The Watering Down of AA
Not a New Thing
On any given day, the AA world witnesses a remarkable volume of whining about the watering down of Alcoholics Anonymous. Various individuals, groups, and institutions comprise the extensive cast of offenders. The names are gravely uttered through the gritted teeth and snarled lips of our fundamentalist members, the keepers of the faith. The further we move to the right, and into the dominion of those deeply committed to the “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” narrative, the greater the passion to rationalize the increasing hordes of slackers failing to “thoroughly follow our path”.
We’ve gotta blame somebody!
The ultimate in scapegoats of choice may well be treatment centers. For forty plus years, they have been indicted for all manner of loosey-goosiness running counter to the dogma of an organization that continually professes to have no dogma. Within our non-religious society (no offense, Toronto Intergroup), it IS imperative that one and all MUST (we have a musty book) follow AA’s program religiously. Dogmatic adherence to our non-dogmatic book describing our non-dogmatic program is the very essence of our non-dogmatic dogma.
Nobody Move!!!!!! Some sumabitch misplaced a semi-colon!!
Who should be held responsible??
In general, we lay the culpability for AA’s undeniable decline squarely at the feet of the accursed (3 syllables) agents of the watering down of Alcoholics Anonymous. Apart from treatment centers, the prime culprits for the added H2O diluting our tea are court referrals, agnostics, hard drinkers, two-steppers, 13th steppers, atheists, weak sponsors…
WOW!!! That’s SOME list!!!
…druggies, open disgusting meetings, Al-Anon, “Acceptance Is The Answer,” physicians, Pax Prentice, AA Agnostica, Larry K., donut eaters, the Russians, the word “suggested,” Roger, and a partridge in a pear tree…
Book thumpers are even greatly disturbed and perturbed by other corrupting, albeit conference-approved, literature such as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Living Sober, and The Grapevine. All are seen at different times, and in different ways, as having contributed to the watering down of AA, and the sacred message of 1939.
…the American Medical Association, anda’s, harm reductionists, Oprah, psychiatrists, Narcotics Anonymous, Buddhism, group therapy, naltrexone, meeting makers…
There is nothing new in our newer people being told, by our not-so-new people, that AA isn’t at all like what it was in the old days, God damn it!! The 2004 guy is told this by the 1999 guy, who was told this by the 1991 guy who told this by the 1986 guy, who was… who was… Probably, the 2017 guy is even told about the glory days by the 2015 guy. So just when WAS the golden era, the time BEFORE the adulteration that sent us hurtling into the abyss?
It cannot be 1976, because that’s when we were informed by Tom Powers Sr., in Gresham’s Law & Alcoholics Anonymous, that the AA world was already on its way to Hell in a hand-basket. Powers’ “strong tea – weak tea” analogy is PERFECT, watering down being the exact, literal cause of the weakening of the tea. The weak way of working AA’s 12 steps “turns out to be really no way at all but literally a heresy, a false teaching, a twisting and corruption of what the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly stated the program to be”.
Powers overview of the steps, and the embodied principles, includes “3. Total surrender to God.”
Let’s pause a moment to call 3 words to the attention of the atheistic execrable rabble… “TOTAL”… “SURRENDER” …”GOD.” (I hope you’re writing this down.) Let’s add a 4th word… “LAW.” It’s a LAW, fer heaven’s sake!! You can’t argue with a damned law!!
A-breakin’ rocks in the hot sun,
I fought the law and the law won.
I fought the law and the law won.
Old Grumpy Guy Goes Apoplectic
He hath met the enemy, and it is us – the belligerent God deniers
In 2010, a semi-senile codger in Florida donned a fresh Depends, mounted a white charger, and, having identified AA’s principal adversaries, rode to the defense of the God of our fathers. Waving a broadsword, 46 years of sobriety, and possibly a quill pen, a not-so-anonymous Sandy Beach, as legend has it, produced the greatest single piece of writing since the immortal Rick Dees penned the equally immortal “Disco Duck”. Quack quack.
Stringing words together with the artistry of a George W. Bush, the man with the oh-so-clever nickname explains how the nonbelievers have essentially been the agents of their own demise. Almost tolerable back in the days when they STFU, “as time passed, however, certain atheists/ agnostics decided that their beliefs were entitled to be expressed openly”. (The White Paper on Why Atheists Should Eat Shit And Die, by Anonymous, aka Grumpy B., p. 12)
Horror of horrors!! SAY IT ISN’T SO!!!
And then, surprisingly at first, until we see the dashed (two syllables) genius of the man’s subtle wit, there is a shot fired over the bow of the Good Ship Big Book. “Perhaps some of our Big Book thumpers and our ‘Back to the Basics’ members get a little carried away sometimes with comments that make the Big Book look almost Biblical…. the Big Book is only the treasure map – the real ‘treasure’ is God. We are advised by the Book itself to look to God for answers, not to the Book.”
Well, “wit” may have been an overstatement, but “halfwit”, at the very least.
Towards the merciful end of a narrative that drones on like the drunken ditty, “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall”, the aging author treats us to a defense of AA’s incongruous use of the King of Christian prayers.
I especially didn’t like the Lord’s Prayer. I was told to keep an open mind and eventually I would come to love it. This turned out to be true as it was for all the others who didn’t like the prayer. We come to love it as AA’s prayer. When I sometimes attend church with a friend and the Lord’s Prayer is recited, I think to myself, “Why, they are using our prayer!” A resentment about the Lord’s Prayer is still a resentment. I must not try to use the power of the prayer itself in an attempt to elevate my resentment to the status of justified resentment. (White Paper On Kicking Out The Heathens To SAVE AA, Playa de Arena, p. 4)
There’s at least a bit of unintended irony in ending a resentful diatribe with a couple of potshots at the perceived resentments of others.
Nonetheless, it’s a powerful essay, and long. Lordy, it’s LONG! But, never has there been so much underlining. (The underscoring distinguishing the EXTRA powerful stuff from REGULARLY powerful stuff.) And although obstinately recalcitrant God deniers are the crystal clear target of the anonymous author’s fangs, some venom finds its way to the bloodstreams of The Grapevine, GSO, AA’s trustees, and some shamefully inclusive pamphlets with EGO – Easing God Out – at their very core.
Some Beachy Cleverness From Bobby
The watering down of AA does not, in fact, have its origins in treatment centers, drug court referrals, human rights complaints, or in the other atrocities listed above. Let’s meander back a little further into the presumed “golden era”.
Page 26 of AA’s Big Book reports the adventures of “a certain American business man” who had gone to Switzerland, “placing himself under the care of a celebrated physician (the psychiatrist, Dr. Jung) who prescribed for him.” The man “finished his treatment with unusual confidence”, but relapsed a short time later. The principal message of the tale is the total inefficacy of human power.
Mister Page 26, Rowland Hazard, some years later found sobriety back in America by calling on two resources. One was lay therapist and reformed alcoholic, Courtenay Baylor, whose other noteworthy client was Richard Peabody. The second was a “First Century Christian Fellowship”, the Oxford Group. A sober Hazard then carried the message to Ebby Thacher, who carried the message to Bill Wilson. At 5 months sober, Bill brought the message to Dr. Bob, and so on.
(Astonishingly, neither the name “Oxford Group”, nor “Courtenay Baylor”, are to be found anywhere within the First Edition Big Book. In 1936, OG leader Frank Buchman had made some injudiciously favorable remarks about Herr Hitler, and Baylor’s lay therapy simply reeked of human power.)
At the time of Rowland and Ebby, what WAS the message?
It was redemption through Jesus Christ.
Rowland enthusiastically embraced religion, taking up lifelong membership in the Episcopal Church, where he served as a vestryman. Ebby was indoctrinated by the Oxford Group’s Christian membership, and stayed for a time at Calvary Mission, a Christian hostel, where he was housed and fed, and where he participated in daily Christian services. When he called on old chum, Bill Wilson, he was 10 or 12 weeks sober.
“How?” we ask with bated breath. “I’ve got religion.” (BB, p. 9)
A few pages along in “BILL’S STORY,” we have the first enormous watering down of the message at Ebby’s hands with “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” (BB, p. 12) After some days of drunken ruminating on Ebby’s religious “cure”, Bill ventured down to the Calvary Mission where, only semi-drunk, he made an altar call and testified articulately.
Within only a few days, Wilson’s conception of God had become substantially more “Jesussy”. We should ALL evolve so quickly.
The Writing And Editing Of The Book
Bill Wilson demonstrated exceptional vision, and astute insight into the personality of alcoholics, as he steered the book content, for the most part, away from overt Christianity. From the perspective of the majority of Akron members, the book version of the “program” was a watered down rendering of what they had actually been doing. Jesus, kneeling, surrender, biblical quotations, and the like, were left on the cutting room floor.
The de-Christianized book presented an account not remotely close to being “precisely how we have recovered”, regardless of the advertised claims. Many of the Akronites were skeptical about the book project, and not entirely from wariness over the financial motives of the New York entrepreneurs, Bill and Hank. The less religious had watered down the book, even BEFORE there was a book!
And then, in the editing phase, they had watered it down some more!
To Bob Smith, and his followers, God was God. The tacking on of “as we understood Him” must have been quite offensive. Had my life been saved at the (sandy) beach by Tom the Lifeguard, would I be comfortable extolling lifeguards “as we understood them”, or would I prefer to express my gratitude directly to Tom? Certainly to those in Ohio, terms like “a Power greater than ourselves” were nothing more than the wishy-washiest of gobbledygook. In the words of Bob Smith to Clarence Snyder at the time of their first meeting, “God is God, Young Man”.
With the book editing having watered down the program as they knew it, the Akron folks simply carried on as they had before. At their gatherings, bibles were read, confessions were confessed, and the 5 “C’s”, 4 Absolutes, and other Oxford Group practices that were good enough pre-book, continued to be utilized post-book. As the big book was more than a little pricey at 60 dollars, in today’s money, 1940 saw the dawn a little 10 cent pamphlet, The Akron Manual, that covered the basics, and recommended taking along one’s bible on 12 step calls.
The Cleveland folks had some ideas of their own.
On May 10, 1939, a month after publication of “the book,” Clarence S. announced at the Oxford Group meeting that his Cleveland contingent of a dozen or so men, would be no longer be driving down to Akron for the weekly convocation at the home of T. Henry and Clarace Williams. The Akron meeting was NOT an AA meeting, and was not called an AA meeting. Dr. Bob and his sober Ohio cohorts were all, at the time, still under the auspices of the Christian fellowship of the Oxford Group.
Fifteen months earlier, at his first meeting, Clarence had been stunned by the overt religiosity and the “holy rollerish” nature of the proceedings. Bill V.H. gave him a card that read “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things become as new”. All recruits did a kneeling 3rd step in an upper bedroom in the presence of the initiated. Absent a willingness to make that surrender, they were sent on their way.
In the watered down Big Book, the word “surrender” is nowhere to be found.
The Clevelanders’ decision to detach was not well received (see AA Started in Riots). Snyder not only changed the geographical location to Cleveland, but the format of the gathering was significantly altered, watered down, if you will. Cleveland Catholics were being criticized by pastors for participating in the very Protestant Oxford Group meetings. Snyder later reported on the new Cleveland group that there was “not much ‘spiritual business’ at meetings”. (Letter to Hank P.) Clarence believed that prayer and bible reading were better left to be done at home.
Although far from being a nonbeliever himself, Clarence Snyder played a crucial role in moving AA away from its religious roots, ironically on behalf of a religious minority, the Catholics.
From the Akron perspective, Snyder had watered down AA meetings, eliminating some of the key religious tools that had been at the heart of their personal transformations. It’s no wonder that the righteous were moved to smite him with fists of fury. In fairness to Clarence, the New York folks had done something similar two years earlier.
The Unification Myth
The Cleveland shemozzle took place a month AFTER the publication of the big book. For thumpers, AA IS the book. They could try to make the case that no watering down could have occurred in pre-book times, but that would be contradicted by the words of the book. “Here are the steps we took…” (p. 59) The book Alcoholics Anonymous puts on paper an existing program of recovery. What’s in the book is repped as what they had been doing. Past tense. Not true, but that IS what it says.
The myth is that in the aftermath of the book, AA became unified in its practices, and followed to the letter the compromised, and now codified, prescription. “The tremendous fact for every one of us is that we have discovered a common solution. We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree…” (BB, p. 17)
The reality is that the Cleveland folks were big on the book; the New Yorkers not so much; and the Akron folks continued to revere the Good Book above the very expensive money-making publication that watered down the original message carried from Rowland to Ebby to Bill.
The Spiritual Experience Appendix
The final nail in our leaky coffin comes at the hands of the founder himself. In 1941, Bill Wilson completed the early watering down of Alcoholics Anonymous with perhaps the unkindest cut of all. In 7 simple paragraphs, the solution to alcoholism falls from the empire of angels, clouds, harps and haloes, plummeting to the realm of the real, the material, the human, the psychological.
The transformative experiences, needing neither cool breeze nor blinding light, become “educational”. The previously essential intervention of a rescuing deity is replaced by “the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism”. It’s no wonder that the fundiest of fundamentalists cringe at the heresies of this addendum. Fans of seeing their newfound clarity as “God-consciousness”, have to bear the insult of being called “our more religious members”.
“Et tu Bill, eh?, you watering down sonofabitch!!”
I hope this makes you heathen bastards feel a little better.
aka bobby beach
PS. Please buy my buddy bob k’s marvelous book Key Players in AA History. It’s awesome, and not the least bit watered down.