(1) The spirit
The period of American history framing the narrative includes the impoverished late 1930s. Bill describes the way AAs pitched in to help each other. More important than that, however, is the spirit in which this was done:
besides sharing all they had with us, Bob and Mag were expansively cheerful (12)
This should surely serve as an excellent spiritual principle: whatever adversities are faced, it is my duty to be expansively cheerful, which carries a greater value than owning my truth, sitting with my feelings, or other more modern injunctions one sometimes hears in AA today as the suggested response to vicissitude.
The same spirit is echoed on page 16:
I recall with deep gratitude how often her wise advice and her good humor and patience helped to settle the endless squabbles about the book’s content.
The strongest impression conveyed by this opening chapter is the tireless work performed by outward-looking AAs: to carry the message within and without the fellowship. There is a strong sense of almost military devotion to duty, and a God-trusting disregard for apparent impediments (e.g. brevity of sobriety):
Brand new AAs, sober only a month or even a week, had to sponsor alcoholics still drying up in the hospitals.
I was speaking to a friend yesterday about her attempts to help someone who is sober many, many years, attends several Twelve-Step fellowships, claims to have ‘done the Twelve Steps many times’, yet remains full of resentment and distress, and still believes her emotional problem to stem from how other people are behaving. I asked whether the individual in question performed much work within the AA structure or to carry AA’s message to the outside world. My friend said that she thought not. It also became apparent that the individual is ‘patchy’ or ‘sketchy’ on ‘God’.
One key turning point in the Twelve Steps is the realisation that the problem resides in me, not others. Until this foundation stone is laid, Step Three cannot truly be taken. Any work on later Steps is thus built on a faulty foundation. It can rightly be said that someone who has not fully conceded that they are the problem, despite ‘doing the Twelve Steps many times’, has never actually taken Step Three.
Concomitant with this realisation is the surrender to God both for the purposes of transformation and for the purposes of being set to work, for God. The first principle is that the Steps, if taken solidly and with a genuine surrender, will work to release the individual rapidly and soundly from the merciless trap of self-obsession. I have observed this rapid transformation occurring in my own case and in the most troubled of individuals in my acquaintance. This is echoed by Bill W.’s own presentation of the psychiatric view of AA in the 1950s:
In AA, we see an unusual number of social and psychological forces working together on the alcoholic problem. Yet fully allowing for this new advantage, we still cannot explain the speed of the results. AA does in weeks or months what should take years. Not only does drinking stop abruptly, but great changes in the alcoholic’s motivation follow in a few weeks or months.
Secondly, being freed of self, we wake up to a sense of responsibility for others. With the right guidance, this can then be channelled into service that brings about recovery for other members and attracts yet new members to AA.
There is talk, page after page, of the tireless work of individuals who saw it as their mission to carry AA’s message into terra incognita, and it is conceded that it is only through the work of such individuals that AA took root in many parts of the world.
One striking example is the story about the individual in question in Norway. By 1955 there were 16 groups in the city of Bergen, the book boasts; today, in 2015, there are 8 in the whole region of Bergen, and only a couple of groups in a city with a metropolitan population of over 400,000.
The truth is that AA, in many parts of the world, is not taking up the legacy handed to it by its founders in 1955 and has become indolent and solipsistic. In the city in which I live, many meetings consist largely in inchoate presentations of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings du jour, with only a passing mention of alcoholism and recovery; many service positions within the AA structure (e.g. public information and health liaison positions) are vacant, and many of those that are occupied are occupied by individuals who do next to nothing in their roles. There are indeed excellent individuals and excellent groups; my group, for instance, performs public information work locally (one of only a handful of the 900 groups in London to do so) and over the last few weeks has contacted a score or more local organisations to provide information about AA, in an attempt to reach local sufferers; our list is expanding and we aim over the next few weeks to contact every organisation within walking distance that could conceivably benefit from information about AA, and then to repeat the exercise yearly, reviewing the list of external agencies to ensure completeness.
These gloomy facts must be faced, and it would be a wrong-headed form of optimism to disregard them; there is, as we say, a solution, and the actual mechanisms by which AA could resume growth are already in place: we have a service structure and posts that are well-described in terms of scope, brief, and modus operandi; we have the more informal opportunities offered to every member and every group of AA; prodigious expansion in the manner of our earlier years—not for its own sake but to help those dying of alcoholism—is still possible (albeit in attenuated form since our starting point is further along the growth curve); what is lacking is neither the structure nor the mechanism but the will.
We are falling grossly short as a fellowship, and it is my belief that this failure can be traced to a failure to take heed of the following simple trio of points:
(3) Effective recovery
It is noted on pages 21 to 22 that, whereas New York and Akron AA fellowships were growing slowly, Cleveland’s AA fellowship rapidly burgeoned into thirty groups and hundreds of members. The following was concluded:
The Cleveland pioneers had proved three essential things: the value of personal sponsorship; the worth of the AA book in indoctrinating newcomers, and finally the tremendous fact that AA, when the word really got around, could now soundly grow to great size.
The third point is a realisation of the phenomenon of what AA might be capable of (but is not necessarily capable of—in the absence of the first two points). It is these that are key: strong sponsorship and the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Interesting, too, is the use of the word indoctrinating. Much is made by prideful alcoholics, even today, of how the programme is only suggested, implying they may deign to pick up the tools as long as their personal integrity is not somehow impaired. This is in stark contrast to this concept of indoctrination: we do indeed need a new doctrine for living, because the existing doctrine or doctrines do not work. I swallowed the programme hook, line, and sinker because my score cards read zero, as Bill W. writes in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. It is from this personal defeat that all good has since flowed, but only through the two guiding forces of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and a sponsor to channel—safely and soundly—the power unleashed by personal defeat and subsequent surrender.
(4) The organisation of public information work
One often hears voices of caution in AA about performing public information work, on the basis that we should employ the principle of ‘attraction not promotion’ in such a way that we sit passively waiting for public information to radiate from us, as though we are a celestial body. This is a gross misunderstanding of the principle and betrays ignorance of AA’s history. Page 30:
It was the opinion of the meeting that oversimplification, which might lead us to muff our Twelve Step work, area-wide and world-wide, could not be called either really simple or really spiritual.
Page 34 continues:
When they saw the Convention’s pressroom, many visitors realised for the first time that good communications, within and without, were the actual arteries in which AA’s life-giving blood circulates among us and thence out to brother and sister sufferers everywhere. Something more than slow word-of-mouth message-carrying obviously has been required. ... Years ago we found that accurate and effective publicity about AA simply does not manufacture itself. Our overall public relations couldn’t be left entirely to chance encounters between reporters and AA members who might or might not be well informed about our fellowship as a whole.
To be effective, our public information work must be proactive, not merely reactive, and to be attractive we must be visible. This visibility is down to us. To avoid promotion means to avoid presenting ourselves in contradistinction to other offerings or organisations and to avoid sensational advertising, not advertising per se. We make no extravagant promises; we merely inform; but we must take the lead in informing.
(5) The role of religion
Religion is often condemned in AA. It is axiomatic in some quarters that religion is bad and spirituality is good (as though the two domains are mutually exclusive). We are told firmly that AA is not religious. This is true in that no particular theological belief is taught or required and that no denomination-specific practices are engaged in (besides the saying of certain Christian prayers).
This chapter makes clear, however, that it is to religion and religion chiefly that we owe the solution. Pages 38 and 39:
It was from [the Episcopal clergyman Sam Shoemaker] that Dr Bob and I in the beginning had absorbed most of the principles that were afterward embodied in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, Steps that express the heart of AA’s way of life. Dr Silkworth gave us the needed knowledge of our illness, but Sam Shoemaker had given us the concrete knowledge of what we could do about it. ... The basic principles which the Oxford Groupers had taught were ancient and universal ones, the common property of mankind. ... the important thing is this: the early AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else. [My emphasis]
Like it or lump it, AA’s programme is religious (even if the fellowship is not). Many people have a wholesale resentment against religion or Christianity, as if one can lump together the Westboro Baptist Church, the Vatican, a rural parish priest in Devon, and Swiss Jesuits engaged in social work; as if one can lump together beheadings by extremists and pastoral counselling in Leamington Spa; as if one can lump together the disparate ideas, doctrines, and teachings of all of the world religions, compacting them into a single point of infinite density before tossing them into a black hole of oblivion, to be disregarded from henceforth as an objectionable archaism.
No, such resentments, whilst surely heartfelt, are almost invariably ciphers for specific grievances against specific ideas or acts of specific people at specific points in space and time. The conflation and generalisation of such grievances is both inaccurate and unproductive and must be reversed.
As Bill W. imagines the composite voice of the attendees in St Louis:
... most of AA’s spiritual principles had come to us through clergyman. Without clergymen, AA could never have started in the first place. While I had been nursing my grudges against religion, Father Ed and Dr Sam [who both spoke at St Louis before the assembled alcoholics] had been going all out for us. This was a brand-new revelation. Suddenly I realised that it was high time I began to love them, even as they had loved me and the rest of my kind.
This is not to say that AA should somehow be reinvigorated with religious fervour, for instance, or that religious practices should be adopted within AA; rather, I believe we should give credit where credit is due and continue, as members of AA, to learn what we can from the religions of the world about how to practise the programme we espouse and not limit ourselves only to those new-age writers who channel religious ideas stripped of their formal and historic garb, lest the aggrieved be offended.
(6) Who is in charge?
There are a number of new Twelve-Step fellowships in existence. Some of these are encountering the problems alluded to in this opening chapter. The solution surely lies in following the example of AA in 1955:
[Bill W.] No more would I act for, decide for, or protect Alcoholics Anonymous. I saw that well-meaning parents who cling to their authority and overstay their time can do much damage. We old-timers must never do this to the AA family. When in the future they might ask us, we would gladly help them in the pinches. But that would be all. This new relationship was indeed the central meaning of what had just taken place. ... Clearly my job henceforth was to let go and let God. Alcoholics Anonymous was at last safe—even from me.
Over to you. Over and out.