By Dee Young
Originally published on The Fix on November 25, 2015
In 77 years and four editions, the Big Book’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions has remained completely unchanged. But most people seem to believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Alcoholics and drug addicts are fearful people. Getting high provided us with courage and confidence but if you take away the booze, pills and powders nothing is left but reality. For those of us who want to live sober but aren’t able to fight temptation by ourselves, AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions provide a clear roadmap for recovery.
“How does AA work?” you ask.
“Just fine, thank you.”
AA is not a religion hence its main tome is not a bible. The two founders, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, began writing the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous) in 1938 with the help of 100 early members. While the stories in the second half of the book have been updated—we’re up to the fourth edition—the pages with detailed descriptions about how the recovery program works have remained static.
“Don’t change anything,” seems a contradictory attitude to what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to not let our fears keep us … well … fearful.
Our society is far removed from what it was 77 years ago so why not update the text? That seems a fair question, right? But many members did not respond to my inquiry favorably. Some replied with a confused head tilt, like a dog, others rolled their eyes or shook their heads. Some seemed irritated and even angry. A dear friend snapped at me, saying, “It has been updated.” When I said that I was referring to the front of the book, the program pages, she said, “Why do you have to write about that?”
The overall message was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I reviewed the Twelve Traditions to make sure I wasn’t breaking some sacred trust by asking and right in the first tradition it states:
No AA can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled. Our Twelve Steps to recovery are suggestions; the Twelve Traditions which guarantee AA’s unity contain not a single “Don’t.” They repeatedly say “We ought…” but never “You must.”
I decided to find a handful of AA members that I could interview on this topic. After hearing “no” repeatedly, I finally landed seven willing to talk. To ensure anonymity, I won’t include any identifying features but I will tell you that the group ranged from ages 25 to 65 and were a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers including Caucasians, Hispanics, African Americans, men, women, gays and heteros.
I asked, “How do you feel about updating the AA literature?”
I don’t generally read much AA literature, but I do happen to be going methodically through the Big Book right now with a long-sober friend. I often feel that the book is talking to someone else — middle-class white, straight, Christian men — and that great swaths of humanity are invisible to its author(s). It often sets my teeth on edge with its exhortations to accept a god that sounds like the same one promoted in the New Testament and Christian churches, despite giving lip service to higher powers of our own understanding.
I have recently vowed that I will never again recommend that a newcomer read the Big Book, except maybe for the individual stories in the back. The 10 or so chapters that precede those stories should be read only by people whose minds are sober and clear enough to see the important messages underneath all the assumptions and the preachiness. At that point, it becomes possible to appreciate it as a profoundly moving account of AA’s birth and early growth.
When helping a sponsee with steps, I lean heavily on the 12&12 (“Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”) as the basis for discussion.
I always point out that, like most AA literature, it was written many decades ago primarily by men with a narrow view of the world, but despite all their assumptions and frequent patronizing, I can identify with many of the experiences and feelings they discuss, and that if I do what they did (with my own variations), I can stay sober as they did.
The existing literature, particularly the Big Book and the 12&12, should be viewed and maintained as historical, fundamental documents but new books should be written with newcomers in mind. Those new books should outline the same, timeless principles of sobriety in a way that addresses humanity in general rather than assuming that readers are middle-class white guys.
The program in the 12&12 and Big Book is very dated. Nobody argues with that. I think it should be rewritten but I don’t know how that would ever get done. Look at business meetings; so many cooks in the kitchen arguing.
It seems fear-based to not consider updating it. The language should acknowledge gays, women, transsexuals, and all of the people who aren’t Christian. I like to think that if the text were written now, it would be a lot more inclusive. I also see contradictions, but AA saved me and continues to so I am grateful for that. It feels miraculous. I never thought I could stop and stay stopped.
I have two views on it. I think it should be changed, however, who is going to make the decision of how it’s going to be changed? Who is going to be the one to rewrite it? How many business meetings would it take to get that done?
It might be a good idea to have a statement read after the Preamble at meetings. Something like, “Because you may not be Christian and this text was written a long time ago, you may feel offended by how patriarchal it sounds but remember this reflects society at that time.”
I think the message is correct. It does need to be updated but the founders wrote it, so it would be like trying to change the U.S. Constitution.
Funny, I’ve been thinking about that lately because of the news. About women’s equality and civil rights. If nobody ever went against the grain, nothing would have changed. They would have said, “Oh, it’s too much trouble, how are you ever going to change this? Just leave it the way it is.”
I don’t want to point a finger at AA and say, “They’re not doing it right.” It’s still the best way to quit drinking but I do think that alcoholics are very frightened people. Maybe people are too afraid to question AA or be dissatisfied with it, because they’re afraid they’ll get drunk, which is a realistic fear for any alcoholic. There is still no cure and people relapse all the time. It really is a life or death disease.
It never bothered me, because I don’t pay attention to it. I don’t care if it’s a “He” or “She” or a Christian or not. I was raised Catholic but I don’t believe in that “He” thing about God. I take what I need and leave the rest. I think that should be said at meetings. When you read this literature that it was written at a certain time and written by Christians but it’s the message that works so just identify with it, and don’t compare yourself to them.
I’ve been to meetings where the person reading — usually, it was a woman — changed every “He” to “She” and “Him” to “Her” when the book is talking about God. No one even raised an eyebrow. I’ve talked to a friend from San Francisco who said they actually had a motion to vote on changing some of the language, but it got so bogged down in, “Well, we can’t change this word here or that word there.” It got to the point where it imploded. There are people who take it like it’s a bible but it’s not. Some people are so afraid of changing one little word. It’s pretty easy for me to get past the old language. I find so much of it was revolutionary for its time.
The two founders, conservative Republican white guys, came up with this incredible program that saves lives. Every now and then I get bogged down with the heterosexual references which only refer to being attracted to the opposite sex. But I think if Bill and Bob were writing it now they would’ve used different language. I think their language was limited because they had no idea. I don’t think it ever occurred to them to address somebody gay. It wasn’t part of the lexicon. And there were no feminists yet. I think they assumed it was going to be all men. Like in the chapter to the wives. I think the concept of a female alcoholic never crossed their minds.
I know a guy who said it’s like pulling teeth with his sponsee whenever they’re reading the book together. After every line he says, “Why would they say it like that? That’s racist. That’s homophobic. That’s this.” When I hear people get so bogged down in the language, I think they’re missing all of the principles, and all of the help that is right there.
I sometimes wonder if it’s my own disease of alcoholism that is bogged down with all that stuff. I could say, “I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” But I’d never get sober. On the other hand, I think there would be value in updating it, so I don’t know. I wonder sometimes if the old language keeps anybody out. If they hear it, are they like, “I’m outta here.” Yeah, it’s patriarchal, it’s all of that stuff but I was so ready to hear something, anything, that could stop me from drinking. I was desperate. So, I was like, “Yeah, alright, I don’t like the way some of it sounds, but I don’t care because I don’t have another fucking choice.” And you know what? I’m sober because of that. I just took the “medicine” I needed to stop drinking and I’m glad.
I don’t want to say anything that insults AA. It saved me from ruining my life. But I do think it’s fair to say the world is different from 1938. The world is different than it was in the kitchen of Bill and whoever when they sat around and wrote all the steps. Everything about the program is different from the way it was. I would prefer it to get up to this century. I’m not speaking for AA. I have to make that clear. I am just a member of AA and a grateful member because I stopped drinking.
Gender roles are so rigidly defined. It’s literally the man leaves the house to go to work and the woman stays at home and sometimes the wife may handle the finances. My feeling is that AA treats alcoholics who are very anxious and yet, on one hand they’re telling you not to be afraid, and on the other they’re saying you’d better adhere to this God or else you’re going to drink. The fear in AA makes people so rigid against change that it would be impossible to ever get enough people at a business meeting to agree to update the literature. Also, there’s the issue of the cost of the literature. Where’s the money going to come from? So, yeah, it should change but it won’t.
Dee Young is a pseudonym for a writer in New York.