The Legend of Joe and Charlie

By Kristen McGuiness 11/15/11
An AA friendship that started 30 years ago led to a clear, concise interpretation of the Big Book. So who were the men behind the movement?
The men that brought the Big Book to life Photo via

When sober people talk about the program, the two most common names you’ll hear tossed around are, of course, Bill and Bob. But there’s another duo that are spoken about with nearly equal reverence: Joe McQuany and Charlie Parmley, a team of two men (who died in 2007 and 2011, respectively) known as Joe and Charlie who met in 1973 and spent the next three decades spreading their interpretation of the Big Book.

These two Southern gentlemen are credited with making the program literature accessible to many who might have otherwise found the language archaic, obtuse or just downright confusing. As Larry Gaines, the CEO of the Kelly Foundation—an organization dedicated to recovery from addiction that Joe McQuany launched in 1978—“People often say that it took Bill and Bob to write the Big Book but it took Joe and Charlie to explain it.”

While most download their Joe and Charlie “Big Book Comes Alive” talks from one of many AA-related speaker sites (such as XA-Speakers), others get hip to the Joe and Charlie way by attending special AA meetings formatted around their book studies.

It took Bill and Bob to write the Big Book but it took Joe and Charlie to explain it.

“I was just back from a relapse when I started going,” says Felicia, a 27 year-old sober graphic designer from Los Angeles. “I was in such a fog and so disappointed in myself, and I think I would have listened to anyone who seemed to be doing better than I was. It didn’t matter that they were two old guys from the South; their message rang through all my guilt and shame and began to show me some hope.”

Joe and Charlie also helped Natalie, a 36-year old magazine editor from the Bay Area, to reach double-digit sobriety. “I was about eight years sober when I first downloaded a Joe & Charlie talk,” she recalls. “I was amazed by the way they broke down the fourth step—I'd never actually had a sponsor direct me to write out my fears the same way I'd written out my resentments.” Natalie asked her sponsor if they could work the fourth step the “Joe and Charlie way” and “that blueprint completely changed the way I dealt with fear.”

Adds Felicia, “Suddenly, Big Book chapters like For the Wives and To the Employer made sense because Joe and Charlie talked about how they applied to anyone’s lives in sobriety—I suddenly became aware of the choices I made as a daughter and as a worker. I began to understand that the Promises were a spiritual destination—that freedom from financial insecurity didn’t mean I was going to be rich, but rather that I would have faith in where I was at financially in that moment.”

According to Gaines, the unlikely partnership of Joe and Charlie was all the result of McQuany’s tenuous beginnings in AA. “Joe had been studying the book since 1962 when he first got sober,” says Gaines. “Since he was an African-American man living in Little Rock, Arkansas during that time, he was only allowed to stand in the back of meetings and had to leave as soon as they were over. He couldn’t participate in fellowship. So he got into the book.” After a few years, someone told him about a fellow Southerner who was equally enthusiastic about the Big Book: Charlie. “He thought they were referring to another African-American man in the program,” Gaines relays, “but he came to find that though Charlie was a different color, they both shared a love for the book.” The two men began meeting to study the book, “and over time, people started getting wind of what they were doing. Someone started taping them and by 1974, those tapes started to spread. It just blossomed from there.”

Peter, a 49-year-old engineer in Arizona, is among those who have benefitted from that blossoming. Peter had decided it was time to quit drinking after his second divorce 10 years ago and The Big Book Comes Alive meetings quickly became the foundation of his recovery. “I really didn’t understand what was happening in the meetings for a while, and then it kind of began to sink in,” he recalls, describing the meetings as 20 minutes of the group listening to Big Book Comes Alive tapes, followed by a speaker followed by sharing. “There’s a lot of listening, and it’s a really meditative meeting because of that,” Peter says. “But the meetings are only one part of it. I think the tapes really drive people further into the book.” 

According to Billy DeLuca, Joe McQuany’s former secretary and the Chief Financial Officer for Serenity Park—a rehabilitation center in Little Rock founded by McQuany—“The true legacy of Joe and Charlie’s conversations was that actual understanding of the steps. For them, it was about letting the personalities subside and bringing the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to the forefront—breaking the 12 steps down in a way that people could could see how the Big Book could be present in their lives, and then practicing those principles in all of their affairs. They viewed the Big Book as a treatment model.” 

According to Gaines, what fueled Joe and Charlie’s passion for spreading their interpretation of the book was a belief that “a lot of people had a lot of misconceptions about AA and didn’t understand the difference between the fellowship and the program—which comes out of the book.” When the federal government came in during the early 70s to start spending money on rehabilitation services, Gaines explains, ”Treatment centers and the American Medical Association and the insurance companies and social workers got involved, bringing their own language and ideas into how people should work the program.” Joe and Charlie continued to present the un-watered down version of AA—as it was outlined in the book.

What Peter found in the Big Book Comes Alive meetings that he didn’t in regular old AA was “a real consistency. I think I really appreciated hearing one straight approach to how to work the steps. It suddenly became so simple. I’ve heard the tapes now several times and know the sequence of their stories but I still pick up things I haven’t heard before. Having that kind of structure and clarity was really important for me in getting sober.”

Gaines believes it’s that very same clarity that has helped make the Big Book Comes Alive tapes so popular. “When Joe and Charlie began teaching the book, it started getting people back into the heart of AA,” he says. “They were able to so beautifully teach people the difference between the program and the fellowship—between what they called ‘the weak cup of tea,’ which came from people coming out of treatment, and into AA—what they called ‘the strong cup of tea,’ which was found in the Big Book. Through The Big Book Comes Alive conferences, which were held internationally from the early 1970s until just last year, Joe and Charlie sold almost five million Big Books on their own.”

According to DeLuca, “Their impact really is phenomenal. One of the organizers for a recent AA conference told me that AA quietly considers Joe and Charlie to have had the most significant impact on AA in the last 30 years."

For Felicia, the impact of hearing two old Southern man talk about a book that was written well before her time still resonates in her life today. “I guess just hearing how I can relate to people who are so different from me always brings me back to that singleness of purpose,” she says. “It helps me to remember that we are alcoholics, just trying to get well. And for me, my wellness has been found in the Big Book. I am extremely grateful for that, and for the people like Joe and Charlie who are able to really illuminate that and still keep their humor about them.”

AA quietly considers Joe and Charlie to have had the most significant impact on AA in the last 30 years.

It doesn’t hurt that Joe and Charlie are incredibly amusing (you won’t hear a lot of speakers cracking jokes about the lacks of cows talking about their sexual problems). ”They’re funny,” Peter says. “They have this folksy charm that helps the medicine go down, which has always been what I love about AA. We can talk about these serious matters and still laugh at ourselves.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about the 13th step and dreaming about drinking, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life

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