Standing on the shoulders of giants?
Isaac Newton said “If I can see farther, it is because I’m standing on the shoulders of giants”. I want to look at whether that’s the case with us in AA, too.
Lately we have had increasing cause for concern over Big Book fundamentalist groupings in AA asserting that the AA program as laid out in 1938 is the one and only proper way to recover. They have canonized Bill, and the Big Book, and they have circulated publications such as the “Minority Opinion by the Mt Rainier AA Group” in which they recommend against development of literature for atheists and agnostics with a lot of circular arguments along the lines of “the Big Book is right, because the Big Book says so.” It’s problematic enough that initiatives such as these stifle attempts to get AA to develop badly needed secular literature, but in this article I will address what I think is a greater concern. Everybody seems to be scared of saying it out loud, but someone needs to: What if early Bill Wilson and much of what’s in the Big Book is simply wrong?
Bill obviously had something right. Not only are there a number of brilliant passages in the Big Book, but around two million people have helped each other stay sober in AA, and that’s no small accomplishment, even if another 10 or 20 million, or more, walked through our doors and didn’t get the help they needed.
But when Bill was pacing the lobby of the Akron hotel, and realized he needed to talk with another alcoholic, that, I will contend, is the moment when the program was born, and that, I will further contend, is by far the most important part of the AA program.
Bill and Bob went on to help a great many others, even though they also acknowledged that many were not helped, but in the process they did help themselves.
Then at three years sober Bill – like most of us at three years sober – figured he knew everything, and he decided to write a book about it, and I think the book is full of wrong and unnecessary information. I’m not just talking about “open to interpretation” but possibly so far off the mark in key areas of its philosophy that it is amazing we could make it as far as we have with it.
Bill seemed to have an intuitive sense of what it takes for alcoholics to help one another. But once he went on to try to explain how it works he went completely off the chart.
AA is all about one alcoholic talking with another. Of everything Bill wrote in the Big Book, and during some of the following years, a great deal is without question helpful, but some of it may be outright detrimental to recovery. We won’t know until we collectively gain the willingness to look at it, which is sorely lacking at the moment, even somewhat among secularists and agnostics.
I can already hear some old-timers say “So you think you’re smarter than Bill?” I don’t know, but I’m allowing for the possibility that maybe I’m as smart, give or take a bit. But the real advantage I have over Bill is that I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
As a 29 years sober member of AA with 4000 meetings behind me I have of course learnt from Bill’s writings, but much more from our collective 80 years of experience. That’s where I find my giants, much more so than Bill, and especially among those secular members now searching for new ways.
The fact that I’m 29 years sober doesn’t leave me any smarter or wiser than anyone else in this program with 20, 30, 40 years sobriety, but I think we have to start giving ourselves credit: Just maybe someone, anyone with 30 years of sobriety, someone who is building on the collective 80 years’ experience of other sober alcoholics in AA, can see things that Bill with three years of sobriety, couldn’t?
Already when Bill wrote the Big Book there was considerable fighting in the fledgling AA fellowship about whether a god was an important part of recovery, or even needed to have any part in it at all. Since the 1930s were religious times, since the fellowship had come from Oxford Group roots, and perhaps especially since Bill was a great salesman, the religious faction won out.
The religious argument never died. In fact, Bill himself, as he gained 10, 20 years of sobriety, tried to modify his stance. He did this in his 1961 Grapevine article “The Dilemma of no Faith” and in many other places as well. If at this point he had outright tried to tell the fellowship that he had changed his mind and that much of what he wrote in the Big Book was wrong, he would have met with little success.
That sort of thing had been tried before. Around 1908 Anna Jarvis, an unusually talented and dedicated woman, for several years worked to get Congress to establish a Mother’s Day, and eventually she succeeded. Within a few years she got to see how commercialized it came to be, and she was disgusted with it, and she then spent the rest of her life working to have the holiday rescinded, with no success, of course. The florists loved it. She was even arrested for protesting it once, and eventually wound up in an insane asylum behind it all. The expense of her last days there were in part paid for by the florists.
Bill was too smart to accept a similar fate, so he just went along with the big movement he had created and mostly kept telling the same story over and over, and, of course, not expecting different results.
When Bill wrote the big Book it may not even have been a majority of those first “more than one hundred men and women” that came to decide how the next two million alcoholics would work their program.
They had, all of them collectively, not much more time in sobriety than me.
And yet there are religious people with 30, 40, even 50 years of sobriety who believe more in this three years sober Bill than they do in themselves and who won’t believe their own eyes and recognize the agnostics with a similar length of sobriety who can demonstrate an equally good, sober life.
Sobriety isn’t all about time, of course, but it is questionable at best that the experience of those first hundred people, most of whom had been sober only a few months, and several of whom even relapsed after their story had been published, should later take such precedence over the experience of many thousands of long time sober, agnostic, present day members of AA.
Old-timers who are now trying at all cost to keep agnostics in AA from gaining recognition will, without giving it a second thought tell any present day newcomer with less than a couple of years sober, to just “shut up and listen”. And they will walk all over agnostics with decades of good sobriety, if they can. Isn’t it time we paid more attention to the varieties of present day experience, and maybe a bit less to that bunch of newcomers 80 years ago?
Bill and Bob set a movement in motion which has helped many. But they were just another couple of drunks. Just like we non-believers today are searching for new paths, Bill read a few books to see if he could come up with something other than the strict Oxford group program. So he read William James, and Carl Jung and a few others, and armed with all that knowledge, he wrote the Big Book. And he had a few good connections, and a bit of good luck, too.
According to a talk by Jim Burwell in Sacramento in 1957, at the time the Big Book was published there were eight people with more than six months sobriety. Some of them, and many of those with less time, relapsed. Six of the 20 who had a story in the first edition at some point later committed suicide. Really not an impressive crowd of “more than one hundred men and women” to model your recovery after. But Bill had no trouble embellishing the truth at that time.
Bill and Hank Parkhurst were business men. They were salesmen. Jim Burwell said Hank was the pushiest salesman he had ever met, and he was a salesman himself. They approached the making of the big book like salesmen, and while it took a while, eventually sales picked up.
The Big Book has sold an impressive 30 million copies or thereabouts. If all current members own 2 or 3 of them, like I do, and some have gone into libraries, that still leaves about 20 million sold or given to newcomers who didn’t stay, and gives us a rough estimate of how many people we have failed, at least from among those who either were serious enough to buy one, or whom someone else cared enough about to buy them one. No telling how many people we failed beyond that, but this number is already plenty big.
It is customary in AA to blame the alcoholics themselves for this failure, though Bill himself eventually recognizes the problem with that in his 1961 article The Dilemma of No Faith.
But the dilemma we’re suffering is not one of no faith, but of what to do with a faith based, one size fits all recovery program based on a book full of embellishments and manipulations.
And Bill had quite a dilemma all along: How to explain to himself all those recovering alcoholics with no faith who seem to have good, well-lived, sensible lives, and for that matter also many non-alcoholics do, who are non-believers?
This is supposed to be a program of honesty, after all. There must have come a point when Bill had to get honest with himself about this. How did that contribute to his depression, and his various bouts with escapism? I’m starting to read Bill’s later writings from this point of view. There wasn’t much wiggle room in the Big Book version of the program. And so later, his main quest would be to try to undo some of the damage done with his uncompromising early version of the program, all the while keeping the whole fellowship from unraveling. I would have been unhappy if I had been in such a predicament. But if everyone around you treats you like a saint, you’d better try to play the part.
His basic message in his later speeches is so eerily similar from one to the next to where it sounds like it could have been spoken by a robot. Bill says everything he knows the Christian crowd gathered wants to hear. Except that he does add one new thing: Some cautionary remarks about making the program too rigid, and about being inclusive of agnostics, the stuff which I imagine would have troubled him the most.
Thomas B. has told me that around 1990 Nell Wing, Bill’s secretary for 30 years, and AA’s first archivist, told him that she and Bill had been working on a secular book which they hoped would be used instead of much of the original literature. We have not found any indication yet that such a manuscript exists, but this information at least comes from very close to the source, and would support the point of view that even though Bill may still have been a believer, his wheels were spinning hard, looking for a way to modify the program away from the religious dogmatism which so many were trying to cement into place.
Bill, for our purposes, was first and foremost a salesman. His talent was pulling AA together, much less so the making of a program for it. It could have been simple: One alcoholic talking with another. Instead the program is awful. Bill’s gone, and now all we have is this awful program. What makes it work at all is of course those few principles which we may call spiritual for want of a better word: Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, service, living by the golden rule. And with those principles practiced diligently almost any kind of program can be made to work, no matter how awful.
I know I have been hard on both Bill and his book here. I wish I didn’t have to be. Sure he had some grandiose ideas when he wrote the book, but I was a mess at three years sober myself, I should allow him the space to be, too. The problem lies with the movement that has canonized Bill and his book. If we could somehow get to a place where the big book was no longer held up as the final word on recovery, but be taken for what it is – the salesmanship of a three years sober alcoholic – then we could view it with all the respect it actually deserves – it is our founding document, and for a three years sober guy to have written it, it is actually quite amazing, even if it turns out that much of it is wrong.
Instead, because there are so many big book fundamentalists that cling to it, I think we are left with no other option than to go after it. We don’t need to re-write the big book. We need to stop using it. If we don’t somehow dislodge it as our primary recovery book, AA will simply die off over time.
The culprit, as Bill also pointed out later in his recovery is something rather more like human nature. There are a lot of people who wish for a father in the sky to look after them, rather than take full responsibility for their own recovery, and there are people that really like having a program handed to them that tells them exactly what to do. These are the people who are happy with the program as it is, the 5 or 10 percent, whatever, who stay. But we can’t very well fault those people. They are after all only doing the best they can and know how, just like I am in my own way. Thus the only thing left is to attack the program philosophy, and its literature. And it is regrettable that attack is even necessary, but we’d better get on with it. Hopefully we can do that without harming the fellowship, for that, together with our love and care for the next suffering alcoholic is the most precious thing we have in AA.
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.
As part of this mission, life-j has written a number of articles on AA Agnostica over the past several years and these are:
- My Path in AA (June 30, 2013). Also published, mildly edited, on January 12, 2016, as a chapter in the book, Do Tell!
- Our new chat room! (February 2, 2014). This chat room was closed after several months.
- Yet Another Intergroup Fight (March 2, 2014)
- A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics (September 7, 2014)
- Wounded Warriors (August 5, 2015)
- The Jellinek Curve (August 22, 2015)
- Science may one day accomplish this… (May 12, 2016)
- Open-Minded (September 22, 2016). This is a reprint of the article published in the October 2016 issue of AA Grapevine.
- The Secular AA 2016 Austin Convention (November 17, 2016). This is also a chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
- The Daily Reflections (January 19, 2017)
- Back to Basics and Other Religionists (July 6, 2017). Another chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
To date, he has also written three articles for a wonderful website for we agnostics in Alcoholics Anonymous, AA Beyond Belief:
- The Sinclair Method (November 22, 2015)
- Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke (April 9, 2017)
- About Being Here (July 2, 2017)
All of these articles are available in a book put together by life-j. Here is part of his intro to the book: “…the doctors have given me one to two years to live. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m taking a lot of time to write, while I can. A couple of other articles are in the pipeline already, and as things are published I will add them….”
You can read and/or download the book as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.
life-j has spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing. He is now semi-retired on a five acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.
Thank you, life-j.