Hallowed be the Big Book?
By Laurie A.
The Preface to the fourth edition of the Big Book notes, “Because this book has become the basic text for our Society and has helped such large numbers of alcoholic men and women to recovery, there exists strong sentiment against any radical changes being made in it. Therefore, the first portion of this volume, describing the AA recovery program, has been left untouched …”
That’s the problem.
Despite the book’s own caveats, e.g., “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realise we know only a little. God (sic) will constantly reveal more to you and to us …”, and the dust jacket description of the book as the (neutral), “basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous”, fundamentalist members treat it as the literal, revealed, inviolable word of God; commandments, not suggestions. As Joe C. observed of The Doctor’s Opinion in his book of daily reflections Beyond Belief (November 24), “Critics inside AA would have preferred that the 1976 and 2004 reprint offered AA members a second opinion (because) more has been revealed… It is not disrespectful to those who have come before us and done so much for us to show that the courage they taught us has enabled us to reach further.”
No doubt AA co-founder Bill W., who supervised the compilation of the first edition of the Big Book when he was less than four years sober, would tell the story differently were he writing today. He recognised that:
As time passes our book literature has the tendency to get more and more frozen, a tendency for conversion into something like dogma, a human trait I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that AA will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists, and its relativists. (Letter quoted by Ernest Kurtz in Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous)
Each faction will find justification in its pages. As Joe C. points out, “Our biases predispose us to seek evidence that supports our (opening) positions and deny even overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Open minds, sceptical of even our most heartfelt convictions, are our best defense against our own tendency towards confirmation bias.” (Beyond Belief, December 7)
For example, textual zealots tell us that there are many “musts” in the Big Book, from 55 references to 103 depending on the “authority” counting them! They neglect to add that in all cases but one the “must” in the first 164 pages is preceded by the word “we”, so for the must to apply to me I would have to be part of the “we”. The people who wrote the book were recording what they had to do to get sober (“We merely have an approach that works for us”); they were not telling anyone else what to do. On page 20 the book says, “If you are an alcoholic who wants to get over it, you may already be asking – ‘What do I have to do?’ It is the purpose of this book to answer such questions specifically. We shall tell you what we have done” (emphasis added). The logical, grammatical answer to, “What do I have to do?” is, “You have to do this”, but our pioneers gave us a text that is descriptive, not prescriptive. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (AACoA), Bill W. records that when 400 copies of the first draft of the Big Book were circulated for comments to anyone they knew who was concerned about the problem of alcoholism, the psychiatrist Dr. Howard made a “critically important” suggestion:
He pointed out that the text was too full of the words “you” and “must” and suggested that we substitute wherever possible such expressions as “we ought” or “we should”. His idea was to remove all forms of coercion, to put our fellowship on a “we ought” basis instead of a “you must” basis… Dr Silkworth and Dr. Tiebout gave us similar advice.
So the redactors were at work from the very beginning and in the light of continuing revelation there is no reason for us in 2015 not to apply the scalpels of hermeneutics and form criticism to AA’s “scriptures” too – indeed, it is our responsibility and duty to do so.
Far from being a text book of incontrovertible instructions or rules the Big Book is, in fact, a story book, it says so in its very title, Alcoholics Anonymous – The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. The dust cover of the fourth edition quotes a letter written by Bill W. in 1953:
The story section of the Big Book is far more important than most of us think. It is our principal means of identifying with the reader outside AA; it is the written equivalent of hearing speakers at an AA meeting; it is our show window of results.
In AACoA he wrote, “The story section could identify us with the distant reader in a way that the text itself (first 164 pages) might not.” Kurtz noted, “From its beginnings and still today, the philosophy and spirituality – the healing – of AA is transmitted primarily by the practice of story-telling, of telling a particular kind of story the very format of which inculcates a way of thinking that shapes a particular way of life.” (NCCA Blue Book, 1986).
So, here’s a classic story about addiction. The wind challenged the sun to a duel. “I’m stronger than you. See that man on the common? I bet you I can rip the cloak from his back.” The sun replied, “Do your worst.” So the wind summoned all its strength and blew clouds across the sun, the sky darkened, it became menacingly cold. The man wrapped the cloak round himself. The wind blew a mighty gale and tried to tear the man’s cloak from him. In panic, the man clung on and wrapped the cloak ever tighter. Exhausted, the wind gave up. Now the sun came out from behind the clouds and said, “Let me try.” Its rays felt pleasant on the man’s face. He relaxed and as the sun warmed him he loosened his cloak, took it off and slung it over his arm.
As in Aesop’s fable, the tension in AA between those who cling to the delusional security of the straitjacket and those who wear their sobriety like a loose cloak has been there from the start. In AACoA Bill W. describes how the conservatives (who thought the Big Book should be Christian in doctrinal sense), liberals and radicals wrestled to have their interpretation of the program take precedence. “The liberals (the largest contingent) were dead set against any other theological proposition (than the word God); they would have nothing to do with doctrinal issues (because the straight religious approach had worked in relatively few cases).” Then Bill adds, “But the atheists and agnostics, our radical left wing were… to make a tremendously important contribution.” They wanted “a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave Him alone as he wished.” And by inserting the phrase as we understood Him after the word God in the Steps “our atheists and agnostics… widened the gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.” (original emphasis).
Such all-inclusive practice is lost in current narrow legal rulings which seek to define AA as a quasi-religion. Never mind Bill’s protestations that, “As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose that we are authors and inventors of a new religion”, and “The atheist may stand up in an AA meeting still denying the Deity… in such an atmosphere the orthodox, and the unbeliever mix happily together…” (extracts from As Bill Sees It, 158 and 253). A posting on the AAhistorylovers website (12/9/14) noted:
High level courts use a three part test to determine if the wall of separation (between Church and State) has been violated… They took a long look at the Big Book and its 200 references to God; a look at the 12 Steps and their unmistakeable references to God; the prayers at AA meetings; and based on a full examination of these, ruled that AA doctrines and practices must be viewed as religious. Because multiple high level courts have ruled uniformly on this matter these rulings now constitute “clearly established” law in the US.
That’s the trouble with treating our texts as set in stone dogma; for as we know, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” There is no requirement on anyone to read, let alone study, the Big Book or the 12 &12, to practice the Steps, to believe in God, or to pray. Treatment centers which do require clients to take the Steps as part of their admission contract mire AA in controversy.
In the 1980s AA in Great Britain was left a substantial legacy in a will. To comply with AA’s seventh tradition the GB general service board trustees declined the legacy. The lawyer concerned “challenged our right, as a charity to refuse monies and gave notice to pursue the matter through the courts. Losing our charitable status could lead to the forfeiture of all the Fellowship’s assets… the only solution was to submit a Bill to Parliament which would change the law and allow us to decline legacies gifts etc.” (Letter from Jim H., GSB chairman, in “Share”, the GB Fellowship’s national magazine, March 1986)
In drafting the legislation, which was enacted in law as the Alcoholics Anonymous (Dispositions) Act 1986, the civil servants wrote their own preamble describing AA as “an inchoate fellowship whose members seek to overcome their addiction to alcohol by the practice and adherence to a code of principles which have evolved empirically since the fellowship was founded.” Inchoate means: just beginning, not fully formed or developed. We’re a work in progress. And as David Sack, MD, said in “Psychology Today” (AA Without the God?), “AA will doubtless continue to evolve”. “Spearheads of God’s ever-advancing creation”, as the Big Book says. William White and Ernest Kurtz saw “diversification within AA as an inevitable process of adaptation to the increasingly diverse religious and cultural contexts inherent in the fellowship’s worldwide growth.” And in Not-God Ernie opined, “AA shall survive so long as its message remains that of the not-God-ness of the wholeness of accepted limitation; and this itself shall endure so long as AA’s spiritualisers and its liberals – its ‘right’ and its ‘left’ – maintain in mutual respect the creative tension that arises from their willingness to participate even with others of so different assumptions in the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged (original emphasis)”.
We need no iron-clad dogma to bind us together. As Bill W. said “In AA we have only two disciplinarians – great suffering and great love; we need no others.”
The wind and the sun.
Laurie is a retired national newspaper and BBC journalist in the UK. His sobriety date is 8/10/84. He served on the Great Britain AA literature committee and edited Share, the British fellowship’s national magazine, and Share and Share Alike, a book celebrating 60 years of AA in Britain in 2007. He has written two other posts for AA Agnostica: