By Clara M.
Even Big Book Thumpers have a rough time with “To Wives.” In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, chapter 8 may be the least-thumped, and most skipped, so my first impulse in this critique was to turn the worst bits into Internet memes and declare myself done.
But, since the Big Book was first published in 1939, its contents have been repeatedly reviewed by AA General Service Conferences (GSCs). As Paul W. noted in Why Critique the Big Book?, AA GSCs have repeatedly rejected opportunities to update the Big Book, most recently in 2001. I conclude AA stands by “To Wives,” and regards it, along with the rest of the Big Book, as helpful to alcoholics and the people in their lives. That makes it a relevant subject for criticism.
This critique has three sections. In the first, I’ll examine the source of “To Wives.” Chapter 8’s point of view is female (“As wives of Alcoholics Anonymous…”) but no women, much less wives, contributed.
In the second section, the few text changes and additions made to “To Wives” since 1939 will be described and examined. This won’t take long.
Third and last, the current content of “To Wives” is analyzed. In this section, my critique differs from other entries in AA Agnostica’s Big Book chapter series because “To Wives” has comparatively less religious content–which turns out to be less great than it first sounds.
I kept these questions in mind: Was “To Wives” ever useful for (presumed non-alcoholic) women with alcoholic husbands? In 2018, is it valuable to anyone with an alcoholic close to them, regardless of relationship type or gender identity? And is “To Wives” at least internally consistent?
“To Wives” should be relevant to me. I’m an atheist alcoholic with thirty-four years of sobriety, first attending AA in 1987. I’ve been a wife, girlfriend, neighbor, friend, daughter, sibling, roommate, employee, co-worker, or manager to alcoholics and addicts.
Section 1: The Real Wives of Alcoholics Anonymous
Bill W. assumed a fictitious female persona to write “To Wives.” I intended to ignore this, judging it to be historical trivia. It is irrelevant to newcomers to sobriety and AA, who should not have to be AA experts to get and give help. Unfortunately, “To Wives” is not sold as an historical document, but as material helpful to alcoholics in recovery today, so Bill W. authoring “To Wives” must be examined.
Bill W. wrote “To Wives” for the same reasons he wrote the Big Book as a whole: to publicize the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and to earn personal income. As documented in Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Ernest Kurtz, Bill W. and his wife Lois were destitute in the 1930s, the early days of AA.
Aside from his copyright, how do we know Bill W. wrote “To Wives”? One authority is Lois Wilson. According to Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson:
Many of the chapters in the Big Book were written by Wilson, including Chapter 8, “To Wives.” It was a chapter he had offered to Dr. Bob’s wife, Anne Smith, to write, but she declined. His wife Lois had wanted to write the chapter, and his refusal to allow her left her angry and hurt.
After introductory material which does not establish the author’s gender or identity, the “To Wives” point of view is clear at the start of the fourth paragraph: “As wives of Alcoholics Anonymous, we would like you to feel that we understand as perhaps few can.” The second sentence from the fictitious wives is a red-flag signaling the victim-blaming ahead: “We want to analyze mistakes we have made.”
“To Wives” sometimes shifts into patronizing omniscience, but overall Bill W. stays in character as a group of (presumed non-alcoholic) women married to alcoholic men.
The Most Skipped Chapter?
Reasons for skipping “To Wives” are easy to find. Bill W. channeling a plural female perspective is heavy work for a modern reader. The content is not addressed to alcoholics, people not married to alcoholics, or men. People in same-sex relationships and people who are transgender or non-binary are unacknowledged. Finally, the chapter is seventeen pages, longer than “Bill’s Story” or “How It Works.”
I have no way to determine how unread the chapter is, but, since first attending AA meetings in 1987, I have never heard anyone quote “To Wives,” recommend “To Wives,” or express appreciation for “To Wives.” I searched the Internet for Big Book study groups, which go through the Big Book chapter by chapter, but could not find any reactions of substance, although one man mentioned his wife read it and laughed uproariously.
Why is “To Wives” in the Big Book in the first place? Because in Bill W.’s view it doubled potential buyers. “To Wives” meant you didn’t have to be an alcoholic man to get something out of the Big Book; you could be a (presumed non-alcoholic) woman married to an alcoholic man. I am reminded of 1970s bath soap TV ads in which a man declared how much he loved the soap, followed by a camera cut to an actor playing his wife stating, “I like it, too.” “To Wives” came into existence because it theoretically enhanced the promotion of the AA program and sold more books; more on this in the third section.
Section 2: “To Wives” Essentially Unchanged Since 1939 Publication
Chapter 8 has been edited twenty or thirty times, but most changes are confined to punctuation and grammar. I am not going to describe the commas added and the commas removed. Only three substantive text changes have been made since 1939. The first text change we encounter, shown by bolded text:
Original: “These are some of the questions which race through the mind of every girl who has an alcoholic husband.”
Revised: “These are some of the questions which race through the mind of every woman who has an alcoholic husband.”
I can picture the AA GSC celebrating the successful transformation of “To Wives” into a feminist manifesto by the single word change. Next significant text change, shown by bolded text:
Original: “The wives and children of such men suffer horribly, but not less than the men themselves.”
Revised: “The wives and children of such men suffer horribly, but not more than the men themselves.”
The original doesn’t scan well, so I assume “less” was used in error. But it’s fixed now; women and children know that, no matter how bad they have it, alcoholic men are having a worse time. It’s disturbing that changing “less” to “more” here is what past GSCs found essential to update.
So much could have been added to make the chapter relevant to women alcoholics. There is no mention of fetal alcohol syndrome. No mention of sexual assault. No mention of alcoholism’s deadlier effect on women’s health.
The only other significant text change is a reference to how many people AA has helped; “three” is changed to “thousands.” Numbers inflation has been noted in other Big Book chapter critiques.
Footnotes Fix Everything
Aside from the few text changes, two footnotes were added. The first footnote is immediate, signaled by an asterisk after the title “To Wives” itself. Follow the asterisk and you’ll read:
Written in 1939, when there were few women in A.A., this chapter assumes that the alcoholic in the home is likely to be the husband. But many of the suggestions given here may be adapted to help the person who lives with a woman alcoholic–whether she is still drinking, or is recovering in A.A. A further source of help is noted on page 121.
Seventeen pages long, but, aside from the first paragraph, “To Wives” devotes a single footnote to the woman alcoholic. The second footnote comes at the end of the chapter:
The fellowship of Al-Anon Family Groups was formed about thirteen years after this chapter was written . Though it is entirely separate from Alcoholics Anonymous, it uses the general principles of the A.A. program as a guide for husbands, wives, relatives, friends, and others close to alcoholics. The foregoing pages (though addressed only to wives) indicate the problems such people may face. Alateen, for teen-aged children of alcoholics, is a part of Al-Anon.
And that wraps it up for codependency, which I assume is further addressed in the Big Book’s chapter 9, “The Family Afterward.” After spending many days with “To Wives,” however, I am disinclined to read chapter 9 to find out.
Section 3: Fragile Masculinity, 1930s Edition
If you’re a typical human and have skipped reading “To Wives,” here’s a brief description: “To Wives” is an instruction manual for (presumed non-alcoholic) women married to alcoholic men. Women in the United States had had the right to vote for a whole nineteen years when it was published.
As stated earlier, Bill W. wrote the Big Book to promote A.A., and “To Wives” was included to boost sales. The chapter’s primary purpose is to tell a wife how to launch her alcoholic husband into an AA meeting, or to at least get him to read the Big Book (which the wife has presumably bought on the strength of the chapter title “To Wives”). Examples:
This may lay the groundwork for a friendly talk about his alcoholic problem. Try to have him bring up the subject himself. Be sure you are not critical during such a discussion.
When a discussion does arise, you might suggest he read this book or at least the chapter on alcoholism.
The remainder of “To Wives” tells the wife everything she should and shouldn’t be doing to keep her husband from drinking and to get him into AA meetings. In his guise as (presumed non-alcoholic) wives of alcoholic men, Bill W.’s approach is to intimidate women into beings with no needs or agendas of their own.
- “The first principle of success is that you should never be angry.”
- “Never tell him what he must do about his drinking.”
- “If he gets the idea that you are a nag or a killjoy, your chance of accomplishing anything useful may be zero.”
- “Show him you have confidence in his power.”
- “If you act upon these principles, your husband may stop or moderate.”
- “…the more you hurry him, the longer his recovery may be delayed.”
- “Cheerfully see him through more [drinking] sprees.”
- “…you must be on guard not to embarrass or harm your husband.”
- “These family dissensions are very dangerous, especially to your husband. Often you must carry the burden of avoiding them or keeping them under control.”
- “Never forget that resentment is a deadly hazard to an alcoholic.”
- “Just be careful not to disagree in a resentful or critical spirit.”
- [Following a relapse] “Cheer him up and ask him how you can be still more helpful.”
- “The slightest sign of fear or intolerance may lessen your husband’s chance of recovery.”
A common preamble read at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, How it Works, contains this exhortation: “Remember that we deal with alcohol–cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But There is One who has all power–that One is God. May you find Him now!” If chapter 8’s advice is valid, there should be an amendment: “But there is a force even greater which can utterly defeat Him: a nagging wife.”
Up next in the chapter: Bill W. helpfully divides husbands into four categories. The category a husband fits into determines how a wife should spring the Big Book and A.A. on him. The categories have no detectable medical or psychological underpinning but seem based on socioeconomic status. They could be summed up as: not broke; a little bit broke; totally broke; beyond broke and costing bail money. Examples:
- Category One: “Sometimes he is a source of embarrassment to you and his friends.”
- Category Two: “He has by no means ruined everything.”
- Category Three: “Maybe the doctor has been called in, and the weary round of sanitariums and hospitals has begun.”
- Category Four: “He has been placed in one institution after another. He is violent, or appears definitely insane when drunk.”
Then comes terrible medical advice: “Some men have been so impaired by alcohol that they cannot stop.” I’d like to hear that diagnosis from a doctor. “Sorry, but I’m afraid you have a bad case of So Impaired By Alcohol You Cannot Stop.”
Then horrible psychological advice: “Unless [your children] actually need protection from their father, it is best not to take sides in any argument he has with them while drinking.”
If someone is intoxicated to the point they cannot legally drive a car, they should not be in a position of authority over children or any other dependent. Bill W. prioritizes the pride of a male adult with impaired judgment over the physical and emotional well-being of children. It is indefensible.
Let’s assume a wife has followed the “To Wives” advice. She’s been cheerful, resentment-free, patient, and helpful. She has avoided nagging, being a killjoy, and interfering when her intoxicated spouse yells abuse at the children.
Her alcoholic husband is sober, reading the Big Book, and attending AA meetings regularly. Everything is great now. Wait, it isn’t. Just when she thought her husband was going to participate in family life again, he’s hanging out with his new AA pals! Bringing them home and expecting her to be an enthusiastic hostess!
According to “To Wives,” if she is anything less than perfect her husband will start drinking again:
The fact is that he should work with other people to maintain his own sobriety. Sometimes he will be so interested that he becomes really neglectful. Your house is filled with strangers. You may not like some of them. He gets stirred up about their troubles, but not at all about yours. It will do little good if you point that out and urge more attention for yourself. We find it a real mistake to dampen his enthusiasm for alcoholic work. You should join in his efforts as much as you possibly can. We suggest that you direct some of your thought to the wives of his new alcoholic friends.
It is impossible for me to read the above and not feel pain on behalf of Lois Wilson. Consciously or unconsciously, Bill W. used the Big Book platform to manipulate Lois into his ideal codependent wife. Though there is perhaps no wisdom, strength, or hope to be found in examining Bill W.’s treatment of his spouse, I must acknowledge the context in which “To Wives” was written. In the 1930s, Bill W. was financially supported by his wife and was a serial adulterer. To gloss over the self-serving nature of the chapter would be an injustice.
God In “To Wives”
Big Book chapter critiques at AA Agnostica have rightly devoted much analysis to religious concepts. But in “To Wives” the religious content is sparse, almost random. We don’t get Bill W. sweating bullets about religious faith (“For a brief moment, I had needed and wanted God”) which saturates the Big Book.
There’s a reference or two to a “spiritual remedy.” There’s the “…power of God goes deep!” phrase that appears out of nowhere, like a sneeze. There’s a claim an alcoholic husband relapsing might turn out to be a “blessing” because it could open up “…a path which [leads] to the discovery of God.” Then out of the blue comes, “If God can solve the age-old riddle of alcoholism, he can solve your problems, too.” The chapter ends with, “Good luck and God bless you!”
Unfortunately, the absence of religious content is not a lucky break, but another manifestation of sexism. In “To Wives,” Bill W. apparently assumed that, not only are women never alcoholics, they are also never atheists. But before I get to that, I want to look at another instance of sexism. Here’s Bill W. speaking as the mistake-making wives of alcoholic men: “We have had retaliatory love affairs with other men.”
Bill W. put women into lesser human status in many ways in “To Wives,” but this is the most insidious. In “To Wives,” Bill W. tells us why alcoholic men are unfaithful: the other women “understood our men as we did not.” But in Bill W.’s world the same did not apply to women. An unfaithful woman isn’t seeking personal understanding; her motivation can only be her husband, the presumed center of her existence.
Bill W.’s assumption that there were no atheists in female foxholes was not unusual in his era. Even now, among Christian protestants in the U.S., women are more likely to claim outward expressions of religious belief such as church attendance and daily prayer.
However, the degree of difference between genders varies enormously depending on local religious culture. In countries where Islam is the majority religion, men attend religious services more frequently than women. In countries where religion is a strong factor in ethnic identity, such as for Jewish people living in Israel, questions such as “How important is religion to your life?” gets a nearly identical response from men and women. In short, gender differences in spiritual beliefs and practices are heavily influenced by cultural expectations. This can be seen in the U.S., where each year a greater percentage of women describe themselves as agnostic/atheist; among young people, the gender difference in religious belief is disappearing.
Why then does a difference between the genders still exist? Because, even today, atheism in the U.S. is a male privilege. Before the late 19th century, secular or government institutions to aid ever-desperate “widows and orphans” were rare. Religious organizations provided childcare, schools, and vital social and economic support. Women, especially those raising children alone, could not afford atheism.
Instead of agonizing about weak or absent faith in “To Wives,” we get this from Bill W. “We urge you to try our program, for nothing will be so helpful to your husband as the radically changed attitude toward him which God will show you how to have.”
It’s the patriarchy squared: God will tell the wife how to be perfect for her husband. The only text close to deity-doubting is, “But it was a silly idea that we were too good to need God.” Silly girls! Get back to never being angry.
“To Wives” Internal Inconsistency
Three paragraphs from the end of “To Wives,” Bill W. hurls a bizarre curveball:
“If he gets drunk, don’t blame yourself.”
But what has “To Wives” done except give the wives of alcoholic men reasons to blame themselves? Nearly the whole of “To Wives” threatens women that their behavior can enhance or doom another human being’s sobriety.
“To Wives” fails completely at internal consistency. If chapter 8 was a sci-fi film, I would be disappointed by its world-building.
“To Wives” is not simply outdated. It is toxic advice for anyone in a relationship with an alcoholic, and always has been.
“To Wives” prioritizes an alcoholic man’s pride over the safety and sanity of his wife and children.
“To Wives” claims God can do anything, but puts the burden of a male alcoholic’s sobriety on his wife, and, indirectly, their children.
“To Wives” ignores the deadly differences women alcoholics face medically and socially. Female alcoholics are not interchangeable with male alcoholics.
“To Wives” ignores everyone not “standard” in sexual preference or gender identity.
In the seventeen pages of “To Wives,” Bill W. provides a single paragraph to counter his victim-blaming. “We realize some men are thoroughly bad-intentioned, that no amount of patience will make any difference. An alcoholic of this temperament may be quick to use this chapter as a club over your head.”
In my view, “To Wives” has no redeeming content. Its only value is historical. So why critique it in detail? As I stated earlier, because “To Wives” is still promoted and sold by Alcoholics Anonymous. People have bought more than thirty million copies of the Big Book since 1939.
There’s another reason hugely important to me. Only thirty percent of people in the U.S. first attending an AA meeting identify as “self-motivated,” according to AA’s 2014 member survey. Thirty-five percent were “sent” by the judicial system, correctional facility, recovery center, treatment program, medical professional, or employer. An additional twenty-seven percent initially attend through family influence. This means two out of three newcomers are not what I would class as eager volunteers.
People attend AA meetings to recover from alcoholism and to help others in recovery. But they also attend because it may be one of the few opportunities to leave a treatment center for a couple of hours without losing their bed. They attend AA meetings to keep a job, a driver’s license, or custody of their children. They attend AA meetings because the alternative is jail.
Regardless of personal beliefs, newcomers should not have to accept a “spiritual program” of addiction recovery. Atheism and agnosticism are not the only reasons to be repelled by a non-scientific approach to the medical issue of alcohol addiction. This critique is for anyone reading the Big Book and experiencing its contents as irrelevant, or even harmful.
Clara M. stopped drinking alcohol in San Francisco in 1984, remaining sober thanks to books such as Dr. Robert Milam’s “Under the Influence,” and through the support of family and friends. She did not attend AA meetings until 1987, when she found in the Outer Sunset a rare-at-the-time non-smoking meeting. She realized in hindsight that, thanks to the many anti-smoking medical professionals attending, the meeting was “accidentally agnostic.”
After moving to the suburbs in 1989, she could not locate a nearby AA group welcoming to atheists in recovery. Her solution was not unusual in the pre-Internet days, when finding meetings was more difficult: she did not attend AA meetings for 25 years. During this time, she found support outside of meetings from the many atheists in recovery in the San Francisco Bay Area. She continued to expand her knowledge of alcohol addiction through ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and hundreds of scientific articles and books.
As her 30-year sobriety date approached in 2014, she sought out AA meetings again, in part because of gratitude for the people she met years earlier in the Outer Sunset, and in part because she believed her experience (as a sober alcoholic atheist, and as what is termed a “one-stepper” in A.A. jargon) might help newcomers to recovery. A move to the Central Valley drastically reduced the secular A.A. meetings available to her, however, and it was not until 2015 that she located an active agnostic/atheist meeting, which she attended weekly until it ended two years later. Her favorite meetings currently are Friday Night Freethinkers, 8pm at 1430 J Street, and the Primary Purpose Group, 11am on Sundays at the East Portal Park Clubhouse, both in Sacramento. Quelling an innate urge to control all the things, she avoids service positions, instead putting her energy into speaking at meetings and supporting local holiday Alcathons.