Why the Big Book of A.A.?

Back in the early days of Twelve Step before the existence of the Big Book, Bill Wilson in conferring with Dr Bob Smith (the co-founders of the 12 Step movement) both noticed, as this program was passed by word of mouth, it began to distort. Four or five generations of being passed one alcoholic to another, it started to get off track. In Akron some religious ideas were starting to trickle into their practices. In New York some psycho-therapeutic ideas began to infiltrate the program. And while both of these institutions are noble and well meaning, they are not Twelve Step. Their goals and methods are not the same as those of the Twelve Step Program.

Bill and Dr. Bob together contrived an idea to have a book written that would document what the Twelve Step Program was. While they introduced several other ideas to the Fellowship, this is the one that was approved. Bill Wilson set out to then document the actions common to the overall Fellowship. The actions they believed brought about removal of their obsession. While Bill Wilson wrote the book, his role was merely one of documentation, not author. Bill would write portions of the book and submit them to the groups existing at that time. The Fellowship would review the book and inform Bill where he was on track and where he was completely off base. (“Pass It On: Bill W. and How the A.A. Message Reached the World” p. 190)

So the true authors of the book are those early pioneers of the Twelve Step Program.

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From the Foreword to the 1st Edition:

“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xi)

And here they state plainly who wrote the book. Bill Wilson was simply the man who played referee and put pen to paper. They go on to say why they wrote it:

“To show other alcoholics precisely how we recovered is the main purpose of this book.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xi)

This tells us that the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is an instruction manual for the Program by which they recovered. This is what an instruction manual is: a document that tells us how to do something. The authors go on to re-emphasize this point at least twice more.

“If you are an alcoholic who wants to get over it, you may already be asking—'What do I have to do?' It is the purpose of this book to answer such questions specifically. We shall tell you what we have done.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 20)

“Further on, clear-cut directions are given showing how we recovered.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 29)

Because it was edited and approved by the entire fellowship of the time, it is the purest 12 Step document in existence. They filtered out extraneous actions that were not truly part of the program by a process of elimination. And after its publication, both Bill and Bob were heard to say on separate occasions, “There is no such thing as a personal interpretation of the Twelve Steps.” Therefore, it can now be used as a litmus test for other things we hear in our present day fellowship. If we cannot reconcile what we hear in a meeting or what we read in other “12 Step literature” with what is said in the Big Book, then we need to question whether or not it is actually part of the 12 Step Program.

And then there is the track record of the Program contained therein. Preceding the Forewords, the Preface says this:

“Because this book has become the basic text of our society and has helped such large numbers of alcoholic men and women to recover, there exists strong sentiment against any radical changes being made in it. Therefore the first portion of this volume describing the A.A. recovery program, has been left untouched in the course of revisions being made. in the second, third and fourth editions. The section called “The Doctor's Opinion” has been kept intact, just as it was originally written in 1939 by the late William D. Silkworth, our society's greatest medical benefactor.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. xiii)

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These instructions for working the Steps have never changed in the past 80 years because they work. The proof is in the early history of A.A. Sixteen years after the publication of the Big Book on page xx the Foreword to the 2nd Edition reports as follows:

“Of alcoholics who came to A.A. and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with A.A. showed improvement.”

This indicates a success rate better than 75% during the first 20 years of A.A.'s existence. The first four years there was no instruction manual. During the following 14 years, the Big Book was A.A.'s only book.

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In 1953 the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka: the 12 & 12) was published. The second portion of the book which focuses on the Traditions, is based on the experience of the entire fellowship at that time. With regard to the Traditions, it carries the same weight that the Big Book carries with regard to the Steps. However, the Steps portion of the “12 & 12” is a series of essays based on the experiences and insights of one man. The “12 & 12” actually contains no instructions for working the Steps. It is merely a collection of thoughts, experiences and insights.

Many people in the fellowship of that time really liked it. Focusing on this book in their meetings did not hold them accountable for working the Steps. Instead the meetings allowed members to simply talk about the Steps from a theoretical standpoint. No instructions for working the Steps meant they didn't necessarily have to take action, and if they did, they could do it however they wanted.

The result? By 1963 the success rate of the overall fellowship had declined to roughly 50%. A.A. and other fellowships have put out much literature since then. Each new pamphlet or book seems to bring the focus further away from the specific, precise, clear-cut, history-proven directions for bringing about a spiritual awakening which are contained in the Big Book. It appears the more they do so, the worse their success rates become. In 1980, the A.A. intergroups of DFW and Houston reported a success rate of less than 33%. The year 2000 saw for the first time in A.A.'s history an actual decline in membership. Box 459 has reported the recovery statistics of the modern day: fellowship-wide, less than 10% of the people who pick up a 1 day chip will still be sober a year later to pick up a 1 year chip. Our conclusion: the more any fellowship tries to improve upon the directions contained in the Big Book, the worse the results seem to be. We see in most recovery literature a confusion between popular psychology and the Twelve Step Program. We see the original goal of Twelve Step, a spiritual awakening, being substituted with the goal of re-socialization. And while healthy meetings are by no means a waste of time, they should never be confused with working the Twelve Steps with a sponsor by the directions in the Big Book.

Our experience with our illness is one of lethality. We have seen members, active in fellowship die as a result of this addiction. When we saw our addiction as deadly, if we wanted to survive, if we wanted to not only live, but live happily and free of the obsession, then we had to bet our lives on our best chances of surviving this addiction. History seemed to indicate our best hope lay with the original, uncorrupted, clear-cut, precise and specific instructions for working the Twelve Steps. Whether you are new to recovery or have exhausted all of your other options, we encourage you to read this book. Choosing to pursue the program it contains is purely your decision. Either way, it contains a program of action that we believe can be beneficial to anyone seeking a spiritual path. As far as we're concerned, doing the work it describes saved our lives.

“Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 58)

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We do not wish to argue with those who have tried this approach and met no success. We too have had failures using the Big Book. However, upon close examination, we found that it was not the program that failed us, but we who had failed the program. Some of us had not been rigorously honest to our fellows in the program. Some of us had not been completely willing to surrender our entire lives to the program. When we finally got honest with ourselves we could see that we were the ones who had fallen short, not the instructions in the Big Book.

"But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 164)