Schaberg’s Book on the Big Book – A Few Thoughts
By John B
In his book, Writing the Big Book, Schaberg wastes no time dropping a bomb on any version of AA history originating from Bill Wilson or any of his closest associates who were actively involved in the earliest formative stages of what eventually became AA. Those closest to Wilson are characterized as having atrociously poor memories and at times even tend to exhibit self-serving memories.
In his description of Wilson as “A Consummate Story Teller” it seems to me he has to work really hard not to use the word “liar”. Concerning Bill’s stories, “Some of them, on closer examination, exhibit a casual and even blatant disregard for anything approaching historical accuracy.” (p. 3) Also, “there are times – really important times – when he went far beyond anything that might be characterized as ‘poetic license’ or simply ‘tidying up the story’. Bill’s recounting of the facts is sometimes so wide of the mark that it can only be explained as willful conscious and deliberate myth making… “Bill Wilson wasn’t just a great story teller, he was at times, a conscious and deliberate myth maker.” (p. 3)
Here’s more, “In such cases, Wilson believed that this kind of falsification was more than justified (or, at least, inconsequential) just so long as it served his higher purpose”. (p. 3) It is interesting that the man who devised a program that in its first step demands honesty, also believes falsification is acceptable. According to Schaberg, Wilson’s “…persistent tendencies toward creative reporting – uncluttered storytelling willful myth making, deliberate self-deprecation, and the omission of uncomfortable facts – coupled with his notoriously bad memory for dates means that we should not blithely take anything Bill Wilson said at face value.” (p. 4) According to my Oxford Dictionary this means I should not accept what Wilson says joyously, carelessly, or casually. Maybe very carefully? Maybe not at all?
Despite Schaberg’s consistent questioning of Wilson’s veracity he is able to conclude it “…in no way diminishes his towering stature in the history of 20th century spirituality or in any way compromises the truly remarkable things he accomplished during his lifetime.” (p. 4) Schaberg regularly praises Wilson for his effective use of parables and his ability to construct myths. That line of reasoning leads to what I consider to be a justifiable conclusion: Bill Wilson was the founder of a religion. What else besides parables and myths serves as the foundation for all revelatory religion?
I’m fully aware that Wilson clearly denied that AA was in any way a religious entity. In response to a magazine article that hinted AA was in fact a religious outfit, Wilson responded in the Grapevine in April 1963. “As a society we must never become so vain as to suppose we have been the authors of a new religion.”(Language of the Heart, p. 345) I suppose Wilson can be afforded some credit for humility here for the use of the pronoun “we”. Concerning his and Dr. Bob’s religious beliefs he said “Nothing could be so unfortunate for AA’s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal views into AA teaching, practice, or tradition.” (Language of the Heart, p. 346) That’s Bill Wilson in 1963, but don’t take it blithely. Let’s look at Schaberg in 2019.
Schaberg makes it difficult for me whether to believe the 1963 Bill Wilson or the 1938 Bill Wilson. Referring to the writing of the chapter “We Agnostics”, he says, “When writing this chapter Bill was trying to be as open-ended as possible in his talk about the essential ‘spiritual experience’ and the need for a ‘spiritual basis of life’, and he emphasized that liberal approach throughout by using phrases like ‘A Power Greater Than Ourselves’ and your own conception of God and even God as you understand Him”. (Schaberg, p. 280) The author claims that all this is misunderstood by the 21st century readers and he offers his interpretation of what Wilson actually meant.
According to Schaberg, Bill had two underlying presumptions: one, he believed in the complementary equations that spiritual = God and that God = spiritual.
Bill’s second fundamental presumption lies buried within his claim that readers can believe in any conception of God that they like. What is understood in that claim, but never explicitly stated, is that this new belief must be in any providential God you want to believe in – a God to whom you can pray, with whom you can make a conscious contact and whom you can absolutely rely for the help needed to avoid the first drink.
(Schaberg, p 281)
In the space of four paragraphs Schaberg tells us Wilson was trying to be as open-ended as possible about spirituality and then veers off into an interpretation that demands divine intervention by a personal God as the only path to sobriety. Which is it?
Mr. Schaberg has presented us with an impressive collection of factual material. I have to admit to some fast-forward page turning. I just couldn’t generate any interest in some of the line by line analysis of what went into a book that was of little use in my quest for sobriety over three decades ago, and except for a few singular bits of wisdom, is now obsolete. Schaberg presents Wilson as the “consummate story teller” and tells us, “A good story needs to be simple, straightforward, and dramatic.” (p. 3) Well, Bill’s writing is indeed dramatic. Simple and straightforward? Not always.
John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.