The First 164 Pages


By Bob C.

My first sponsor, Rob, was getting the Saturday AA meeting ready by himself when I showed up there. It was my second meeting ever, the previous one being the same group, one week before.

I was just thinking about how proud I was to have stayed sober and clean for the last two days when Rob said, “So, did you stay sober since last week?” No, I replied, but added that two days (ok, really 36 hours) sober was new territory for me. He gave me a curious glance, put down the chair he was unfolding, and asked me to come outside.

Rob, I’ll never forget that moment, because for one instant, as you described addiction to me and the seriousness of my condition, I could see my life either going further down the tubes, into the Hades of drug and alcohol addiction – or I could have a life. It was the light in your eyes, your enthusiasm; it was your intensity, and it was a small breakthrough in the grey matter I was calling my brain at that moment.

Rob was a stout, outspoken Irishman, who spoke with fervor from the front of a room, who was popular in the local fellowship, yet was always a servant / leader / greeting newcomers and setting up a meeting. He commanded respect. He was also angry as hell, righteous and incredibly funny. I recall laughing with him at the coffee shop before the meetings, often until I had tears streaming down my cheeks at some of the stories he told. I loved that guy.

He was also a “booker” as they are known, someone who takes suffering alcoholics through the Big Book of AA, line by line.  Booking, I later came to understand, is a very particular and dogmatic way of experiencing the 12-step movement. The process is often described as the true means of getting free from an addiction in AA. The story gets told of a lost past, when AA was truly effective and had not yet been watered down.

This very particular booker message is closely related to the nearly revival-like attitude that has taken over many AA meetings here in Toronto.

Rob framed it to me like this:

If you’re a real alcoholic, nothing short of a spiritual awakening will eliminate the obsession to drink. This Big Book is the source of the original program of AA, which saw 75% of the people who tried it succeed at long-term recovery. Though going to meetings is fine, working the “precise directions” in the book is the program, and nothing else can do it. The fellowship cannot keep one sober, as that is a human power. And if anything but a divine intervention keeps you sober and clean, well then you were not a real alcoholic.

To this day, I still don’t know what a divine intervention is, except maybe to say that god intervened and saved me from quasi-religious AA.  I guess you can call me a reformed booker today, one who’s uncertain at the core and even happily agnostic.

It’s funny, though. I got booked by Rob, then I got booked again by this great guy Bill, a lawyer from North York who spent hours with me, mentoring me and showing me how to enjoy life sober. Then I got booked again, this time by a “mucker” named Blair. Muckers are even more intolerant and dogmatic than the bookers. They are especially quasi-religious AA historians, who love the idea that AA was once effective, godly, and strict, and that we need to return to that original way of doing things.

Each time I got “booked” I was reading it line by line and although I never got that damned divine intervention, I did get a very good grasp of the contents of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.

I also, in the process, got to know several excellent men, whose love and enthusiasm for me, looking back, was the main “taproot” of my recovery.

Truthfully, the back to basics or bookers message is not a natural product of the Big Book’s contents, as the god-fearing AAs in North America would have us all understand. That book says all kinds of things, that god fearing AA’s don’t quote when they’re telling us there’s only one way. The back to basics fundamentalist message, in it’s fascination with trying to remove the human element from AA, has actually become quite anti-social. As I said, I got much more from the human element, sitting across the table, doing my bookwork – way more from Rob’s incessant humor and passion for recovery – than I did with all the underlining, and fifth steps in the world. But the Big Book does have lots to offer, even for us nonbelievers.

I was in a treatment centre the first time Rob took me through the book and through the twelve steps. It was like a six mile walk to Rob’s apartment, and after I had put my fourth step together, the one with the lists right out of the Big Book, I marched down to Rob’s, hopeful that my fifth step would somehow save me from myself. I envisioned a god of justice then, watching over the guilt ridden 26 year old alcoholic that I was. Maybe god might give me another chance. I was sick of ending up on the losing end and willing to try anything.

Rob’s apartment was small and extremely well organized. You could say he was a bit OCD. But I remember that four hour Saturday afternoon with him like it was yesterday. I can still see the tears welling in his eyes when something I said made him remember something. Something dark, unspeakable and forgiven. I know now looking back that a transfer of power between him and I was occurring, because I was connecting to another man’s vulnerability, confusion, hopes and aspirations, as I had not done in a decade. Walking back begrudgingly to the treatment centre, I did not sense so much a release of demons or a divine hand on my shoulder. No, I sensed that I had committed to something that was important because it connected me to you. I sensed I was a part of AA for the first time. Several of my key allies in recovery were now treating me differently since I had made it through my step 5. It was less divine therapy, and more a rite of passage into the fellowship.

Try sharing that amongst a group of god-fearing AAs!

We progressed through the book. I learned that the dogmatic AAs were saying stuff that was not entirely based on the Big Book’s actual contents. The Big Book gets used like some translated biblical text in support of human weakness and the god who chooses to save some but not others. The bookers and back to basics folks are selectively reading the Big Book!

A bit of a disguise fuels the revival-atmosphere I am finding at meetings these days. Example: bookers love to quote page 24, the italicized part about powerlessness, which basically says that if you are a true alcoholic, you will drink again, whether you want to or not. Bookers call such people “the doomed,” and only god can save one of those. However, turn to page 30 and the book says that the obsession to drink is something that many alcoholics “pursue into the gates of insanity or death.” Without wanting to split hairs over powerlessness, I’m going to go with not pursuing the insane urge to drink, over asking god to save my ass.

There are also plenty of other areas in the Big Book which lead the reader to think that human power is profoundly important.

Can it be lost on the dogmatic “faction” of AA that the Big Book begins with a Doctor’s Opinion?

And the Big Book occasionally talks about the importance of science and fellowship for us alcoholics.

Here are just a few examples:

The ex problem drinker who has found this solution, who is properly armed with the facts about himself, can generally win the entire confidence of another alcoholic in a few hours. Until such an understanding is reached, little or nothing can be accomplished. (p. 18)

Most of us sense that real tolerance of other people’s shortcomings and viewpoints and a respect for their opinions are attitudes which make us more useful to others. Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs. (p. 19)

Yes there is a long period of reconstruction ahead. We must take the lead. (p. 83)

What used to be the hunch or the occasional inspiration gradually becomes a working part of the mind. (p. 87)

However, I will be the first to acknowledge that the book consistently conflates treating others well with “spiritual” or “godly” behavior. Often a very good piece of practical advice is followed by godly admonishment, but that’s part and parcel of the book’s inconsistency.

But it was never meant to be inerrant. (Bill wrote on the very last page of the first 164 pages: “We realize we know only a little”). Inerrant means without error, and it is a concept religious scholars have tried to apply to the Christian bible, without success. How ridiculous would it be if people tried to do the same with the Big Book. You’d get about three pages in before having to give up. The Big Book is not meant to be perfect, or biblical, or the only way out of the complex of alcoholism.

Rob imparted the best of himself onto me; I was a stranger, who appeared at the doors of AA, without any clue as to what to do next. His razor wit, his unwillingness to take me and my problems too seriously, his enjoyment of sobriety – these are the tools I use every day now.

Connection, the very thing I feared the most, is one of my best allies. That’s what he and others gave me, a feeling of connection. And after being “booked” at least three times in full, I can also say that the Big Book of AA also supports the idea that we learn to stay sober, that we help each other get well by passing on the invaluable human qualities of love, devotion and enthusiasm for another person. If Rob were around today, I would probably try to convince him that it was he who kept me sober.

Not a divine intervention.

If he didn’t believe me, it really wouldn’t bother me now.

44 Responses

  1. Martin says:

    Thank you for a great piece of writing.

    Within the last two years, two groups, with members like the ones that you describe as bookers or muckers, have started in my town.
    Frankly, the rapid growth of these groups is surprising to me.

    I have been sober in AA continuously for 24 years, believe in god, and help others.

    My home group is 67 years old, and is generally very tolerant of others with drug problems, as well as of people who don’t share a belief in god.

    I heard a “booker” say recently that AA in our part of the county, “needs a lot of help”.
    My assumption was, that we were too tolerant for their tastes.

    I do not share his belief.
    Nor do I care for a vision of our fellowship that is less inclusive and more rigid.

    I’m forever grateful to you.
    Now I have a name for these people.

  2. Brent P. says:

    Like the author I’ve been mucked and booked on, I believe, 3 different occasions, by three different people. The final go round simply confirmed my belief that a more ridiculous, ritualistic process of self degradation existed to challenge this one. I quit as I was about to note, one more time, that I was a snivelling, self centred, asshole.
    Having been in and out of AA for over three decades now, I’ve been 5th stepped on several occasions, so when the guy who I’d only ever seen at meetings started showing up to my small, wretched apartment on, I don’t know how many consecutive nights to take me to the hospital then detox, I felt a deep connection to him and AA. What I remember most about his generosity was he and I walking across the lawn at Toronto East General, holding hands. Not because of our affection for one another but because I was so wobbly and dubious about going through the whole sobering up rigmarole again. He wasn’t dragging me, he simply recognized the condition I was in and that I needed physical and moral support.
    I was eventually detoxed and rehabbed so I got hold of him as soon as I could to show not quite a shiny new penny, but a scrubbed up, sober alcoholic. He smiled and I smiled and then he said, “now we’re going to do a fourth step”. I asked why and he replied, “because we need to find the bug that’s trying to kill you”.
    He made it so easy. I got a raft of pages each with the columns right out of the BB. The way we did it was for me to first, put the name of every person or institution that pissed me off. I wasn’t allowed to move to the next part of the drill until I had; A, identified at least fifty people dating back to my childhood; and B, that I called him when I felt I was finished, so he could explain the next part of the process. And that’s how we did it until we reached the end.
    I met him in a coffee shop with all my pages and he started looking through them. And I really mean, looked through them. He had an uncanny ability to look at the incident, drill down from there to find “the nature of the wrong”. He could have cared less about what I’d done, rather what it said about me.
    This was my 5th step. And when it was over he and I together identified the two things that I’d carried with me from childhood, the two things that formed the basis for my acting out.
    In all my years in AA, the stabs at the steps, I knew for the first time that I’d done a 5th step. I knew where the big cracks in my being were and I owed it all to this guy. The funny thing was, the moment of connection came to me when he just wouldn’t give up on me. The 4th and 5th steps were serious work or, at least, that’s what I felt. He told me I could carry on with the rest of the steps myself and we parted ways. I rarely see him now and I don’t even know if he still goes to AA, but I can say this about him, no matter where he is or what he’s doing, I learned to love another person.

  3. boyd says:

    Certainly among my top ten favorite posts. As a child in AA, my father worked the program every day, sponsoring, morning and evening meditations, etc. My vivid memories are of strangers who quickly became friends.
    I finally recognized my own addictions when alcohol brought me to death’s door. I knew where to reach for fellowship and direction. The twelve steps my father worked predated the official version published in the fifties (the “Little Red Book”), another testament to the many sober paths available to us. Thanks to ALL of you.

  4. daniel says:

    I did my first 5th step with my sponsor and it changed my life. For the first time in my life I was totally honest with another human being. He did a 5th step with me and it showed me that I was nobody special, I had the same character defects as everybody else. This action dispelled the loneliness and isolation that I was living in. I felt afterward that I was no longer alone and started to be a part of.

  5. MarkInTexas says:

    Bob K.,

    Hahaha. I always love it when you “pimp” your book!

    I’m looking forward to adding it to my collection of AA related material.

    Thank you for all that hard work, and to Roger and the folks for helping it see the light of day!

  6. MarkInTexas says:

    Dan L.,

    The more one buys into a delusion, the more delusional they become. The deeper one goes along these lines, they remove themselves further and further from any reasonable contact with reality.

    If you have not read Nietzsche’s “Antichrist,” I highly recommend the book to you. Judging by your comments above, you’ll find a great deal more analysis of the religious methodology enshrined in the Big Book, and so promoted by the various AA Taliban, Fundamentalists, etc. Seems there are several varieties of those types.

    Thank you for your comments.

  7. John M. says:

    Thank you Bob for taking the time to write this very thoughtful piece which has generated so many equally thoughtful comments by so many.

    I did my 5th step with my agnostic psychiatrist over ten sessions and we both found the 4th step as outlined by AA to be very productive for me. My psychiatrist specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy and we both just worked under the presupposition that the 4th step was an earlier “version” of Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy (earlier by 10 years) and Aaron Beck’s CBT (10 years after Ellis’ work).

    Still, a 5th step that delves deeply into stuff that may be grounded in early childhood or adolescent trauma could be quite harmful, as some have rightly pointed out in their comments, if taken with someone who is not trained in this area.

    For me, the 4th step, like my alcoholism, simply got my attention for what needed my attention. My 4th step was surprisingly revealing to me regarding some childhood issues and compelled me to seek help from a resource — a therapist — outside AA. (The Big Book, of course, alludes to seeking professional help but perhaps does not emphasize this strongly enough.)

    Ernie Kurtz, though, has always been right about stressing that AA practice should never be confused with therapy — “the fellowship” and clinicians have separate identities and distinctive functions.

    I also did a 5th step with my sponsor (after working with my psychiatrist) and this had the benefit of having me feel connected to something quite normal and healthy in that I was willing to share with another human being inside the fellowship my less than stellar and ignoble past.

    In an earlier comment, Joe C. highlighted a paragraph from your article which so properly and touchingly captures the essence of the 5th step and which, I believe, warrants repeating:

    I remember that four hour Saturday afternoon with him like it was yesterday. I can still see the tears welling in his eyes when something I said made him remember something. Something dark, unspeakable and forgiven. I know now looking back that a transfer of power between him and I was occurring, because I was connecting to another man’s vulnerability, confusion, hopes and aspirations, as I had not done in a decade. Walking back begrudgingly to the treatment centre, I did not sense so much a release of demons or a divine hand on my shoulder. No, I sensed that I had committed to something that was important because it connected me to you. I sensed I was a part of AA for the first time. Several of my key allies in recovery were now treating me differently since I had made it through my step 5. It was less divine therapy, and more a rite of passage into the fellowship.

    Many thanks again for your article!

  8. Bob C says:

    It’s a noble challenge to try to fight religiosity. Part of the problem is oppositional thinking that pervades western thinking, including religious AND scientific thinking: disease/ health, us/ them, good/bad, etc etc. The “fight” paradigm cannot itself be fought, otherwise we are back to the start.
    The other problem is that western science itself is the descendent of “scholasticism” which was an uneasy compromise between dark ages religious authority and a burgeoning new science. Unfortunately, science still reflects this strange mix of science and orthodoxy.
    We cannot simply fight our way out of this particular box.

  9. kevin b says:

    Wholeheartedly agree with you Dorothy about the 5th step. Yes, Bill Wilson does give some decent guidelines about the importance of doing the 5th step with the right person but he undercuts by his insistence that one must have what I call the “bombs bursting in midair experience.” That was not my experience nor is it the experience of many AA members.

  10. John S says:

    Another amazingly well-written article, and just what I’ve been thinking about since the noon meeting I went to yesterday.

    It was a traditional A.A. meeting and they read from the Daily Reflections which essentially said that when all human resources fail that only God can help us, that God will never desert us.

    When it was my turn to share, I said that I don’t have anything that I can just turn stuff over to and everything will be okay. However, sometimes I have to do something with the craziness going through my head, but the help I get always comes from another human being who cares enough to listen to me.

    I said that as long as we have these meetings, then I think I’ll be okay.

    I’m usually pretty subtle about my atheism at traditional meetings, but I kind of stood out like a sore thumb. One guy was pretty agitated and when it was his turn to talk he made it clear that this is a spiritual program and we must have a relationship with god. He then quoted some page in the Big Book.

    When he quoted the book, I just thought to myself that’s how I used to be. If it was in the book then it had to be right. It’s funny how people use the Big book to sort of “make their case”.

    I was just like that though and for a long time. I never knew what a booker or a mucker was but I would probably have been a booker. That’s the only AA that I knew. I would read the book, line by line repeatedly with a sponsor, highlight the important parts, the whole works. I in turn would do this with the people I sponsored.

    So the end result is I know the Big Book better than any other book that has ever been written. I’m not proud of that, it’s too bad I wasn’t studying a physics book all those years. (just kidding).

    I do respect the Big Book for what it was and what it did, but it’s time to move on. I really doubt the founders of A.A. would ever have imagined that some 75 years later, people would be quoting from their book as if it was handed down by god himself.

    It’s time for new literature. In fact, it’s well past time.

  11. Dan L says:

    Thank you Life-j. I have always viewed that “my best thinking got me here” in a positive light, not in the disparaging way I hear it so often. I know it is my ego but when push came to shove I knew I had to get into recovery instead of continuing that dead end game of alcoholic drinking. When AA tried to enforce a certain religiousity upon me I gave it a long open minded look and promptly discarded it. Since there is no god I can do what the god people do in my own way without any magical thinking involved. I thought I had to go it alone but quickly found others like me and they brought me to this site. I am willing to live and let live as far as religious AA is concerned but I want to make sure I pass the message that recovery without god is no different or no less than recovery with god.

  12. John says:


    As always, you make a great point. Viva la evolution!

  13. Roger says:

    Nothing wrong with revolution, John. But the approach of this website and most of the people who visit or write for it – which is pretty obvious I would think – is “evolution” rather than “revolution”. Evolution is a good thing. You can keep the good from the past while pretty much aiming for the same goals. But you don’t have to go to war with anyone. And they don’t have to be at war with you. And you know, John, I think that evolution is actually happening in AA, and there’s plenty of evidence to prove that, including this website, AA Agnostica.

  14. Doris A says:

    Me too Michael. I wish I stumbled on this site a few years back. I always look forward to the Sunday post, and also enjoy digging in the many great posts from the last few years.

  15. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Bob, thanks immensely for a good read. As well, l appreciate your compassionate acceptance of the sometimes outrageous rigidity of some “Bookers,” “Muckers,” and other dogmatic AA members who desperately belief that the Big Book, as well as their Bible, are inerrant. Like Joe C., I was especially moved by your deep identification with Rob’s humanity when you did your 5th Step with him in his apartment:

    . . . because I was connecting to another man’s vulnerability, confusion, hopes and aspirations, as I had not done in a decade.

    To my mind this epitomizes the human power we experience within AA regardless of one’s belief or non-belief. Like you, I feel most grateful and fortunate that I was able to establish a similar mutually compassionate relationship with my only sponsor, Peter, for 33 years before he passed of alcohol-related causes in 2006. After my 5th Step experience with him in my second year of recovery, during which I deeply felt his total acceptance and identification with me and my alcoholism, I felt more human than I perhaps ever had up until that time.

    I also am immensely grateful that I still experience that human power whenever I am in an AA meeting relating to others who like me are experiencing the “daily reprieve” from alcohol addiction.

    Yes, the theistic language of the BB is off-putting to say the least. Nevertheless, I never want to reject totally the deep wisdom that it also contains. Placing it in the historical context of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, it’s rather amazing — (if not downright miraculous . . . 😉 — how much Bill and Bob got right. Bill changed, Bob agreed with the Traditions as Bill initially wrote about them in the GV, and AA to some extent has continued to change. Hopefully, the essence of one drunk/druggie relating to another drunk/druggie shall continue ad infinitum . . .

    A month after our WAAFT Convention, it’s my hope that we WAAFTs shall be the impetus for AA to more effectively embrace the realities of the 21st Century rather than reverting Back to the Basics of the 20th Century, especially as distorted and inaccurate as that perception often is.

  16. Bob C says:

    Thanks life-j. I couldn’t agree more.

    Theres nothing like an agenda to move people to claim ownership of and quote from books in selective ways. It also speaks to the challenge of real open mindedness.


  17. Ian B says:

    Thank you life, the “best thinking” zinger has also always riled me for precisely that reason.

    I guess I have never been “booked”, as I have been so wary of fully diving in during my prior attempts at “the program”. This time, at 8+ months in, I am doing my best to be honest, open-minded, and willing, and true to myself, and that has lead me directly here. I refuse to “fake it until I make it” this time, as that is diametrically opposed to being honest and truthful to myself! If I can’t do that to the best of my ability, I won’t be good for anybody, and certainly won’t have anything authentic to share.

  18. Skip D. says:

    I doubt very much that “muckers” group was delisted for being exclusive and intolerant due to rigid adherence to the first 164 pages of the big book. Fat chance.

  19. John says:

    We all have seen many people benefit from 12-step participation. Hooray! That’s beautiful!

    I wonder, however, if the true statistical reality were knowable, would the benefits of Alcoholics Anonymous be outweighed by the aggregate harm it has done. This harm includes AA’s religiosity having become the backbone of drug/alcohol treatment in the United States, versus a secular, medical approach that would probably be the norm except for the existence of AA. In addition to displacing the medical/scientific treatment protocol employed in the treatment of every other disease, AA — by virtue of often being the only game in town — is often an obstacle for the newly sober because a belief in the supernatural is proclaimed at AA meetings as a prerequisite for sobriety. As so many people on this site have pointed out, it often takes decades for agnostics/atheists to come to terms with being a member of a god-based recovery program.

    I suspect that if Bill Wilson and his reconfiguration of the Oxford Group’s four practices had never reached a mass audience, today’s treatment of addiction would be radically more grounded in medicine/science and thereby substantially more effective. Additionally, support groups related to sobriety would not be so hyper-religious, and perhaps more than five percent of new attendees would actually benefit, compared to today’s dismal AA success rate.

    People sometimes think that because of the hospitals, schools, charitable work, etc, the benefits of organized religion outweigh the costs. However, if countless wars, interference with science (stem-cell research or imprisoning Galileo, for example), massive-scale sexual abuse and pedophilia, gay-bashing, undermining social equality (including equality for women), etc., are all taken into full account, a strong argument can be made that, overall, religion has cost society more than it has benefited society. Similarly, AA, I believe, has had the net effect of undermining the treatment of addiction, and its existence has more societal costs than benefits.

    In 1776 some very intelligent, brave people realized that a complete break — a fundamental change — was necessary for this country to flourish. Agnostics/atheists groups — and the brave, smart people making these groups possible — perhaps should consider a complete break from AA, its fairy tale how-to-book, and its 12-step dogma. Bill Wilson broke from the Oxford Group to further his vision of treating alcoholism. Perhaps now is the time for agnostics/atheists seeking sobriety to consider what the Founding Fathers did in 1776: begin a revolution! Don’t reword the steps, don’t do mental gymnastics to make the program palatable, don’t cite an occasional disclaimer like this “book is meant to be suggestive only,” and don’t pretend that a group of people — almost all of whom happily pray to a god of their understanding at least twice an hour in every AA meeting — can somehow be a non-theistic “higher” power. Like the Washingtonians and the Oxford Group, AA will eventually become a historical relic. Expediting that process might be a wonderfully constructive, productive thing.

    Thank you, Bob, for a great article! Thank you to this website and Roger for perhaps being “the shot heard round the world.”

  20. kevin b says:


  21. kevin b says:

    I was just browsing through Sam Harris’ latest book (which was reviewed here at AA Agnostica) and I think that one statement there applies very much to the BB.

    “I still considered the world’s religions to be mere intellectual ruins, maintained at enormous economic and social cost, but I now understood that important psychological truths could be found in the rubble.”

    There are some very very perceptive insights contained in the BB betwixt and beneath all of the “god bit.”

    I noted those perceptive insights as I plowed through the fundamentalist exegesis that many leaders of BB meetings do around here in Chitown and I’ve expounded enough on all the various ways of reading the texts that many of the fundamentalists have learned to leave me alone regarding”what the Book says”

    Nowadays, I’m coming to value the stories section of the BB much more that the 1st 164 pages.

    I do agree that in spite of the heavy handed manner in which Bill Wilson discusses God in the BB (and, to a lesser extent, the 12 & 12, which some of the BB fundamentalists and Back 2 Basics people don’t even recognize), Bill never meant for the BB to become the inerrant writ of AA that it has for some.

  22. life-j says:

    Bob C,
    Thanks for this. I used to have a real love-hate relationship to the big book. Have to confess, and not without a certain sadness, that by now it has just become strangely irrelevant and useless to me. It’s just too full of nonsense, though there are many brilliant passages in there, such as the beginning of chapter 3.
    I did read it cover to cover a few times during my first half dozen years, and then again one last time, well skipping a bit here and there, when the fourth edition came out, and haven’t really touched it since, other than showing the occasional sponsee how to do a 4th step.
    I had a good first sponsor, who, though a devout catholic himself never laid trips on me, and helped me navigate through the 2 and 3rd steps. After which I put further formal step work off for what, 10-15 years. But the program still works by osmosis, by way of the people in it. Took that long before I was able and ready to pull aside a fellow oldtimer and say let’s just knock out these steps. And of course by this time I had been held over in class so many times that the final exam was a breeze.
    It’s a miracle (yes, god musta done it) I didn’t go back out and drink. I was a real mess, and on top of it, real sick of all the god stuff.
    A more rational-based recovery would have been helpful, but even recovery centers push the god approach. And I wouldn’t have been able to pay for that anyway. At least AA was free.
    Hopefully one day we will see recovery centers started by agnostics who step forward with enough money to pull it off the ground, so there can be an alternative to the god stuff.
    Anyway, I always got more out of the stories than I got out of the first 164 pages.
    At least many of the stories have some real experience behind them. I remain puzzled that folks in AA don’t want to look at the fact that both Bill and Bob, and all the folks that wrote the first stories all were real newcomers, and not even newcomers like now where many newcomers with good guidance from people who have been around for a while will show some amazing recovery, spirituality and insight in a relatively short time. These people were complete newcomers, the blind leading the blind, with just a few years sober, and yet here we have, nowadays, people with 20 or 30 years sober who leave their brain at the door and believe blindly in those newcomers, Bill and Bob, and sit in meetings and spout off about how their best thinking got them here. Meaning they are stupid, and proud of it.
    No, their best thinking really did get them here: Finally one day they said, this can’t go on, I’m going to have to do something, even if it means going to AA and listen to all that god drivel. If I want to live thru this, I’m going to have to put up with it.
    That’s what I did. I was beat down enough to where I could. Looking back now, sometimes I can hardly even understand it.

  23. Dorothy H. says:

    Personally, I value hearing other people’s life changing experiences with the 5th step but it also frustrates me. Because that was not my experience. When I did my 5th step it took 10 hours and my sponsor did not responded appropriately in my opinion.

    I felt I relived my trauma and that I regret doing the 5th step at all. I was ready to go out because of it. I returned to my WAAFT homegroup yelling about my sponsor and even kicked the wall in the meeting room. Yes, my homegroup was shocked but sympathetic and didn’t ban me from the meeting for kicking the wall.

    I was later told by my therapist that survivors of trauma should never be asked to relive those experiences and that she has seen similar responses like mine to AA’s 5th step.

    In an academic way I get the need to confess especially for those from a Catholic background but the reality is that it can be and is extremely dangerous thing for many. It is often a serious failing of AA to push it on to people in the way of promotion of the steps!

    There are many different ways to heal. The 5th step isn’t always the safest way of doing that!

  24. earl j says:

    Great piece – thanks for posting it! I got “booked” back in 87 and my life took off! I turned into an arrogant booker for a good bit and had to grow out of it. Paradoxically, spiritual growth has led me away from god. However, I am convinced that, while the brain is carrying on its dance of chemical and electrical signal exchanges, consciousness – parallel, somehow related, and still mysterious – operates on the level of symbols. Metaphor is powerful stuff. I believe there is an aspect of my psyche – a previously “unsuspected inner resource” – that is part of, yet other than, the guy sitting here actively thinking and typing. Getting booked helped me get in touch with it. The trick is to drop the BS without losing the connection.

  25. Chris G says:

    I guess getting Booked depended a lot on who you were doing it with.

    I was Booked starting about 3 months into my sobriety. I remember sitting in my sponsor’s pick up truck for an hour or so every week before our meeting, going over the book line by line. We often laughed and cried. It was a very powerful and connecting experience. John was a devout born-again Christian, and yet he never once pushed religion in these sessions. We looked for spirituality, yes, always, but never his church, and never with any philosophical worries about what “spirituality” was. Spirituality at that point was an emotional upheaval pointed at sobriety. I was still too sick to worry about nuances and contradictions in the Big Book. I was learning magic from the narativium of the fellowship.

    Emotion, raw emotion is what I remember: the emotions of getting sober, and starting to belong to a fellowship, and connecting with people as I had never done before. My eyes are wet now, remembering.

    John was a man with a total focus on sobriety. His church was something he did, not something he pushed on his pigeons. There are probably a lot of Johns out there, as well as the proselytizers.

    The fifth step was similar — five hours of magnificent catharsis. If you could get that from a shrink, it would cost you a zillion dollars. Yes, probably a coming of age ceremony, but it helped set my sobriety like adding the catalyst to the epoxy.

    I experience a lot of irritation reading the Big Book now. But I remember that time with fondness and joy. It wasn’t just the book, of course. Never underestimate the power of social ceremonies and the culture’s stories. They tell us who we are, let us become what we can.

    I’ve recently done some Big Booking of my own — using Cleveland’s The Alternate 12 Steps instead of the Big Book — with a younger sponsee who is very, very church-shy. It works just the same, but is a lot easier with material that is much more relevant to our current society.

  26. Roger says:

    And a superb book it is! (I believe heathenly and promotion go well together, in this case.)

  27. bob k says:

    Studying AA history seems like a lot of work! Why doesn’t someone put together in a single book the highlights of the most salient events performed by the KEY PLAYERS in AA HISTORY??

    Oh, yeah. Roger and crew are working of the publication of such a book RIGHT NOW!! And it’s written with a deliciously secular slant.

    Will this shameless self-promotion cost me any points in my campaign for “Heathen of the Year?”

  28. bob k says:

    Actually, the Toronto “bookers” referred to in this essay were originally called the “muckers.” Some still use that label. The muckers’ AA group was also delisted, in 1996, I believe.

    Toronto Intergroup is clearly an equal-opportunity offender!

  29. Tommy H says:

    Wonderfully put, as usual.

  30. Eric T says:

    Me too Michael, me too.

  31. Dan L says:

    Thank you Bob for that enlightening and entertaining essay. I find myself continually amazed at the reverence that so many people have for that deeply flawed book. It has many good ideas and is a very useful tool but so is the newspaper horoscope. As a matter of fact I frequently compare it to a horoscope in meetings. It was written by a committee of amateurs with little sobriety in a short time period 75 years ago and it shows more and more as time passes it by. There is a lot of insight… and entire chapters of dross. The societal biases of the writers shines right through it and it is mind bogglingly schizophrenic. In reading it we continuously wander back and forth over the line between a disease and a moral failing never really finding any balance. Bookers and muckers did their best to keep me drunk with their insane reliance on the fairy tale of the “goode olde dayes” and the lunacy of their “one true way to do it”. They are very much the same as those TV preachers who have “the secret” of reading the true meaning encoded in scripture and thus can predict the future shortly after it happens with 50% accuracy 100% of the time. Religion is an old, old game which invariably involves a select group who know the truth and their followers who seek that arbitrary truth… which is released in dribbles as the leaders think it up. I know one such “guru” who suffers from a rather severe bipolar disorder who claims he used the Big Book to wean off his medication. The result would be hilarious if they weren’t so tragic. Another who actively mentors many “sponsees” (I hate that non-word) told me flat out that all he ever needed to know about life was in the 164 pages, treatment centres “ruined everything” and anything outside of the 164 pages was garbage.
    The addictions specialist who treated me told me this about people in AA: “We all come in crazy and sick and confused. The good news is some of us stay and begin to heal. The sad news is that most don’t stay and don’t get better. The annoying news is that some just get crazier and they never go away.”

  32. Jack says:

    Page XX in the forward to the “Big Book” it states: Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization!
    Yet, there is the third step prayer and so on!
    Perhaps it is time to create a new, wiser big book. If so, the recovery percentage may increase!

  33. Christine L. says:

    I have been sitting on the fence regarding AA for some time now and this article was very poignant for me.

    The Big Book has many parallels to the Bible in that it is full of inaccuracies and contradictions as well as being theistic and misogynistic.

    As for the ‘Divine Intervention’ that smacks of faith healing to me. I put my faith in science and not superstition.

    One parallel that I get a chuckle after is that if you leave Christianity you are told that you were never a Christian to begin with. Compare that to when you first come into AA and you are told that you are in denial until you do your first step. Then, when you leave AA, you are told that you were not a true alcoholic. That begs the question whether AA membership is a requirement of being an alcoholic?

    I have put my Big Book down and rarely pick it up any more. I find the comments and articles by my fellow agnostics and agnostics more than enough to inspire me to maintain my sobriety.

  34. Skip D. says:

    Sorry, I don’t have much of a stomach for sentimental big book apologetics. Bob was just lucky to be the intelligent, tolerant person he was when he found AA. I’ve known too many alcoholics that “couldn’t get it” and died. I don’t know any “bookers” that were or are so helpful that they don’t warrant a critique of their destructive religious intolerance, whenever their praises are sung. I think Christopher Hitchens’ words apply to good old “bookers”, too, “Religion Poisons Everything”.

    Aren’t “bookers” the ones who head up the crowd that STILL doesn’t think enough of us to allow our non-god meetings to be on their sacred Toronto meeting list? This piece should have a subtitle: Warning: “Bookers” – still killing alcoholics through exclusion and intolerance in a city near you.

  35. Bob C says:

    I totally agree.

  36. larry k says:

    Very nicely done. The passage Joe quotes really hit my heart. I remember my 5th with no details except my sponsor’s final reaction as he spread his arms and drew in a breath then whispered out…the air is free. it was liberating at so many levels. I remember every sponsee’s attempt at a 5th…though not a detail comes to mind. it is a birthing of trust and connection…metaphorically speaking.

    Not feeling completely alone was the most powerful sensation in my struggle with the pit of my stomach emptiness and void. Only drinking could fill that ache.

    Thank you.

  37. steve b says:

    Yes, the good old days, let’s go back to the good old days, say to the 1890s, when women couldn’t vote, when “negroes” had to use separate drinking fountains, and when it was common to die of “consumption” (tuberculosis). Yes, the very good old days. The conservatives always wish to preserve a beautiful past that existed only in their imaginations. And we in AA of course have our share of traditionalists who dreamily love our idyllic past. They are part of a long tradition: The ancient Greeks thought they lived in a bronze age, and looked back nostalgically to their own golden age, a time of heroic men of action. And course the bible itself talks of the ultimate golden age: the garden of eden, when everything was oh so perfect. I guess we must live in a fallen age, but, be patient, wait 50 years or so, and it will turn out that we are now living in a golden age after all! So, since we actually are living in a golden age, we might as well enjoy it… one day at a time.

  38. Michael K. says:

    I’m new to AA Agnostica, and posts like this are keeping me in a program I have resisted for years – the mental gymnastics I engaged in during meetings was exhausting after a while and I would leave and relapse.

  39. Joe C. says:

    Roger, it doesn’t go unnoticed that this blasphemous routine is the same time and day that our god fearing brethren confirm their obedience to Yahweh. Second only to this lox and cream cheese omelet with a toasted bagel and capers that I use to go for on Sundays in Calgary, this is clearly the nicest Sunday ritual I have ever enjoyed… dare I say, “religiously.”

    This one says so much that I will look forward to misquoting you often, Bob:

    I remember that four hour Saturday afternoon with him like it was yesterday. I can still see the tears welling in his eyes when something I said made him remember something. Something dark, unspeakable and forgiven. I know now looking back that a transfer of power between him and I was occurring, because I was connecting to another man’s vulnerability, confusion, hopes and aspirations, as I had not done in a decade. Walking back begrudgingly to the treatment centre, I did not sense so much a release of demons or a divine hand on my shoulder. No, I sensed that I had committed to something that was important because it connected me to you. I sensed I was a part of AA for the first time. Several of my key allies in recovery were now treating me differently since I had made it through my step 5. It was less divine therapy, and more a rite of passage into the fellowship.

    I often struggle to defend why I am a 12-Step apologist. Sometimes AA reductionists get frustrated that I pay this “religious tripe” (their words) any attention. Sometimes literalists are offended that I call my higher-power-optional dissertation of the process 12-Step work. But you nailed it for me in as far as describing the 12-Step process as one of casting trust into the unknown with the vulnerable yet seemingly reasonable chance of rejection and humiliation.

    I have heard this before, that member’s didn’t feel a part of the 12-Step fellowship until after Step 5. And one could forgive someone for describing the process in supernatural terms. It’s pretty powerful to take such a leap of faith and to then land safely.

    I’ve said enough otherwise would fawn over your point about the big book’s intention as a launching pad of creativity and not a final word on alcoholism & recovery.

    Rigid people amuse me. The road they pave is rich in good intentions. The destination might surprise them 🙂

  40. Christopher G says:

    What an excellent perspective and overview of the situation as it exists and has existed for decades, Bob! I have recently realized that Wilson and company produced a book that was designed to “hit” as many as possible, perhaps in a people pleasing fashion. I call it the shotgun effect. I belief they had the best of intentions as well. Like my own writing and perspectives, though, confirmation bias is inevitable, hence the contradictions, dogma, and propensity to generalize a uniquely personal and subjective experience. I like this article. I like it a lot.

  41. JHG says:

    One of the reasons to study AA’s history and the Big Book is to be able to counter the self-serving distortions perpetrated by the Back to the Basics crowd.

  42. Adam N says:

    I really related to this piece. Our experience is very, very similar! Thanks so much for putting it out there. I am going christmas tree hunting with my family this morning, and may miss my sunday morning meeting. This was easily just as good!
    I really related to the line:

    Each time I got “booked” I was reading it line by line and although I never got that damned divine intervention, I did get a very good grasp of the contents of the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.


  43. Courtney S. says:

    Excellent post… something our area has been struggling with… back to the basics proselytizers. Also relate to the revisionist history offered by the same folks… give me Jimmy Burwell any day. “I am responsible”… selfish?? ….no …Responsible!!

  44. bob k says:

    Congratulations on a very nicely written piece. I admire your daring in tackling such a “big picture” issue in a small amount of paragraphs. The book is interesting in that, depending on which parts one focuses on, a case could be made for grand religiosity or a fairly open-minded liberalism.

    We heathens, being the cantankerous sort, tend to be drawn to what offends us most as our focal point.

    Let the declaiming begin!

    The booker/muckers are my antipodes, the godly right-wing, but several have a dedication to helping others that is admirable. There is also some merit in offering NO wiggle room to notorious wigglers. They seem to have found the small portion of the market that is their constituency.

    Personally, I think the book has great merit, especially after I translated it.

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