Sponsorship in AA

Reaching Out

This article is dedicated to the memory of Ernie Kurtz, AA’s foremost historian, who was so pleased to include us WAAFTs as members of the Alcoholics Anonymous that he loved so dearly. He was a devoted friend to us and strove to include us as an integral part of AA’s history.

 By Thomas B.

Probably No Human Power

Here’s another example that in my 43rd year of recovery in AA it’s the obvious I so often miss! I must have heard, or read, “How It Works” at least 5,000 times, especially since it’s ritualistically been read at most meetings I’ve attended the past 25 or so years. But, it’s only been in the last several weeks that I’ve actually heard, or noticed, the (b), which states “That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism.”

It doesn’t say “definitely,” or “certainly”, or “absolutely”. It says “probably” – it occurs to me, therefore, that a certain element of doubt and uncertainly has been an integral part of the AA suggested program of recovery from the earliest days of our Fellowship.

It strikes me that “human power” was in play when Bill was visited in November of 1934 by his childhood friend, Ebby, who was not drinking because he had joined the Oxford Group, telling Bill he was sober because, “I’ve got religion”. Bill, simultaneously being joyous because that meant more booze for him, was baffled, “aghast” as he describes it in the Big Book, wondering if his friend’s alcoholic insanity had morphed into religious insanity. Nevertheless, this was a crucial founding moment for what AA has since become during its almost 80 years of history – it was the result of the human power of one alcoholic sharing his story with another alcoholic.

Another critical founding moment, also animated by human power, occurred some six months later in May, when Bill, sober since his last admission at Towns Hospital, was most dejected, alone in Akron, devastated after a business deal fell through. He knew that in order for him to stay sober he had to talk to another alcoholic. He made several frantic phone calls from a pay phone in the Mayflower Hotel. Across the lobby from the payphone was the bar from which he could hear music and laughter. Desperate, he got in contact with Henrietta Seiberling, who was able to connect him with Dr. Bob, another hopeless alcoholic. It was arranged for them to meet at the Seiberling estate Gatehouse on the afternoon of Mother’s Day.

Dr. Bob and Bill met in the library off the living room of the Gatehouse. Bill leaned across a small table and told Dr. Bob that he had to talk to another alcoholic so that he would stay sober. In effect, as related by Ernest Kurtz on page 29 of Not-God, he said:

I called Henrietta because I needed another alcoholic. I needed you Bob, probably a lot more than you’ll ever need me. So, thanks a lot for hearing me out. I know now that I’m not going to take a drink, and I’m grateful to you.

This especially captivated Dr. Bob’s interest, hooked him, and instead of only staying for the 15 minutes he had intended, he ended up talking with Bill for some four hours that evening. After Bill told his story of alcoholic debauchery, Dr. Bob shared with Bill his story as well. Thus, for the second time the human power of alcoholics sharing their stories with each other occurred. As Ernest Kurtz sums it on page 35 of Not-God:

Wilson told hopelessness rather than preached conversion, and he told by using his own story, his own experience, the literal facts of his own life, rather than by offering abstract theory or even scientific facts.

Later, after Dr. Bob had recovered from his last binge and made his amends, Bill and Dr. Bob agreed they needed to help another alcoholic. A nurse at Akron Hospital introduced them to Bill D., a prominent Akron lawyer when sober, but also a raging drunk, who had been hospitalized numerous times. Dr. Bob paid for a private room in Akron Hospital, so that he and Bill could share the human power of their stories of stopping drinking with Bill D.

As related in Not-God on page 39, Bill D. excitedly told his wife after several visits, “If Bill and Bob can do it, I can do it. Maybe we can all do together what we could not do separately.”

Thus, began the first group of drunks that would evolve into Alcoholics Anonymous. And so it continues down to the present day with AA groups meeting all over the world where AA members still share their stories of experience, strength and hope with each other, so they can stop drinking and recover. In other words, the human power of alcoholics sharing our stories with each other enables us, a day at a time, to recover.

The element of doubt expressed in (b) above was likewise continued in the evolution of the Twelve Traditions during the 1940s and 1950s. If the Steps explain “How It Works”, the Traditions delineate why the AA program works. Tradition Two also includes an element of uncertainty. It does not read that AA’s sole authority is a loving God as He does, or will, express Himself in our group conscience – rather, it reads, “a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.”

A group conscience, of course, is the consensus of the human beings, who are members of the AA group. It expresses the human power that evolves among the members of the group as they consider and decide how best to carry the message of recovery to alcoholics who attend their group meetings.

* * *

It’s always been my belief that the primary essence of the recovery process in AA can be found in this dynamic of alcoholics sharing their stories of recovery with other members at AA meetings. When an alcoholic shares with other alcoholics her or his experience, strength and hope – in other words, the Good Orderly Direction of recovery – the human power of identification through our shared language of the heart enables AA members to help each other get and stay sober. Ernie Kurtz describes the process on page 204 of Not-God:

As program, AA teaches that the physical, mental and spiritual components of each alcoholic’s life are mutually connected… But AA is also fellowship, and as such it teaches that it is with others rather than as individual that one treats self healthfully.

The first atheist in AA, Jim Burwell, describes in his story, “The Vicious Cycle”, in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th editions of the Big Book the importance of his connection to the human power of the group:

I did like these new friends because, again, they were like me. They had also been periodic big shots who had goofed out repeatedly at the wrong time… for a long time the only Higher Power I could concede was the power of the group, but this was far more than I had ever recognized before, and it was at least a beginning. It was also an ending, for never since June 16, 1938, have I had to walk alone.

It’s always been my belief that the stories in the back of the Big Book along with Bill’s story in Chapter 1 are much more effective in demonstrating “How It Works” than the rest of the material in the first 164 pages.

Here’s how Glen F. Chestnut, moderator of the AA History Lovers Group describes it:

“Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” It is in the reciting of them that we find ourselves contacting the spiritual power which can transform our lives. One can investigate early AA spiritual concepts and ideas, philosophy, sociological structures, and psychological theories, and analyze all of these at great length. But telling stories – and listening to them – is far more important and basic, because this is the way the message is really passed on, and the context in which the deepest spiritual insights are revealed.

* * *

At our convention in Santa Monica last November, I was struck by a comment Eric C. made. A 30 year combat veteran of the U.S. Marines, he compared the camaraderie within an AA group to the esprit de corps he experienced with his Marine Corps units during service in three wars. Alcoholics, like soldiers in combat, survive largely due to the strength of the human power of our esprit de corps.

Theologians and ardent believers may speculate about the First Cause being some sort of deity – nevertheless, the agency of survival by alcoholics in recovery, like soldiers in combat, is the tangible, observable, experienced human connection, the human power of alcoholics with each other.

My experience of the human power of a group of people organized around a common goal or purpose is not limited only to AA. I have experienced similar dynamics resulting from the power of humans to successfully collaborate together to achieve common goals in other endeavors.

I played high school football in Jackson, Mississippi, for a small Catholic high school in the middle of the protestant Bible belt. Our teams were not only scant in the number of players compared to other teams we played, we were also considerably smaller – we were outweighed by an average of 25 to 30 pounds per man. Nevertheless, our coach, Bill Raphael, a legendary Mississippi high school coach, was able to inspire and motivate us to overachieve despite our limitations. At the end of each winning season, we would play a post-season bowl game in which he pitted us against teams ranked at least one or two classes above our level of competition. Coach Raphael was able to elicit from us a combined team effort of human power that resulted in us also winning three football bowl games.

Both in high school and college I was also actively involved in theatre productions, both acting and directing. As well, for ten years following college, I sought a career in the theatre, working in regional theaters and Off Broadway. After a long and arduous rehearsal period, when a theatre company gels into an effective ensemble performance, the results, both for audiences, as well as for members of the company, can be magical, if not downright miraculous! The same phenomenon occurs from the human power of musicians or dancers in performance to deeply move themselves and those who experience them.

It’s evident throughout the history of our species that the human power of a group of people dedicated to a common purpose is ubiquitous. I admire the notable quote by Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

* * *

From AA’s earliest days the human power of sponsorship has been an integral part of AA’s recovery program. The AA publication Living Sober on page 26 relates that, in the early days, hospitals in Akron and New York would admit alcoholics if a sober AA member would agree to sponsor them. Here’s how Living Sober describes the early process of sponsorship:

The sponsor took the patient to the hospital, visited him or her regularly, was present when the patient was discharged, and took the patient home and then to the AA meeting. At the meeting, the sponsor introduced the newcomer to other happily non drinking alcoholics. All through the early months of recovery, the sponsor stood by, ready to answer questions, or to listen whenever needed.

Dr. Bob paid to move Bill D. to a private room for the talks he and Bill had with him.

Throughout his life, until he died in 1966, Bill always referred to Ebby as “Ebby, my sponsor”, which he did in the Memorial Article to Ebby in the June, 1966 issue of The Grapevine. In his book, Ebby, the Man Who Sponsored Bill W., Mel B. describes how Bill financially supported – in the parlance of today’s recovery, enabled – Ebby all throughout his life, even when he was notoriously and obnoxiously drunk, which he often was.

Nevertheless, Bill continued not only to help support Ebby, he also paid for him to attend several AA Conventions. Ebby experienced his longest period of sobriety for seven years in Dallas, Texas. However, after the death of a girlfriend, he again relapsed. Bill continued to help him, arranging through the AA Board of Trustees for a stipend, so he could live the last two years of his life at McPike’s Farm, near Ballston Spa, NY, one of the early “Drunk Farms” for alcoholics. Ebby died sober of a stroke March 21, 1966.

In a sense, Dr. Bob and Bill co-sponsored each other, developing a deep friendship, as they worked with alcoholics to establish AA along with other members from the first two AA groups in Akron and New York. This was during the period when the Big Book was written to spread their message of recovery to other alcoholics. They continued to sponsor each other while collaborating to guide AA’s early evolution during the 1940s, when the Twelve Traditions were conceived up until Dr. Bob died on November 16, 1950.

The History of Sponsorship in AA

In February of 1939, the Works Publishing Company distributed 400 copies of the draft manuscript of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous to all the then recovering alcoholics in Akron and New York who had been involved in the collaborative writing project. Bill and Dr. Bob wanted to get final editorial sign-off from members for what would become the basic text of AA. To insure there were no obvious misstatements, they also sought editorial advice from prominent members in the medical and publishing fields, as well as eminent religious leaders. This effort resulted in three significant editorial revisions.

First, as Ernie Kurtz notes on page 75 of Not-God, a New Jersey psychiatrist, Dr. Howard, recommended that all declaratives, such as “you must” be changed to suggestions, such as “we have” or “we tried.” He noted that alcoholics have always been preached to without much success, proposing that suggestions might be more effective instead of finger-wagging directions.

Second, Bill, to accommodate Hank P. and Jim B., toned down to some degree the ardent religious tone of “How It Works” as described  on page 167 of  Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, published in 1957:

In Step Two we decided to describe God as a “Power greater than ourselves.” In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words “God as we understood Him.” From Step Seven we deleted the expression “on our knees.” And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: “Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a Program of Recovery.” AA’s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions only. Such were the final concessions to those of little faith or no faith; this was the great contribution of our atheists and agnostics. They had widened our gateway so that all who suffer might pass through, regardless of belief or lack of belief.

A third significant editorial revision was to delete this outlandish direction at the end of the (a), (b) and (c): “If you are not convinced on these vital issues, you ought to re-read the book to this point or else throw it away!”

* * *

And so, Alcoholics Anonymous was finally published on April 10, 1939. It was soon nicknamed the Big Book, since it was designed using thicker paper and larger margins than usual, so buyers would get their money’s worth.

Nowhere in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is there specific mention of sponsorship. However, Chapter 7, “Working With Others”, contains a number of suggestions and guidelines for helping alcoholics. Herein follows some of the language conceived by the first successfully sober folks in Akron and New York:

  • “Don’t start out as an evangelist or reformer. Unfortunately a lot of prejudice exists.” (p. 89)
  • “If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God.” (p. 93, emphasis in original)
  • “It is important for him to realize that your attempt to pass this on to him plays a vital part in your own recovery. Actually, he may be helping you more than you are helping him.” (p. 94)
  • “Never talk down to an alcoholic from any moral or spiritual hilltop; simply lay out the kit of spiritual tools for his inspection… If he thinks he can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage him to follow his own conscience.” (p. 95)

Nevertheless, the overall message of Chapter 7, “Working With Others” – also evident throughout much of the rest of the first 164 pages – is summed up on page 98: “Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust God and clean house.”

* * *

In 1940, the Akron No. 1 AA Group, also known as the King School group, published a pamphlet entitled, “A Manual for AA”. It was described as “a practical guide for new members and sponsors of new members of Alcoholics Anonymous”. Mostly written by Dr. Bob and other original members still closely affiliated with the Oxford Group, it is much more authoritative and declarative in style than the Big Book. It reintroduces some of the concepts deleted from the multilith copy of the Big Book, urging newcomers to follow the “rules” of AA. The primary rules are total abstinence and studying the Big Book so it “becomes your second Bible”. If not, the newcomer may relapse and thus lose membership in AA and any position within AA they may hold.

A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous

Click on the image to be taken to one of the earliest versions of the Akron manual.

Like the Big Book, the pamphlet is directed primarily towards “real alcoholics”, those so-called low bottom drunks who have lost everything, those who suffer from “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization”.

Much of it is devoted to qualifying the newcomer to insure that he is such a hardcore case, thereby ready to follow not only the Twelve Steps but also the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group. The newcomer is urged to devote no less than 100% effort – in other words, per Oxford Group parlance, newcomers are to be Maximum.

It’s emphasized that although women may also be alcoholic, this pamphlet is for men only. Further, it warns that when a woman is present, including family members, men alcoholics tend to lose their focus on sobriety, tending to slack off doing what’s necessary to maintain sobriety. In other words, they become less than “Maximum”. Sexist? Just a tad.

The sponsor is urged to assume full responsibility for the newcomer to include, if necessary, paying for his hospital stay. The sponsor is directed to “Encourage him to look up to you. Your responsibility never ends”.

It has a much more explicit tone of traditional Christian ideology than the Big Book was revised to reflect. In addition to the Big Book and the pamphlet, the sponsor is urged to ensure the newcomer has a copy of both the Bible and the Upper Room, a daily devotional magazine published by the United Methodist Church. The newcomer is exhorted:

There is the Bible you haven’t opened for years. Get acquainted with it. Read it with an open mind. You will find things that will amaze you. You will be convinced that certain passages were written with you in mind. Read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew V, VI and VII). Read St. Paul’s inspired essay on love (I Corinthians XIII). Read the Book of James. These readings are brief but so important.

The newcomer is encouraged to “read Alcoholics Anonymous and read it again so that It will become your second Bible”. The sponsor in addition to instructing the newcomer about the Twelve Steps and Four Absolutes, also directs him to start each day with a quiet period of contemplation for guidance and prayer, after reading the Upper Room or other devotional material.

The newcomer is mandated, “Keep these rules in mind. As long as you obey them you will be on firm ground. But the least deviation – and you are vulnerable. It is those who try to cut corners who find themselves back in their old drunken state”.

It is not surprising that Dr. Bob felt this way about sponsorship, after all at the end of his story in the Big Book he writes: “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any form of intellectual pride which keeps you accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you… Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!”

* * *

The rapid growth of AA in Cleveland resulted in an “AA Sponsorship Pamphlet” written in 1944 by Clarence S., who had been sponsored by Dr. Bob. This pamphlet was directed to sponsors only, but reiterated much of the material found in Akron’s “A Manual for Alcoholics Anonymous”. The notable exception was deletion of any references to the King James Bible or the Upper Room, which were Protestant publications, not appropriate for the many Catholics in Cleveland who sought recovery in AA.

Clarence S., following the 1937 example of early AA members in New York, separated AA meetings from the Oxford Group in 1939, since parish priests forbade Catholic alcoholics to attend what was clearly a Protestant Christian movement. Besides, as he informed Dr. Bob, “They use the wrong Bible”. Otherwise, it recommends a very directive approach to instructing the newcomer how to do the Twelve Steps and how to live in accordance with the Four Absolutes. It emphasizes the absolute necessity of belief in a Power greater than oneself that “is the heart of the AA plan”.

Clarence S. settled in Florida in the 1960s, where he became a 32-degree Mason and one of AA’s first and most popular circuit speakers, leading meetings and AA retreats throughout North America. After his third marriage in 1971 to Grace, an ardent Christian, he became quite religious, quoting the New Testament at meetings and retreats, according to his biographer Mitchell K. Sponsorship as promoted in Akron and Cleveland was a predominant theme of many of these retreats.

During the 70s, when I was getting sober in New York City, I remember Clarence being quite controversial within AA – some members worshipped him as the cult leader of the one and only true AA, while others vehemently believed, myself included, that he was inappropriately imposing Christian religiosity on AA, thereby egregiously violating our professed tradition of being spiritual, not religious, in accordance with the AA Preamble, which states that “AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution…”.

The dogma reflected in these two documents and by Clarence S. form the core ideology of what Ernie Kurtz in Not-God describes on pages 301-302 as “Akron-style AA”. It also forms the basis of the growing movement within North America the past 30 to 40 years to reflect primarily, if not only, an evangelical, pietistic, Christian doctrine, as evidenced by the Back to the Basics and Simply AA brands of AA. It’s the impetus behind the delisting of atheist and agnostic AA groups.

* * *

In 1976, GSO published a pamphlet, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship, with revisions made by the General Service Conferences of 2004, 2005 and 2010. Herein follow some of the most pertinent guidelines discussed in the pamphlet as they differ from the Big Book, the Akron AA Manual, and the Cleveland pamphlet approach to sponsorship:

  • The sponsor and the sponsored meet as equals (p. 7)
  • Sponsorship responsibility is unwritten and informal (p. 8)
  • There is no superior class or caste of sponsors in AA (p. 12)
  • Encourage newcomers to go to a variety of different meetings and to get a number of different viewpoints about AA and literature (p. 13)
  • Don’t impose personal views or beliefs or pretend to know all the answers (p. 14)
  • There is no best, or single, way to sponsor. Be flexible and tolerant of whatever helps a newcomer. People of many faiths, or no faith at all, can get sober in AA (p. 15)
  • Firmness is best tempered by sympathy and understanding (p. 16)
  • Sponsorship doesn’t mean forcing any specific interpretation of AA; many alcoholics maintain sobriety without personal belief (p. 21)

The GSO pamphlet on sponsorship offers a considerably more open, balanced and compassionate approach to helping others compared to the more doctrinaire views of the Big Book, Dr. Bob and Clarence S. It reflects a more humanitarian, egalitarian, benevolent view of how we in the AA Fellowship have evolved to help each other recover.

My Sponsor, Peter

We can see from this review of the history of sponsorship that there is a considerable range of different approaches and practices of sponsorship. Some take a very narrow, conservative view, trying to replicate how it was allegedly done by our earliest members in Akron, and others are much more progressive and non-directive in their approach.

In some groups I’ve attended certain people have reputations for being Big Book Nazis, whereas others have a much more loosey-goosey approach to sponsorship. One thing that especially puzzled me when I moved away from New York AA was when people would proudly refer not only to their sponsor, but to their grand-sponsor and great-grand-sponsor, etc. It took me a while to realize that what they were doing was tracing their lineage of sponsorship back to Clarence S., and thus directly to Dr. Bob. Many traditional, mainstream members of AA consider Dr. Bob to be, along with Clarence, the true and legitimate founders of AA, dismissing Bill and GSO as apostates.

To conclude this treatise, I want to relate my experience with sponsorship. In essence, I conclude that sponsorship is an endeavor which greatly enhances both the sponsor and the one sponsored. Both help and learn from each other.

Though I made several “half measures” with sponsorship during my first year of recovery to include one of the founders of Adult Children of Alcoholics, Tony A., who wrote “The Laundry List,” I didn’t deeply connect with a sponsor until early in my second year of recovery right after I discovered my second wife having an affair. I chose Peter to be my sponsor because he was back solidly in AA after a horrid relapse upon discovering his wife having an affair. I didn’t want to relapse !~!~!


Thomas’ sponsor for thirty-three years, Peter.

Peter helped me to solidify my Higher Power as being AA, since he helped me accept that I could not stay sober without the Fellowship of other sober members in AA. He then suggested that I could make a decision to turn my will and life over to AA and the Fellowship, because I could tangibly experience that other members loved and cared for me. In short order, I finished a 4th Step, which I had been procrastinating about for several months, and soon thereafter shared a 5th Step with him.

Then we just stopped doing the Steps formally. Instead we deepened our friendship to include sharing a sober house on Fire Island for several summers. We spent hours discussing our spiritual pursuits. These included meditation, voluminous reading in the world’s spiritual traditions, astrology, yoga, New Thought, several New Age gurus and authors to include Ram Dass, Alan Watts, Bubba Free John, Werner Erhard, Marianne Williamson, Gary Zukov, Matthew Fox, Stanislav Grof and Shatki Gawain. During the 80s we also both became very involved with A Course In Miracles. Yup, we were prime examples of our “woo-woo” baby-boomer generation.

Essentially, we shared our experience, strength and hope with each other as equals, as peers, enabling both of us to stay sober for many years. We also shared our rage, anger, resentments, despair and dismay about what we judged to be mostly a messed up world and society, filled with injustice, suffering, poverty, and never-ending war.

Often we laughed, deep, raucous belly laughs, one of the most spiritual behaviors, I believe, we humans can experience together. Perhaps our deep and frequent bouts of laughter together were the most precious gifts we shared.

For the last ten years of his life Peter drank, more or less successfully. We stayed in regular contact even after he and his wife relocated to South Africa, where he died in August of 2006 from an aortic aneurysm. He remained until the day he died full of humor, hope, wonder and curiosity. Though he could be very dark, archly cynical and sarcastic at times, he was also full of awe, wonder and mostly great gratitude. I never stopped learning from his wisdom and sardonic acceptance of life as it is, always being considerably more grateful than despondent.

Like Bill did with Ebby, I have never stopped referring to Peter as my sponsor. The son of a street hooker in upper Manhattan during the late 30s and 40s, he lived a rich and full life, both in recovery and after he drank again. He was my sponsor for 33 years to whom I shall always be grateful. His humor, knowledge, wisdom and light-hearted approach to life and living always inspire me.

It still does, since I periodically communicate with him. On my MacBook Air is a 154-page document entitled “Missive to Peter”. In the mystery of the Kosmos – as the science of the recent blockbuster movie Interstellar hypothesizes – I magically believe he somehow hears me, and I also believe in some unknown, mysterious way he continues to commune with me.  Hey, as an aging hippy baby-boomer I may have morphed into an agnostic atheist, but I’ll always be somewhat “woo-woo”!

Whenever I help others I remember with gratitude the memory and certainty of Peter’s human power which sustains my recovery today in my 43rd year of sobriety in AA as much as it ever did.

As well, I am sustained in continuing recovery today by everyone who shares in the several AA meetings I attend each week, whether they are new to recovery, coming back from a relapse, or have been fortunate like myself to have years in the ever-evolving process of recovery. I am newly inspired by the infinite variety of stories I hear in AA meetings, which demonstrate the human power of our shared recovery.

Thomas has written a number of article for AA Agnostica beginning with First AA Meetings way back in June of 2013. Religion has sometimes been on his mind and he has written two articles on the topic: One’s Religion is an Outside Issue (July, 2013) and A Fellowship of the Religious? (April, 2014).

He also reviewed John L.’s book, A Freethinker in AA (May 2014) and wrote about one of the traditions: Tradition Two: A Flaw in AA Service Structure? (September, 2014). Thomas played an active role at the WAFT IAAC convention in Santa Monica, participating in and moderating workshops, and writing about the convention for AA Agnostica.

27 Responses

  1. Greg D says:

    Thomas, you have been a beacon for my sobriety. Congratulations on this fine article.
    If you have time, please send me an email as I appear to have lost your email address.

    Greg D.
    Beyond Belief
    Sundays @ Portland Alano Club

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Absolutely, Jeff — It’s an honor and a privilege that you want to do this !~!~! Thank you.

  3. Jeff Y says:

    Thomas, I’d like to reprint your article in our area newsletter. Please contact me via newsletter@area54.org if you are willing to allow this. Thanks.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Through the grace of the AA Fellowship at age 29, I began discovering that ineffable “unsuspected inner resource”, resulting in my not having to spend my middle and elder years in a VFW Hall, slogging down shots with beer chasers and reliving the good old bad days in Vietnam. Instead another platoon leader from Vietnam, who is also in recovery, and I did some of the seminal research, publishing and teaching of mental health practitioners about the hand-in-glove correlation of addiction and PTSD. Further, as Bernard Smith noted, through the Fellowship that I experience here on AA Agnostica, I am enabled to focus much of the time upon creative pursuits, which bring me deep satisfaction, bordering at times on joyous bliss.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Joe, and I am so grateful that we are fellow travelers on the rocky road of trying to enlighten AA from driving itself off a steep cliff of doctrinaire and authoritarian Christian orthodoxy. I look forward to your article on CERRASA.

    What I most value about Peter’ and my deep friendship was that it was an equal, shared leadership of each helping the other, sometimes he lead, sometimes I lead, most of the time we walked the “less travelled road” side by side.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Laurie, we have travelled some of the same roads following some of the same guides in discovering our own individual “unsuspected inner resource.” Both Scott Peck and Sheldon P. Kopp were most helpful to me in the 70s and 80s in recovery — thanks for reminding me of their deep wisdom.

    I also love the Polonius quote from Hamlet, “To Thy Own Self Be True” that is engraved upon AA sobriety coins and thanks as well to other instances in the hallowed Big Book that leave considerable wiggle-room for a whole array of differing beliefs. I’ve sometimes thought that someone, maybe myself, needs to do an anti-dogma concordance of the Big Book to counter what Ernie Kurtz’s describes as “Akron-style AA” on pages 301-302 of Not God, which narrowly focused on the “evangelical, pietistic” Oxford Group ideology.

  7. Laurie A says:

    Apropos Eric C. and the Marine Corps and Margaret Mead: M. Scott Peck wrote in Further Along The Road Less Travelled:

    AA works because it teaches people that they do not have to go forward through the desert on their own. It is a community program. Community develops naturally only in response to crisis… The problem is that as soon as the crisis passes, so does the community… I can guarantee that this night (1993) there will be tens of thousands of old men in VFW and American Legion clubs who will be drinking themselves silly, mourning the days of World War 2. They remember those days with fondness because even though they were cold and wet and in danger, they experienced a depth of community and meaning in their lives that they have never quite been able to recapture since.

    And Bernard Smith, GSB chairman, speaking at the 1955 St Louis convention, said:

    I have frequently attempted to define the fellowship of AA with little success, until one day I listened to a broadcast by Canon C. E. Raven, a noted British religious leader. He set forth the conditions of true fellowship in these words: “Three conditions are necessary for true fellowship: the possession of a common ideal involving complete release from selfishness and division. The discharge of a common task big enough to capture the imagination and give expression to loyalty. And the comradeship, the ‘togetherness’ thus involved as we find out the joy and power of belonging to an organic society and engaging in a whole-time service. We can find it at its fullest extent where the ideal is highest and most exacting, where the task extends and integrates every ounce of our strength and every element of our being, where the comradeship is so solid and deep that we respond one to another without conscious effort, realise the unspoken need, and react to it spontaneously and at once. Under such conditions, all the vitality that we usually waste upon our jealousies and our vanities – upon keeping up appearances and putting other people in their proper place – becomes available for creative use”. (From Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age)

  8. Joe C. says:

    Thomas, nice pen-person-ship. A great look at history and AA complexity. Too many have a knee-jerk reaction to AA tenets, blind acceptance or contempt prior to investigation. But, AA’s real tenets aren’t bumper stickers, they are complexes. You have nicely shared about the human2human power that some prefer to call divine.

    I was at a service conference for all of Eastern Canada this weekend as a lead up to the 2015 General Service Conference. I worry that there is a mania, a drunkenness on dogma and authority that I find quite unhealthy. I don’t know if theists are more predisposed to an autocratic worldview but whenever I hear about delegates telling groups what they are doing wrong I think they are tripping on power. The same is true in the one-on-one like you talk of, Thomas, when people talk about my sponsor’s sponsor’s sponsor; these philosophies are based on authority set by a hierarchy. Dangerous shit; un-AA; not so “spiritual”.

    As you’ve described, the advantage of having AA (or the group) as one’s higher power is that we would never profess to tell AA or the group that it is doing it all wrong. Holding the group above our individual agenda is a humble posture of servitude. The sponsor is the servant of the sponsee. The delegate (going back to my service weekend) is the servant of the AA member and their groups.

    Concept XII is, for me, Bill W.’s best writing. While he’s talking about the Conference and it’s relationship to AA this is just as true as the group secretary or GSR and the group, or the sponsor and the sponsee. Bill writes (Warranty One):

    We have seen why the Conference can never have any dangerous degree of human power, but we must not overlook the fact that there is another sort of authority and power which it cannot be without: the spiritual power which flows from the activities and attitudes of truly humble, unselfish, and dedicated A.A. servants. This is the real power that causes our Conference to function. It has been well said of our servants, “They do not drive us by mandate; they lead us by example.” While we have made abundantly sure that they will never drive us, I am confident that they will afford us an ever-greater inspiration as they continue to lead by example.

    I love to emulate, I don’t like to be told. As a humble servant to you Thomas, your sponsor was an example, never an authority. It was never his agenda that lead the discussion, it was his compassion. A leader is a facilitator, not a dictator.

    For me, I don’t believe there is anything behind the curtain that an AA member prays to, so I don’t believe that wisdom comes from the cosmos. I don’t think it is transferred from my heart and brain to the sponsees brain and heart either, rendering all that “My sponsor’s sponsor’s sponsor” crap irreverent to the sponsee I serve. “An unsuspected inner resource” will be all the newcomer needs and it will be a loud and clear beacon once all the biases and un-truths are purged (which is a natural occurrence of time and meaningful sharing). Sponsors facilitate the other’s self-discovery; they don’t teach them how. People who don’t get this are prey to worshiping false idols.

    I will have more to say about CERAASA (Canadian Eastern Regional A.A. Service Assembly) at Rebellion Dogs, soon. But thanks for being an example of how it works when it worked with humility, prudence and grace.

  9. Laurie A says:

    No human power?

    “…the aggregate of recoveries resulting from psychiatric effort is considerable… Many types do not respond to the ordinary psychological approach” – but others do (The Doctor’s Opinion, Big Book).

    The AA canon contains many cautionary caveats, e.g. “We usually conclude our meditation with a prayer…”(Step 11, BB) – but not always; “The wording (of the Step 7 prayer) is optional” – not compulsory; “With few exceptions our members find they have tapped an unsuspected inner resource” (Spiritual Appendix) – but not all; “Rarely have we seen a person fail” (Chapter Five BB) – but not never; “Most of us favour such membership” (of churches) – but not all, and so on.

    I’ve had three AA sponsors, none of them ordered me what to do – they each encouraged me to find my own way. In Shakespeare’s words, in advice carried on sobriety anniversary chips, “To thine own self be true” – not, to thy sponsor be true. There was a book popular in the fellowship a few years ago titled “If you meet the Buddha on the road – kill him” – in other words, be your own Buddha. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote, in Further Along the Road Less Travelled,

    There is something of a tradition in the 12 Step program that it is really OK to outgrow your sponsor. And in this respect, I believe the sponsor system is superior to traditional therapy. It’s considered normal to go to your sponsor and say, “Look, I’m really grateful for the help you’ve given me but I think at this point I’m ready for a more sophisticated sponsor.” And the sponsor is likely to say, “I couldn’t agree more, and I’m delighted that I’ve been able to help you and that you’ve come this far.” There are not many psychiatrists who would take kindly to their patients outgrowing them.”

    George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, said: “Your teacher lies within – look not forth.” I’m grateful to my sponsors for walking part of the way with me and helping me to access my “unsuspected inner resource”. In his last email to me Ernie K. wrote: “What we need is not a new or revised Big Book but able and open and genuine sponsors”.

  10. Thomas B. says:

    No fear, Earl, of bias against “reactionary Akronism” here, I hope.

    I’m forever indebted to the “human power” of the encounter between Bill and Dr. Bob in Akron, which is essentially what happened when I was gifted with recovery in New York and met my sponsor, Peter, in the rooms.

    The deep quality of our friendship, which mutually “awakened and cultivated” the evolution of the ineffable within us continues to guide and inspire me to this day.

    It is enlivened whenever I have the privilege of sharing my experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics today, either face to face, or over space and time digitally via the Internet.

  11. Thomas B. says:

    Whoa, Jan, you certainly “Blew my mind/spirit away,” as we used to say in the long-gone days of our callow youth !~!~!

    I’m only in random communication with two folks I first got sober with, one who lives in Tucson where my son in recovery lives, and one who I hope to visit within the next several months who lives in Marin County.

    I was in touch with one other friend who lived near Woodstock, NY when Jill and I lived there, but the last time I tried to call him I got a “this-number-is-no-longer-working” message.

    Thanks for your lovely comment, and for the work you’re doing for yourself to widen the gates of AA down in Bandon and CFB . . . 😉

  12. Earl J. says:

    A lot of good stuff here, but a couple of things come to mind. Hope these don’t spark charges of reactionary Akronism.
    1) I see a lot of people (and have had the experience myself) who don’t find that quality that binds them to the group. I think it’s fair to say that something interior has to be awakened and cultivated, and that that “something” is what is metaphorically referred to as a “Higher Power,” and that our chief nemesis is the conflation of metaphor and real-world fact that makes religiosity so frustrating.
    2) I doubt if feeling part of a group is adequate – the nature of the group is essential. A bridge club or surf team might make me feel warm and fuzzy by inclusion, but that won’t keep me sober.

  13. Jan A. says:

    Wonderful, thoughtful article, Thomas! You deftly wended your way across a vast terrain of subjects before coming to sponsorship which enabled me to muse about my own similar experiences. Yes to the healing power of stories, laughter, fellowship and that lovely term esprit de corps which for you is closely allied to brothers in arms and to me, survivors of a shipwreck, or some such a disaster. And who can argue with Margaret Mead? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. Yes, that’s human power.

    I believe that we have a responsibility to use our human power to keep AA from completely riding off the rails by denying its best strengths: equality, tolerance, empathy and sharing. Down with the off-putting rigidity of rules and dogma. Up with helping one another stay sober, one day at a time.

    Thank you for outlining the suggested guidelines for sponsorship as outlined in the GSO pamphlet. And thank you for sharing the history of your sponsor-sponsee relationship with Peter. It was very generous and insightful. When we first get sober, it’s very helpful to have someone who can help us navigate recovery, but after a certain point (and hopefully as soon as we can) we can let go of the single lifeline(s) and feel more at ease in the giant safety net that is AA as a whole.

    I, too, got sober in NYC, but in February of 1984. A friend and coworker 12th stepped me and ushered me around to meetings for a few weeks until he insisted I find a woman sponsor. He pointed at three women friends sitting in a row and said “any of those would be fine. Remember they are here to help you and you to help them. They are all just drunks like you, only with a little more time & wisdom.” And that was how I got my sponsor, after a mini-interview with each during the coffee break. She, as well as many AA’ers, were so helpful. We all became friends, and then I realized that we were eventually all co-sponsoring each other. I let go of grabbing at individual lifelines and instead, worked my own recovery in a big wide net, which then broadened to include other safety nets such as Alanon and ACA.

    Some of my friends have gone on to drink, some to anti-depressants, some have just drifted away, turned off by the creeping religious fundamentalism which is all-pervasive in this world of ours today. Most, believe it or not, are still hanging in there, reading, sharing, going to meetings. Taking what they need and leaving the rest. And we are ALL still connected. I love them and value them as dear friends, survivors, brothers and sisters and soul mates from the Shipwreck of 1984.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, steve b., thanks — you epitomize to me the essence of the sponsor-sponsee relationship, two alcoholics helping each other stay sober by deepening their friendship through sharing their recovery and common interests. It don’t get any better than that . . .

  15. steve b says:

    I got a sponsor after being sober on the program for about four months, and he was very helpful. When he moved out of state, I chose a new one, but after a while I lost respect for her because of her full acceptance of New Age spiritual beliefs. For the past 20 years or so (I’ve got 35 years of sobriety), I haven’t had a sponsor. I wouldn’t mind having one, but I don’t feel any pressing need to go out and get one.

    I seldom sponsor anyone, but now I sponsor a friend, who now has about 10 months of sobriety. I find it a rewarding experience. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, what our plans are, and only a little about the AA program and what we need to do to stay sober, but he knows that I will talk about sobriety as much as he wants. The last time we met for lunch, he showed me a new science book he had just checked out of the library, and it looked good to me, so I called my library to get a copy to read. We’re also both exercise freaks, so we share information on fitness and running.

    I enjoy being a sponsor, and perhaps I will do more sponsorship, but no one ever asks me to sponsor him; even my present sponsee didn’t. I told him that I would be his sponsor, with the only condition being that if he drank, he would have to tell the truth about it. And he tried to put a condition on me: I should not ask him to do any of the steps. I didn’t answer him on that point, and I figured that it was up to him whether or not he did–it didn’t matter to me how he stayed sober.

  16. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Cal . . .

    One of the last two years of my drinking/drugging I lived in College Park, MD before moving to West Hyattsville for most of my last year of using prior to relocating to New York City, where I too experienced the doors of AA to be wide open to anyone, with belief or without. You could always find meetings in the City that were more secularly oriented. I, too, am eternally grateful my karma or fate or whatever had me find recovery in New York City.

  17. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Christopher. An intriguing conundrum, did the mythical god create us in his image, or did we create him in our image? I choose to believe the latter.

    I’m always most grateful to be able to help you or any alcoholic, since it’s the means whereby I’m best able to remain sober myself a day at a time.

    I love the concept of co-sponsorship — it’s my belief that that’s the way it has always been. Of course, YMMV . . . 😉

  18. Thomas B. says:

    Yes, Garry, AA, indeed, does work, even for heathens such as we . . . 😉

    We are most fortunate to have forums such as AA Agnostica and the WAAFT conventions wherein we can share the truth of the human power of our stories, which manifest our non-religious experience, strength and hope !~!~!

  19. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Tommy H. I enjoy reading and learning from your comments here on AA Agnostica . . .

  20. Thomas B. says:

    Ah, Alyssa, you of the many, many, many X many emoticons, thank you deeply. It’s always enlightening to to have your forthright openness and delightful sense of humor to help me “lighten up” . . . 😉

  21. Thomas B. says:

    You’re more than welcome, John. This article was, indeed, one of the most enjoyable for me to write. Through the research phase, I deepened my knowledge about the roots of our Fellowship, which unfortunately of late seems intent upon narrowing the wide doors that Bill, less so with Dr. Bob, and other early members, especially Hank P. and Jim B., struggled so valiantly to keep all-inclusively open, so that any alcoholic who wants to recover with the only requirement for membership, the desire to stop drinking, can in AA.

    One thing I know is that I am more motivated than ever despite the growing prevalence of religious bigotry in North American AA to keep speaking my truth of spiritual, not religious, progress.

  22. Cal P says:

    I am eternally grateful that when I made it to my first AA meeting in College Park, Md on a Monday night in October of 1981 the “wide gate” attitude of Bill W. prevailed in all the meetings I attended – and I am very grateful for this web site because where i live now the meetings are heavy on the Bible and religion.

  23. Christopher G says:

    Tom, Terrific! “A loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience”, or is it really, “a loving god as our group conscience may express it?” The whole IS greater than the sum of its parts! Thank you, my friend. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you being a phone call away when I was in Salem recently. I consider you one of my many new co-sponsors in this new and exciting growth of my recovery process!

  24. Garry U says:

    Thank you for this article. Some ten years ago when I moved to my current community, local AA was in the throes of Clarence S. fad. Those involved were careful to proselytize at meetings and take everyone’s inventory. It was a mystery to me at the time but your article explains where that came from. (One proponent eventually walked it back and publicly admitted how wrong it was to do that. The program works!)
    I met you at the convention and actually have your business card on my desk. I am meeting today with a friend that shared the rooms with you on the Oregon coast.
    Thanks for a great article. I hope to see more.

  25. Tommy H says:

    Good work!

    If you didn’t mention the sponsorship pamphlet, I was going to. Lots of good info there.

  26. Alyssa (soda) says:

    I’m very fortunate & greatful 2 have you as part of my journey. It was an awesome experience to meet you on the aaagnostica chat room, over a year ago & then meet you in person at the convention. I have grown to have love & respect 4 u, & although, it’s not the only thing keeping me sober, it certainly is an enriching experience to be able to connect with u. Thx 4 the article. Where is your book? 🙂 haha

  27. John M. says:

    Thomas, thanks for this comprehensive piece. A tribute to Ernie Kurtz, parts of your own story, the theme of sponsorship, and so many great links — all rolled up into one post.

    It was a great read on this Sunday morning!

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