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.