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. All quotations cited merely by page number are from the book being reviewed.
People talk about the one hundred men that wrote the book. Actually, there weren’t a hundred, as Bill will bear me out, but he said one hundred to make it sound good as though it was really going to work.
Dorothy Snyder Interview, August 30, 1954
Bill Wilson wasn’t a liar. He was a salesman . . . the ultimate pragmatist.
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 Hoch 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.
To read an interview by Jesse Beach with William Schaberg, posted on The Fix, click here: Facts and Fables: William Schaberg Explores the Big Book’s True Origins.
Bob K. is the co-founder of the Whitby Freethinkers Group just east of Toronto, now 6 years old. He is the author of Key Players in AA History, published in 2015. Two more books are in the works – The Road To AA: 1620-1935 and The Secret Diaries of Bill W, a book which looks to be an intriguing biographical fiction. Bob recently celebrated 28 years of sobriety.