AA Sues To Stop The Auctioning Of Original Big Book Manuscript

By Kelly Burch 05/24/17

In the suit, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services claims the current owner has no right to auction off the historical document. 

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and author of The Big Book Photo via YouTube

The organization Alcoholics Anonymous is suing the owner of an original manuscript of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (better known as "The Big Book") containing Bill W.’s revisions and notes, hoping to stop the manuscript from being auctioned on June 8th. 

The 161-page manuscript is expected to bring in $2-3 million at auction, but Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. (AAWS) says that the owner does not actually have the rights to the manuscript. The auction house, Profiles in History, is auctioning the item on behalf of the current owner, Ken Roberts. In a lawsuit brought in New York state, AAWS claims that the manuscript was gifted to the organization in 1979, but that through "extreme negligence” it was never turned over to the organization, according to Reuters.  

Bill W.—whose given name was William Griffith Wilson—wrote The Big Book to outline the principles of AA. After his death, his widow inherited the manuscript, and she gifted it to Barry Leach in 1978. He arranged to have the manuscript gifted to AA upon his death, according to the lawsuit. However, after Leach died in 1985 the organization never took possession of the manuscript. Roberts bought it at auction in 2007 for $992,000. That same year AA learned of the gift, but Roberts refused to give the manuscript to the organization. 

According to the lawsuit, "The manuscript is an original, historical document of unique importance to AAWS, and undeniably is a critical piece of its history," and the defendants "are wrongfully detaining the manuscript for their own pecuniary gain.”

The manuscript has received attention because of the changes that Bill W. made to the text. “You can see Bill struggling, he’s reviewing it and cleaning it. He didn’t want to shove the concept of God down anyone’s throat,” Joe Maddalena, owner of the auction house Profiles in History, told The New York Post.

The original version read, in part, “Remember that you are dealing with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for you. But there is One who has all power—That One is God. You must find him now.”

In his edits, Bill W. toned down the passionate passage, and replaced “you” with “we.” Rather than commanding that people find God, the edited passage reads “May you find Him!”

The Big Book was originally published in 1939. Today it is in its fourth edition, and has sold more than 30 million copies. 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Kelly Burch Contrib.jpg

Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.