The Thing About AA…


It’s important that old-timers help the newcomers directly, but we should also be the guardians of the fellowship, not just leave it to the General Service Conference. We should be here not just to ensure that it doesn’t change in a wrong sort of way, but even more to ensure that it does change. Everything else in this world, including individual members of AA, change with the times. So, should we as a fellowship. And we can’t do that unless we take it upon ourselves to discuss it.

So, here is the first in a short series of articles for the Grapevine which can maybe help open that discussion. Well, could have. I submitted this, the first one, and they didn’t take it, so I didn’t bother with the rest. In many ways The Grapevine seem to be in our corner, but maybe for some things it is not quite time yet, so meanwhile we have to keep discussing things among ourselves. Since these articles were written for The Grapevine, they may sound a bit like things I have written before for our own websites, but I wanted to share them anyway. Maybe others will feel inspired to submit similar articles to the GV. Let’s keep at it.

The Thing About AA..

– is that when people earnestly try to make positive changes in their life, and earnestly try to help those around them do the same, this has got to bring positive, and tangible results. Regardless even of whether their method is a good one or not, it will bring at least some good results. And as earnest and dedicated as we are in AA to make positive changes in our lives, the result will be positive, even impressive, as indeed they are. I am proof of this myself. I have been sober more than 30 years, and my life is better than I could ever have imagined it on that day in 88 when I quit.

There is practically no fellowship in the world, not even most religious organizations which do their work, whatever it may be, with the same earnestness as we do. Therein lies the strength of AA, not so much, I think, in the particulars of what we do.

But I think our method is nowhere near as good as it could be. So now, dear reader, you can say, no the 12 steps are great, god is great, no, we’re working a really great program. How can I argue with that, so long as we don’t experiment with anything that might work better? All I know is that I see a steady stream of people that come to a meeting or two, and then don’t come back, some of them excitedly come to a couple of dozen meetings, then they don’t come back. Only a few really stay. There’s got to be a better explanation than that they weren’t ready. One that has to do with our program.

Of course, dear reader, you can show me great results, at any rate 2 million sober people – and even if we failed 10 times that many, that is indeed no small accomplishment.

The question I must still ask, however, is: Is that great result from “the program”, or is it from our earnestness and dedication? Probably some of both, but is it possible that our earnestness is so great that we can produce great results even while using a program which, frankly, at this time is way outdated? Consider that it was put together for newcomers, by people who were just newcomers themselves, who intended to make changes as they got wiser, but meanwhile along came more newcomers who said, “This seems to work for us. Let’s set it in cement.” And set in cement it was, so no-one ever did get to be wiser.

And I would feel OK with myself for leaving it just the way it is, if not for one thing: those 20 million we didn’t help, they keep bothering me. Is it only 17, or even 11? I don’t know. All I know is we have sold 30 million Big Books, but we’re only 2 million strong. That doesn’t quite add up. All those 30 million people who got a big book, were they perhaps not serious about wanting recovery? I don’t know. All I know is that if this is your first day sober, and you’re clutching 10 bucks in your grimy, yellow hand, and it’s all you have, and you have a choice between buying a Big Book, or go around the corner and buy a 12 pack – if you buy a Big Book instead, you’re serious about wanting recovery, if only just for that one day, that hour. There is no other word for it. And I think we soon failed you. Not by our earnestness, but by our methods.

I’m not faulting anyone for this. Least of all Bill Wilson. At three years sober he, just like me at 3 years sober, thought he knew everything. There was no-one there to tell him he didn’t, and he was all fired up, so he went ahead and wrote a book about it. Together with “more than one hundred men and women”, who, it turns out, were more like 70, and according to Jim Burwell who was one of the first to get sober in AA, there were only 8 people with more than 6 months’ sobriety. The rest had just a couple, or a few months. Of the 20 people in the back of the big book, one relapsed before it was published. Six of the others at some point later committed suicide. Ebbie, who was the first one to “get religion” only managed to put together a bit of extended sobriety toward the end of his life.

So these were really not impressive results to base a book about a movement on. And think about it – together, these people had only about 30 years sober, all added together, with no old-timers to tell them whether they were indeed on the right track or not. They did pretty good for what they had to work with, but they were just experimenting, and they put together a bunch of suggestions based on their experiments, and put them in a book. Maybe the book was premature, but sometimes you just have to seize the day, and we have reason to be grateful that this book got our fellowship off to a start, warts and all.

They, or Bill, made many extravagant claims along the way. Eager newcomers will do that, we’re excited. And yet Bill wrote at the end of the book “We realize we know only a little”. That’s probably the least heeded sentence in the whole book. If we had kept experimenting, we would have seen some changes. Most of the time I get this sense that we think we know everything there will ever be to know. I believe this is called arrogance.

Now, we 2 million could merrily go on and live with our errors of perception if it weren’t for those 20 million we didn’t get to help. They keep bothering me.

I know, AA works for those of us that are here, but it didn’t work for those that are not here. Our primary purpose is to help the next suffering alcoholic. No qualifiers, no “if he is willing to do it the way we tell him”, no “We’ll help him according to The Book, and no other way”. We’re here to help, regardless of what exactly it takes, even if it turns out to be something new or different which we hadn’t thought of or expected. Please, brothers and sisters, let’s look at it honestly together, and help each other figure out what it takes. Earnestly and diligently.

As a final note, I would like to recommend an article which Bill wrote in the Grapevine in 1961:“The Dilemma of No Faith.” Bill himself had come to a place where he was struggling with whether or not we had it all right. So have I. Please come join me. I would like to offer some suggestions in later articles.

About the Author

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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I think if aa changes it will be very slowly and I still have my doubts that it will. There are just too many true believers. They think the big book is a holy book sent from god and it would be sacrelige to change it.

Jack B.
Jack B.

I agree; the “true believers” believe the book to be “sacred” and that it would be “sacrilege” to change it. All that’s true more or less. UNLESS AND UNTIL those who know that a “true believer” allows his own capture by yet another cult that is in possession of its “sacred holy book” that contains “holy, immutable truths”. I know from rich personal experience that ideas that seek to add modern medicine and science to AA literature that most definitely includes the principal text of AA, can illicit anger and sometimes personal attacks. Such attacks are always off putting but,… Read more »


I’d like to carry this particular message too: 6/20 suicides, 1 relapse, only 8 with greater than 6 months sober, only 70 not 100. Could you cite a source for these numbers?

Ever since I read an article of yours a couple of years ago, I’ve frequently been sharing that the BB was written FOR newcomers and BY newcomers. Now, that’s humility! It puts thing in perspective.




Gerald, sorry it took a couple of days. First of all the main source is a talk given by Jim Burwell in 1957 Talk by Jim Burwell 1957: That covers most of the numbers. the 70 is a bit more iffy, I found a discussion here: where a Navy Steve said there were only 74, but he never responded to my request for clarification. Someone else subsequently posted a list of the first 100 members, which may or may not be accurate, but at least the last 10 of those joined between the time the book was written,… Read more »


Thanks! I listened to it plus another one of his.


Could you provide a source for those stats? 70 not 100, only 8 with >6 months, 1 relapse & 6 suicides out of 20 of the stories in the back of the BB? I’d like to be able to cite a source when I carry this message. A couple years ago or so I read your article where you explained that the BB was written FOR newcomers and BY newcomers, and I’ve been carrying that message ever since! 🙂 … I’m still in AA because, simply, there’s nowhere else to go! 🙂 I’d go to church if I could; I… Read more »

Jack B.
Jack B.

We’ve never communicated personally but methinks you’ve outgrown AA.
You have an impressive command of English so this is my 30 year ask that you spend some of your obviously valuable erudition and commence the oh so necessary revision and rewrite of AA’s somewhat juvenile principal text. Beyond about 5 years it went back to my bookshelf and hasn’t moved in 3 decades.


Thomas B.
Thomas B.

Thanks so much life-j for this most pertinent article and John for publishing it.

Geri M.
Geri M.

What I always enjoy and appreciate in life-J’s articles is the ability to clearly, logically and rationally explain the need for changes in AA. In addition, I don’t hear angry, out-for-blood demonizing of the steps, members or even the GSO. Angry, militant atheists who clamor for cutting ties with AA, but maintaining AA in their “new” secular organization, are as off-putting to me as fundamentalist book thumpers. I’m more influenced by a calm, well thought out debate, than by raging and fault-finding. I hear calm debate and rationale when life puts his thoughts out there. Thank you so very much.… Read more »


There were spots where it was hard to keep the conciliatory stance, but it seemed important to do it thru and thru