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.


23 Responses

  1. Dan L says:

    I have had my copy of Mr. Shaberg’s book and am dutifully making my way through it. It is a good thing that I find the subject fascinating since it can be dense.

    I have never been a fan of the Big Book but in rehab my counselor – who is a real pro – told me I need to read and become familiar with it mostly so that I was sure what was in it and what wasn’t. This was when I went to ask him for a second big book. I was given one when I came into treatment and I buckled down to read it with a will. After I finished reading Chapter Four “We Agnostics” the book developed the ability to fly out a third floor window and out into the rainy Vancouver Island night. I don’t know where it ended up.

    I find true stories so much more valuable than fairy tales and I do regard Bill with some circumspection. Since then I have basically bought every recovery book that did not suggest god was a must in sobriety. I will never understand the mindset of a christian or of a person who has read only the Big Book. In fact I often think of the transcendental irony of the Big Book being known as the “big book”. Stories aside, there is precious little that I find useful in the Big Book but at the same time with the help of my friends I was able to hammer a usable program out of what I initially thought was rubbish.

    I have always thought of the Big Book as being an amazing book and an important book but not a very good book at all. To me it is clear that Bill and Company weren’t all that sure of what they were trying to say exactly or where they were going. I believe that lack of focus actually contributed to the appeal of the book initially.

    Anyway, back to the text. Thanks for the essay and comments.

  2. Income and Royalties:

    The Big Book didn’t sell a million copies a year until after Bill was dead.
    The Big Book, 12&12, AACA, As Bill Sees It were the only books that paid royalties.
    In 1960, 37,000 total books were sold, $22,000 in royalties.
    In 1965, 48,000 total units were sold, $28,000 was paid. In cumulative royalties.
    It was 1974, three years after Bill’s death that $1,000,000 in total cumulative royalties were paid.

    So Bill never made even $1 Million.

    It was 1984 that the first one million (total) books were sold, 622,000 of those were Big Books. That was the first year $1 Million in royalties were paid. Of course, Bill W wasn’t alive at the time. Lois received royalties until her death in 1989.

    • John B. says:

      Mr. Joe: Damn, I hate to be wrong. In keeping with Step 10, I now admit my error. The number I used to erroneously refer to royalties was the accumulated number of books sold up to that time. Based on the numbers you cited, I think we are referring to the same chart. According to the Hindsfoot chart, the royalties paid to Wilson in 1970, his last full year of life was, $58,307, which put the accumulated total up to $632,887. Based on the economics of his day, it’s fair to say he was handsomely rewarded. The Hartigan book and other sources indicate that Lois died in October of 1988. The quote you use at the beginning of today’s reading in Beyond Belief certainly indicates that mister Wilson was capable of humility. John B.

    • John L says:

      Joe, it would be good to know the source of your figures. We should not forget inflation. In 1960 I was touring Europe, using the book, “Europe on $5 a day”. I succeeded in doing so. It’s tricky to estimate buying power — but I have seen estimates of 1939 buying power as high as $1 (1939) = $100 (2020). When I was young, a million dollars was considered a great fortune. Whatever the exact figures, Bill and Lois were living as rich people.

      • Yes, these are numbers from the day. All of this stuff is in GSO archives and anyone can apply to look through it. It belongs to the membership.

        Inflation matters, I saw a calculation of CPI to 2012 putting 1960 income at 172,000 and ’65 at 207,000. Still less than Manhattan Stock annalists or Eckhart Tolle range, but above the average working wage.

      • Bob K says:

        It takes about $18 to buy what would have cost $1 in 1939.

        • Bob K says:

          Of course, you can’t multiply the total royalties paid from 1939-1970 @ 18 to 1. The 1960s earning would be multiplied by a lower factor.

  3. Bob K says:

    I get accused sometimes of having written “Key Players in AA History” from an atheistic-agnostic perspective. I wouldn’t deny that. I’m the opposite of Dick B. Neither of us lied in our writings, but we were each inclined to point out evidence that supported our particular positions.

    Mr. Schaberg packed some dynamite into Chapter 1, but I found his book to be balanced. He seemed to follow the evidence to wherever it led. Neither Bill W. hater, nor Bill W. worshiper, we get quite a balanced view of a character I continue to find fascinating.

    I know a lot about AA history, yet I learned a good deal more from Mr. Schaberg’s book. I found it to be a remarkable work of scholarship.

    Bill Wilson was just about the perfectly imperfect to head an organization centered around what a very wise man described as a “spirituality of imperfection.”

  4. This review seems to be a review, not of the book, but of the first few pages of the first chapter of Schaberg’s book on the Big Book. The whole book comprises a weighty 782 pages. Further, this review of the first few pages seems to be cherry-picked in order to support the writer’s already held view of Bill Wilson as a liar who wrote a book about how AA is really religious under the guise of it being merely spiritual.

    In reality, the introductory chapter is meant to show why a closer study of the history of Wilson’s writing of the big book was needed and why Schaberg spent ten years researching it. In the end, Schaberg’s book is not about how Bill Wilson was a liar but how much more complicated his life and his work really was. One is left with the realization that Bill Wilson, humble on one hand and yet inspired to greatness on the other, created almost single handedly the book that “changed everything” about AA (p. 584).

    The Big Book has become one of the best-selling books of all time (p. 605) specifically over 37 million copies. It was the writing of this book (more than anything else) that made the rest of AA possible. Members of AA Agnostica should read this book, if for no other reason, than to realize how much Hank Parkhurst, atheist, contributed to its final form. In addition, it shows that Bill Wilson tried very hard not to aggrandize himself, which is one reason we think he had help writing the Big Book even though only Hank really participated. I’m not sure, but I do not think Bill made a fortune in his lifetime. I do not recall that being covered in Schaberg’s book.

    • Wes L. says:

      Thank you for your comments, my thoughts exactly. As I read the book, I stopped several times to simply experience the gratitude that I felt for my nearly 30 years of sobriety, and how much I appreciated the perseverance of Bill to make AA possible.

    • John L says:

      Bill always had and needed help in writing. I’ve read unedited letters of his at GSO in New York, and they’re barely literate. Bill connived to get himself the sole recipient of royalties from the Big Book and a couple of other AA books, and got millions from them, at a time when one million dollars was a fortune.

      • John B. says:

        Reply to a couple of replies: As the title of this posting says: ” a few thoughts”; this is not intended to be seen as a formal book review. A year by year accounting of royalties paid to Bill and then to Lois can be found on the website Hindsfoot Foundation. By the time Bill died the accumulated amount appears to be well over a million and by 1988, the year Lois died it looks like she was probably a multi-millionaire. Check it out and decide for yourself.

    • Steve V. says:

      Linda. with much respect I think you would be quite surprised how many of us in Secular AA have read the Big Book, many times over and are very familiar with the contents of it especially the first 164 pages. Because some of us are so familiar with the contents of the Big Book and know that some in AA and CA revere and worship this piece of literature, is one of the main reasons we are here.

  5. Courtney S. says:

    John B…….My kinda guy!

  6. John L says:

    Wow! I guess I’ll have to get the book. Of course, “consummate liar” is meant, if subliminally. “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”. Well, what WAS his “higher purpose”? I suggest it was two-fold: self-aggrandizement and making a fortune. On both “purposes” he succeeded.

    • Bob K says:

      I find Bill Wilson to be more complex than that.

      As best as I can tell, he had a tremendous passion for helping alcoholics. In writing and publishing the Big Book, Wilson was trying to do something Anne Smith, Henrietta Seiberling, and other folks more religious than Bill, would have cautioned him against. He was trying to serve two masters – God and Mammon.

      Having lost his enthusiasm for Wall Street, he sought to make his living from AA.

      • John L says:

        Bill W. was indeed “more complex”. Among other things, he suffered severe depression for thirteen years, which qualifies as a psychosis. He wasn’t all bad or all good. Millions of dollars in royalties goes rather beyond making a living from AA, which to me suggests the people who (properly) receive salaries for working for AA. Barry Leech, author of Living Sober, asked for royalties and was denied them.

      • John B. says:

        Bob: Did Bill lose his enthusiasm for Wall Street or did those on the street lose interest in him? You sure pose an interesting question. If Wilson had been able to find high level of income in a return to the Street, would AA even exist today? Maybe all of us that got sober in AA owe a debt of gratitude to those who pushed Bill out the door. John B.

        • Bob K says:

          He was 2+ years sober in 1937, and had enough credibility to get on with a firm called Quaw & Foley. Unfortunately, the American economy took another nose dive in the summer of ’37.

          There’s truth to both arguments, but I think sober Bill could have gotten other Street work at some point. Hank and Bill really thought they could make serious money from AA Inc. They snuggled up close to Rockefeller money TWICE.

          I think they thought they could make serious money from the book alone. At 25,000 book sales per year, they’d have made executive level income. By the original deal, they owned the DAMN book.

      • Marty N. says:

        Let’s not forget why he wrote the book… to make a buck! I’m glad he did it but what were the real motives. There is no record of Bill ever being a real Wall St. “hot shot”, more of a “gofer” from what I can see.

        Did he ever have real job? I can’t find that he did. But he saw an opportunity and a need and filled it. More power to him. I’m a businessman too. I probably would have done the same thing given the opportunity.

    • Wes L. says:

      Yes by all means get the book. It’s well worth the read.

Translate »