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.

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


17 Responses

  1. Heath L. says:

    There is a new book coming out on the Writing of the Big Book and The Creation of AA. Release date is October 22. The authors name is William H. Shaberg. The review says he spent the past 11 years doing research for the book and was allowed access to the archives. Tough thing to do these days. There is a waiting list. I do know that Bill had a copy of the Common Sense of Drinking in his library. He did read it. Thank you for the article.

    Writing the Big Book

  2. “A.A. was not invented! Its basics were brought to us through the experience and wisdom of many great friends. We simply borrowed and adapted their ideas.”
    – LETTERS, 1966
    “As Bill Sees It” page 67

    I was looking for an actual citing of the books oft’ used and read by early AA’s. It’s something I feel like I’ve seen but I already spent more time looking than I though it would take to find something. Jim B, in one of his talks referred to Bill as one New Yorker who was “book smart.” I can’t believe no other New York members were avid readers. Dr. Bob certainly was. He had a more varied library than most “Akonites” (or “Akroninians” or whatever the locals called themselves) would be interested in. But there were a number of books oft’ referred to in both the Akron and NY meetings. William James, the Bible, Richard Peabody’s works, these were among the often referenced reading materials at, before or after AA meetings.

    Page 136 of William White’s Slaying the Dragon refers to the 1931 The Common Sense of Drinking, “The book served for several years as a kind of professional ‘Bible’ for alcoholics and their therapists.” This would suggest, at very least, that Charles Towns and William Silkworth were students of the book.

    In The Washington Post© on May 3, 2004, Richard K. author, researcher, and historian of AA and alcoholism treatment wrote, “A copy of Peabody’s book owned by Bill Wilson still resides at Stepping Stones.” This articles speaks of Bill W’s own handwriting in the book, which references a Dick B citation, someone whom other AA historians have accused of fudging the facts to promote his own AA narrative of AA’s history. So that would be worth corroborating. Nevertheless, I expect it would be easy enough to confirm if The Common Sense of Drinking is/was in Steppingstones. The question remains, did Bill come across it before or after he wrote The Big Book.

    In my own opinion, with Bill’s interest in addiction and recovery, it’s hard to imagine how he could have avoided reading this book. As Bob k before, and Charlie M here, have presented, directly or indirectly, as Bill himself has written, AA wasn’t invented and the “experience and wisdom of many great friends,” likely includes the work of Peabody. “We simply borrowed and adapted their ideas.”

    The copyright on 1931 USA books has long-since expired and copies can be found, shared and reproduces. For anyone curious about this book, here’s one source of the real-deal, a PDF: 1930 Peabody Common Sense of Drinking.

  3. Pat N says:

    Very interesting. I’m into sobriety 38 years, am pretty widely read in alcoholism, but I’d never heard of this book. Wider knowledge of it might help stem “Billolatry” within AA, which puts too great a burden on his memory to be a guru and a saint. He has my deep gratitude, and credit for helping AA reach where I was when I was ready, but that’s all. He was neither a gifted writer nor a deep thinker. His dedication to the Traditions and to our interdependence were his greatest contributions, IMO.

  4. bob k says:

    Bill Wilson was pretty generous is giving credit to others who influenced the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, unless the contributors’ names were Clarence, Frank Buchman, or Richard Peabody. The first two, he just didn’t like. In Peabody’s case, there are two reasons he went unmentioned.
    1) He was allegedly drinking at the time of his death in 1936 at age 44. It’s understandable that the connection of the new recovery program to a relapse was kept on the down low.
    2) Peabody was a secularist, and AA was pitching salvation through the Creator.

    Bill had read and studied Peabody’s book. There can be no doubt about that. There are phrases and sentences cribbed from it with the minimum of alteration. I believe Bill’s copy of “Common Sense” is in the New York archives with a comment on the inside cover that Peabody’s relapse offered proof of the notion, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”

    There can be little doubt that Peabody’s therapy brought sobriety to numerous rich folks, and his predecessors to hundreds more. I agree that the boat was completely missed on the fellowship that lies at the very core of AA’s success, whether our more religious members acknowledge that, or not.

    • Bullwinkle says:

      Based on the history I’ve read and shared with others that knew some of the AA founders including Clarence Snyder, he wasn’t well liked and was marginalized by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. I have a tape recording of Clarence Snyder where he spoke in Florida and he told the real AA history and not the water down version. Based on the history I’ve read and shared with others that knew some of the AA founders including Clarence Snyder, he wasn’t well liked and was marginalized by Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. His story is the Home Brewmeister, of which when cross referencing AA history, it’s obvious he was not given credit for stating the first AA meeting called Alcoholics Anonymous

      In Clarence Snyder’s own words. In May 1939 just after Alcoholics Anonymous was published Clarence Snyder the 44th member founded the first AA meeting for alcoholics and their families ONLY. Before this time frame it was the Oxford Group. He adopted / named of this very first meeting after the Alcoholics Anonymous text. This meeting was held at Albert (Abby) and Grace Goldricks home 2345 Stillman Road Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent article, Charlie — thanks, and thank you Roger for publishing it. I especially appreciate your concept that you need meeting and Fellowship to maintain your recovery. I do too !~!~! Identifying with our common stories before, during and after our drinking is the glue that holds the Fellowship together.

  6. Mike B says:

    Thanks so much for this fascinating article Charlie, articles like this are just what keeps me coming back to this wonderful site, having stopped going to meetings a year ago I treat it as my weekly meeting and feel educated in a way meetings kept hidden through their very limited scope and lack of interest in history.

    I’d not heard of this book, in so many ways I feel woefully ignorant of the origins of the fellowship I owe so very much to in terms of my recovery, yet delving into the archive here is invariably both fascinating and rewarding.

  7. Great stuff, Charlie—through the event horizon right into the black hole itself! I think of you occasionally and am glad the two of you are well. Dan H, Oceanside

    • Charlie M. says:

      Hi Dan,

      Nice surprise to hear from you.

      Thanks for your kind words. And, no one else has picked up on my little physics metaphor.

      Hope your doing well. AA is like Grand Central Station in the 1940s. If you hang out there eventually you’ll see everyone (sober) you know.


  8. life-j says:

    Peabody died (of alcoholism) in 1936, so it would have been fairly safe for Bill to use it for the BB, even though he had a wife.

    • That Peabody died drinking is disputed.

      “Samuel Crocker, who had once shared an office with Peabody, told Faye R. that Peabody was intoxicated at the time of his death. Some early members of AA believed that he died drunk.” There is no evidence that Crocker was present at Peabody’s death and his claims were never corroborated by anyone attending to Peabody when he died. So, if is true, there aren’t two independent sources. The Crocker story has been repeated by the Godly members of AA through the years.

      I’m agnostic on the question of Peabody’s state at death. An attending physicians statement would be helpful but no one’s produced one, to my knowledge. It would be a service to the history of addiction and recovery research if someone could find such a thing.

      • bob k says:

        It’s funny how similar rumors about Bill W. are greeted with outrage. In Bill’s case, we have nurses’ record of him demanding drinks.

        Samuel Crocker may have been a rival, or an enemy. Peabody’s wife claimed the rumor was false.

  9. Jim says:

    Wilson never had an original thought in his head. He plagiarized several passages from A Common Sense of Drinking.

  10. Larry G. says:

    None of this surprises me. There’s just no way that Bill W alone can be credited with all the insights, principals, and maxims that AA says. If Bill had been more honest and the literature of AA was annotated, each page of the 12/12 and BB would be dense with citation and references. Instead what we have in AA is by and large a culture that has elevated the existing writings to “god inspired revelation” and the deification of Bill W. And to a lesser degree Dr. Bob. At best AA does indeed operate like a benign religion that has helped many find lasting sobriety. But at times AA culture can tip into being cult like. This can be seen in the norms of group dynamics. It can also be seen inn the sponsor sponsee relationship which operates as the principal tool of governing/controlling others lives beyond basic teaching of the steps. Some sponsors just take it way too far. And there is no formal mechanism to minimize this pattern. Many of the rank and file are deeply needing of a basic religious dogmatism of Bill W’s writing. To suggest otherwise is threatening to them. Its why I keep my big mouth shut at meetings. I just take what I need and the leave rest. Thank goodness for sites like AA Agnostica!!!

  11. Joel D says:

    A friend gave me a copy of “The Common Sense of Drinking” about six months ago. I dug in and in a few pages the light bulb lit and I could easily see Bill W. with an open copy of this book next to his working copy of the Big Book. I started placing post-it notes at each similarity and quickly ran out of these notes.
    I don’t know or care if the inspiration behind the Big Book was financial or altruistic. I do know that Bill W. and to some extent the Big Book, has opened the door for alcoholics of every ilk to get and stay sober. I was glad to see you acknowledge that as well. An issue I have with some early to secular AA is the bashing of Bill W. and the Big Book. If not for AA where would we be?

    • Marty N. says:

      Thanks for lending me your copy of The Common Sense Of Drinking. Maybe Bill did plagiarize and paraphrase much of what he wrote but, how else would I have ever gotten the info or have been exposed to recovery? I found it quite revealing. I passed it on to Bob P. It’s making the rounds in NE Conn. Secular AA. I’d like a copy to take with me to Hamilton SOAAR Sept. 7th.

      Thanks again. Knowledge is power!

      • Bullwinkle says:

        Rev. Dr. Sam Moor Shoemaker gave Bill Wilson the tenets for the 12 Steps, which are Judeo-Christian principles. Bill Wilson made it clear that Shoemaker passed on the spiritual keys by which some alcoholics were liberated. The first three Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the starting point for sobriety in the AA program, were inspired in part by Shoemaker. Bill further explained that early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups via Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.

        Bill Wilson did plagiarize many of Shoemaker’s ideas, some verbatim. Shoemaker was aware of this and it didn’t seem to matter.
        Writers of different genre, e.g. music, literature, consciously or unconsciously plagiarize, For many years, I was involved in the entertainment business, where not uncommonly plagiarism occurs. The classics have always been and will be copied, e.g. music, literature. Cryptomnesia occurs when a forgotten memory returns without its being recognized as such, by the subject who believes it is something new and original.

        I view the humanities, including the art of science disciplines learned from others, where the origin has been expanded to benefit human kind. A flawed Bill Wilson, artfully in collaboration with others, developed a modality that has helped many. Art is a conversation, not a competition.

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