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New Book Shows Why Alcoholic Self-Help Group Works


Hazelden Publishing's new release, The Book That Started it All, a copy of the 1939 version of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism, shows, through its original edits, that AA's simple steps were far from simple.

We asked Sid Farrar, the book's editor and Hazelden's editorial director, how the handwritten exchanges in the book reveal the philosophies which have kept the 12-step fellowship effective.

Rosenberg: The Book That Started it All contains high resolution photostats of original edits in many different colors including plain pencil. There are comments and even disagreements written in the margins. Do we know who wrote the remarks and who was the final arbiter?


Farrar: Bill Wilson's handwriting [the founder of AA, also known as Bill W.] is somewhat recognizable in places and there is a wonderful note at the beginning of the book from his wife, Lois. The identity of the other editors could not be known without a handwriting analysis.

As far as who was the final editor, Bill Wilson sent the original manuscript to 400 people for their input. All the remarks were incorporated by all the editors working with Bill Wilson at the time and there was no single "author." This was an early example of the group conscience which still governs AA today - that no one is in charge and "leaders are trusted servants who do not govern." It also reflects that members are anonymous.

Rosenberg: The book Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly referred to as the Big Book, is still in wide use today and the individual stories in the back of the book have not changed much since the first edition. What are the biggest changes in the front of the book from the way it was originally written to the way it appears today?

Farrar: One of the most pervasive changes that readers will see is the transition from the "you" voice to the "we" voice. Instead of giving directives to people trying to recover from alcoholism and telling them "you need to do this," text was changed to the "we" voice of the fellowship, to show by example.

Rosenberg: Suggestions rather than orders or commandments? Like "We have found this works for us?"

Farrar: Yes. The nonjudgmental tone is also seen in a passage which had read, "God has to work twenty-four hours a day in and through us, or we perish" in the early part of the book. This was deleted by an anonymous member who wrote "Who are we to say what God has to do?"

Rosenberg: There are other parts of the 1939 version that are also uncomfortably judgmental. In the "How It Works" section it originally said something like, "if we haven't convinced you by now that you are an alcoholic, reread this book or else throw it away!"

Farrar: Even the 12 steps, which to many members seem to have come down from above, were edited to be less directive. Step 7 [Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings] had originally contained the phrase "on our knees" which was also deleted.

Rosenberg: AA is credited with evolving the public view of an alcoholic from a sinner who needs redemption to an ailing person who needs recovery. Getting on your knees in a traditional supplicant pose could have turned off a lot of people and not just atheists.

Farrar: By the time Bill Wilson left the Oxford Group, which had used stronger Christian language, he already had a sense of needing to acknowledge that some alcoholics were atheists and agnostics and the need for religious inclusiveness if AA were to reach any problem drinker. Remember, he is the one who wrote the "Chapter to the Agnostic" in the Big Book.

Rosenberg: What other surprises are found in "The Book That Started it All" besides battles over "you" and "we" and getting down on your knees?

Farrar: There are some fascinating essays about the history of AA and a complete annotation of the 1939 manuscript. There is also the text of a speech that Bill Wilson delivered in 1954 that has never been released. He was expected to talk about the Traditions but he ended up reminiscing about how the Big Book came about...The CD of that speech is also available.

Rosenberg: Few people have heard Bill Wilson speak! What was he like?

Farrar: Kind of what you would expect: down to earth, a great sense of humor, and very articulate

The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Hardcover, cloth cover, 248 pp with dust jacket, 4 color interior. 11 1/4" wide x 13 1/2" tall, 5 lbs. Author: Anonymous
Item: 2870 ISBN-10: 159285947X
ISBN-13: 9781592859474
Publisher: Hazelden
Year: 2010
Online Price: $65.00

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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