Critique of Chapter 8 – To Wives

AA Book

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 Unfortunately, “To Wives” is not sold as an historical document, but as material helpful to alcoholics in recovery today, so Bill W. authoring “To Wives” must be examined.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 [1939]. 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.

57 Responses

  1. Sherley H. says:

    I can’t believe I have quietly (mostly) endured theistic AA meetings for 32 years! It’s almost embarrassing. I had no idea that there were alternative meetings until very recently. I finally attended a Freethinkers meeting and finally felt like I belonged. I only endured traditional meetings all this time because I was terrified of ever drinking again. There are no agnostic/ atheist/Freethinkers meetings in my area and I have to travel over an hour to attend the only one in which I feel comfortable. I laugh with relief while reading the comments here which so closely reflect my own feelings and thinking. Thank you so much everyone! I no longer feel alone.

  2. Marty N. says:

    Please, people, start you own agnostic / atheist meetings. We, here in NE Connecticut have two of them going now. It’s surprising how easy it is to find like-minded people in AA. GOYA

  3. Christopher S says:

    Thank you, Clara! Imagine, breaking a tradition and having an actual woman writing a critique of “To Wives”!!! I’m a male who blushes with embarrassment whenever I participate in a reading. Like “We Agnostics”, Bill was hardly one when he wrote this deplorable piece. Where was Jimmy B. and Lois Wilson? When is AAWS going to write a 21st century version of the Big Book and 12 and 12? Even the sacred bible has had multiple English versions since the King James and the Latin Vulgate.

    • Clara M. says:

      My hat is off to you; I doubt I could stay in the same room during a chapter 8 reading. I do not feel the Big Book should be revised, but if I did I would propose chapter 8 consist of the single sentence, “If he gets drunk, don’t blame yourself.” 😀

  4. Mark C. says:

    Thank you Clara! A very relevant critique of this truly pernicious chapter.

    I’m glad you found us out here in the cyber world. I know I’m a bit better for you having found us. Thank you muchly for your particular examination of this chapter.

    “Bill W. prioritizes the pride of a male adult with impaired judgment over the physical and emotional well-being of children. It is indefensible.”

    In any world. That all by itself should earn the chapter an unending derision.

    Mark C. aka “Belligerent Savage” per 12×12. 🙂

    • Clara M. says:

      Thank you for your kind feedback. Until I started working on the critique, I viewed the Big Book chapter critiques here calmly and logically, so my first draft of the critique was calm and logical. It felt totally wrong. I had to bounce ideas off Roger to realize what was missing: chapter 8’s horrific victim-blaming.

  5. Mike O says:

    Agnostic AA is to AA what Unitarianism is to Judeo-Christianity: an awkward but necessary step towards breaking from the establishment. When I went to a Unitarian church most of the young people I knew there were using it as a phase or training wheels towards agnosticism or atheism from their home religion. Likewise, Agnostic AA is often a way to continue to have the support (and if you choose, the structure of the “Steps”) of organized recovery on your way to simply moving on with your sober life without it. Arguing about how sexist the “To Wives” chapter is irrelevant. Bill Wilson was in many ways a con man and certainly at best, a patriarchal figure who reflected his time and place. His advice for family members, just like his advice to atheists and agnostics, should be taken with a grain of salt. Torturing ourselves to make sense of this drivel doesn’t allow us to see the ultimate prize, to move past the permanent training wheels of “recovery” and on to healthy, normal, well-adjusted sober adult life.

    • Jimmy B. says:

      Very well put.

    • Clara M. says:

      “Arguing about how sexist the “To Wives” chapter is irrelevant.”

      “To Wives” content is irrelevant but for one reason: newcomers. As I described in my critique, two-thirds of newcomers to AA arrive under a form of compulsion.

      At the meetings I’ve attended in the last four years, almost all newcomers are there courtesy of a treatment center or recovery house. They are there because outpatient addiction treatment at a local HMO requires AA meeting attendance. They are there as a condition of parole. At the low end of the compulsion scale are the folks attending AA because family members or employers insist on it as proof of a serious attempt at sobriety; these newcomers face consequences such as divorce, loss of child custody, and getting fired from their jobs.

      They deserve science-based recovery which welcomes them regardless of beliefs. They need to know they can reject barriers to recovery they may hear about in AA (such as an insistence on doing the 12 steps) and still get support. Telling them they will eventually not be in this terrible situation is not enough, because at that moment they are living it.

      I attend AA meetings not because I continue to need support but because I wish to give support. I criticized chapter 8 for the same reason.

      I recognize, however, that speaking up about being a sober atheist at local AA meetings will not fix the deadly flaws in crisis addiction treatment or long-term addiction treatment. That’s a whole other conversation.

  6. Helen L. says:

    I cringe at Bill’s sexism when hearing this chapter read at meetings and also at his poor advice about dealing with marital affairs with Step 9 in How It Works.

    It helps to realize that, at only four years sobriety, the author had more to learn about being completely honest with oneself, recognizing one’s own subconscious psychological projections onto others, and hiding a bad motive underneath a good one. He did improve somewhat by the time he wrote Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (after his more thorough fifth step personal experience) , and improved again in his later Grapevine writings apologizing to atheists.

    To make amends to Lois and to countless women harmed by this chapter, think the GSO ought to add a chapter of advice from Lois’s writings or her speeches to replace Bill’s dishonest and thinly-veiled “To Wives” criticism of her in the big book.

    • Clara M. says:

      Thanks so much for reading! I have no ideas on how to fix the Big Book. Instead of fixing it, I feel it should be like George Carlin’s comedy act. He retired his act every year and wrote a new one; it’s the only way to stay relevant and effective.

  7. Brien O says:

    I have attended both of those meetings in Sacramento, I will say hi when I see you Clara. Excellent article, thank you.

    • Clara M. says:

      Hooray! I have met many great people at those meetings, and look forward to meeting you, too.

  8. Dan L says:

    Thanks Clara. I loved that. Once again we are facing up to probably one of AA’s biggest public issues. I have learned how to make use of AA and will continue to do so especially since “using” AA also involves giving back. The big issue I refer to is our program based upon “honesty” and even better “rigorous honesty” which contains right in the 164 pages a whole bunch of petty dishonesty and some downright lies. “To Wives” sticks out like a sore thumb. The entire chapter is a lie and AA has never moved to do anything about it. It is not like it is a secret since it is fairly common knowledge that Bill wrote it. Living with a blatant lie like this is another demonstration of what I see as just untreated alcoholism. There is a lot of alcoholic thinking in the book and a fair bit of fiction.

    Bill W. changed and grew in sobriety and ended up reversing some important positions in his thinking. I do get the impression, however, that the Bill W. of 1939 was not a particularly honest man.

    I came into AA at a fairly late age and do not have many years of sobriety but I have always struggled with the feeling that The Emperor Really Has No Clothes!

    Thanks Again – Dan L.

    • Clara M. says:

      My accidentally-agnostic introduction to AA and the Big Book focused on the material added later, the “how I got sober” stories at the end, which were not written by Bill W. Only recently (2014 on) have I encountered the sacred text concept of Bill W.’s Big Book chapters. I can’t draw a conclusion from this, however, since I avoided meetings where speakers talked of religious conversions or spiritual awakenings, etc. Time passed, and I did not attend AA meetings for 25 years.

      I do not understand treating the Big Book as sacred. Alcoholics Anonymous would have kept growing without the Big Book. The collective wisdom and experience of the people at meetings matters the most.

      • Dan L says:

        Thanks Clara. It is a joke around here now for myself and those I do meetings with. I love the Fellowship of AA and the meetings. The Steps…meh. All said and done “Alcoholics Anonymous” – objectively – is just NOT a very good book. I do not care how many it supposedly saved or killed. It is a disorganised, obtuse and dishonest collection of anecdotes, opinions, observations and suggestions written by a huckster who needed some money. The Emperor Has No Clothes.

  9. Tom O. says:

    Clara, as a writer myself, the highest praise I can give is that I wish I had written this. It’s the best critique of any aspect of the BB that I’ve read, and a tremendous contribution to the recovery literature. I’m the child of an alcoholic, and this close to six years in recovery myself. I once railed against this chapter so angrily at Perry Street, I thought half the room was going to walk out. You’ve given precious insights that I will cherish and pass on. I’m still semi-active in AA, but doubly active as a SMART Recovery facilitator (who loves his agnostic AA lifesavers). Please, keep writing.

  10. Larry K says:

    I loved this critique.

    My oh my aren’t we an awful group of people who like to pick at scabs.

    This chapter has always been a source of profound embarrassment for me.

    You should hear what I say to a sponsee when we get to this chapter… it isn’t pretty.

    Thank you Clara.

    • Clara M. says:

      I’m glad you brought up embarrassment — it could be termed second-hand embarrassment, since we didn’t write the Big Book. I do not feel embarrassment about the Big Book, but I do experience second-hand hopelessness and despair. In meetings starting off with “How it Works,” I often see despair on newcomers’ faces. They are desperate to stay out of jail, or desperate to stay sober, and they’ve just heard an appeal to faith-healing. I know how terrible that feels.

      If I had a potentially fatal illness (other than addiction, that is) and was told by a doctor “may you find Him now” was the cure, my first thought would be, “Well I’m going to die then,” followed immediately by the thought, “I need another doctor.” Unfortunately, newcomers attending AA meetings because of legal, financial, or familial compulsion are often in situations that prevent shopping around for a secular meeting. If they are in a recovery home or treatment center, they may be prohibited from using the Internet, cell phones, and cars; they are taken by treatment center staff or vetted AA volunteers to meetings in the immediate neighborhood. If they are incarcerated, their choices are non-existent.

  11. Glenna R. says:

    Yes, Thanks, Clara. This article should be published, so that everyone who has a relationship with an alcoholic can read it.

    I appreciate the thoroughness of the work along with the breath of fresh air coming from an alcoholic who is able to write logically, lucidly and critically.

    Not sure that one’s time is that important but I came in originally in 1984 and stayed for one year as I was and still am an unbeliever/freethinker. I left because I could not see that it was helpful to me, and relapsed after another ten years of sobriety.

    Also, the fact that I was a feminist and most of my friends,including my husband were, set me up for a bad journey in AA. I didn’t even know enough women to do the duties for my first year medallion; went to closed meetings that were mostly attended by men.

    I learned much later after two years of horrible relapse that I needed to venture out of my neighbourhood, at least, but even so found many women in AA who took the BB as an authority on high–as a younger woman I thought that the whole questioning about authorities by the philosophers that took place before the French Revolution should have been helpful, but alas it has to be done and re-done.

    I was motivated by a deep desire to avoid relapse and that was my spiritual principle, not the AA line which I was willing to give a try because of the horror of relapsing after years of sobriety. I was instructed to read, To Wives, at the rehab centre by a man who did service there. He said, read this chapter tonight before you go to sleep and were it says wives, substitute husbands. It was difficult reading, but I did it and thought whoever wrote it was crazy if he thought wives were all such non-persons and furthermore I could not see the co-dependent man I married ever being this person. It would be like asking for the moon to ask a husband to be the kind of wife Bill defines. Furthermore I was only at Step Two and it was bothersome!! Remembering all the reasons I left AA 12 years ago I tried to do all the “do” things and did, service etc. but only felt free when a couple of people I knew started a Group for freethinkers etc. Widening Our Gateway was started in Richmond Hill, Ontario by Dianne and John around 2010 and I didn’t even know there were other groups in Toronto!

    My sanity after 20 years and after my husband’s recent death has grown with my reading of these websites and my sponsorship is through the online reading I do. I rarely comment, but was so moved by Clara’s article that I could not do else. So thanks and thanks and many thanks.

    It is an honour to be able to read such articles and to have The Newmarket Freethinkers’ Group. Yet, I still attend a Traditional Weekly Women’s Meeting as the people in my group are relative newbies and mostly men. It’s been really hard to find any logical, lucid and critical thinkers in AA amongst the women. I’ve just witnessed a couple being browbeaten to conform over the Lord’s Prayer.

    AA can be the loneliest place in the world by times as it chants, “You are no longer alone”.

    • Clara M. says:

      Your story perfectly demonstrates the real harm done in AA through intolerance of atheists and agnostics. I was fortunate because early on in recovery I did not suffer from isolation. Three friends also went into recovery within a year (all separately), and I quickly made new friends who were in recovery, or were “normal” people. Your experience also demonstrates how difficult it can be to find meetings welcoming atheists and agnostics. I am glad you finally found the support you needed.

  12. Holley S. says:

    I learned a lot reading this piece Clara, thank you. I had no idea that skipping this chapter was a thing, it sure isn’t in Virginia.

    • Clara M. says:

      Now I’ve learned something, too. I’m curious to know if chapter 8 is covered as fully as other chapters, if it sparks as much discussion, and if it leads to greater or lesser dissension during discussion than other Big Book chapters.

      Your observation is an important reminder that each AA meeting is autonomous, and meeting approaches to the Big Book and religion can vary enormously, even within the same city.

  13. life-j says:


    Thanks for this. just one more thing to show how useless the big book is. I’ve been part of this series of critiquing the big book myself, and I’m coming to a point where it seems that it doesn’t so much matter what’s in the book anymore. We know it’s detrimental in many ways, but it is retained for economic reasons now. One million is sold each year, most of them to rehabs which charge 10-30,000 for a spin dry and throw a big book in along with the other services. And so long as the rehabs keep GSO afloat, things will not change. Unfortunately if they stop, AA could go under, which we don’t want either.

    So what to do? well, realize that this is a lot about economy. The big book has to be held up high as the best word on recovery so AA doesn’t go under.

    Next, I don’t really know what would be the best approach. Start financing AA some other way, such as with contributions? well, only if we can be at least somewhat assured that this may also pull AA out of its religious grove, and there is no such guarantee of course, but it would be an important goal.

    I guess it would really only take 10 bucks from each member, so it’s doable.

    Now how we would go about “yes the big book is full of shit but we need to pretend it isn’t for a little while longer while we figure out what else to do” – I guess that doesn’t really fly.

    But I suppose the first thing is to recognize the big book is not very useful even sometimes detrimental, is a first step. GSO could still be a publisher, only we need many more titles, we need GSO to publish a hundred different books, not just the 3 orthodox ones.

    ANY rewriting, editing, whatever of the big book is only going to make matters worse, like legitimizing what gets left in it. It needs to be scrapped completely.

    Finally, I have been trying to get ICSAA and everyone to help with horizontal networking, and haven’t had – no not “much” – haven’t had “ANY” luck yet. So here I am in this totally ridiculous position where I think “Goodie!” here’s someone from Northern California, I better try to make contact! Totally ridiculous that we don’t have a better way to communicate with each other. But anyway, here is my email. You, Clara, and anyone else from Northern California, please contact me, we need to have regional contact:

    • Clara M. says:

      “GSO could still be a publisher, only we need many more titles, we need GSO to publish a hundred different books, not just the 3 orthodox ones.”

      Exactly. AA could earn needed income through literature sales without the Big Book. I think. I do not know how well self-help books do financially these days. The Internet abounds with free content on addiction recovery: blogs, messageboards, videos. AA’s principle of anonymity may be an insurmountable obstacle to creating compelling, personalized content.

      Northern California is a big place, but at least we share a landmass. 😀

      • Marj B says:

        Clara your summary is brilliant! I sat in the halls for years getting oogies every time this chapter among other chapters were read. I cant handle the religious talk at meetings so I seldom attend. I am grateful though for many dear AA friends I still pal around with these days. It is neat to have AA friends respect me even with my blasphemous ideas and neater too we can discuss nicely our views.
        Thank you for the time and energy you put into this!

  14. Kenneth P. says:

    Thank you Clara, for your insightful dissection of “To Wives.” When in the past I had mentioned that it seemed to lay a lot of pressure on the wife for the husband to stay sober, I got one of two responses: a) “you are reading it wrong” or, b) the worn out, “keep coming back.”

    Next time we read this chapter in my Thursday night BB meeting, I will certainly bring up your point about not taking sides when father disciplines children while drunk. My personal experience is that I was always verbally abusive when this happened. To have the book imply “let abuse happen” is just wrong.

    Again, thank you. I wish you peace in your recovery and in your life.

    Ken P.

    • Clara M. says:

      “Let the abuse happen” is based on the belief that “embarrassing” the alcoholic parent is the worst thing possible. Silence and shame are preferred over children’s safety. As the adult child of alcoholics who were the children of alcoholics who (taking a wild ass guess here) were children of alcoholics, it horrifies me.

  15. Wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks Clara for this well written and constructive critique of Chapter 8 which I have viewed as problematic and abusive since I came through the doors in 1986.

    Frankly, I too am saddened and appalled that GSO has done zilch to remove these offensive 17 pages. I’ve only heard it read once. Most groups skip it. For besides being misogynistic in the extreme it is also the source of helpless mirth.

    I knew Lois had been shoved to the sides by egotistical Bill when he wrote it. A habit he continued in all his “affairs.”

    • Clara M. says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I am fine with Chapter 8’s content, sexism and victim-blaming and all, if the Big Book was offered as an historical document, not sold as relevant to addiction treatment today.

      In comments to Big Book chapter critiques at AA Agnostica, life-j and others have brought up the monetary trap the Big Book has become for AA. Big Book sales are AA’s only income outside of member donations. AA does not take outside donations, and it restricts individual member donations to $3,000 a year. Without Big Book sales, the non-profit AA might collapse financially. It is not a hopeless situation, since AA could create and sell up-to-date literature. Unfortunately, defense of the increasingly alienating Big Book seems to be AA’s current path.

  16. Dale K. says:

    Thank you, Clara. Your female perspective for this excellent critique is so very refreshing. More often than not, us men don’t see what women see until their view is expressed. I understood some, but your essay has enriched my understanding of this ridiculous chapter.

    • Clara M. says:

      I really appreciate your feedback. I worried that all the folks who skipped reading chapter 8 would also skip reading a critique of chapter 8. Based on the number of comments, that is not the case!

      • Dale K. says:

        Thanks, but I didn’t skip Chapter 8. I did, however, rewrite it. Check out my book, A Secular Sobriety. It contains a secular and non-sexist version of the first 164 pages of the BB.

  17. Pat N. says:

    Many thanks, Clara. I haven’t read any of the BB in probably 20 years, so hadn’t thought about this odious chapter. Your analysis deserves copying and wide distribution within AA as a whole.

    I’m a longtime male feminist, and many of my best AA friends are women. In my opinion, women tend to be far more service-oriented, supportive of others’ emotional needs, and honest with their feelings than us guys-exactly what AA groups need. (We’re often better at reaching the top shelves). Of course there are exceptions for both genders, but I suspect today’s AA, even the traditional groups, is far more helpful because of its female members.

    Bill W. was no hero and no saint. We need to appreciate his energy that helped create AA, but we need to retract his halo and get his picture off the wall, along with Dour Bob. Maybe we should have Lois’ and Anne’s pictures instead.

    • Clara M. says:

      Thank you for your feedback! I have at times attended women-only meetings. The only difference I have noticed is that at the end of meetings women instantly form a perfect circle to hold hands. Someone should study this. 😀

  18. Mike says:

    I would rewrite that chapter as well. I’d call it, “How to effectively deal with a drunk you care about”. No need to label that person a wife, boyfriend, same sex partner, relative, employer, or dear friend. Obviously, in the 30’s, what can you expect. 95% of the population believed in God, beliefs were based on a 2000 year old book that condemned homosexuality, and nobody even heard of a transgender. Would you demand that Huckleberry Finn be rewritten? As a work of historical reality, I don’t have a problem with it. But as a text to help, it of course fails.

    So now to my own sexist experience with women. I was married to a woman who didn’t like my drinking and decided that it was her mission to stop me. Not good.

    I simply hid it more and avoided her more. And got way worse because of it. The constant animosity in the house made another excuse for drinking. Ended up in a nasty divorce.

    The woman I am with now, most of you would call an enabler. She did not attack me for drinking, even offered to buy booze some days when I was too tipsy to drive. It was like, go for it, it’s your life, enjoy.

    Of course it seemed like a license to drink. But the fact that she gave me the choice, really got me thinking. I had to look at myself. Nobody was going to stop me unless I did. I got sober. Nagging and threats just made me double down with alcohol.

    • Clara M. says:

      I really like the TED talk by Johann Hari about addiction treatment. He does a great job of explaining how the criminalization of addiction, with a giant scoop of shame on top, has been a public health disaster, and what needs to be done instead.

  19. Denise E. says:

    Thank you!

  20. Thomas B. says:

    An excellent and most appropriate critique, Clara. Thank you.

  21. Elizabeth M. says:

    I, too, am atheist with 34 years sobriety. I got sober in traditional AA meetings and struggled through “my god problem,” mostly in silence. After 8 years, I stopped attending meetings. I returned when I moved to another state. There, I found the meetings even more conservative and god-centered. Bill W. was also viewed like a god. After a couple of years, I joined a secular meditation group at the invitation of an atheist AA member. Eventually we started an agnostic meeting–against much local opposition, including a failed attempt to leave the meeting off the schedule. I went for a couple of years and then stopped. that was about 7 years ago. I think my problem with AA is that the structure encourages the adoption of an identity – recovered alcoholic – which I have decided is not healthy. My story is no longer relevant to me. I can tell it, but I know longer remember the person I’m describing. It’s all like a dream. I moved on. I’m glad I haven’t gotten around to deleting this site or I would have missed your critique. Thanks.

    • Clara M. says:

      I can relate to your experience. I was extremely happy not going to AA meetings for 25 years. 😀 Alcohol was completely absent from my life. When I first went back to AA meetings, I felt queasy when people described what I call “recipes” — which toxins they ingested, how often, where, time of day, etc. Their descriptions of their rituals really bothered me. Eventually I realized why: because I used equivalent rituals (or “recipes”) to conceal my addiction from myself back when I was drinking. I substituted rituals for control. I don’t know if I will continue to benefit from meetings, but this bit of learning encouraged me to keep trying for now.

  22. Liz says:

    I really think this critique misses the mark. Spend some time in Al-Anon and you will find that the advice given in this chapter is spot on and is actually the treatment for codependency – stop isolating, learn how to find your own happiness whether the alcoholic drinks or not, stop reacting to the alcoholic’s drinking so they can stop blaming you and see themselves clearly, acknowledge and deal with your own twisted behavior, stop covering for the alcoholic, etc. The Al-Anon tables are full of people who have found peace and happiness even if the alcoholic keeps drinking and they did so by following the same program and the principles outlined in this chapter.

    Bill W. acknowledges in the introductory paragraphs that there are a growing number of women finding sobriety, that the entire family is affected, but most cases are men. That was true in 1939. That doesn’t mean that the principles are not valid.

    • Clara M. says:

      I do not agree that chapter 8’s content is excusable or valuable because of Al-Anon.

  23. Dave J says:

    I’ve been a proud one stepper for 44 years. AA in 1973, even in the Bible belt was a lot smarter than today. Most of the old timers I met had little use for the big book and saw through exactly the same things you wrote about. The women in AA were tougher and smarter as well. They had to be – it took a lot more grit to walk into an AA meeting for a woman in those days. Apparently I arrived just about the time the Big Book was picked up by rehabs – a new phenomenal springing up everywhere and that was it… Boom a best seller. So that’s how that really pathetic piece of crap got to Hollywood… I just think it’s a shame the general IQ in AA today has dropped to the point that intelligent people actually take the Big Book thumpers seriously. They still don’t get it – Bill did it for the money. He was a con man duh! Also a great man because at the end of the day, he co-founded AA.

    • Steven V. says:

      Don’t hold back Dave! Lol

    • Mark C. says:

      Without “institutional sales” there is no demand for the AA holy book. Looked at in another way. Without institutional sales the GSO would be bankrupt in two minutes.

    • Clara M. says:

      I sense some nostalgia here. 😀

  24. Paul Mc says:

    Thanks Clara! I appreciate the sanity and wisdom. I attend a local AA mtg just enough to know the names of most of the regulars. Thankfully there are many other alternatives (SMART / RefugeRecovery) in my area. The BB was once decribed to me as “Bill’s Fishing Trips”.

    I’m sober for 28 yrs now and relatively sane today. More has been revealed . . .


    • Clara M. says:

      I’m glad you have found great meetings in your area. Last time I checked there were no SMART groups near me. There’s 1,200 AA meetings a week in the Sacramento area, but only one is an open agnostic/atheist meeting.

  25. Steven V. says:

    Of all the Chapters in the Big Book, “To Wives” has almost nothing of value in it for anyone dealing with an alcoholic partner, family member or friend. There is the odd decent suggestion such as “Your desire to protect him should not cause you to lie to people when they have a right to know where he is and what he’s doing”. There’s a few others but they are few and far between. Bill’s mistake of course was not letting Lois or another woman write this chapter but the fact Bill tried to deceive readers by saying it was written by a woman shows just how dishonest he was willing to be in order to promote AA and the book.

    • Clara M. says:

      Bill W. stated after the fact he wrote the chapter so the Big Book would have a consistent style, which doesn’t make any sense to me since he could have edited Lois’s contribution for style issues. My hunch is that Bill W. wrote the chapter because early on in his sobriety he shrank from what Lois might say, and what the A.A. community would think of him in light of it. I’m basing this on my own early sobriety, when I would have dealt poorly with a partner enshrining my awfulness in a book.

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