Invasion of the Big Book Body Snatchers
After 14 years sober I relapsed, then came back to an AA I barely recognized, full of bright young things quoting the Big Book.
I was just back from a slip, sober again about six seconds, when someone at my morning meeting suggested that I go to a Big Book study. I took the advice not out of any desire to embark on the program of recovery as described in the Big Book, but because I was beaten-up so badly I would’ve eaten the book if you promised me that I’d stop hurting.
After 14 years of sobriety, I’d somehow talked myself into having a Guinness stout in a Dublin pub. It’s important to know that it wasn’t like I’d flown to Ireland after answering phones at Intergroup. I’d started to drift away from the program for some time. But whatever precipitated the drink, the aftereffect was a six-year, death-defying blaze during which I progressed from an average, everyday blackout drunk to a middle-aged crack addict. Not a pretty sight, I assure you.
Nor was I that cute in meetings. Counting days after you’ve had years isn’t a happy place. When I wasn’t in a rage, or in cloying self-pity, I was the resident cynic. I desperately longed for the magic I felt the first time around, but everything had changed, including AA. I needed a miracle.
The Big Book study and the Atlantic Group were the Tea Party and I was an Upper East Side lefty, the product of an old New Age of AA that was dead and gone.
So armed with couple of sharpened #2 pencils, and holding onto my brand new fourth edition—and a thread of hope—I headed over to Jan Hus, a Presbyterian church and neighborhood center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was operating on blind faith. Though I’d read the Big Book, or at least most of the Big Book, no one would ever accuse me of being a student of it. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who was a student of it. When I first got sober in 1981, when I was 26, the Big Book was little more than an afterthought, something old-timers told you to read if you had trouble sleeping. (I’m aware that the Big Book is the most important piece of program literature for just about everywhere else. But below 96th Street, during much of the 80s and 90s, the bible of Alcoholics Anonymous ranked in spiritual priority somewhere between past life regression therapy and The Artist’s Way). So, when I crawled back into the rooms, I was shocked to see that the book stood Atlas-like over Manhattan’s AA. You couldn’t swing a Twelve and Twelve without smacking some Big Book swami right in the head with it.
The guy leading the meeting’s name was Rob (it wasn’t really Rob but he looked like a Rob). He had about seven or eight years, just sober long enough to be dangerous. He was prematurely gray, wore a short sleeve, button-down shirt that really deserved a pocket protector, and owned the impenetrable positive attitude of someone who either lives every moment of his life by the letter of the first 164 pages of the book of Alcoholics Anonymous or is on a serious dosage of Effexor.
The room was packed, overflowing with young, eager followers who fawned over Rob. They all owned those AA eyes—the ones filled with hope, helpfulness and puppy dog tails. A few weeks before, the same friend who’d suggested the Big Book study dragged me to the Atlantic Group, a huge Big Book-centric meeting that fills the sanctuary of a church on Park Avenue. There I’d seen hundreds of the same sets of eyes, the same enthusiastic expressions. My first sponsor always told me not to compare insides with outsides but I couldn’t help feeling like they all had something that I didn’t. They talked about the Big Book with such reverence, such precision, but in a kind of creepy lockstep. It felt so different than the easy-does-it, wide-road AA I fell in love with. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
It’s no surprise then that when Rob spent about 45 minutes explaining the meaning of the title page—which contains a total of about 15 words—I started feeling a little antsy. Then, as he had us underline specific phrases like “this volume” in the preface to the first edition, I felt myself starting to squeeze my pencil. But it was when he dictated a prayer for us to write that was about as long as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and essentially directed us to listen only to what he was about to tell us, that I felt my whole head getting hot. I put up my hand.
“Hey Rob, can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Where’d this prayer come from?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“From what book or scripture did you get it?”
“Oh, my sponsor and I came up with it.”
“Yes it is.”
“Well unless your sponsor wears sandals and lived two or three thousand years ago I think I'm gonna leave.”
And I stood up and stormed out. On the street, my anger collapsed into a black hole. The Big Book study and the Atlantic Group were the Tea Party and I was an Upper East Side lefty, the product of an old New Age of AA that was dead and gone. With no place for me in this modern sober time, I didn’t know what to do.
Luckily, I didn’t do anything stupid. And a week or so later I ran into a guy at a meeting that I knew from my first time around. Peter so fully embraces the idea of wearing the program like a loose garment that if he were any more serene, he’d be in a coma. He knows the book pretty well, though he rarely quotes it or cites page numbers. When I asked him to be my sponsor he said: “Cool, man.” My kind of guy.
I read the book again and we talked about it over coffee. When it came time to do some work, we used the Big Book as my guide. It’s a remarkable piece of literature. Ornate, archaic and even misogynistic in places, it’s somehow utterly perfect. And in my opinion, the reason for its perfection has nothing to do with the way it was written and everything to do with the way it’s read. That’s when the miracle of the Big Book happens, when a drunk picks it up and identifies with the words on the page: a spiritual connection that is unique and personal, and can’t be dictated, guru-ed or swami-ed.
I’ll celebrate 10 years this August and I’m not nearly as miserable and angry as I was in those early days. I’ve even acquired some tolerance; some of my best friends are Big Book thumpers and Atlantic Groupies. I can hold my own in conversations with them about the book. I have it on my iPhone. I read it all the time, waiting for the bus or on the subway. And the best part of the app is you can’t underline a thing.
Brian Maclaine is a pseudonym for an author in New York.