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.