AA Myth Busting

By Tomas L. 

Every now and then, someone says that Bill Wilson regretted that he wrote “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” and wished he had written “Never…” in “How It Works.” This is not true. No advanced historical research is necessary to find the truth, it’s on the AA website in Frequently Asked Questions About AA History. It’s strange that so many believe this myth when the truth is so easy to find. (I found it by going to aa.org and entering “rarely never” in the search field. No rocket surgery or fancy hacking.)

This is what AA.org has to say about it:

Question: I’ve heard it said that Bill always wished he could change the beginning of ‘How It Works’ to read “Never have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” (rather than “Rarely have we seen…”). Is this true?

Answer: No. A rumor has persisted for years that Bill wished he could have changed “rarely” to “never.” But we know, through Bill’s own words, that that is not the case. In a letter to Les V., dated May 25, 1961 Bill W. stated:

…Concerning your comment about the use of the word ‘rarely’ in Chapter Five of the Big Book. My recollection is that we did give a considerable thought at the time of writing. I think the main reason for the use of ‘rarely’ was to avoid anything that would look like a claim for a 100 % result. Assuming of course that an alcoholic is willing enough and sane enough, there can be a perfect score on such character. But since willingness and sanity are such illusive and fluctuating values, we simply didn’t like to be too positive. The medical profession could jump right down our throats…I do remember thinking about it a lot.

In addition, the following question and response were made at the 1970 General Service Conference, as part of the “Ask-It” Basket questions. Bill was, of course, still living at this time and was able to respond:

Question: Has Bill ever said, “If there was any change he would make in the Big Book, it would be to change the world ‘rarely’ to ‘never’ at the start of Chapter Five”?

Answer: “No, Bill said he had never considered this” (1970 General Service Conference Report, p. 31).

This is what I have to say about it:

“Never have we seen a person fail” is a no true Scotsman fallacy. 

Nobody fails if they thoroughly follow our path. But I got a sponsor and worked the steps and I still relapsed. Then you didn’t do it thoroughly enough, so it just proves what I said.

It is a form of circular reasoning where a premise is used as evidence for what it was meant to prove. Although it is expressed as an experience in the past, a prediction of the future is clearly implied: If you “follow our path”, you will not fail.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the original quote as such, it is when a relapse is explained by reiterating the prediction that it becomes a fallacy: If you relapse, it is because you didn’t follow our path. How do we know this? Because you relapsed. This way of predicting the future makes it easy to pick the winning lottery number—just wait until after the lottery before you make the prediction

It is all very good to try understanding what led to a relapse, or any other “failure”, but a sweeping and vague claim that someone wasn’t “thorough enough” or wasn’t “really” willing to go to any length is little more than finger-pointing. Assigning blame is rarely helpful to anyone, except maybe in “helping” the one assigning the blame feeling superior. So how about making predictions before the outcome and trying to help each other rather than assigning blame and shame?

To me, the First Step meant getting rid of delusions and lies, and it is something that I am fond of practicing in all my affairs.

About the Author

Tomas L. is from Gothenburg, Sweden where he is active in several AA groups. He is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his city. To learn more about Tomas, listen to his podcast here.

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2 years ago

Thomas, thank you for this. I agree. And much of what Bill wrote later seems to indicate that if Bill regretted anything it would go in the other direction: “We kind of think that most people…. but we were too busy getting a book with a hard sell together”. Though, as far as we can tell Bill remained a god person himself, he even regretted pushing the god stuff as hard as he did. Or maybe he didn’t even remain a god person, but just had to keep pretending that he was. I’m somewhat puzzled by the 12×12 (nice size… Read more »

Peter T.
2 years ago

The bigger myth is that there actually WAS a commonly followed path in the fledgling fellowship.  That myth is right up there with the contention that “the first 100” actually included 100 people.

Rigorous honesty indeed…

marty nieski
marty nieski
2 years ago
Reply to  Peter T.

He had a book to sell.  He had to put something in it.  It couldn’t have been much of a path with no one having more than three years sober.  If a person fails all I ask is “what are you going to differently this time?”

2 years ago
Reply to  marty nieski

Marty, and that is just about the only thing you could do, because as a fellowship, so far, we have never asked ourselves, what can WE do different next time? I think that is what we are doing with the secular fellowship, finally, not just with the god stuff anymore, but with everything that’s wrong with this program. I so, so hope we can turn this two million strong group of dedicated, helpful, loving people in a different direction, bit by bit.