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AA founders debated approach in original manuscript

August 26, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Hazelden Publishing to release original AA Big Book manuscript this fall

Long before word processors gave us the luxury of tracking our text edits for the next reader, Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), passed around 400 physical copies of his recovery doctrine for revisions and suggestions. Afterward, he and a few of his colleagues copied the most significant of those contributions onto one manuscript, which would eventually become the AA Big Book—a text used faithfully by addiction professionals and those in recovery since its first publication in April 1939.

The Big Book went on to sell over 20 million copies worldwide, but the original manuscript and its many contributions remained hidden from public view. It was stored in Bill and Lois Wilson’s home until 1978, when Lois passed the manuscript on to friend Barry Leach, who maintained its privacy for 30 more years.

The manuscript eventually went up for auction in 2007 and was secured by Ken Roberts for $850,000. Roberts then presented the manuscript to Hazelden, who will release the book in two editions, one cloth and one leather-bound, this October.

“It’s arguably one of the most important books of the 20th century as it relates to addiction and recovery,” says Nick Motu, senior vice president of Hazelden and publisher at Hazelden Publishing. “To those that use the Big Book and the 12 Step process as core to their profession, it would be very interesting for them to understand what went into the conceptual beginnings of the 12 Step model of treatment.”

The manuscript shows text revisions and comments inked in a variety of colors, indicating the work of four to eight core contributors that Hazelden will identify in its release this fall. “Readers … will see the rejected suggestions, inserts, crossed-out comments, and then last minute changes,” Motu says.

Along with the original manuscript, Hazelden’s editions will include:

• Comments from leading archivists in the margins;
• Two essays by Big Book and AA historians;
• Annotated notes on the text;
• A publication timeline; and
• A 1954 speech by Bill Wilson on the making of the Big Book.

Debate over spirituality uncovered
Though it’s no secret to the addiction profession, much debate arose over how AA would present its principles, which relied heavily on religion.

“Of special interest in the manuscript will be the debates that occurred … over the role of religion and spirituality in AA,” says Motu. “Bill Wilson really was adamant about making AA spiritual rather than religious, and you will see that not only in the comments of those that were accepted but also of those that were rejected.”

For example, on the opening page of Chapter 5, one contributor noted that ideas in the text “should be studied from the mold angle.” Fred Holmquist, historian and director of Hazelden’s The Lodge Program, attributes this commentary to the fellowship’s fear of triggering newcomers’ religious prejudices.

“It talks about their understanding that religions sometimes pour people into a mold, and it’s a little bit one-size-fits-all,” he says. “Typically, alcoholics had not found relief from alcoholism in their religions, yet some had, but the idea was that they did not want to arouse religious prejudice that already existed in people.”


Page 30. Revisions to the first page of Chapter 5: How it Works, featuring Steps 1 through 9, show the internal debate between AA members over the use of religious language and references. To view a larger version of page 30 the original AA Big Book manuscript featuring the 12 Steps, click here.

Similarly, another contributor makes a note of “His Divine Consideration” across the bottom of the page near Step 9, which states, “Made direct amends to people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” To Holmquist, this reference is still obscure, but he has some speculations.

“If it’s referencing Step 9, then the idea of doing what you need to do unless it will injure them or others would be a matter of Divine Consideration,” he says. “They were avoiding the density of religious-sounding language, and that would be an example of somebody maybe noting what spiritual or religious principle it represented, simultaneously written in pragmatic language.”

From “prescribing” to “describing” a program of recovery
Widespread changes in the manuscript signal AA’s decision to avoid prescriptive language—such as “you should do this—in favor of descriptive language—such as “we did this.” Holmquist says this typifies AA’s strategy of addressing the newcomer with gentleness and accessibility while maintaining respect for the medical community.

“They were respecting the attitude of the newcomer as perhaps being defensive or quick to run,” he says. “Also, to other professionals, it was clear they took out specific references that could make the authors sound like they were prescribing medical or psychiatric or psychological recommendations.”

Holmquist attributes the original use of a prescriptive voice as the result of the founding members’ sincerity and seriousness about their program of recovery. “Their heart was right, but they realized in looking at it that it would probably be overwhelming for a newcomer to look at and think, ‘I have to do all of this stuff,’” he says. “So they just reverted to sharing what they did, which is what I think is at the heart of attraction not promotion.”

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