruel twist, the chemotherapy drugs she has to take have resulted in her regaining some of the weight she successfully lost. While recalling details of events and answering questions is sometimes difficult for her—also due to the medication she is taking—her voice has an edge of determination that hints at how formidable she must have been in her prime. She’s not a woman to be trifled with. But with her characteristic deep, wry chuckle, the sharpness of her mind can surprise and charm you.

She was able to grant The Fix a brief interview.

You founded OA because of your desire to help other people like you. When did you first realize you had a problem with overeating?

Probably when I was around 20 or so. One of the main foods I’d eat compulsively was peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwiches. After I got married, I’d come down at night when my husband and babies were asleep and eat and watch TV.

You had the idea to form a group for compulsive overeaters in 1959, when you attended a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. Did you have any clue then of what it would become?

Absolutely. From the very beginning, from the first moment I had this idea about OA, I knew: some day this will be as big as AA and it’ll be all around the world. And it has come to that. I said that to the founders of GA, when they asked me if I wanted this to be just a local group or a couple of groups. I was always sure of it. The time was absolutely right. One of the other things that was right was that I got so thin! I lost 50, 60 pounds; I just lost a lot of weight.

In the early years you ran OA from your dining room, didn’t you?

Yes! With the high chairs and the baby diapers and two little girls running around and me trying to keep my family together. I can’t believe I did a thing like that. But I was younger then—and I had help from my husband too.

What are the qualities that enabled you to turn OA into such a success? What was it about you?

I was strong. I was absolutely… I had strength of purpose.

And you had other abilities, like your writing, didn’t you? You wrote a huge amount of OA literature, as well as your book, Beyond Our Wildest Dreams, and even a musical, I believe?

Oh yes; they put it on again at the birthday party [OA’s 50th birthday last year] a few months ago. Writing was always important to me. I’ve been writing since I was 5 or 6 years old. It’s how I earned my living before I got married [as a fashion copywriter].

I 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.

O.A. has always been dominated by women. Men were originally banned and even now, more than 80% of members are women. Why is this? And what special characteristics has it given your organization, as opposed to AA and GA, which were traditionally male-dominated?

I think at that time, compulsive overeaters was a… Oh, I can’t think of it… I can’t talk straight, the cancer medication makes me lose my place. This is not going to be terrific… [laughs] It was a woman’s compulsion then. But the world has changed. I look at the stuff that Oprah Winfrey does, and Dr. Oz… There are so many men. There’s a brand new group of them.

You reveal in Beyond Our Wildest Dreams that you relapsed twice in the mid-‘60s. Do you think that being greatly looked up to—and greatly overworked—put pressure on you in a way that contributed to these relapses?

Absolutely. The pressure does that. Since the ‘60s I’ve had a couple more slips too. And the side effects of the chemotherapy drugs I’m taking now—I’ve had cancer twice—one of the side effects is to put on weight. There’s not much I can do except make sure I’m eating the way I should.

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.

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