Why Bill W. Wrote the 12 Steps Twice
The AA founder penned two versions of the 12 Steps, separated by 15 years and a lifetime of troubles. Their differences will surprise you.
The 12 Steps are the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous—but which 12 Steps?
The two principal versions of the 12 Steps are markedly different in history and in spirit. One was written by a young, optimistic Bill Wilson on the pink cloud of early sobriety; the other was written by Wilson 15 years later when he was disillusioned and suffering from crippling depression. He wrote the first version in a borrowed office with a pretty secretary transcribing; he wrote the second in a cinderblock shack built to escape visitors, with a judgmental editor so disgusted with Wilson’s shenanigans that he broke away from AA a few years later. Needless to say, the two versions—one published in Alcoholics Anonymous (aka the Big Book) in 1939; the other in 1953’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions—paint very different pictures of the problem of alcoholism and its AA solution.
In the spring of 1938, AA was a fledgling organization, little more than a brainstorm in the minds of two native Vermonters who had managed to stop drinking: Wilson, a salesman in Brooklyn, New York, and Dr. Bob Smith, a proctologist in Akron, Ohio. It was Bill’s idea to write a book for people who couldn’t get to AA meetings. He began work in the Newark, New Jersey, offices of Honor Dealers, owned by an early AA member named Hank Parkhurst, drafting and dictating to Parkhurst’s secretary Ruth Hock. Quickly Wilson realized that he needed a structure for the book.
One night at home in Brooklyn, taking as a model the six tenets of the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical group of which both Wilson and Smith had been members, he began writing. “I relaxed and asked for guidance,” he recalled later. “With a speed that was astonishing…I completed the first draft.” When he numbered the steps he had written, there were twelve.
As each chapter was finished, it was circulated in New York and Akron for editing by veteran newsmen who had gotten sober in AA. Some pages of the original manuscript are almost illegible because of the many edits, most of which make the text more inclusive and less Christian. For instance, Bill Wilson’s first draft of the seventh step read: “Humbly, on our knees, asked God to forgive our shortcomings.” The phrase “on our knees” was deleted, even as the phrase “as we understood him” was added to the word “God” in the third step.
Some mornings, Tom Powers later told me, Bill would just put his head down on his desk and weep while Powers and Love tapped out the new steps on Bill’s typewriter.
It was more than a decade—and a World War—later, when AA was becoming so popular that Bill Wilson avoided meetings, before he thought that it was time for some system of governing and by-laws for the organization. By then he had read thousands of letters written by groups all over the world, many with the same questions and a few with the same solutions. To bring all the knowledge together he planned a new book of "twelve traditions"—these are the by-laws—and an expansion of the 12 Steps. The steps in the Big Book are often brief and run together; Bill wanted to amplify each step and give it its due.
Dr. Bob had died in 1950, and Bill and Lois Wilson were living in the shingled house called Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York. To edit the new book, Bill tapped AA friend Tom Powers, who had worked in advertising and lived nearby in Chappaqua, and magazine editor Betty Love. The three met in the morning in Wit’s End, the cinderblock office Bill had built on a ridge above his house. Soon after they began the work, Bill was felled with the third disabling depression of his life, which he called a “period of blackness.” Some mornings, Tom Powers later told me, Bill would just put his head down on his desk and weep while Powers and Love tapped out the new steps on Bill’s typewriter.
I interviewed Tom Powers before he died at his All Addicts Anonymous (AAA) East Ridge retreat, in Callicoon, New York, where he had established his own sober community after angrily leaving AA in 1958. Powers said that he could no longer tolerate Bill Wilson’s philandering; he also had reason to think Bill was a thief. While Powers’ judgmental voice is evident in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill’s mood had also become much darker. After 15 years’ leading AA, he was tired; he felt an enormous burden of responsibility and expectation. In fact, he introduced a resolution that passed in 1955 to turn AA over to its members.
“It may appear that AA consists mainly of racking dilemmas and trouble-shooting,” he wrote near the end of the book. “We have been talking about problems because we are problem people.” When another writer—Jack Alexander—complimented Bill on his work, Bill answered, “Besides my natural tendency to procrastinate, I’ve had a dreadful hex about further writing. Figure I had been so beat up by the events of these last years that I could never bring off anything more that would be worthwhile.”
The darkness in which the new steps were composed is reflected in the harshness of their tone. In step four in Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, readers are gently led to the idea that they may have some part in their own misfortunes. There is no judgment. But in step four in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, readers are told that they are “tyrannized” by their desires, which has resulted in emotional “deformities.” Readers are scolded for imposing their instincts on others and giving in to uncontrollable desires for prestige with a resulting “perverse soul-sickness.” The Big Book promises that God is waiting: “when we drew near him he disclosed himself to us!” The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions often describes a God who can seem unjust or heavy-handed.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, another New Englander, famously wrote. AA literature is magnificently inconsistent, often contradicting itself or dramatically changing its point of view, as it did about the steps from 1938 to 1953. This was part of Bill Wilson’s ability to make AA welcoming to almost anyone who needed help. It’s hard to pick a fight with someone who is on your side.
Susan Cheever is a columnist for The Fix, and the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill, about AA's founder.