I left out some good stuff like the agnostic who helped write the steps and the woman who got AA cozy with the medical community. I'm going to go back and expand and edit all of this later. This was maybe longer than I wanted it to be. I need to get to the practical application of all this stuff as it is today which is my larger goal.
By 1938, membership in what would come to be known as Alcoholics Anonymous was around 100 people. In 1938, Bill Wilson began to codify his methods in a book that would be published the following year. The book was mostly written by Wilson but other members offered input.
At the point of the writing of the book the group did not have a name and was more of a sect of The Oxford Group. The Oxford Group had a tendency to recruit from higher classes of society and AA mythology claims that Bill and Dr. Bob chafed at the resistance to the inclusion of people who could not advance the goal of infiltrating churches across the globe in order to spread their message. Despite friction between the Bill W./Dr. Bob groups and the larger Oxford Group movement, the text of what came to be called the Big Book by members is heavily patterned after the teachings of the Oxford Group.
It’s fairly common knowledge that the 12 Steps are the basis of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Although the Oxford Group did not have a similar step system, the steps are based on their principles. Included in the Oxford Group beliefs are the four absolutes: absolute truth, absolute unselfishness, absolute love and absolute purity. The closest they had to a step system were the four practices:
- 1. The sharing of our sins and temptations with another Christian.
2. Surrender our life past, present and future, into God's keeping and direction.
3. Restitution to all whom we have wronged directly or indirectly.
4. Listening for God's guidance, and carrying it out.
The Oxford Group also stressed that fear was one of the major contributors to all the ills of the world (the other being selfishness), a principle that worked its way into the common wisdom of the AA program. The group advised its member to surrender to God, follow God’s plan and trust that all events happen do to the will of God, beliefs which also worked their way into AA. As a side note, Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group, would sometimes show up late to meetings or events claiming that he felt it was the will of God for him to be late.
The actual steps as they exist today went through several revisions. Here is one of the earliest:
- 1. We admitted that we were licked, that we were powerless over alcohol.
2. We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins.
3. We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
5. We tried to help other alcoholics, with no thought of reward in money or prestige.
6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.
Wilson settled on 12 steps because that is the number of apostles Jesus had. Here are the finialized steps which haven’t changed since 1939:
- 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The book Wilson and company wrote did not sell initially. 5000 copies sat in a warehouse until the group received some positive press coverage from a radio show and two popular magazines, one of which was the Saturday Evening Post. That Saturday Evening Post article is still distributor by AA as a pamphlet to this day. Interestingly, their first positive coverage was the radio interview I mentioned and, in order to keep the member interviewed sober, he was locked in a hotel for 24 hours under the supervision of other members.
The name of the book is Alcoholics Anonymous (it has a little used subtitle: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism). press It is generally referred to as The Big Book to avoid confusion with the larger group that took its name from the name of the book. The book is over four hundred pages long. It begins with introductory text numbered with Roman numerals. One chapter in this preface, “The Doctor’s Opinion,” was written by one William D. Silkworth, the doctor who ran the sanatorium where Bill Wilson had his religious vision. In the first edition of the book, Silkworth asked that his name not be used but subsequent editions have his contribution attributed to him.
In the 80 or so years since it was first published, The Big Book has had four editions, the last being in 2001. These revisions are incredibly minor and generally consist of adding or removing chapters from the last half of the book which consists entirely of member stories beginning with Dr. Bob Smith’s. The first 196 pages remain unchanged and are the basis of the program. The most notable change is a footnote added to the chapter called “To Wives,” explaining that at the time of its writing it was a majority male group and that the chapter will remain unchanged to preserve the history of the program. There are 12 chapters to the Big Book if one includes Dr. Silkworth’s letter as a chapter and some members assign each chapter to a step here are the name’s of the chapters:
- The Doctor's Opinion - (pp. xxv-xxxii)
1 Bill's Story - (pp. 1-16)
2 There is a Solution - (pp. 17-29)
3 More About Alcoholism - (pp. 30-43)
4 We Agnostics - (pp. 44-57)
5 How It Works - (pp. 58-71)
6 Into Action - (pp. 72-88)
7 Working With Others - (pp. 89-103)
8 To Wives - (pp. 104-121)
9 The Family Afterward - (pp. 122-135)
10 To Employers - (pp. 136-150)
11 A Vision For You - (pp. 151-164)
After the personal stories, there is also an appendix in the back of the book that contains information such as an explanation of “the spiritual experience” that is at the heart of recovery through AA. The most important appendix to members is the outlining and listing of the 12 Traditions, an addition Wilson saw as important to holding together his organization as it grew. Here are the 12 Traditions in the short form presented in the book:
- One – Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
Two – For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants, they do not govern.
Three – The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
Four – Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups, or A.A. as a whole.
Five – Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
Six – An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
Seven – Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
Eight – Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
Nine – A.A., as such, ought never be organized, but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
Ten – Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues, hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
Eleven – Our public relations policy is based upon attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
Twelve – Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Several of the Traditions (One, Four and Seven in particular) make AA less an organization than an idea. One Wired article I read compared it to open source software. While its defenders claim the chaos that results from a group with no leaders and with all interpretations of its guiding text essentially acceptable so long as you don’t drink, in practice it is just what I described it as: chaos. I will go into this further in the future but all groups are free to develop their own culture and a shared interpretation of the book and how the program should be worked which can make it incredibly difficult to find a group you fit in with. And this can be dangerous, especially for opiate addicts who often go through AA itself or one of its many 12 Step offspring. I say its dangerous because one relapse with heroin can kill someone and if they are in search of help and get none or get harmed by a toxic group, they can end up dead minutes after a bad meeting.