Joe & Charlie: The Other Two Old Drunks

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Joe & Charlie: The Other Two Old Drunks

By Jodi Sh. Doff 07/15/15

We all know it began with Bill W., Dr. Bob Smith and their Big Book. But there were two other old drunks at the center of AA we shouldn't forget.

Image: 
Joe McQuany and Charlie Parmley
Photo via

In the beginning, there were two old drunks with a desire to stop drinking, out of which came a program called Alcoholics Anonymous and a book commonly known as just “The Big Book.” The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is a 164-page instruction manual on how to get and stay sober written and edited by Bill Wilson, Dr. Bob Smith and more than 30 other sober drunks in two cities, none of whom had more than four years off the sauce. 

Like another iconic book whose authorship is both collective and unclear, one also filled with stories and numbered “suggestions” for how to live your life, Big Book text has been misquoted, misused, and taken out of context. Groups meet to study both books, argue over what is really meant by this or that, discuss whether or not to take the culture of the time into consideration or to take things at face value. Just as there are infinite interpretations of the Old and New Testaments from countless religious factions and Bible study groups, different sober camps and Big Book study groups discuss what is really meant by “no human power,” “working with others,” and exactly how to and how quickly one is supposed to do the infamous 12 steps. The Big Book is a bit like figuring out a set of Ikea instructions—minus their lovely Swedish diagrams—for building something you can’t actually see or touch and up until you picked up the instruction manual, you couldn’t even imagine existing.

Enter Joe McQ. and Charlie P., self-proclaimed AA fundamentalists who took their brand of simple AA wisdom around, “enlightening” those who were confused by the language and wanted simple directions. Thousands of sober members of AA have studied with them in weekend seminars, thousands more have heard recordings of their “The Big Book Comes Alive” weekends. Two minutes into the recording you get a mental picture of two old guys sitting on the front porch of a country store, rocking, telling stories, and sharing a jug of moonshine. You’d be almost right, minus the moonshine. 

Joe McQ. and Charlie P. met at an Al-Anon convention in 1973. Charlie was the visiting AA speaker, and Joe—probably there with his wife, an active Al-Anon member—was asked to introduce him. They talked and found a common interest in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the fact that neither could find anyone who would study with them. Neither willing to risk everything on the pervasive “meeting makers make it” attitude, the two considered themselves “old school” AA and wanted to really understand the Big Book and the program of AA. They met whenever they could, sometimes driving over 200 miles to each other’s homes, other times meeting in hotel rooms at AA conventions.

One of Charlie’s sponsees asked to join them and word started to get around. More and more sober alcoholics at conventions crammed into their hotel rooms to hear these guys talk about the Big Book. Someone at the 1977 Tulsa, Oklahoma, convention asked if they could come present a program on the book to his home group. That presentation was taped and circulated throughout the fellowship, sparking more invitations to present at conventions, roundups, and special events.

By 1980, they were heading up five or six weekends a year where they went through the Big Book line-by-line and everyone attending did all 12 steps over the two days. Joe and Charlie had a way of talking about the Big Book and the steps that any John or Jane Doe average drunk right off the street could understand. One would read a passage aloud from the Big Book, and the other would comment and they’d share their personal experience and the history that went into the writing of that section, that sentence, and even the choice of words, and in doing so they were able to make “the program” of AA easy to understand despite sometimes old-fashioned, outdated, and confusing language.

What started as just the two of them in their living rooms, became a few more men in hotel rooms, then their first weekend presentation for 35 AA members in Lawton, Oklahoma, and then it was nothing to see 800 people show up for a weekend seminar. Joe and Charlie's Big Book studies have been given in every state, most Canadian provinces, Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands.

But before they were “Joe & Charlie,” they were Joe McQuany and Charlie Parmley.

Born into a family of drunks during the Great Depression in 1929, Charlie Parmley kept a fairly low-profile. He grew up in Tulsa, joined the Army after high school, and served in Germany at the tail end of World War II. He got married and moved to Arkansas to farm and raise a family. Despite following in the Parmley footsteps and being drunk for a number of years, he had a reputation in town as that guy who was always willing to reach out a hand to help where it was needed. Charlie got sober in 1970 and started studying the Big Book seriously with Joe in 1973. For Charlie it was all about the steps: “Remember, we recover by the steps we take, not the meetings we make!”

The same year they presented the first “Big Book Comes Alive” weekend, Charlie co-founded the House of Hope Recovery Center, a men-only residential facility located on 10 country acres in Oklahoma. He’s also responsible for organizing a trust fund that maintains Dr. Bob's Home in Akron and the Wilson House in Vermont. When Charlie died from a massive heart attack in 2011 at the age of 82, he’d been sober 41 years. Exactly half of his life.

Joe McQuany came from Kentucky but it was the Arkansas “nut house” that saved his life. In 1962, at the age of 34, Joe McQ woke up in the psych ward at the Arkansas State Hospital. He’d remarked more than once that in 1962 a white man could find some kind of program to treat his alcoholism, but black men like Joe wound up in state hospitals and psych wards. An AA group brought a meeting into the hospital and he went—mostly for the hot coffee and cigarettes those meetings were giving away. He’d gotten tired of trying to roll his own while his hands were still doing the detox shake and shimmy. He figured he’d just tune out the “evils of demon alcohol” lecture he expected, so he was surprised to hear the AA men talking about their own life stories and the solution they found in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Determined to stay sober, he sought out AA meetings when he was released, but racism was alive and well, and Little Rock, Arkansas, was no exception. The local AA group agreed to let him attend meetings as long as he didn’t a) get there early, b) stick around afterwards, or c) drink their coffee. “Little Rock was no place for a black man to be looking for help in 1962,” Joe said when talking about early sobriety. But he wanted what he had seen in the eyes of those sober men who’d visited the psych ward of the Arkansas State Hospital. If isolation was the price, he was willing to pay it to get and stay sober. The isolation from fellowship meant the Big Book was his primary source of recovery information, and it spurred him to organize new AA groups on his own.

Frustrated by the limited treatment resources out there for alcoholics in the early ‘70s, armed with a $330 grant and a few charitable donations, he founded a program he called Serenity House. There was no actual house in the beginning, but that would come later. He developed Recovery Dynamics, a treatment model for addiction and the high rate of recovery found at Serenity House created a demand from other facilities that wanted to replicate that success. Serenity House grew into the Serenity Park Treatment Center, an extended care facility open to anyone—black, white, broke or billionaire—who needed to get the monkey off their back.  

“People try to attack the protective barrier of ‘denial’ and get the alcoholic to admit he is an alcoholic,” Joe McQ. said. “The jury is still out on how effective this can be. In most cases this is a waste of time as most alcoholics are better at denial than you are at counseling.” In addition to the Recovery Dynamics Counselor’s Manual, Joe published two other books: The Steps We Took, study suggestions for working the 12 steps, and a guide to sponsorship called Carry This Message. Battling Parkinson’s disease but still not satisfied he’d done enough to help, he founded a treatment facility for women, out of which the Kelly Foundation was born to develop and distribute educational materials about the treatment of alcoholism and substance abuse. In 2007, Parkinson’s disease finally won. 

Joe McQ. and Charlie P. traveled the world taking people through the Big Book and their legacy lives on online, on your smartphone via three different Joe and Charlie smartphone apps, and in Big Book study groups everywhere. You can download an mp3 for free, stream the recording online, or buy a CD and hear Charlie remind his audience that they’re just two “old drunks who met together several years ago, found we had a mutual interest in the Big Book. We studied it together for quite some time. Hopefully, we’ve learned a few things about it. And those few things we’ve learned about it we just love to be able to share them with other people.”

Jodi Sh. Doff has written for Bust, Cosmopolitan, xoJane and Penthouse among many other publications. Her last piece for The Fix was about Native American Sobriety Circles.

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