By John L.
Good afternoon. I’m John, and I am an alcoholic. My home group is Atheists and Agnostics in Boston. Last February this year I celebrated 50 years of continuous AA sobriety.
What approach should we take to AA literature? This depends on whether we freethinkers (my preferred word) should be content to make a safe place for ourselves in AA — or should try to reform AA — or should split from AA. I personally feel we should stay in AA, claim our rights as full, bona fide AA groups and members, and also try to reform AA. I’m going to suggest changes that ought to be made in AA literature. This isn’t just getting rid of the god stuff that doesn’t belong there. It’s also understanding what’s missing: the true AA, the AA that works.
Politics has been described as the “art of the possible”. While this may be true, we should be able to discuss what ought to be — even if this may not be politically correct or feasible in the short run.
Now I’ll give my opinions on AA literature — bluntly, without beating around the bush. But these are just my opinions. I look forward to hearing from the rest of you in the discussion period.
Let’s start with the Big Book. Overall, it is harmful and poorly written. I used to say that the best parts were the personal stories, but found out that these stories were edited to make it seem that all of the recovering alcoholics owe their sobriety to a spiritual awakening, higher power, or some other intangible. When the Big Book was published, many of these people were furious at what Bill W. had done to their stories. Unfortunately, the Big Book is entrenched as the AA Bible. It could no more be revised than could the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. I suggest we leave the Big Book alone, while doing our best to marginalize it, and also doing our best to promote good literature.
Next, the Twelve and Twelve (12 & 12). The first part, consisting of Bill W.’s comments on his own Steps, contains some of the most loathsome passages in all of AA literature. However, the second part, dealing with the Traditions and written by Tom Powers, Bill W.’s editor and ghost writer, has some good parts. As with the Big Book, I suggest we leave the 12 & 12 alone, but whenever possible point out the harmfulness and stupidity of the worst passages.
By far the best AA-published book is Living Sober. It was written by Barry Leach, but published anonymously. Living Sober distills the best of the True AA. It gives practical advice on how to stay sober and lead a good life in sobriety. In my home group — Atheists & Agnostics in Boston — we start off by reading a chapter from Living Sober, followed by discussion. I gave a talk on Living Sober at the Austin conference, and that talk is online on the Beyond Belief site.
Now we come to the pamphlets, where revisions can and ought to be made. Here we need to think of newcomers. Attending their first AA meeting, newcomers may take pamphlets to find out what AA is about, and then be fatally turned off by hokey and irrelevant religiosity.
On the whole the pamphlets are well done. But, even in the best of them, standing out like sore thumbs, are passages of religiosity. And almost all of the pamphlets reprint “The Twelve Steps Of Alcoholics Anonymous”, as though these were the heart of AA. I’ll get to the Steps later.
One of the best pamphlets is “The A.A. Group — Where it all begins”. This pamphlet has good, practical advice on how to start and run a group. But up-front it quotes Bill W.: “God has enabled us to do well, blah blah blah.” Throughout the pamphlet, interspersed through the excellent practical advice, are plugs for the Big Book, the 12&12, the Steps, “How It Works”, prayers, “spirituality”. All of this is gratuitous; it has nothing to do with the subject of the pamphlet.
“Do You Think You’re Different?” — written by Barry Leach, the author of Living Sober — is an excellent pamphlet. It has short stories of a black female, a male 79-year-old, a gay male, a male atheist, a female Native American, a female teenager, a clergyman, a lesbian, a Jewish male, a movie star, a low-bottom drunk, a high-bottom drunk, and a female agnostic. All of these thought they were “different”, but they found good sobriety and fellowship in AA. One of these, the clergyman, describes the 24-Hour Plan as the heart of his recovery. “God” is mentioned briefly, but only in the personal stories. George, a Jewish alcoholic, makes a curious comment about the Christian “Lord’s Prayer”: Quote: “True, we end most of our meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, but even the atheists in the program do not often object to this formality.” I disagree. When I came into AA, in Greenwich Village in 1968, we non-believers most certainly did object — verbally and by defiantly remaining seated when others got up to recite the Lord’s Prayer.
“A.A. and the Gay/Lesbian Alcoholic” is a fine pamphlet. In describing how AA works, the pamphlet gives due emphasis to The Preamble. It has a section, We are not religious, which includes the statement: “Atheists, agnostics, and believers of all religions have a place in A.A. — provided they stay away from the first drink.” Unfortunately, this excellent statement is followed by a section on the Steps, in which they are described as “the heart of A.A.’s recovery program.” Then, A.A.’s biggest falsehood is repeated:
These Twelve Steps are not based on mere theory; early members of the Fellowship analyzed together just what they had done to get and to stay sober. The Steps are a summary of their experience and are a guide toward the spiritual recovery that is now working for more than a million and a half alcoholics worldwide.
None of this is true. When Bill W. presented his newly concocted Steps to the group of struggling alcoholics in New York, some of them were furious at his foisting religion on them, when what they needed was to get and stay sober. Even when the Big Book was published, it is doubtful whether any of these alcoholics had “worked” the Steps. At any rate, the Steps did not develop from collective experience. Still, the Gay/Lesbian pamphlet is a good one. It concludes by saying: “Alcoholism … can be arrested by not picking up that first drink. This we do one day at a time with the help and guidance of other sober members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Staying stopped is what the program of A.A. is all about.” End of quotation. This is a perfect summation of the True AA.
“This is A.A. — An introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program” is another good pamphlet. My only criticisms are its inevitable section on the Steps and its failure to include Living Sober in its listing of AA books at the end of the pamphlet.
The worst AA pamphlet is “The AA Member — Medications & Other Drugs”, which clearly shows the influence of Big Pharma propaganda, and is therefore in violation of the 6th and 10th Traditions. (Big Pharma refers to the pharmaceutical industry.) This goes off topic, but if anyone wants to discuss it after this workshop is over, I’m willing.
“The Twelve Traditions Illustrated” is a good pamphlet, despite its repulsively cute illustrations. It does not reproduce the Steps. But even here, in discussing the Second Tradition, it refers to AA as “a spiritual program” and to “the spiritual concept of the ‘group conscience’”.
To conclude: every single one of the pamphlets should be revised — to get rid of the religiosity, which doesn’t belong in them.
For the most part, the Traditions are fine. Unlike the Steps, the Traditions really did develop out of experience, and they are the reason that AA has survived for eight decades. However, one change ought to be made. The second Tradition reads:
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.”
This is asinine. For example: Every year for decades the Perry Street Workshop held a group conscience meeting on the issue of smoking at meetings. Every year the “loving God” decided in favor of cigarettes, until one year He changed His mind, and the group voted to ban smoking. When the smoke cleared, almost everyone could see that smoking should not have been allowed in the first place. But by then smoking had already killed dozens or even hundreds of Perry Street members — some drank themselves to death because they’d been driven away by the smoke; some died of cancer, heart attacks, or emphysema; some relapsed on cigarettes, after having kicked the habit, since the second-hand smoke reactivated their addiction. With a “loving God” like this, who need fiends from Hell?
The second Tradition should be re-written to say in plain English what is really meant. This is my version:
Groups make decisions democratically — by voting. Our leaders are trusted servants; they are not bosses.
Now, the Steps, which are part of AA literature. Either the Steps are the heart of AA, or they are the heart of what’s wrong with AA. Do we strive for personality change through the Steps? Or, does personality change take place through abstinence and time and physical recovery and the Fellowship? I believe the latter. When we drank, our bodies, including brains, were poisoned by alcohol. We did bad things. Our lives were a mess. When we stopped drinking, our bodies and brains began to heal. Through the power of abstinence and the Fellowship, our personalities changed for the better. Our lives became manageable.
Overall, I consider the Steps harmful, and have analyzed them in a chapter, “A Searching and Fearless Inventory of the A.A. Steps Themselves”, in my book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous. Since the Steps are sacrosanct, it would be futile to try revising them, although we can make secular versions for our own meetings. In the short run I propose one change: The word “suggested” should be added, or rather restored, to the header above the Steps, which would then read: “Twelve Suggested Steps” or “The Twelve Suggested Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous”.
When I came into AA fifty years ago in Manhattan, the hand-lettered “Twelve Suggested Steps” were on the wall of the Perry Street Workshop. In the first and second editions of the Big Book, the Steps are listed only in the fifth chapter, but not separately, and they are merely “suggested as a program of recovery.” The word “suggested” was in the header of the Steps, whether in pamphlets or roller-blinds. Even now, many older groups still have “suggested” above the Steps. It was wrong that the word “suggested” was ever dropped. We should demand — yes, demand — that it be restored in all AA publications and in the roller-blinds. Groups who already own a roller blind should take a magic marker and write in “SUGGESTED”.
In the long run, the Steps should be replaced — by The 24-Hour Plan, as worded in the “Akron Manual” of 1940, AA’s first year of existence. Here it is in a handout. I have edited it very slightly, mostly to eliminate irrelevant material. The 24-Hour Plan has always been at the heart of the true AA. It was by 1940; it was in the early 1950s, when a friend of my father’s joined AA; and it was in 1968, when I came in.
There are three “conference-approved” and AA-published histories: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age: A brief history of A.A. (1957/1985), Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers: A biography, with recollections of early A.A. in the Midwest (1980), and ‘Pass It On’: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world (1984). If we were to begin going into these histories, this workshop would go on for several days. Suffice it to say that all three are reasonably well written; all of them toe the party line; and all have false statements, as well as important omissions.
I like the Dr. Bob book the best. His character defects are not covered up: he was in many ways an irrational and intolerant man. The book gives at least some credit to the Clevelanders for creating the AA we know today.
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age was written by Bill W. (at least he got the royalties), although it was really written and edited by ghost writers. I’ve read many of Bill’s handwritten letters in GSO in New York, and believe me, he always needed help in writing. There is interesting material here, but unfortunately one cannot be sure all of it is true.
Pass It On is more hagiography than history. Bill’s worst misdeeds are glossed over, minimized, or concealed. Still, the book has useful information. We learn that Bill received royalties not only from the Big Book, but from three other books as well. The anonymous author writes: “Bill’s royalty payments were his only source of income”, which sounds as though Bill and Lois were just scraping by. In fact, Bill was receiving millions of dollars in royalties, back when one million dollars was truly a fortune. In contrast, Barry Leach received only a one-time payment for writing Living Sober. When it became a bestseller, he requested that AA grant him some royalties; AA refused.
We should think beyond AA “conference-approved” literature. The best book on alcoholism, in my opinion, is Under The Influence by James R. Milam. There are also books by those who write for AA Beyond Belief and AA Agnostica, and who have contributed to our movement.
Our literature should be truthful. Perhaps a few of the more egregious errors in AA’s authorized histories could be corrected (not to mention typos, which are still there), but thorough revisions will never be done. We need our own literature — and we have made a good start in the past decade. I would like to see honest and discerning histories, which treat Bill and Bob fairly, but critically. For example, I’d like to see a debunking of the absurd notion that Dr. Bob’s last drink constituted the founding of AA. I’d like to see a well researched history of the first years of AA in Cleveland, where the best features of AA came into being.
On financial matters, we should be open and above reproach. It should always be clear who profits, through royalties or otherwise.
We should realize what we’re up against. AA literature represents a substantial industry, which won’t welcome criticism of its commodities. We should be persistent, courteously militant, and vigilant. We should not be timid, for intellectually and ethically, the high ground belongs to us, not to the Big Book thumpers. It is we who represent the True AA. We should look forward to the day when Alcoholics Anonymous itself will be secular.
About the Author
John was born and raised in Nebraska. He attended Harvard College (AB 1963), majoring in Social Relations (Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology). In New York City he worked as a market research executive, writing on the side. He was in the antiwar movement since 1965 and the gay liberation movement since July 1969. He founded Pagan Press in 1982.
For a decade, beginning in 1985, John was a leading writer for the New York Native, which was then the foremost gay paper. He has twelve books to his credit. John dates his alcoholism from his first bender in 1958 to his last drink in 1968. He considers himself a loyal, but by no means uncritical member of AA. John now lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Images of the 12 Suggested Steps
The hand-lettered Steps used as the lead image for this article can be found on the wall of the Perry Street Workshop in New York. The image of the window shade Steps used in the body of the article are located at “Day at a Time” group in Dudley, Massachusetts. These are very old, and almost certainly of the 1955 version.(A newer shade in Brooklyn, Conn. has copyright dates of 1939, 1955, and 1976. The 1939 date must refer to the Steps as printed in the first edition of the Big Book. Presumably, the 1955 date refers to the version with Suggested” added.) John L. is not alone in believing strongly that “Suggested” should be restored to the Steps.
Listen to John’s presentation at the International Conference of Secular AA in August 2018.