Episode 76: AA Ends Lawsuit Over Big Book Manuscript

This podcast was recorded before AA World Services dropped its lawsuit to gain possession of the original 1939 working draft manuscript” of the Big Book.  On November 27, 2017, Gregory Tobin, the General Manager of the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court of the State of New York that officially ended the lawsuit that was first filed on May 22, 2017.

I asked Michael R. from the Bleeding Deacon’s Group in Brooklyn, New York to join me for this podcast because he is active with his District and Area, and he was interested in the lawsuit and efforts within the Fellowship to pressure GSO to drop the action. Our conversation touches on AA history, the Traditions, and the experience of getting involved with General Service. 

The manuscript’s provenance begins with Bill Wilson, the principal author of Alcoholics Anonymous, who maintained possession until his death in 1971, when it became the property of his widow, Lois. She owned the manuscript until January 1, 1978, when she gifted it to her good friend Barry Leach. Barry was the author of  Living Sober and also helped Lois with writing her autobiography, Lois Remembers.

On April 10, 1979, Barry gave AA World Services a signed and notarized letter in which he states that he is gifting the manuscript to AA World Services, but that he will retain physical possession of it until his death. The letter also noted that the gift of the manuscript to AA World Services could not be made public until after his death. A copy of the letter was also provided to the Executor of Barry’s estate.

Barry died in 1985, but the Big Book manuscript wasn’t transferred to AA World Services as was promised in Barry’s letter, and there isn’t any evidence that AA World Services presented the Leach Estate with Barry’s notarized letter. In fact, AA World Services didn’t realize they had the letter until it surfaced sometime in 2007.

For twenty years, nothing was heard of the manuscript until it was sold at auction to William Shenk for $1.576 million. The seller was known only as Joseph B. an anonymous AA member who said he received it from an aunt who knew Bill Wilson. William Shenk sold the manuscript at auction for $992,000 to the current owner, Ken Roberts.

Roberts did well with his investment. In 2010, he entered into an agreement with Hazelden to publish a facsimile of the manuscript titled, The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous. Earlier this year, Roberts contacted AAWS to inform them that he intended to sell the manuscript at auction, and in May 2017, AAWS filed suit to block the sale. 

In this podcast, Michael R. told me about a group of people in New York who were unhappy about AAWS filing this lawsuit without providing the necessary transparency to the Fellowship. There were concerns about this action on the part of AAWS. One concern was that the legal fees for the lawsuit could very well go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the General Service Board never disclosed exactly how much money was spent or was expected to be paid for legal fees. Another problem was that the lawsuit seemed to run against AA’s tradition of staying out of public controversy.

We don’t know why AAWS decided to drop the lawsuit. It may have been due to the pressure they were feeling from the Fellowship, or they may have taken a cost/benefit analysis and found that the risk just wasn’t worth the cost. Whatever the case, the lawsuit won’t go forward, and the manuscript once again will be sold to the highest bidder.

I hope you enjoy the podcast. It was a lot of fun to speak with Michael. He’s new to working in General Service, and he really enjoys it. He has been very active with his District and Area in lobbying for a new pamphlet to address the needs of nonbelievers in AA.


Alcoholics Anonymous Sues for Return of the Big Book Manuscript, by Jeanne Schinto

Supreme Court of the State of New York

Barry Leach Letter

Barry Leach Letter

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John Lee
John Lee
10 months ago

AAWS dropped the lawsuit because it was meritless and had no chance of succeeding. Inter vivos gifts require intent plus delivery, and there was no delivery in this case. The cause of action was also time barred.

Kevin E.
Kevin E.
1 year ago

So, we all know that this manuscript righfully belongs to every single member of A.A. in principle, anyway. The manuscript was stolen, the executor failed in their fiduciary and ethical duties. Ill gotten treasures cannot be savored as just rewards. Whoever bought it should donate it back to AAWS. Lifejens nailed it.

11 months ago
Reply to  Kevin E.

If that would have happened, it would never have seen the light of day. So in reality Barry’s wishes were realized when Ken Roberts purchased and created “the book that started it all,” published by Hazelden. The fellowship gets to read and study it. The information is much more important that the manuscript itself. AA doesn’t need more stuff to fight over.

Charles R.
Charles R.
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul

Dear Paul, I don’t know about your first sentence as no one knows the future, could’s, and would’s except for G-D. As you, we, us, understand G-D. I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of your opinion. The important thing is the information is now out there and available to anyone who needs it! If it’s G-D’s will that A.A. get possession of the manuscript it will happen in G-D’s time. Thank you brother.

Jeanne Schinto
2 years ago

Dear John, I enjoyed the podcast with Michael. I see that you have a link to my story about the AA lawsuit, originally published in Maine Antique Digest and then posted on my website. I will write a followup story for M.A.D. after the auction takes place in May. May I quote from this interview? I’d of course cite your podcast as the source and link to it in M.A.D.’s online version.

Yours with best wishes, Jeanne Schinto

John S
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeanne Schinto

Thank you so much Jeanne. I’m honored that you listened to our podcast and would mention us in your writing. This was an interesting topic and I found your article to be the most through and informative of any that I could find on the topic.

2 years ago

lest money, property and prestige…….

2 years ago

Me, either, I wouldn’t be a goosebumps person. Nothing to add to the conversation; just want to say thanks for the variety in these podcasts and for teaching me something I wouldn’t otherwise know about.