Big Bookism

Big Book

By Don S.

At a meeting recently, I heard a guy say: “You’ll hear a lot of crazy stuff in meetings. When you do, just ask them “‘Where is that in the Big Book?’”

So, after the meeting, I asked him “Where is that in the Big Book?” Of course, it’s not in there. Nowhere does the Big Book say we should limit AA to the Big Book. Saying AA is a 12 Step program is like saying America is a Christian nation. Sure, there are plenty of Big Bookers in AA, but they don’t define it, and they aren’t a higher class of member. We’re all just lucky ex-drunks making our way towards the light. What could be more ridiculous than one drunk judging another, particularly over the way they have recovered?

You can’t get to Big Bookism by reading the Big Book. It’s not Big Booklical.

Bill Wilson had his own problems with the Steps which are at the heart of the Big Book. Powerlessness, surrender, God, admitting his failings, making amends, prayer, meditation, all of it.  But his experience told him they were necessary.

Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry A.A.’s message to the next sufferer? No, the average alcoholic, self-centered in the extreme, doesn’t care for this prospect – unless he has to do these things in order to stay alive himself. (12 & 12, p. 24)

So, the Steps are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. We do them because we want what they give us, comfortable sobriety. It follows that if we could get those things without the Steps, that would be fine.

Bill saw members making the Big Book into a scripture:

It is an historical fact that practically all groupings of men and women tend to become more dogmatic; their beliefs and practices harden and sometimes freeze. This is a natural and almost inevitable process… But dogma also has its liabilities. Simply because we have convictions that work well for us, it becomes very easy to assume that we have all the truth… This isn’t good dogma; it’s very bad dogma. It could be especially destructive for us of AA to indulge in this sort of thing.  (Wilson, Speech to the 1965 New York City AA Conference. The speech is summarized here: Responsibility is Our Theme.)

It is human nature to idolize great things. Washington had to quell a move by his soldiers to make him king. He knew that the real object of their devotion was liberty, not their General. Similarly, Bill Wilson knew that the real goal of AA was fulfilling sobriety, not adherence to the 12 steps. He worked to keep AA members from making the Big Book into AA dogma, but, of course, he largely failed. Human nature is too strong.

Throughout his writings, Bill Wilson acknowledges the Big Book program is not sacred or complete:

“It would be a product of false pride to claim that A.A. is a cure-all, even for alcoholism.” (As Bill Sees It, p. 285)

“Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery.”  (p. 59)

“No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles.”  (p. 60)

“Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”  (p. 164)

“Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity.”  (Third Tradition, long form)

“Most strongly we point out that adherence to these principles [the Steps] is not a condition of AA membership. Any alcoholic who admits he has a problem is an AA member regardless of how much he disagrees with the program. Based upon our experience, the whole program is a suggestion only.”  (Wilson, Basic Concepts of Alcoholics Anonymous, The New York State Journal of Medicine, 1944)

So, AA includes a 12 Step program, just as America includes millions of straight Christians.  But it includes gay atheists, too. We don’t live in Archie Bunker’s America, where women were women and men were men.

We haven’t even moved away from it. It was never true in the first place. America has always included our gay brothers and sisters. And AA has always included ex-drunks who stay sober on meetings alone, or have only done some of the steps. They are simply quiet about it, in deference to others. This is understandable.

But how long will we tell people to use a medicine we ourselves don’t all need?

AA culture has become like a diabetes clinic that promotes injecting insulin. If you are diabetic, you’re welcome, but if you can get by without insulin, or if you take it orally, or you have found another medication that works, you’ll be urged to keep it quiet out of deference to newcomers and old-timers who used insulin to heal their affliction. Because injecting insulin is the only way to treat diabetes, according to the proverbs of the Big Book.

Crazy, right?  If a person doesn’t need to inject insulin, or has something else that keeps her or him well, we should be happy about that. Likewise, if a person has something else that works for him or her other than the Steps, our hats are off to him or her.

Honesty is tough. It’s risky. By its nature, we don’t really know what we’re committing to. As demographics change, AA could change out of all recognition, just as America looks very different than it did in the 1950s. Are we an honesty program?  Many meetings don’t even know because honesty is never tested:  no one says anything risky. If we really want honesty, it seems we should back it up by really accepting and tolerating whatever our fellow drunks share. This requires accepting that the vibe of our meetings may change.

That’s a form of surrender many AAs think would be dangerous. They worry that, without Purity, à la 1939 Big Book, AA will dilute into uselessness. That’s a legitimate concern, but we have no choice. AA stopped growing in 1993 or so. If AA keeps doing what it’s doing, it will keep getting what it’s getting, which is no growth. If AA doesn’t include all those who wish to recover, it will continue to shrivel into a self-selected group of people who are helped by the Steps. It will miss out on the cross-fertilization, the new ideas, that could reinvigorate AA and get it growing again. AA has to decide if it is a 12 Step program or a sobriety-by-any-means program. Are we in the business of helping drunks or worshipping the Big Book? Do we want to be helpful, or do we want to be right, à la Big Bookism?

I know it’s hard for people to treat everyone equally, regardless of how they got and maintain their sobriety, but we have to try if we are committed to helping all the drunks, and not just the ones who agree with some of us.

Bill Wilson: ”This clearly implies that an alcoholic is a member if  he says so; that we can’t deny him membership; that we can’t demand from him a cent; that we can’t force our beliefs or practices on him; that he may flout everything we stand for and still be a member.” (Wilson, Anarchy Melts, AA Grapevine 1946)

People tend to go where they are welcome. I’ve found that most of the meetings I attend say they welcome all drunks, but once you hang around for a while, you learn that they don’t welcome us all equally. Each meeting has a vibe, and they welcome you if you fit into that vibe. If you go off-message, you’ll feel their attitudes change. Of course, most people never go off-message. They sit quietly for a few meetings, then say safe things, or they just go to a different meeting.

That’s all fine if an AA meeting is a social club. But if an AA meeting wants to be an ER for drunks, a place where absolutely any wild, crazy, queer, god-hating freak might show up because he wants to stay sober, then there’s a problem. That guy or gal will get treated differently, and feel it.

Membership simply means that a person has all the rights and responsibilities, in equal measure, that other members have. It makes no sense to say someone is a member, but treat her or him differently.

And of course the Big Bookers are equal, too. As AA modernizes, Big Bookism won’t go away any more than traditional marriage has gone away in America.  AA will always have a special place for the Big Book program. It will simply open up and embrace all our members equally. In America, we have only slowly come to treat all our citizens equally. AA is going through a similar process. It has made great progress in embracing its addict members, its gay members and even its atheist members.

But perhaps the most serious obstacle to genuine equality lies in accepting members who don’t embrace the 12 Steps. Bill Wilson fought for this kind of acceptance, but will human nature allow it?

We’ll find out. AA will be 100 years old in 2035. If the current trend continues, it will still be at about 2.1 million members, while the population rises to nearly 400 million. In 1993, the population was under 300 million. Out of those 100 million people, perhaps 5 – 10 million were alcoholic, yet none of them joined the ranks of AA. AA is going the way of the Washingtonians.

The Washingtonians collapsed quickly because of fragmentation brought on by involvement with outside issues. It looks like AA has avoided that mistake, but faces irrelevance brought on by lack of growth. I don’t know all the reasons for its decline, but anything that limits its scope is suspect. The last thing we want is for the 12 Steps to be something that divides us, or limits AA’s usefulness. It seems we need alcoholics to save AA, whether they need the Big Book or not. Is this a threat to the Big Book? No, just as gay marriage is not a threat to traditional marriage. Big Bookism and newer and different approaches to recovery can thrive side by side. I think they will have to if AA is going to grow again and respect its own Responsibility Declaration.

If you love the Big Book, great. If you don’t, fine. To be helpful is our only aim.

———-

Don has been a sober member of AA since 1993. For his first 10 years, he swallowed the Big Book program whole. As he lost his faith and stopped praying, he initially feared he would get drunk. After two years, he finally exhaled and realized, at least in his case, his AA friends were wrong:  not everyone needs God and prayer to stay sober. He has been an out-of-the-closet atheist in Des Moines AA ever since. He started a secular/inclusive AA meeting that is now in its 4th year. He is the admin of the Agnostics and Atheists in AA Facebook page, with over 600 members. He is involved in planning the We Agnostics Free Thinkers Convention coming up in Nov, 2014, in Hollywood, CA.  He is also active in American Atheists, Secularity USA, Freedom from Religion Foundation and his local Unitarian Church.  He has a blog on SkepticInk.com called Enough’s Enough, where he writes to help people recover from religion. He is a database administrator for a private midwestern university, the same school where he studied music and philosophy. 

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Comments

Big Bookism — 29 Comments

  1. I really enjoyed that article. I do not identify as atheist but I might as well with the reactions I am getting at some quite fundamentalist CA and AA groups in Toronto. CA in particular is frequented by people who are attracted to a fundamentalist, quasi religious interpretation of the book, Alcoholics anonymous. This interpretation is based in part on the idea that this book, written by drunks to help drunks get sober, is somehow “inherent.” Infallible. Like it has “all the answers.” The book itself stands as record enough to dispute such interpretations. “We know but a little” “this chip of a book” “a greater demonstration…” At the same time it certainly demonstrates the very kind of dogmatic recovery that people in early recovery often have. The “back to basics” subtext being touted by many of these newly sober or clean people is a stage in their eventual, continued movement towards freedom and health. But freedom does have a flavor. It tastes like deep cool water to me. There is no mistaking its scent. Just like there is no mistaking someone who is rebuilding their life after alcohol or drug addiction. It’s so sad to sit at a table, some poor guy two weeks clean off a bottle of pipe, telling the compassionate sympathetic listeners that he knows what he needs, it’s in the book, and that anything else is watered down. Endemic to this bastardization of real freedom and recovery is the imbecilic idea that if ANYTHING ELSE works, even if it occurred alongside work upon the steps, that such a person does not actually suffer from their really hopeless form of alcoholism. It smacks of the related religious complex that I am an “especially bad sinner” and that nothing short of a supernatural intervention will do anything to help.

    • Thanks, Robert C. Glad you like it.

      Dogmatists belong in AA, too. They are the people who are helped by identifying and holding to a fixed recipe.

      I only want to remind them that dogmatism is not the only way to recover in AA. That’s hard for them to accept, but they have no choice if they want AA to be a place for any alcoholic to recover.

      Diversity is a fact. Dogmatists resist it, but only for a while. Eventually, most of them find a face-saving way to adjust to new realities. We just embrace them, even if they tell us we’re not real alkies. We need them, too, because they help a certain type of newcomer.

  2. A fine, thought-provoking article. It is sad when newcomers are made to feel unwelcome because they don’t toe the Big Book line. I was lucky to get sober in the Perry Street Workshop in Greenwich Village, where there were always at least a handful of vocal recovering drunks who *hated* religion and *hated* the Steps. These acted as an antidote to the BigBookites. Those with a limited choice of groups may have a harder time.

    In general, I am open about my non-belief, but not aggressive to begin with. It works better to stress what works for me: staying away from the First Drink, going to meetings, practising the Fellowship, observing the Traditions, and using some of the slogans.

    Last Saturday a newcomer described his problems in staying sober. He had only four months of sobriety, and had slipped several times in the past year. His sponsor told him that he would have to work the Steps in order to stay sober, but he didn’t see why that was necessary. I spoke to him after the meeting. Since he was an intelligent young man, I told him he should consider getting another sponsor – that for the first year of sobriety the main focus should simply be staying away from the First Drink – that in recovery there would many problems he’d need to deal with, which were far more important than mulling over his “character defects”. Then, since he seemed responsive, I pointed to the Steps on the wall and said: “They’re not very well written, are they?” He laughed.

    I’ll add that this particular meeting (Boston, “K-Street”, weekends at 6 p.m.) is not an Agnostics group, but its religiosity quotient is low. I hope that the newcomer will keep coming here.

    • John, thank you for sharing. I’ve taken the same approach with several people over my short time in the rooms, and have found it to be an encouragement to them to ‘keep coming back.’ Like you, I am not aggressively atheist, but I do mention it to those new comers when I can see that deer in the headlights look we can all get at times. The last time I did it was with a Roman Catholic gentleman who appeared to be ready to bolt for the door due to the over-the-top Protestant ideology he was hearing being parroted by many of our members.

      Being an “out-of-the-closet” atheist in the rooms, while sometimes difficult, can and often does have a positive impact on others who doubt that they can “do it.”

      I’ve had the occasional pleasure of hearing people say, “Hey, if an atheist can stay sober here, maybe I can too.”

      That kind of thing makes all the other nonsense we might experience in the rooms, worth it.

  3. Thanks for sharing Don. So encouraging to remember there are many like-minded men and women in recovery. I do relate to not saying much re: being agnostic in meetings not because I fear personal backlash or criticism but more guilt that, yeh, I may deter a newcomer from the 12 step zealots who speak with such conviction. A guy asked me to sponsor him last week. I just told him I just don’t sponsor which is true but I was very reticent to tell him stuff like I havent done the steps. Not in a formal way. Have a very vague maybe non-existent higher power. So I just apologized, wished him well in finding a sponsor. It’s just to complicated to explain how Ive got seven and a half years of pretty good recovery by, I suppose, taking what I need, helping others where I can (very important to my recovery) and leaving the rest.

    • Yea, many Big Bookers say to me, “It’s fine if you don’t need to pray or meditate, but don’t tell newcomers that. They need the steps!”

      I reply, “Well, that depends on the newcomer.”

      Sure, many people come to AA because they have heard about the 12 Steps and want to try them.

      But some come without a clue what AA is like, and they just want help. Among this number are some with moral objections to prayer, just as vegetarians have good reasons not to eat meat.

      In the 40s, Bill Wilson worried about putting up ANY stumbling blocks to newcomers. It was vital that they were not put off by anything.

      So the Big Bookers I know think they know what the newcomer needs. I don’t think they do, and I don’t, either. That’s why I want as much diversity as possible on the AA buffet. I want every strange, queer, brash, wild, quiet, intellectual or streetwise member to say how they actually stay sober. What they share might help someone, but only if they feel comfortable speaking up.

  4. Would someone please expand on the reference, “Wilson” used by the author? I would like to read more from that reference but simply entering “Wilson” on a search-engine results in too many sources.

  5. While I love the term “Big Bookism” total kudos for linguistic imagination goes to the term, “Big Booklical.”

    Thank you for a well expressed point of view. Don, your sentiment for measured and reasonable change was shared by our cofounder as you have eloquently stated. Page 115 of As Bill Sees It, from 1965 Bill W says, “The essence of all growth is a willingness to change for the better and then an unremitting willingness to shoulder whatever responsibility this entails.”

    Some discussion following this post is about AA population. Box 4-5-9 the Summer edition reports AAs own survey year over year. It’s easily available (along with back issues) on the website aa.org. I have always drawn on a report from three recognized AA historians for academic purposes for the numbers from day one to the turn of the century. I offer a link at Rebellion Dogs Publishing. If you scroll down you’ll find it. While it was written to address concerns about AA outcomes it does contain year by year AA stats from 1936 to 2007.

    Help yourself, if you are curious. Please respect the discretion-of-use intended by the authors. I found it very informative.

  6. Indeed, Don S., an excellent article – I’m so impressed with it that I might be motivated to join your FB group, which I abhor. Ah, not your FB group, I’ve never been, but FB as a 3rd Millennium addictive phenomena – I only lurk a couple of times a week for the most part to keep up with adult kids and their kids, my grandkids.

    I’m in my 42nd year of continuous recovery, and as far as I’m concerned most of AA is becoming even more of a cult-like, rigidly dogmatic entity than it was accused of being as early as 1963, 9 years before I experienced my first “daily reprieve” on October 14, 1972.

    I don’t want to change AA – I just want AA to allow me to be sober in a way of my choosing, to at least tolerate my way of utilizing what’s suggested in the Big Book and our program. I’ve finally recovered enough that I don’t particularly give a damn whose sanctimonious feathers I ruffle by sharing the truth of my process of progress, but never perfection. If feathers are ruffled that’s on them, not me.

    For me, not for them, I have two primary criteria, which guide me in how I act in AA meetings:

    1. The Responsibility Declaration, and
    2. The language on page 84 of the Big Book suggesting, “Love and tolerance of others is our code.”

    I personally find it humorously ironic that most folks don’t know the history of why the Big Book was initially referred to as the Big Book – it’s because the early boys, hucksters some of them, certainly Bill and Hank P., wanted the book to be weighty, to have some heft, some semblance of substance, so they used heavier paper, a larger typeface, incorporated lots of white space, so people would think they were getting their money’s worth. Very American, very Mad Avenue, very much NOT rigorously honest . . . ;)

    Seriously, though, it amazes me how many of the folks today, especially those most insistent about “Big Bookism” don’t know, or understand, or even care to know or understand the history of how AA had evolved up until around, oh maybe 1985 – 1990, and how it has been in a steady but increasing decline ever since…

    So grateful we have this forum and others, such as your endeavor on FB, evolving to share our “experience, strength and hope.”

  7. Thanks, Don. You’re right on. I think the only “dogma” AA needs is the “AA is a fellowship…” statement. I’m becoming more and more averse to the Steps per se. I don’t know if I “worked” them or not – I think they’re poorly written, ambiguous, and dangerous. I just read Charlotte Kasl’s “Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the 12 Steps.” She makes the point that the
    Steps emphasize our being powerless, sinful, harmful to others, and in need of an external force in control of our lives. NOT the message my battered self needed when I came in, so it’s no wonder I never found the help I needed through the Steps. I found it through the fellowship’s love and examples, not Wilson’s theology.

    • Hi Pat,
      There is starting to be more therapists/counsellors/sponsors who realize that the words such as “powerlessness” in the AA literature can be harmful to those (very often women) who are already powerless and down-trodden. Someone in my home group just lent me Kasl’s book that you mention and I loved another of hers, “If the Buddha Got Stuck.”

      I also like the statements that Women For Sobriety groups use as they are also empowering and encouraging “steps” that have women recognize their good qualities instead of focusing on character defects. I will say it a million times, “many paths to recovery,” which happens to be the theme of the WAFT 2014 conference.

      DJ

    • Thanks, Pat. The best I can figure is that Big Bookists are worried about branding. They think AA has helped people because the Big Book gave AA an identifiable brand. They’re worried that if the Big Book is just one item on a much larger buffet, AA will dissipate its strength. It’s the all things to all people problem.

      I think they’re wrong. Because they’re 50 years behind in their understanding of marketing. What did Coke and Pepsi do since then? They diversified their product line to appeal to a bigger audience: those who avoid sugar, other tastes, etc.

      I’m betting AA is being strangled by its archaic, one-flavor marketing strategy. Pepsi has more than 90 flavors, and that shift was central to its growth in the last 30 years. Diversification saved Pepsi. It might save AA.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Pepsi_variations

      • I think of the Catholic church, in which I was reared and whose evolution I still follow (just as I loved Montana and lived there, but choose to live elsewhere now, don’t idealize it, and don’t think everyone should move there): The RC church still includes frightened Oldtimers who cling to the old Latin Mass and who venerate all Popes but the present one, but it also includes people walking the walk in slums, and others who ordain women and celebrate same-sex marriages. I think AA is like that in a way, although the church won’t acknowledge the deviants.

  8. Don S.,
    Thank you for a very relevant essay! Informative and practically useful to many of us out here in la’ la’ land.

    Mark C.

  9. Don, wonderful article as always . You never fail to deliver up great and insightful writings. Follow you on FB and love your postings. I have the dream that I might make it to the conference in California in 2014 and meet you.
    Thanks for your contribution to my sobriety,
    Andy

  10. Don, thanks.
    Guess now we just really need to work at encouraging the development of other kinds of spirituality, especially non-religious ones. I just read Marya Hornbacher’s Waiting: A Non-Believer’s Higher Power which seems like a good place to start. Though of course there are people who don’t want any spirituality at all.
    After I read your post, I linked to Is AA only for Christians? and the way I interpret it, the answer is yes (Hey we’re working on changing that!) but one ought to notice that the AA reading does NOT say it is not affiliated with any religion, it only says no sect or denomination. Christianity as such is a given in the self absorbed understanding of every christian AA member. So far.

    • For another approach to spirituality I would recommend “The Lost Art of Being Happy; Spirituality For Sceptics” by Tony Wilkinson.

    • “We are not allied with any particular FAITH, sect or denomination, nor do we oppose anyone…” (Big Book, Foreword to first edition 1939) “Alcohol being no respecter of persons, we are an accurate cross section of America, and in distant lands the same democratic evening up process is now going on. By personal religious affiliation we include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Muslims and Buddhists. More than 15 per cent of us are women…” (Big Book, Foreword to the second edition 1955)

  11. Thanks for a great article! My sobriety came from applying the “sobriety-by-many-means” approach, which includes but is not limited to the steps. More has been revealed in the treatment of alcoholism, and I’m very grateful for that! The fact that I used a variety of tools to recover in no way makes me a “lesser” member of the AA fellowship. I’m glad to be sober today, regardless of how it all worked.

  12. Thanks for another great essay.
    I worked in a scientifically oriented career and it happens that my father was a psychologist. Being a self centered alky I find the whole process of addiction and recovery to be fascinating in the extreme. I am repeatedly told I “think too much” and “over analyse”. I understand these terms in the emotional sense… but intellectually they are ridiculous to me! I want to know what is wrong and what and why and how I can help myself.
    That “allergy” canard makes me crazy. The anti-intellectual and anti-scientific attitude of the Big Book Fundamentalists doesn’t look very good in modern society. No wonder many people think of AA as religious maniacs. So many are.

  13. Great article!

    I waded through groups and meetings for a few months looking for tolerance and insight into addiction and sadly found little or none.

    So I went back to school part time and took some courses on addiction treatment and theory and found my own way through my quest for continued sobriety.

    It’s still working so I’m going to keep on doing what I do.

  14. Thank you for a fascinating essay. I feel fortunate that I’ve never experienced the treatment you describe when I “out” myself as a non-theist at meetings.

    I’m curious about the information you present about AA not growing since about 1993. Will you share your source for that information?

      • Thank you for this pdf, Roger. I couldn’t find anything like it from GSO online. Everyone should download it in case it’s taken off the web.

        Here is an excellent analysis of AA membership numbers: AA’s Own Stats Show Slow Demise. I think the author, Soberbychoice, is Agent Orange, the AA muckraker.

      • Since the U.S. population has grown 20% since 1993, the U.S. A.A. membership need only increase 20% since 1993 to keep the per-capita membership rate the same. — from 1.26 million in 1993 to 1.51 million — an increase of 250,000. I don’t have any trouble believing that 20% of former A.A. involvement has shifted to the Internet.

    • Since 1993, A.A. may have stagnated as far as number of face-to-face meetings, but has grown enormously online. There are innumerable groups online (I’m amazed just on Facebook all the varieties of A.A. groups and the size of their memberships), and there were very few or none such online groups back in 1993. We are spending a lot more time online in social media than we did back in 1993.

      • Great point. Many organizations are fighting losses to internet equivalents.

        But the US population has grown 20% since 1993, about 50 million people. Even with internet groups taken into account, AA isn’t helping as many people per capita as it used to. My hope is that it will diversify and remain relevant.

        We can see similar declines being acted out in the Catholic church and the GOP in America. These organizations each have a large disconnect between their ideals and their members’ actual values. They are both being held hostage by their most conservative members. They will adapt, which means they will liberalize, or they’ll continue to shrivel.

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