How It Worked: Clarence Snyder and the Early Days of AA

By Mitchell K.

In 1999 we put out an AA history book, printed in Germany by a group of AA members who were considered by many to be radical and controversial. That limited, privately published edition became very popular and was distributed free of charge all over the world. That book was: How It Worked: The Story of Clarence H. Snyder and the Early Days of Alcoholics Anonymous in Cleveland, Ohio.

Over the next 19 years, the book achieved notoriety and was widely mentioned and/or quoted in well over 300 books and other publications about AA and recovery. The book was listed in the top 50 books tracing AA History. After all the books were internationally distributed, it became a hard-to-find “classic.” We were seeing copies of this little inexpensively printed (newsprint paper) book selling on-line for hundreds, and even thousands of dollars.

The group of AA Members out of Germany were forced – after being taken to court by AA  – to stop publishing any books, including How It Worked. A free Second Edition to meet the ever growing demand was out of the question.

After 19 years of seeing price gouging on the Internet I was convinced by friends to update the book, enlarge its size and content and offer it for sale for a reasonable price on line with International distribution. Ernest Kurtz, PhD wrote the Foreword to the First Edition and William L. White wrote the Foreword to the Second Edition.


A review of the book from Amazon:How It Worked

Great book. The first edition, published in the 90’s, was very informative. Lots of good stories and background info not to be found anywhere else by the common reader. Mitchell was Clarence’s sponsoree, and so had direct access to the subject himself, as well as some of the key players in the early days of AA history.

Awesome insights into the relationships and motives of the pioneers. Written in a style that’s very familiar, not like an historical thesis or collegiate paper. For a “young fella” like me, this book really helped me to appreciate more the humanity of the AA movement.

2nd edition includes more photos, letters and details, gathered since the publication of the original. This book is a treasure and a must for anyone interested in the early days.


Mitchell K. (Author) came into AA in 1975 and has been continuously sober since his first meeting. He was eventually taken through the steps and sponsored by Clarence Snyder, one of the first 100 AA members, author of a Big Book story in the first three editions of that book (it was removed from the Fourth Edition under mysterious circumstances). Clarence’s sponsor was Dr. Bob, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mitchell’s journey in recovery has taken many twists and turns. The one constant has been sobriety. As with most growth, there come changes, questions asked, some answered and some, still awaiting answers. His understanding of a power greater than himself has also undergone several changes in over 43 years of life in recovery. He believes in a spiritual understanding of that power, not restricted by man-made religious parameters, rules or dogma.

HOW IT WORKED is a continuation of his journey into the study of AA history. Ever evolving, ever growing, ever discovering. We hope you enjoy reading this updated and enlarged edition and we also hope that it raises more questions and leads to more research and expands our knowledge base about where Alcoholics Anonymous came from, what happened, what it’s like now and more importantly, where it is going in the future for the next generations of alcoholics walking through its doors.


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How It Worked: Clarence Snyder and the Early Days of AA — 29 Comments

  1. I found the first edition on silkworth.net and read it straight through with hardly a break. I really enjoy AA’s early history and this book added so much to that history. One thing I think about is there is too much anonymity today of the early AA members. Probably each person could have a book about them or at least a chapter or 2. I’m really really grateful Mitchell took the time and effort to write this book. It has expanded my spiritual experience!

    Ps. I have ordered the second edition and can’t wait to read the new material.

    • Hi Eugene. There is a very good book about the early members of AA! You can click on the image below for more info about it:

      Key Players

    • Thank you! Several of the early members have had books written about them. Unfortunately a bio of Hank P was pretty much written but only part of the manuscript still exists. The copyright owner pretty much dropped out of sight.

      I would love to write the story about probably the 1st Jewish member. He was sponsored by Clarence. Unfortunately , his family hasn’t responded to any requests for info.

      Research keeps going on and maybe one day more will be revealed about many of the original/early members. I doubt I’ll be doing any more writing unless some new stuff comes to light about Clarence. I’m not really a writer, just an AA member who made his sponsor a promise & wrote a book. I also enjoy my anonymity & don’t really do any speaking except once every year or so.

  2. Hmm, the book sounded good, so I ordered it, and the book was waiting for me when I got home from Toronto, and I read a bit in it this evening.

    I will say it is generally engagingly written, the parts I have read, but must confess, as I started with the forewords and prefaces that those were quite a bit more godly than what I typically put up with very long. I recognize that while Clarence was a god man, he was not a church man, but that only makes the whole thing marginally more agreeable to me.

    I also recognize that Clarence was a rebel in his time, just like I am in mine, and that history is important whether it seems agreeable or not, but I do wish it had been stated that the author is of a quite religious mindset himself, which is bound to color the content no matter how honest he strives to be. So I guess I have to say it seems to be a solid book, but if I had known how much it leans toward a god-focused account, I would probably have preferred to not buy it.

    Aside from that I do appreciate how you have been here participating in the discussion, Mitchell.

    • Thank you. The book was originally written between 1985-1997. Since it was first published in 1999 many things have changed. New research has emerged, differing points of view expressed and on a personal level, I continue to learn, grow, evolve.

      The closer in time I was to Clarence’s evangelical mission, the more my views mirrored his. As I found more recordings and read correspondence prior to 1970 the more I found him to be less evangelical and more egalitarian and my perceptions of him and my own world view also began to change.

      In the 19 years since the publishing of the 1st edition of How It Worked and the current edition, I have grown and moved my own perceptions many times. I look at life as an educational opportunity and not stagnant. Just in this past year alone I’ve experienced 3 near death hospitalizations. Those have allowed me an opportunity for further growth.

      I don’t consider myself religious in any way. In fact, I abhor religion because I think much of its human-made concepts and dogma do hurt many. I also look at everyone’s right to believe or not believe as they see fit. Like AA is supposed to be, I neither endorse nor oppose religious beliefs of individuals who are also on a journey.

      That being said, the book is about Clarence and historical facts. I can change neither despite my own ever evolving viewpoints on many things. The story isn’t about me. I did my best to be true to the history and to honor both it and Clarence.

      As far as not purchasing or reading anything based upon preconceived notions limits my personal growth. I’ve recently read books about FreeThinkers, Atheists, Spiritualism, scientific methods of recovery, fiction and science fiction short stories and novels. An open and well rounded education and knowledge base leads to better informed choice in my opinion.

      To ignore history just because some of that history differs from my personal point of view denies me opportunities for personal growth. I continue to study so that I may remain open to learn. The minute I shut anything off in the realm of learning, my growth becomes biased and skewed and weighted, lopsided.

      I am grateful to my religious brothers and sisters just as much as I am to my brothers and sisters who are free thinkers, atheists, agnostics and anyone else who has a point of view I can learn and grow from. As long as my parachute remains open I continue to glide gently thru the currents towards a yet unknown destination.

      • Mitchell, thanks. None of your points here are lost on me, to be sure. And I also do not want to denigrate your personal experience, that is I want to respect it as yours. I recognize that many people get comfort from (what I would call) religion, whether in some way orthodox or fundamentalist, or of a more open-minded variety, even non-denominational, which is what I would call AA, as it in fact is, not how it presents itself: A nondenominational religion. So when on page ix I read about you getting on your knees and becoming a new man, I’m doing all I can to respect that, while at the same time finding the reading of it personally revolting, because it reminds me of my own religious abuse.

        And most of all what it makes me think of is all those non-religious people who would (probably, I’m speculating a bit here) come to ask Clarence for help, and he would tell them to get on their knees or get out. If he didn’t, at least we know that many have done that to great detriment for many non-believers. So, at least in theory it makes good sense for me to presume that by recounting that personal experience of yours you would be inclined to condone such intolerant, bigoted sponsorship. I do understand that you probably don’t at this point in your life, and possibly never did, but it just seems to me that it can’t help color the account of who Clarence was.

        So it is not a matter of wanting to ignore inconvenient history. If we say that while Clarence did not like established religion, he was absolutely firm in his demand that you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, or if we say that Clarence helped a great many who were sufficiently of a believing mindset to accept his brand of sponsorship, but chased a great many unbelievers off to an alcoholic death, or if we say that Clarence with his charisma and his unyielding opposition to having any particular faction of the Christian church govern AA did more for early AA than anyone else, all these statements are true, we’re in all cases talking about the same man, but it makes a big difference whether we glorify the god parts and make the unbeliever reader cringe, or whether we look critically at how his role may also have had detrimental elements in it. Some of it is about validation. It is easy to give believers validation in AA. It is the norm. But it robs the non-believers of it, and a historical account should be as neutral as possible, all the more when describing a contentious issue.

        Very well, History accounts have always been skewed. “Winners write a different accounts of a war than the losers would have” is a common problem. And when witches were burned at the stake it was not a punishment, it was a purification ritual for their own salvation’s sake, but it must have hurt all the same. We write a different account of it now than the Jesuit priests did in the year 1600, even though the events were the same.

        I just prefer to read history accounts that take a critical view of circumstances I have already established as problematic. We can either read history to justify status quo, or to learn from the mistakes made, depending on the tilt with which it is written.

      • Thanks for your response. I often look back on that day when I had gotten on my knees and compared that day with other historical accounts pre 1970 where people like Irwin M. who was Jewish was not asked the same or the hundreds (if not thousands) of others who were taken through their steps by Clarence were not told what I was told.

        Do I feel religious abuse? Do I feel betrayed? Of course. Why was I not afforded the same courtesy those who came before me were given? I also look at the context as to the change from egalitarian to fervent religious evangelical zealot. The pre and post 1970 Clarence were very different.

        I wish I had met Clarence during this pre 1970 period but I did not. I left those parts of the story in the book because that time was part of the history of how I got to meet the man and eventually was asked to write the book. I could have gotten into my experience and the experiences of any of those why felt forced. But the book, in my mind was not about me or my experiences. The book is about Clarence’s major contributions in the early days of AA and the history of AA in Cleveland.

        After Clarence passed on and the 1st edition was published and as my later research opened so many doors, I began to gain more respect for the man before he was influenced and changed. The story and Clarence’s charge to me was about a telling of the story of early AA and not what was the current state of affairs.

        Most of his wife’s followers don’t like the book because I didn’t write a religious book designed to “save souls” rather than what Clarence asked me, to help other alcoholics to recover from alcoholism. Many of today’s members don’t like the book because they think it’s too religious.

        All I know is that I remained true to the history and to Clarence’s wishes. Whether or not people like or don’t like the book (or me) is not important. I’ve been disappointed by too many people who say they live a design for living based upon love, tolerance and honesty. I’ve washed my hands of those people and most of what I thought of what AA was supposed to be about.

        I fulfilled my promise, I’m living my life, I’m sober and I could care less if people like me or the book or how I live. If the book sells ten more copies or ten thousand more is not up to me. I did my job. I’m responsible for the effort, not the result.

        To say I’m disappointed and disillusioned would be an understatement. Yet, humans are flawed and I can’t live my life trying to please everyone or, anyone. I’m OK with the book and continue learning and growing

  3. I have read a bit of this book and the author mentions that in the early 90’s some “underground” AA meetings where talk is only of recovery from alcoholism and the “solution” were being held somewhat secretly and one can only be sponsored in order to attend – was the author referring to “AA Back to Basics” meeting?

    • I wasn’t speaking about the “Back to Basics” meetings. I worked with Wally during his research of the original beginner’s meetings by giving him total access to Clarence’s papers and early documentation.

      The meetings I was referring to were small pockets of AA members who could be referred to a “purists” and “AA Fundamentalists.” I was invited to attend a few of these meetings and even participated in one here in NY near where I live. This was an invitation only closed planning meeting of a Big Book Study which eventually went public because we really were violating the spirit of AA’s Third Tradition.

      • Thanks for the quick reply Mitchell. I too have met Wally P. and the Back to Basics Movement in my opinion has “gotten out of hand” – lots of rigidity, dogma etc.

      • I’ve seen most movements become filled with rigidity, dogma and roam far from their original intent.

        As much as I don’t buy into heaven or hell, I’ll quote – “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

        This is why I study history rather than rely on today’s often flawed interpretations.

  4. Looks like an interesting book. I’m always interested in expanding my knowledge of early AA and stopped relying on AA or AA members for accurate, honest information years ago. Lol

    • I make every effort to look at all sources but hold more weight to source documents from the period being studied. Human beings are all flawed in some way, especially our memories many years after an event.

      I’ve found lumping “all” of anything into a one size fits all box to leave out a large segment of those who would illuminate previously unknown or questionable information. I also attempted to just present historical documented information and leave it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions.

      • Just as an addendum – I could say I should give up on the anti-AA people as not being reliable or truthful but that would leave out possibility for my personal growth & education. I take into account all points of view when weighing my decision making.

        I remember when I was working as a program director for an outpatient substance use program and contacted Jack Trimpey. I wanted to offer the patients options beyond traditional 12 Step such as Rational Recovery and SMART. I wanted to purchase some literature and get handouts for the patients to read and make their own decisions.

        Jack wrote back, berating me for even offering 12 Step philosophy. While I wanted to offer those seeking recovery I was serving a choice, I was told there is only one way and the 12 Step choice shouldn’t even be offered.

        Rather than continue a useless non-dialogue, I printed information I found on the Rational Recovery, SMART, SOS, Women for Recovery and other web sites and made the information available to the patients.

        Informed choice depends upon that word “informed.” Looking at only one point of view or throwing out other points of view defeat being fully informed. That’s just my opinion & practice.

  5. I’m curious how it came to be printed in Germany rather than the US, or Britain, since I presume, well obviously, it is printed in English, not German. There must have been some considerations of publishing it from the US? So why did that not happen?

    • Several people in the US offered to help but all offers fell thru. A christian author did editing of the original manuscript because he was promised funding. That funding fell through. I also didn’t want the book to have a religious bias or agenda. Clarence instructed me not to write either an academic or religious book. He wanted it to be about AA history and written simply so that any AA member regardless of their educational level could read & understand it.

      We also offered the largest publisher of recovery literature (other than AA) the right of publication. They wanted me to give up the copyright & all other rights as to content as well as sign a contract. They sent me a contract to look over and sign.

      Before I signed any contract, this company put the book into their spring catalog. They had already changed the title of the book and who knows what else the changed in the text. I refused to sign the contract.

      The German group offered to print the book with a couple of conditions: that the book be distributed free of charge depending upon people making contributions towards postage etc. I was responsible for shipping the books to the US & for the distribution.

      I will be forever grateful to my German friends for getting the book printed

    • AAWS Inc & the GSO in Germany thru the courts forced the German member from ever owning, selling, lending AA literature. They also basically bankrupted him. They claimed copyright infringement even tho the copyrights on the Big Book 1st & 2nd editions were lost due to failure to renew. Unfortunately, How It Worked couldn’t be printed by them any more.

      • It’s my understanding the first and second editions were never copyrighted in the first place. Am I right or wrong? Please advise.

        Thanx Marty N.

      • Interesting question. That’s one of the theories out there. One of the theories comes from AA GSO saying that the manuscript multilith copies were stamped “loaner copy” before being sent out. (Multilith is a printing process like mimeograph)

        GSO has shown a few copies with such a stamp on it. There are also several copies owned by private collectors and local AA archival repositories which do not have this stamp. Short of a forensic dating of the ink on the copies with the stamps, neither of these theories will ever be conclusively proven.

        According to copyright law at the time of the original manuscript, if a document was distributed to the public without a copyright notice or a stamp such as pre-publication loaner copy, there was no copyright. Today’s copyright law is different in that any work automatically becomes Copyright regardless of notification.

        Neither of the theories have been proven forensically by an independent laboratory. I guess it is up to the individual to believe which theory they want to believe in.

  6. Hit the “buy now” button on Amazon Prime the second I saw this. A very fascinating subject that will detail, hopefully, why this “pioneer” was treated the way he was.
    Thanks for putting this up.

  7. Mitch: So glad to know you are doing okay after your surgery. I saw this and immediately found the first edition on the shelf where Ernie kept the books by his friends. He gave away most of his library, but not the precious books by his friends and fellow historians.

    Linda Kurtz

    • Thank you Linda. Ernie was not only a friend, mentor, inspiration, member of the history fellowship within the fellowship – he was the main reason the book came out.

      Meeting you at the dinner and memorial service was very special to me. Your books on recovery groups, self help & support are still a part of important books I have and extensively used when I worked in the field.

      Thank you for everything – Mitchell

  8. Would like to meet Mitchell K. Will he be coming to Toronto? Will the book be on sale in Toronto? I truly believe that Cleveland, not Akron, was the birth of AA.

    • I’ve thought about going to the Toronto Conference. I’ve been to Toronto several times including speaking at an OA retreat in Mississauga more than 30 years ago. I recently underwent quadruple bypass open heart surgery (April 30th) which has limited my travel, not to mention the financial end of making the trip. I do eventually want to return there.

      As to the book being available, it is available on Amazon & Barnes and Nobel on- line. When we contracted with Amazon we added the availability for international purchasers on the Amazon international sites in Canadian dollars, Pound Sterling and Euros.

      Thanks for asking – Mitchell

  9. Does anyone know if this book will be digitally available asap through outlets such as Kobo/iBooks etc?

    Do books automatically go digital?

    • Hi, There are no current plans to make the book available in a digital format (e-book). We have however been talking about looking into having the book translated into other languages such as Spanish and/or French in order to make it more accessible to an international readership. Unfortunately, translations are very expensive and cost prohibitive at this time.

      Somewhere down the road these other formats may be available but not at present.

      Thanks – Mitchell