WRITING the BIG BOOK: The Creation of AA
Bill Wilson, the man who contributed more “factual” information than anyone else to the traditional story of AA, was by far the worst offender when it came to accuracy regarding that early history… Wilson’s divergence from the truth was so common and so pervasive that it can be compared to a dark cloud looming over any attempt to write an accurate history of AA’s early years, obscuring and even falsifying what happened at several key parts of the story.
Page 2 of Writing the Big Book.
By bob k
Writing the Big Book – The Creation of AA gives us an intensely detailed look at the eighteen month period during which AA’s principal text was produced. William Schaberg’s offering is a big book, almost 800 pages, about the Big Book, whose sales since 1939 now exceed 37 million copies. Alcoholics Anonymous has affected the lives of millions of people, and in Mr. Schaberg’s book we find the most detailed study ever of how it was written, and of how it was brought to publication.
Schaberg’s book is scholarly – there are abundant endnotes and appendices. In spite of that, it’s pretty easy reading. Mr. Schaberg brings a wonderful gift for clarity of expression, and literary skills often absent in academic writing.
Very early in the narrative, we are given a crystal clear message that the traditional AA story is flawed. Bill Wilson is “a deliberate mythmaker.” (p. 20) “We should not blithely take anything Bill Wilson said at face value.” (p. 4) The author’s early promise that we are going to be taken to the truth behind the spinning is realized, over and over again, throughout the book. At times, the discrepancies are relatively small. In other instances, they are of greater magnitude and significance.
Schaberg is no Bill-hater, but as Pulitzer Prize winning author Nan Robertson wrote: “(Wilson) had a lifelong penchant for embroidering the facts while accurately summarizing the gist of an event.” (Getting Better – Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 77-78) Biographer Matthew Raphael writes: “Like his father before him, Bill was a spellbinding storyteller . . . his factual liberties may be regarded as poetic license.” (Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, p. 12) Schaberg demonstrates the truth of those assessments with example after example. Neither attacker nor apologist, Schaberg simply follows the evidence trail, and takes us to where the facts lead.
Even those already knowledgeable on the subject of AA history are treated to a wealth of detail, previously unknown. Among the characters new to me in the AA formation drama are: Ora Jackson, Jack Darrow, Ned Pointer, Gussie Kellogg, Dr. Wynn, Charles Parcells, Judge Walter Casey, Floyd Parsons, and several others. Through the author’s scrupulous examination of contemporary documentation, we are escorted to the place behind the Wizard’s curtain where the “real” story is to be found.
The depth in this book will exceed what some are seeking, but for the “real” history fan, it’s all quite fascinating.
Ebby’s Visit and the Oxford Group
As an example of Bill Wilson’s predilection for “crafted” stories, Schaberg recounts the Big Book version of Ebby’s iconic visit as he has presented it in “Bill’s Story.” Many Big Book enthusiasts see the book’s content as inarguable in every detail – absolute factuality. They will not enjoy learning that position is untenable. “Ebby told his version of that evening in Brooklyn on several different occasions.” (p. 7) We are shown Ebby’s version, and the conclusion:
It’s not the same story at all. Not even close . . . Why would Bill have strayed so far from the facts? The short answer is that Wilson was taking one of his experiences and recasting it into a story with a message, a message that in no way would be complicated or confused by the messy details of what actually happened. (pp. 7-8)
Ebby Thacher had been relieved of his drinking problem through religious conversion – “I’ve got religion” (Big Book, p. 9) – by becoming associated with a band of evangelical Christians called the Oxford Group. In Bill’s version, the Oxford Group goes unnamed. In fact, the Oxford Group, its founder Frank Buchman, and its United States leader Sam Shoemaker, are never mentioned in the entire book. It’s unthinkable that the group would not have been a focal point of the late November, 1934 conversation with Ebby. The Oxford Group “was, in fact, the soil in which Alcoholics Anonymous originally germinated.” (p. 12) Bill acknowledged that later in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age.
By 1938, when Bill was crafting the tale, he had several reasons for dissociating Alcoholics Anonymous from the Christian group. At the top of that list would have been the adverse publicity that fell upon the Oxfords, after leader Frank Buchman made some injudiciously favorable remarks about Herr Hitler.
“Bill’s Story” has been “adjusted” in other ways. An earlier draft details a spiritual experience in Winchester Cathedral as a fear-filled 22 year-old lieutenant faced an uncertain fate entering WW I. A similar sensation of contact with the infinite was repeated as Bill contemplated the religious solution, shortly after Ebby departed. That spiritual experience got moved to Towns Hospital.
Doing so cleared up a few problems. Spiritual experiences in AA bring sobriety, but Bill continued to drink for the two weeks that followed the “cool wind” that swept over him after Ebby’s visit. With the spiritual experience moved to Towns Hospital, it arrives only after Ebby has run him through several of what became AA’s Twelve Steps. This matches the narrative of Step 12, “Having had a spiritual awakening (“experience” originally) as the result of these steps . . .” A final bonus of the relocation of the grand event to Towns Hospital is that Bill wasn’t drunk at the time of his union with God.
The Akron Vote
… almost all the particulars in his version of that (October, 1937) meeting are contradicted by contemporary documents…. But contrary to Bill Wilson’s frequent retelling of the story, he did not go to Ohio alone. He and Lois went, and they were accompanied by two other couples, the Parkers and the Ruddells, along with their friend, Fitz Mayo… the Fellowship…. was about to convene its first summit meeting. It was time to chart a new direction for the fledgling movement. (p. 23)
Another example of the inaccuracy of “official” AA history, as relayed to us by the founder, is seen in the account of the October, 1937 meeting in Akron. Wilson went to Ohio to make a pitch for specialized hospitals, paid missionaries, and the idea of writing a book. Bill says these grand designs just came to him AFTER he and Bob had “counted noses,” and concluded that forty recoveries had been effected. Of course, there is contradictory evidence showing that Bill and Hank had already been fundraising for about three weeks BEFORE seeking approval of the Ohio contingent to do just that.
It remains a matter of speculation as to whether these New York “ringers” – Fitz Mayo, Sterling Parker, and Bill Ruddell – cast ballots in the very narrow (10-8) approval of the grand schemes. We simply do not know. Schaberg draws us to some additional mystery. “All of the diaries that Lois left are intact except for the one from 1937, which has seventy pages removed.” (p. 25) The excised pages include the days of the Akron trip.
To this day, it is not known why the pages were torn out of the diary, but “…the most likely reason is that the details recorded there would have substantially contradicted the story that was later told by her husband with such regularity. Above all else, Lois Wilson was a loyal wife.” (p. 25) Perhaps she wrote that votes from Mayo, Ruddell, Parker, and her husband carried the day.
According to AA’s official account, the idea of self-publishing the Big Book occurred to Bill and Hank AFTER the publisher, Harper & Brothers, offer of an advance. The idea of Alcoholics Anonymous owning and controlling its own literature got support from a surprising source, Eugene Exman, the book company’s religious editor.
Schaberg shows us the letters from long before the Harper offer demonstrating that Hank and Bill had planned all along to self-publish the book. The two of them unsuccessfully solicited donations from wealthy individuals and foundations to finance the writing period. Next they sought loans, and again were turned down after some promising beginnings. Henry Ford was targeted as a promising candidate to support the work of Alcoholics Anonymous. ” …Ford’s conviction that alcohol was one of the greatest evils afflicting Western civilization was a foundational belief throughout his life.” (p. 229)
Only Charles Towns was willing to put up funding. He provided Bill with a monthly income, and funds to pay Ruth Hock to serve as stenographer and typist, but there was nothing to provide an income for Hank. That’s when the stock certificate plan started, and was eventually successful. Shares were sold in the as-yet unwritten book. Bill and Hank each retained one-third ownership.
The certificates were not for “Works Publishing,” as Bill consistently reported, but for the “One Hundred Men Corporation,” a name not found in most of the histories and biographies. A lengthy Chapter Fifteen tells us all about that.
The Harper and Brothers offer was refused, because a ten-percent royalty arrangement would not have generated enough revenue to fund AA’s needs, AND provide ongoing incomes for the book’s principal creators.
Hank Parkhurst is the most forgotten man in AA history. Had he stayed sober, he would surely be hailed today as one of the movement’s co-founders. Instead, his name and place in the official story have been all but eliminated . . . Hank’s slip was catastrophic and the price he paid–both personally and historically–was severe. (p. 600)
Parkhurst got drunk around Labor Day, 1939, and never really got back on track. Most of what remains about Hank in the official accounts is negative. Hank gets scapegoated for the share-selling scheme, and for the ridiculously high retail price of the Big Book – about $65 in today’s money.
There a lot in this book about Hank. Readers will gain a new appreciation for the extent of Henry Parkhurst’s participation in the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. There’s a great deal behind the Wizard’s curtain, including Hank’s extensive role as an editor of text and stories.
In Schaberg’s words: “No Hank; no book.”
An Important Book
Space here only allows only a few samples of Mr. Schaberg’s investigations. As his research has been diligent, there are many, many more. Writing the Big Book is about much more than Bill Wilson’s fondness for producing parables rather than documentaries, but the founder’s mythmaking will garner a lot of the attention. Those married to the myths that everything Bill W. wrote was factual, and that every word in the Big Book is unquestionable, stand to be displeased. Those seeing value in knowing the true story will love this outstanding contribution to the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.
For more information about the book – and to read a chapter for free – visit this website: Writing the Big Book.
To listen to Joe C’s discussion with William Schaberg about Writing the Big Book, click here on Rebellion Dogs Publishing: Writing the Big Book – Talking with author William Schaberg. Joe has written a number of articles posted on AA Agnostica and is the author of Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life.
Bob K. is the co-founder of the Whitby Freethinkers Group just east of Toronto. He is the author of Key Players in AA History, published in 2015. Another one is in the works, The Secret Diaries of Bill W, a book which looks to be an intriguing biographical fiction.
I also want to thank you for the review. I am about 260 pages in, but its slow going because I am following up on all the notes and footnotes (complaint–the asterisks are so tiny I can’t see them) There is a bunch of people that I also had never heard of and I thought I knew all of them. Really happy that Hank P is getting credit. That’s LONG overdue.
I tremendously enjoyed the comment on the science of treating alcoholism (dysomania) back then & today. I tremendously enjoyed the author’s ‘OPINION & educated thought’! Gosh, it’s mine too. I guess I’m one of those guys that can also thoroughly enjoy a comprehensive study of a ‘sacred topic’ and still adoringly love that ‘sacred text’. I find my personal sobriety is only enhanced to the greater for it. Thank you.
I was satisfied with Nan Robertson’s book, Getting Better – Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, especially because she had Lois’ endorsement for added authentication, not to mention her own credentials, of a fair assessment of Bill’s genius as well as his short-comings, and don’t really see a need for more scab picking.
If 10 people see an event, there will be 10 different versions of what happened. Add another 50 years and it would hardly look like the original event. Take the Bible, for instance. There’s even a question of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays. Dr David Stewart, who wrote Thirst For Freedom, Hazelden, and other recovery books (I possess his last unfinished manuscript) frequently made up situations to explain his point. Last time I saw “Fat Addict” in Sayulita, Mexico, nearly 30 years ago, from the NA “Big Book” he was still fat and dealing with his own issues. What’s the point of tearing down these icons, who were, in fact, fellow recovering people, warts and all?
It all comes down to “TAKE WHAT YOU LIKE AND LEAVE THE REST”!
“If 10 people see an event, there will be 10 different versions of what happened.” If one of them recorded a video on his cellphone, he’d be the guy I’d want to talk with. There’s a similarity here. One guy went through the archives reading all the letters from the 1930s, Lois’s diary, etc. Others’ versions are “My sponsor told me X, and his sponsor’s sponsor heard X in 1947.” Not the same thing.
Robertson’s history is a good one. I’m sure many were upset that she wrote it, viewing it as “scab picking,” and unnecessary. There was a lot in “Getting Better” about sex, and Robertson did more “tearing down” than Mr. Schabert has in this remarkable offering. With the discipline of an historian, he “simply follows the evidence trail, and takes us to where the facts lead.”
Bill Wilson is a public figure, not just another drunk. His life and work continues to be of historical interest. “WRITING the BIG BOOK” brings us a little closer to the truth about important events, now 80 years old. Most reasoning people will view that as a good thing.
Sometimes we hear a criticism of the book Alcoholics Anonymous that it isn’t scientific. It’s worth comparing the fledgling AA movement at the time with the medical approach to alcoholism in the first half of the 20th century. In his book, Slaying the Dragon: A History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, Bill White recounts the goings on in the 1930s-1940s:
So, the best of science hadn’t come to a consensus on what to do about dipsomania (alcoholism) at the time of writing Alcoholics Anonymous. Medical help was only available to the affluent. It’s worth comparing AA’s efforts against the very best of medical treatment at the time, which was a mixed bag of efficacy. While the Big Book, at $3.50 ($65 in today’s money) may have been a barrier to the poorest, AA meetings were still free to all.
So, while the A + B = C of AA (“A” is alcoholism, “B” is “then a miracle happened” and “C” is contented sobriety) is open-season to scientific criticism, please consider how tenuous the scientific approach to addiction to alcohol was at the time. Today, there have been sweeping improvements but still, no consensus and no foolproof remedy. That doesn’t make AA better than a scientific approach but…
A) AA is accessible to anyone with zero waiting list and
B) While AA alone has solved some of our alcoholism problems, there is no conflict with any of us taking advantage of a medical approach and AA.
Still, I must be missing something – lay it on me; feedback welcome.
Beautifully done… Wondered what happened to you My friend x
It’s remarkable all that I’ve gotten done during my little Facebook holiday!
I think it’s amazing that you could read that book and writ the review all in one week!
Thanks Bob. I have been wondering ever since I began to read the book how soon it would be featured here, and who the author of the review would be. I have always enjoyed your perspective on things.
I will comment further after I finish the book (about 70% now), and am enjoying it immensely.
I was privileged to get a sneak peak before the public release, and as an AA history fan, I was captivated in the early chapters. The book is something remarkable — on a level with the iconic “Not-God,” brought to us 40 years ago by the late Ernie Kurtz.
Thank you for this review. I will be starting this book next week and I was a little hesitant to read your review because I feared a “spoiler.” My concerns were ill founded. You are an excellent reviewer of books, and you did an exceptional job describing what one can expect from reading this work.
I have the sense that Bill Wilson was very aware of his role as Bill W. the legendary founder of AA, and he probably more than anyone contributed to the mythology of AA.
It’s fortunate that AA history is as well preserved as it is and that someone of the caliber of Schaberg can ferret out the facts and bring them to us with such clarity.
Your comment touches on a book I like quite a bit — “Bill W. and Mr. Wilson,” by Matthew Raphael. I sympathize with Bill in that he dedicated himself to helping alcoholics, a noble cause. Surely many recovered, and saved great jobs, got jobs back, or moved on to other positions. Meanwhile, Bill struggled, supported by his wife, her family, and other handouts.
All of that got somewhat better eventually, through book residuals. Raphael’s book is hard on Bill, maybe more than the other bios, but sympathizes that Mr. Wilson could never just be himself — pursue his own interests. He continued to be the face of AA. He could not separate himself from the role as “Bill W.,” Grand Poobah of Alcoholics Anonymous.