The Common Sense of Drinking and Alcoholics Anonymous
An alcoholic should always realize that he himself does the actual work which produces the actual cure…
The Common Sense of Drinking
By Charlie M.
I find it unlikely that Bill Wilson or other AA members of that time were unaware of the Richard R. Peabody book The Common Sense of Drinking, prior to the writing and publication of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet, despite the multiple concepts and phrases common to both books, I am not aware of any acknowledgement of a contribution of the Peabody book to the creation of the Big Book.
The following are similar concepts and phrases from the two publications. “Once a Drunkard always a Drunkard, or a teetotaler! A fairly exhaustive inquiry has elicited no exception to this rule.” (CSD, p. 71) “Once an Alcoholic Always an Alcoholic. Commencing to drink after a period of sobriety we are in a short time as bad as ever”, (BB, p. 33) These are essentially identical phrases and concepts in both books.
Further similarities in the same vein: “No man who has ever passed from normal or hard drinking to chronic alcoholism… can ever expect to be shown how to drink in a controlled manner, or to learn by himself, even after long periods of abstention.” (CSD, p. 69) Compare with, “We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control.” (BB, p. 30) As seen, the concept that no chronic alcoholic can ever again control his drinking comes from both sources.
It is to be noted that “The Common Sense of Drinking”, published in 1930, was published several years before Bill Wilson got sober and almost a decade before the “Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous” was published in 1939. Obviously the “Common Sense of Drinking” was not influenced by “Alcoholics Anonymous” but the opposite is a definite possibility.
Another important concept common to both books is that alcoholism is progressive with time. “We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness.” (BB, p. 30) Compare with, “(the alcoholic) is convinced that his habit is progressive. ….” (CSD, p. 42) (All the above bold emphasis is mine.)
To belabor the point, there are two nearly identical stories from the two books: “Some years ago, there lived a man who decided to give up drinking until he could make a million dollars, at which time he intended to drink in moderation. It took him five years of sobriety to make his million; then he began his “moderate” drinking. In two or three years he lost all of his money, and in another three he died of alcoholism.” (CSD, p. 107) And, “A man of thirty was doing a great deal of spree drinking…. He made up his mind that until he was successful in business and had retired, he would not touch another drop…. Though a robust man at retirement, he went to pieces quickly and was dead in four years.” (BB, pp. 32-33) The two stories have the same fatal moral: that long periods of abstinence by a chronic alcoholic doesn’t cure him of his alcoholism.
And who can forget the phrase “Half measures availed us nothing”? (BB, p. 59). Compare with “Halfway measures are of no avail.” (CSD, p. 85)
Ernest Kurtz briefly discusses the related books in his “Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous”.
Alcoholics Anonymous was not the only therapy for alcoholics that flourished in its time. Other approaches to treating alcoholism, although they derived from sources very different from the influences that impinged upon AA, used similar methods and even incorporated some of the same ideas that a forgetfulness of history leads later thinkers to associate exclusively with Alcoholics Anonymous. In particular, the approach of Richard R. Peabody, as developed by Francis Chambers and popularized especially by the talented writer Jim Bishop, not only preceded in time Wilson’s own sobriety but was well into the 1950s accepted and endorsed by many doctors and clergy much more enthusiastically than was Alcoholics Anonymous. (NG, p. 158) (Bold emphasis is mine.)
What clearly differentiates the two programs is the Secular orientation of The Common Sense of Drinking as opposed to the God-heavy orientation of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is shown by the following examples: “An alcoholic should always realize that he himself does the actual work which produces the actual cure, though he may well need to be shown how to do it, and often encouraged to carry it on. There is no wand to wave over his head wafting away by magic his undesirable traits.” (CSD, p. 86) (Bold emphasis is mine.) Compare with the process of Steps 6 & 7 of Alcoholics Anonymous, (BB, p. 59) where God supposedly removes our character defects and shortcomings, as the result of a humble request.
I read the “The Common Sense of Drinking” when I was 35 years sober. I agreed with Peabody’s model of an alcoholic, which I felt was consistent with the alcoholic model(s) in the Big Book. However, the Peabody therapy (program) never included a God. Being a life-long atheist that caught my attention. But I don’t think the Peabody model, of one on one therapy, would have gotten me sober. I firmly believe the collective knowledge and the goodwill of the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous provided me with both the answers and haven that were necessary for me to get sober and live sober. The Peabody program is without meetings and without meetings is without a Fellowship.
I think Bill Wilson introduced the suggested 12 steps and the idea of a “higher power of your understanding” and many of Richard Peabody’s concepts to a God oriented text that became the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. What also came to be a part of the AA program, together with the Big Book, is the Fellowship that is manifest in AA meetings and is described in the secular AA Preamble.
The AA preamble was introduced in the June 1947 issue of the AA Grapevine. Of course, there must have been an active Fellowship long before it was identified and described in the preamble.
Because people who believe in a God or a Higher Power and people who don’t believe in those concepts are both able to achieve long-term sobriety in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, it would seem what provides the commonality required for sobriety for theists and non-theists is some version of the suggested 12 steps and/or the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Not God!
In my case, belief in a transcendent Deity, or a Higher Power (conceived from my imagination) has been unnecessary and irrelevant for my sobriety. However, meetings have always been critically necessary. Meetings exposed me to the collective knowledge and goodwill of the Fellowship. Because of my experience with my sponsor(s) and the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous I’m certain that “Human Power Relieved Me of My Alcoholism.”
I will always be grateful to Bill W. for his genius in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous with the caveat that like all of us he was imperfect and that the book Alcoholics Anonymous is also imperfect. Despite being recognized as a man with lifelong fidelity issues, I believe, Bill W. obviously deserves to be remembered and celebrated by sober members of AA for his attributes and accomplishments that saved our lives. It is dishonest and unnecessary to attempt to sanitize Bill Wilson’s life. I am especially grateful to Bill W. for the inclusive nature of Alcoholics Anonymous and for his open-mindedness in guiding the Fellowship during his lifetime.
You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are NOT entitled to your own facts.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
I recently discovered an issue of “Markings”, Your Archives Interchange, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall 2011 (Titled, “Jim B., One of AA’s Early Members”).
On page 2 it references Jim B.’s memoir. “Jim recalls in his memoir that Bill drew on the inspiration from four books as he began to write the Big Book. Bill consulted William James’s Varieties of Religious experience, Emmet Fox’s Sermon on the Mount, Dick Peabody’s Common Sense of Drinking, and Lewis Browne’s This Believing World.”
It would seem this answers the question about Bill Wilson’s familiarity with Richard Peabody’s book prior to the writing of the Big Book.
Two other paragraphs from the same article spoke to me of Jim B.’s feelings concerning the importance of the AA Fellowship:
“You see the real idea was that all you had to have was a spiritual experience. Get down on your knees, understand your problem and no more booze. We had no more idea in the world, I give you my word on this, in ’38, that the reason we were staying sober was that we were holding on to each other.”
“I can’t express to you how much you hear these old folks talk about the good old barefoot AA It’s the most ridiculous thing. In the old days we would go with pills in one pocket, a bottle in the other, take them to hospitals, wash their diapers, baby sit them. And what good did it do? Not a damn bit of good. We did nothing to help the man stand on his own two feet. We know now that the drunk is the only one who can do it. All we can do is give him balance as he goes along. Give him this Fellowship.”
Charlie M. was born December 1, 1930, in Oakland, California as the fourth child of a depression era unemployed father. Neither his father nor his mother drank alcohol. He was a fortunate child (and adult), as his father always gave him unconditional love and his mother was always there for him. His parents had a difficult financial existence until WW 2 came along and jobs became abundant.
The family moved from Oakland, CA to Oceanside, CA in 1946. That was where and when he launched his drinking career. He drank mostly beer and spent most weekends doing just that at beach parties. He graduated from Oceanside-Carlsbad Union High School in 1948, a budding alcoholic beach bum.
In 1948 Charlie enrolled in San Diego State College but lasted only two semesters because of his drinking and partying. Out of college he was vulnerable to the draft, so enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard hoping to avoid going to Korea. After three years he was discharged in 1954 with the G.I. Bill and decided to go back to SDSU. Owing to his previous college experience he abstained from alcohol during the semesters until he graduated in 1957 with an M.S. in Physics.
He married in 1952 while in the Coast Guard and divorced in 1971. When Charlie married for the second time, in 1972, he was a practicing, albeit functioning, alcoholic. The 1970s were not good to him and he was headed to a “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralizing” event horizon. He found himself in the emotional black hole of alcoholism where he resided until his sober date, August 23, 1982. His second wife divorced him in 1982 while he was in his first year of sobriety. He married for the third time in 1990. This time to a sober alcoholic. Still married to Janie M. and still happy, joyous and free.
Charlie came out of the AA closet as an atheist in 2014. He attended the 2016 WAAFT Convention in Austin, Texas with Janie M. and started a Freethinkers Meeting with her in Ramona, CA in February 2017. He attends several meetings per week but his Ramona Freethinkers meeting is certainly his favorite.
I had indeed a hair’s-breadth escape; but, as luck would have it, Providence was on my side.
Erewhon, by Samuel Butler