Words, Words, Words

The text of the first 164 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous, unchanged since they first came off press in 1939, evolved from a process of furious debate and wise compromise.

In May 1938, when co-founder Bill W. began work on the first draft of what is now the Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, he had been sober about three and a half years. Dr. Bob was sober a few months less than three years, and the other 100 early members who contributed in one way or another to the writing of the book had been off the sauce for periods ranging from a couple of years to a couple of months

They were a contentious, cantankerous bunch of newly dry drunks, clinging together desperately to preserve their hard-won sobriety, and still figuring out how to do it by a process of trial and error. Yet this shaky, often fearful group of men and women some how brought to publication, in April 1939, a blueprint for recovery from alcoholism that has been followed successfully for more than sixty years by millions of sober alcoholics in approximately 150 countries around the world.

In 1939 the Big Book was written primarily by a man who in the year 2001 would be considered a virtual newcomer, assisted by an unruly and opinionated collection of men and women who were newer still, the pages of our basic text somehow, miraculously, reflect the faith, the commitment, and the providential wisdom of 100 ex-drunks who were still groping their way toward an understanding of how to keep this "thing" they had discovered alive and well. For on doing that, they knew with absolute certainty, depended their sobriety and their very lives.

Hassles Over The Text

How did they manage to set forth a clear description of their experience that would stand the test of time? Bill tells the story most eloquently in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. Early on, he had written a few chapters of a possible book to use in raising money, and after the Reader's Digest expressed interest in an article on A.A. and its book, he was fired with enthusiasm to complete it. "At 17 William Street, Newark, New Jersey," he wrote, "Henry had an office ... (and) a (nonalcoholic) secretary named Ruth Hock, who was to become one of A. A.'s real pioneers.... Each morning I traveled all the way from Brooklyn' to Newark where, pacing up and down in Henry's office, I began to dictate rough drafts of the chapters of the coming book."

Throughout, he consulted the group conscience, reading each chapter as it was finished to the New York group at its weekly meeting and sending copies to

Dr. Bob to share with the Akron group. From Akron, he reported receiving good support, but "the chapters got a real mauling" from the New York bunch. "I re-dictated them and Ruth retyped them over and over." In spite of all this, the first few chapters went fairly easily, until he got to Chapter 5, when the alcoholics realized "that at this point we would have to tell how our program for recovery from alcoholism really worked. The backbone of the hook would have to be fitted in right here.

"This problem had secretly worried the life out of me," wrote Bill. "I had never written anything before and neither had any other member of the New York group. . . . The hassling over the four chapters already finished had really been terrific. I was exhausted. On many a day I felt like throwing the book out the window.

"I was in this anything-but-spiritual mood on the night when the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were written. I was sore and tired clear through. I lay in bed... with pencil in hand and with a tablet of scratch paper on my knee. I could not get my mind on the job, much less put my heart in it. But here was one of those things that had to be done. Slowly my mind came into some kind of focus."

Up to that time, the A.A. program had been strictly word of mouth, using basic ideas evolved from the Oxford Groups, William James, and Dr. Silkworth. It came down to six steps: admitting powerlessness over alcohol, taking a moral inventory, sharing shortcomings with another person, making restitution, helping other alcoholics, and praying to God for power to practice these ideas. There were considerable variations on this general procedure, however, and at that point, nothing was in writing.

Bill goes on: "As my mind ran over these developments, it seemed to me that the program was still not definite enough. It might be a long time before readers of the book in distant places and lands could be personally contacted. Therefore our literature would have to be as clear and comprehensive as possible. Our steps would have to be more explicit. There must not be a single loophole through which the rationalizing alcoholic could wiggle out. Maybe our six chunks of truth could be broken up into smaller pieces. . . . and at the same time we might be able to broaden and deepen the spiritual implications of our whole presentation. So far as I can remember this was all I had in mind when the writing began.

"Finally I started to write. I set out to draft more than six steps; how many more I did not know. I relaxed and asked for guidance. With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangling emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps half an hour. The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to twelve. Somehow this number seemed significant. Without any special rhyme or reason I connected them with the twelve apostles. Feeling greatly relieved now, I commenced to reread the draft."

At that point, a few of the New York A.A.'s turned up at Bill's house, read the new steps, and immediately began to voice the objections that were to be discussed and ultimately resolved in group discussions over the next several months. On the whole, the Akronites liked the new steps and supported the remainder of the text based on them. "But in New York the hot debate about the Twelve Steps and the book's contents was doubled and redoubled. There were conservative, liberal, and radical viewpoints." Some thought the book ought to be Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word; others, who had no problem with use of the word "God," were totally opposed to any other theological proposition. "Spirituality, yes. But religion, no positively no. Most of our members, they pointed out, believed in some sort of deity. But when it came to theology we could not possibly agree among ourselves, so how could we write a book that contained any such matter?"

Then there were the atheists and agnostics. At first, they wanted to take the word "God" out of the book entirely. They "wanted a psychological book which would lure the alcoholic in. Once in, the prospect could take God or leave Him alone as he wished. To the rest of us this was a shocking proposal, but happily we listened...."

Bill, as the writer, was "caught squarely in the middle of all this arguing, . . . For a while it looked as if we would bog down into permanent disagreement." He finally asked to be the final judge of what the book said, and recognizing that without such a point of decision they would get nowhere, the groups went along....

"Just before the manuscript was finished an event of great significance for our future took place.. . . We were still arguing about the Twelve Steps. All this time I had refused to . . . change a word of the original draft, in which... I had consistently used the word "God," and in one place the expression "on our knees" was used. Praying to God on one's knees was still a big affront to [several of the alcoholics]. . . we finally began to talk about the possibility of compromise. Who first suggested the actual compromise words I do not know, but they are words well known throughout the length and breadth of A.A. today: In Step Two we decided to describe God as a "Power greater than ourselves." In Steps Three and Eleven we inserted the words "God as we understood Him." From Step Seven we deleted the expression "on our knees." And, as a lead-in sentence to all the steps we wrote these words: "Here are the steps we took which are suggested as a program of recovery." A.A.'s Twelve Steps were to be suggestions .........

"God was certainly there in our Steps, but He was now expressed in terms that anybody, anybody at all could accept and try. Countless A.A.'s have since testified that without this great evidence of liberality they never could have set foot on any path of spiritual progress or even approached us in the first place. It was another one of those providential ten strikes."

The Personal Stories

And a Title

Quite early in the writing of the text, it had become evident that the book would need a section of stories detailing the personal experiences of sober alcoholics. "We would have to produce evidence in the form of living proof; written testimonials of our membership itself. It was felt also that the story section could identify us with the distant reader in a way that the text itself " might not."

Dr. Bob and the Akronites proved to be the leaders in this effort. One member of the Akron group was a former newspaperman, two years sober, named Jim. He and Dr. Bob "went after all the Akronites who had substantial sobriety records for testimonial material. In most cases Jim interviewed the prospects and wrote their stories for them. Dr. Bob wrote his own." By January, eighteen stories were completed in Akron, including two from Clevelanders who had attended the Akron meeting.

It was a tougher road in New York, where there was no one with journalistic expertise available to do the actual writing. They decided that each member with substantial sobriety would write his own story, but when Bill and Henry tried to edit these "amateur attempts," there was trouble. "Who were we, said the writers, to edit their stories?" That was a good question, but still we did edit them. The cries of the anguished edited taletellers finally subsided and the story section of the book was complete in the latter part of January, 1939. So at last was the text."

Up to this point, the book had no title. "The Akron and New York groups had been voting for months on possible titles. This had become an after-the-meeting form of amusement and interest. The title "Alcoholics Anonymous" had appeared very early in the discussion. .. . We do not know who first used these words. After we New Yorkers had left the Oxford Groups in 1937 we often described ourselves as a "nameless bunch of alcoholics."  From this phrase it was only a step to the idea of "Alcoholics Anonymous." This was its actual derivation."

Another popular title was "The Way Out." Bill confessed that he began to be tempted: "If we gave the book this name, then I could add my signature... . I began to forget that this was everybody's book and that I had been mostly the umpire of the discussions that had created it. In one dark moment I even considered calling the book "The B. W. Movement."

Then I saw the temptation for what it was, a shameless piece of egotism. So once more I began to vote for the title "Alcoholics Anonymous."

More than a hundred titles were considered in all, but in the end it came down to "Alcoholics Anonymous" or "The Way Out," and when the two groups voted "The Way Out" received a slight majority. At this point, one of the A.A.'s visited the Library of Congress, to research the number of books entitled 'The Way Out," versus those called "Alcoholics Anonymous." As it turned out, there were twelve with the former title, none with the latter, and since nobody wanted to make the book the thirteenth "Way Out," the problem was solved. "That is how we got the title for our hook, and that is how our society got its name.

A Little Help From Our Friends

In order to give the volume medical standing, Dr. William D. Silkworth had agreed to write an introduction. Bill often described Dr. Silkworth as "the benign little doctor who loved drunks." Then physician-in-chief of Towns Hospital in New York, he was "very much a founder of A.A. From him we learned the nature of our illness. He supplied us with the tools with which to puncture the toughest alcoholic ego. . . the obsession of the mind that compels us to drink and the allergy of the body that compels us to go mad or die." He was the man who told Bill that his "hot flash" spiritual experience was not a hallucination, hut a life-changing experience he could build on. And he was one of the many nonalcoholic friends who, in the early days when A.A. was only a tiny, struggling movement, risked their own professional standing to give our Fellowship the support it so badly needed. His introduction, "The Doctor's Opinion," is part of the front matter of the Big Book

In addition to discussing the text at meetings of the two groups, the A.A.'s had decided to solicit comments from nonalcoholic friends, in order to be sure there were no medical errors or material that might prove offensive to those of different religions.

One of the most important for the future of the Fellowship came from a New Jersey psychiatrist. ~He pointed out that the text of our book was too full of the words "you" and "must." He suggested that we substitute wherever possible such expressions as "we ought" or "we should." . . . I argued weakly against it," Bill says. "~but soon gave in; it was perfectly apparent that the doctor was dead right."

The changes from that initial rather hard-line approach have undoubtedly helped make the book acceptable to many hard-headed alcoholics over the succeeding sixty-plus years. In the published version, for example, Chapter 5 begins "Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path," a great improvement over the original ..... followed our directions." Similarly, the sentence "If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it then you are ready to follow directions" became ..... then you are ready to take certain steps," and "But there is One who has all power ....that One is God .... you must find him now!" was softened to read .... . may you find Him now."

Such phrases as "The first requirement is that ... "no longer grace the text, and the words "Now we think you can take it!" preceding "Here are the steps we took. . .were deleted. And providentially, the book no longer tells us, "If you are not convinced on these vital issues, you ought to re-read the book to this point or else throw it away!"

Concluding his description of the book-writing process in A.A. Comes of Age, Bill made it clear that all the hassles had been worth it. "It should here be emphasized that the creation of A.A.'s book brought forth much more than disputes about its contents. As the volume grew so did the conviction that we were on the right track. We saw tremendous vistas of what this book might become and might do. High expectation based on a confident faith was the steady and sustaining overtone of feeling that finally prevailed among us. Like the sound of a receding thunderstorm, the din of our earlier battles was now only a rumble. The air cleared and the sky was bright. We all felt good."


Did You Know?

Q. When was the Big Book approved by the General Service Conference?

In 1939, the Conference did not exist. Not until 1950, at the first trial session, did the Conference approve our basic text, along with several other pieces of recovery material that were in widespread use.

Q. What is the origin of the name "Alcoholics Anonymous"?

In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Bill tells us that the title "Alcoholics Anonymous" was one of the first suggestions for the book, appearing probably as early as October 1938. "After we New Yorkers had left the Oxford Groups in 1937 we often described ourselves as a "nameless bunch of alcoholics." From this phrase it was only a step to the idea of  "Alcoholics Anonymous." This was its actual derivation.

Q. Where did the "Big" Hook get its nickname?

When "Alcoholics Anonymous" was published, the founding members wanted purchasers to be sure they were getting their money's worth. Thus, they instructed the printer to run the job on the thickest paper he had.

"The original volume proved to be so bulky that it became known as the "Big Book."

Q. Where did the custom of reading from Chapter 5 at the beginning of meetings get started?

A drunk by the name of Mort J. sobered up in 1939 after reading the book. He moved to Los Angeles in 1940, and at his own expense, rented a meeting room in the Cecil Hotel. He "insisted on a reading from Chapter 5 of the A.A. book at the start of every session.

Q. Why does Alcoholics Anonymous publish its own literature?

The founding members' decision to publish the book on their own, instead of going with Harper, has enabled A.A. to keep the message intact and use the income from book sales to carry the message. A.A. need never publish any piece of literature simply because "it will sell" new material is developed only in response to an expressed need from a substantial portion of the Fellowship.

Q. Who received the five-millionth copy of the Big Book?

At the 50th Anniversary International Convention in Montreal in 1985, the five-millionth copy was presented to Ruth Hock, who typed draft after draft of the original manuscript. The one-millionth copy was presented to President Richard Nixon in April 1973; the two-millionth to Joseph Califano in June 1979; the ten-millionth to Nell Wing, Bill W's longtime (nonalcoholic) secretary and A. A.'s first archivist, in July 1990. The 15-millionth was given to Ellie Norris, widow of former trustee chairman John L. Norris, M.D., in 1996; and in the year 2000, the 20-millionth copy was presented to the Al-Anon Family Groups.

Q. How much has the price of the Big Book risen since 1939?

The original price of the Big Book was $3.50; the hardcover Fourth Edition will be $5.00.

Q. Why was Works Publishing given that name?

Bill W. explained in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age that when they decided to form a stock company to sell shares in the book, the company needed a name. "Since the forthcoming volume would be only the first of many such "works," [Henry] thought our publishing company should be called, "Works Publishing, Inc."


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