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.