Star Wars and AA: Comparing Myths Over the Last 40 Years

By Jesse Beach 01/16/18

Early members did not find their sobriety by working the steps exactly as outlined in the first 164 pages. That story is AA’s hero’s journey—partly truth and partly myth.

Master Yoda at the Star Wars area, Madame Tussauds wax museum. It is a major tourist attraction in London
Teach newcomers to resist the dark side, you must.

Who saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi? Who remembers seeing the 1977 original in theatres? Or is Star Wars older than you? My family contributed $50 of the Star Wars: The Last Jedi's $800 Million take in the last two weeks of 2017. What a long, strange trip 40 years of Star Wars fandom has been. My life’s adventure already included 12-step culture through the mid-1970s. By 1977, I celebrated my first full year, clean and sober. Along with other theatergoers, we were enchanted by Yoda’s lesson: harness the power of The Force. This tapping into The Force and resisting the dark-side metaphor influenced 12-step culture. Even if you had some reason to avoid the movie in the 70s and 80s, you sure heard about it in the rooms.

Joseph Campbell, scholar and author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, is known for his comparative mythology study. This monomyth or hero’s journey, as Campbell would frame it, is what inspires you or me when it comes to Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, Frodo, Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games), Buddha, Jesus or Bill Wilson. These characters, mythical or historical, all depict this hero’s journey. Most recently, Christopher Vogler, in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (2007), described the hero’s journey as a 12 step process, including: a call to adventure, refusal of the call, a mentor, tests, ordeals, atonement, rewards and the road back; sound familiar?

We hear about promoting the idea of the science of addiction/recovery. Sometimes fiction gives meaning to life better than facts. Experiencing Spirituality: Finding Meaning Through Storytelling, the last collaboration of Ernie Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, points out the interdependence of fiction and real life: "Myth is something that never happened because it is always happening." 

Star Wars mythology shaped the 12-step narrative in 1977. Forty years later, making another 12 step/Star Wars comparison, Luke is the (reluctant) sponsor to the young Jedi, newcomer Rey. Master Yoda is now the sponsor’s sponsor. If the latest Star Wars is going to have another fellowship-wide cultural influence, I wonder if this passage is a foreshadowing that reverberates with us:

Master Yoda: Time it is; hmm. For you to look past a pile of old books?

Luke Skywalker: The sacred Jedi texts.

Master Yoda: Read them, have you?

Luke Skywalker: Well, I…

Master Yoda: Page-turners they were not. Yes, yes, yes. Wisdom they held, but that library contained nothing that the girl Rey does not already possess.

For future AAs, will being included among those who have “recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” rely on some precise formula within the dusty pages of our version of the sacred Jedi text? I’m going to argue that the sobriety-granting magic isn’t hiding in the words on Big Book pages. History from AA archives suggests that maybe it never was.

Members whose sobriety is date-stamped Century-21 may find the facts about my sobriety surprising. A long time ago, in an AA far, far away, I came to meetings, got active, got a sponsor, worked the steps, never read Alcoholics Anonymous; full stop.

Sounds weird doesn’t it? I assure you that I wasn’t an exception. AA has changed. Today, our text is viewed as sacred—not so much in the 1970s, certainly not with my running mates.

While the book that bears our fellowship’s name is ubiquitous today, this was not always the case. I didn’t attend or know of a single meeting in my early years where members collectively read from the Big Book. I went to lots of meetings, roundups and weekend conferences from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, Massachusetts to Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains—no Big Book meetings that I remember.

I moved to Calgary. Montreal meetings had been mostly speaker meetings; Calgary meetings were mostly discussions. Sometimes there would be topics. Sometimes we’d read Living Sober, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Came to Believe, Grapevine, or something from Hazelden. Almost always we’d be reading AA wisdom from an alcoholic who was still alive. If the original 100 members were the keepers of some secret sobriety-ensuring wisdom that contemporary AA members lacked, I never heard about it. No one was anti—Big Book, I saw it standing up as a prop at the front of many AA meetings; it’s just that there was always something more contemporary to read when it was time to read. I worked the Steps, I had a sponsor, I just never owned or read a Big Book until later.

Ten years of sobriety was celebrated in Toronto in 1986 where I’d lived for the past year. My home-group bought me Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World as a gift. When I was new to sobriety I had a short attention span and maybe a learning disability. Reading 164 pages of anything was unrealistic in my first year. By year ten, I was a reader. I read about AA’s history which tweaked my interest in the Big Book. I read that next for historical context. And guess what? By now, living in Toronto, there was also a wealth of Big Book meetings to attend.

So, what changed AA from the 70s to the 80s? Let’s look at some statistics. While Alcoholics Anonymous sells a million copies per-annum these days, our book wasn’t a best-seller coming out of the gate. Bill W was cold in the ground before AA sold the millionth Big Book. We sold 110,000 copies in 1973 and cumulatively sales notched 1,078,367. Hooray!

Let’s consider this for a moment. It took 34 years, from 1939 to 1973, to sell our first million copies. Then something happened—maybe institutional buying (treatment centers), I don’t know. By 1987, AA celebrated our first million-Big-Book-sales year. This phenomenon kept repeating itself year after year. So, if you got sober in the 35 years since 1987, you were indoctrinated into a very different AA than I was; you were introduced to an AA of Big Book abundance.

From 1987 to 2010, only six years saw sub-million-Big-Book-sales. This decade, book sales have languished. Big Books sell in the 850,00 to 950,00 copies per-year range; that’s still better than most best sellers.

In 2010, the ceremonial 30-millionth Big Book was given to the American Medical Association at our San Antonio Convention. Five years later, in Atlanta, the 35th-million Alcoholics Anonymous was given to Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine, the religious order of Sister Ignatia, who worked closely with Dr. Bob in early AA.

I’m not saying no one used the Big Book. History shows that while I was getting sober, getting a sponsor and navigating the 12 steps, the legendary Joe McQ & Charlie P met. Together, as we have read, they would make Big Book studies a rite of passage in AA. My journey in AA isn’t reflected in (what I call) a revisionist history suggesting early members found their sobriety by working the steps, exactly as outlined in the first 164 pages. This story is AA’s hero’s journey—partly truth and partly myth. Literal interpretation of the first edition subtitle might lead to this hardening of the attitudes: Alcoholics Anonymous: How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism.

As you now know, my AA journey isn’t a Big Book journey, nor was this the case in the company I kept, who—in case you are concerned for their welfare—are mostly enjoying contented sobriety or, in some cases, died sober. It’s great to be inspired by Star Wars; it would be foolhardy to take it literally. Big Book inspiration is good, too. The truth of AA also suffers from being taken literally. One hundred wasn’t exactly one hundred and the 164 pages isn’t a step-by-step account of precisely how early AA found sobriety.

The first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous contained 28 stories. Historical records show that 75% of those members died sober. That’s good. These people didn’t work the 12 steps exactly as outlined in the Big Book because their stories were written before either our 12 steps—or the book we find them in—were codified. Instead, most early AAs worked a 6-step program and both the wording and order changed from member to member. Bill Wilson didn’t bring Doctor Bob a book or 12 steps, either. Doctor Bob’s indoctrination into AA sobriety, like mine, didn’t include a book or any established process. This is the pluralism and versatility of AA’s many paths. In this way, AA is an oral tradition, not paint-by-numbers.

From AA archives, Bill Wilson shares with Howard E about AA literalism, in 1961: “As time passes our book literature has a tendency to get more and more frozen, a tendency for conversion into something like dogma, a human trait I am afraid we can do little about. We may as well face the fact that AA will always have its fundamentalists, its absolutists and its relativists.”

Noam Chomsky knows a thing or two about culture and wisdom. As for the hope for AA longevity, we can defer to Chomsky’s reflection on the evolution of language and meaning: “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varies. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

As we see from Star Wars lore, Yoda assures Luke that Jedi wisdom isn’t codified in dusty texts or yesterday’s language. Yes, the books contain wisdom, but universal wisdom is neither exclusive, unique nor precious. Mentorship is helpful; but is it because of our instruction or our example? Young Jedi Rey, when tested, taps that unsuspected inner resource. The force was strong with Luke’s new apprentice, without following any steps of any sacred text—at least, not exactly as written.

Rey’s Jedi journey will be different than mentor Luke’s journey or Yoda before him. The lesson on this 40th year of Jedi wisdom warns that rigid interpretation of Jedi customs is the road to extinction. Books holding wisdom from the past ought to be held out as helpful, not sacred. Continuity of a way of life requires adapting to and for the next generation.

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Jesse Beach may be a contrarian. Clean and sober since the disco-era, Jesse finds the prayer-answering, sobriety-granting higher power notion a wee-bit superstitious for his pallet. Still, he finds a secular view of 12-Step culture no impediment to contented recovery. As a rebel, he's no follower either. Anonymity is so-last-century in this next-Gen smiley faces and voices recovery culture. Jesse's not shy; he just finds the message is the medium - not the messenger. Be the face and voice of recovery; have at it; Jesse is kickin' it old-school. Psst, Jesse Beach might not even be his real name. 

Besides addiction/recovery lifestyle journalism, Jesse's word-smithary is also found in music, finance and cue-sport magazines and websites. Jesse hosts a radio show on Sirius XM called, IndieCan Radio, "the best music you've never heard!" When he's away from his computer, you'll find him mountain climbing, cooking or songwriting.

Lurk or make contact with Jesse B on Rebellion Dogs at his website, Twitter, and Facebook.