Facts & Fables: William Schaberg Explores the Big Book's True Origins

By Jesse Beach 11/15/19

Both Big Book zealots and AA’s harshest critics will have a problem with this book—you’re either blasphemous for criticizing a saint or not going far enough to expose a fraud.

Book cover: Writing the Big Book - The creation of A.A.
For an academic text, it reads like a detective novel.

It’s been 40 years since Earnest Kurtz's Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was the last substantial scholarly research into AA’s early years. This week, William Schaberg's three pound, 800-page Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A. was released, and it's already cracked the top 20 in both Amazon’s Twelve-Step Programs and Alcoholism Recovery categories. People are ready for something new.

“The first chapter is called, ‘Challenging the Creation Myths,’” Schaberg explains. “The chapters that follow in Writing the Big Book do just that, again and again.”

The “We” Myth

The Fix: “I’ve heard the stories about the Big Book being a collective effort of AA pioneers recording their shared experiences. Bill W has said he was less the author and more the umpire, with members arguing, deliberating, and carving out Alcoholics Anonymous together, chapter by chapter, line by line. Is this story of an authorial ‘We’ a mischaracterization of how the Big Book was written?

WS: “Bill is writing back and forth to Dr. Bob and sending him draft chapters. By the time of the third letter, Wilson writes, ‘I’m having a hard time getting input here in New York, Bob. I’m glad you like the chapters but I need some critical feedback, here.’ Bill gets zero from Ohio. 

I think one of the reasons that Bill was having a hard time getting feedback was, despite his protestations, Wilson didn’t do very well with input. Bill said proudly that despite adding ‘as we understood Him,’ and taking ‘on our knees’ out of Step Seven, the Steps remained exactly as he wrote them. Bill was fighting a rearguard action all the time because people did want him to change it. A Dr. Howard famously reviewed The Big Book with many criticisms, saying, ‘You’ve got to take all the You out and replace it with We. You can’t tell an alcoholic what to do; tell them what you did; explain how it worked for you.’ Wilson did not want to make these changes. 

Late in my research I stumbled across a letter Hank Parkhurst wrote 17 days before the book came out saying, ‘Bill you’ve got to make these changes. If you don’t, I’ll form a committee and we’ll make them for you.’ It was a huge powerplay by Hank to get what he thought had to be done in the book. Bill finally conceded but he didn’t want to do it. This is one example of how resistant Wilson was with anyone messing with anything he’d written.”

The Fix: “So, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t the work of a collective?” 

WS: “The hundred men, who argued about the book in AA meetings, blood on the floor. It didn’t happen. It did in fact happen out at Hank Parkhurst’s Honor Dealers office between Hank, Fitz Mayo and Bill arguing about what should and shouldn’t be in the book. It didn’t happen in meetings; it did happen in a New Jersey office. 

It’s amazing how recalcitrant and negative Akron and Cleveland was about this whole book. Dr. Bob got an old newspaper man sober—Jim Scott—and we are told a story that these Akron guys weren’t writers; they wanted to write their story, but they needed Jim to help polish it up. The truth was, aside from a couple of members, they didn’t want to do them. Jim was sent by Dr. Bob to go have coffee with them one at a time, he gets them to tell him their story, Jim goes home and writes their stories. Is that the same as this sainted story about how Jim just helped these guys? No. Bill was putting heat on Bob for stories. Bob was desperate and he found a way to get it done; Jim wrote the stories.”

The Twelve Steps Origin Myth

The Fix: “AA’s Pass It On describes The Big Book chapters as being written in the order they appear. How did the book come together chronologically?”

WS: “‘Bill’s Story’ and ‘There is a Solution’ were written in late May of 1938. Hank Parkhurst and Wilson were shopping the sample chapters around in the hopes of raising money; June, July, August—nothing. Parkhurst comes up with a new idea. There’s a writer for This Week Magazine, Silas Bent, that they’re trying to sober up – he’s slipping and sliding – Hank convinces Silas to submit a story about Alcoholics Anonymous. Hank’s idea was that, at the end of the story, they’d ask readers to send $1 and for that dollar they’d get five chapters, Hank thought five chapters would make the buck worthwhile. So, he goes back to Wilson and says, ‘Two chapters isn’t going to cut it—we need more.’

Wilson started writing on September 15th, 1938 and wrote ‘More About Alcoholism’ and ‘We Agnostics,’ Chapters Three and Four.” 

The Fix: “Chapters Five and Six in the Book are “How It Works” and “Into Action,” all about the Steps. That’s not what Bill Wilson started writing next?” 

WS: “Right, he didn’t have Twelve Steps yet. ‘Working With Others’ was written next, ‘To Wives,’ ‘The Family Afterwards’ and then ‘A Vision For You.’ Somewhere in there, Hank Parkhurst wrote ‘To Employers.’ So, these Chapters were basically done by December 1938.”

Schaberg describes this stage in a section in his book called, A Vision for How to Get and Stay Sober:

Wilson knew that sooner or later, he would have to face the challenge of creating a chapter that outlined, in the clearest possible terms the actions needed to get and then stay sober. It was, he later commented, a problem that “had secretly worried the life out of him for months before he finally got around to writing it.” But so long as there was at least one single chapter that still needed to be written, Bill would elect to write that instead of facing the intimidating task of putting down on paper the exact details of the program of recovery.

WS: “’Writing the Twelve Steps’—Chapter 23—it was the hardest for me to write. It took months and months. I was trying to make sense of the contradictory stories I was hearing. We’ve all heard the story that Bill laid in bed with a yellow pad and a pencil, he realizes that he has to write something concrete, you know, that ‘drunks couldn’t wiggle out of.’ he gets inspired, he wrote them out, there were twelve, he thinks that’s the coolest thing in the world; he goes downstairs; two guys are there having coffee with Lois. They gave him all kinds of grief, ‘God use to be at the bottom; now he’s at the top. You have drunks getting down on their knees,’ in the original version of Step Seven. That’s how Bill tells it. And when I started looking at it, it just didn’t make any sense. Other times, Bill said that The Twelve Steps were based on the word-of-mouth six steps.”

The Fix: “Pass It On gets referenced in AA meetings, it talks about a variety of six step programs being practiced. From your findings, when did the story of six steps first start getting told?”

WS: “1950; that’s the first evidence I could find of him telling that story. The [six steps] story morphs from 1950 to 1951. First there was the ‘Ebby brought Bill the six steps’ story. Then, a story he often repeated later was that the six steps came out of the group’s collective experience. This was the pragmatic answer, in six steps to how you stop drinking. But here’s the problem: there’s no six steps before 1939. There are 28 stories of alcoholics in the back of the First Edition Big Book written by people from Ohio and New York. Now you would think that if there was a six-step program, people would be talking about it, somebody would be talking, most of them would be talking about working this step or that one. but read the original stories.”

The Fix: “Zero for 28, right?” 

WS: “Exactly, O for 28. The common theme is they were powerless, they turned their lives over to God and they stop drinking; no six-step program written about before 1939.”

The Fix: “You write about Frank Amos, sent by the Rockefellers following the infamous December 1937 New York meeting to report on what Dr. Bob and the others did to get and stay sober.”

WS: “He travelled to Ohio to check up on what Dr. Bob and the other members were doing. He writes a report highlighting seven things they were doing to stay sober; those seven things don’t correspond to the six steps that Bill Wilson was later talking about. So, I’m up against a wall, none of this is making any sense to me. 

One of the great reveals was when I was given a copy of Bill’s first draft of his story. Written late May of 1938, the first version, if you will—there were a couple of versions before that were really, really terrible but this was the one—that, over time, morphed into what appeared in the book. And as we’re taken through Bill’s experience in Towns Hospital, you can number about ten of those Twelve Steps.”

The Fix: “So, the Steps are Bill’s experience, not a universal experience?”

WS: “Things did come together in a way that made sense to me and is a credible story about the genesis of the Twelve Steps, right there in that May 1938 version of his story. You put numbers on them and there’s (at least) ten of them, right there. So, what we’re doing here, we’re not using six steps that Ebby brought to Bill or any collective experience of early members, this is ‘What I did; how did I get sober?’ Bingo, there it is.

In the archives there is a copy of a letter, before 1950; a lawyer, Paul Kirby Hennessy wrote to Bill to confirm a discussion they had on a train ride to Washington. Paul had asked him, ‘Hey, how’d you come up with the Twelve Steps. There is a lot more detail about this encounter in my book, but Bill wrote back to Paul confirming his story that the Steps came from his personal experience. That October 19, 1948 letter is in the archives, ‘Bill’s Story of the Evolution of the Twelve Steps.’

Bill Wilson could have written ‘Do what I did and you could get sober, but isn’t it a better story to say here is what we did—one hundred of us did—we did this, we got sober, and you can, too?’ ‘We did this,’ is a powerful message.”

Co-Founder Mythology

WS: “The whole co-founder thing is another example of how Wilson wasn’t inclined towards historical accuracy. He was and still is a guy who is worshipped as a guy who walks on water. Bill knew he had an ego problem. One of the things he did to cope with that was to take the spotlight off himself as much as possible. The co-founder idea is one way that Bill could do this. 

I’m almost offended when the co-founder thing comes up. Bill Wilson is the founder of AA. 

Mel B, a really good AA historian, came into AA in the early 1950s. I heard a really great interview with David L whereby Mel B said that back then, ‘Bill W is referred to as the founder; Dr. Bob is the co-founder,’ giving primacy to Bill Wilson.’ Bill would call himself a co-founder and Dr. Bob is a co-founder, and somewhere along the line, William James or Sam Shoemaker, Sister Ignatius or Henrietta Seiberling is a co-founder, Frank Amos claimed he was a cofounder. Bob Smith isn’t mentioned as co-founder until 1946.

Ebby Thatcher, who brought the message of recovery to Bill—the seminal moment in AA history—if Ebby isn’t a co-founder then who is? 

I’m almost famous for saying this by this point: ‘No Hank; no book.’ That’s absolutely the truth. The book Alcoholics Anonymous just wouldn’t have happened without Hank Parkhurst. So, if Hank isn’t a co-founder then who is? Bob Smith was the last man standing who stayed sober, that’s why we call him co-founder today.” 


The Fix: “AA’s first official accounting of historical events was A.A. Comes of Age which the 1956 General Service delegates unanimously voted to approve, relying on Bill’s recollection of early AA—nearly twenty years after writing The Big Book. Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers didn’t appear until 1980 and Mel B’s Pass It On: The story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world wasn’t green-lit until 1984; relying on many of these AA folktales recounted by sources, many of which are secondhand.”

WS: “The people in Ohio told stories after the fact that never happened, how deeply they delved into the chapters that were sent to them. What happened was this project that they were in open rebellion against became very successful. Five, ten, twenty years later they aren’t telling stories about how they opposed the writing of the book, they’re telling the story as if they were on board from the very start. It’s just people tell stories of the past in a way that reflects the current reality—say a 1950 reality, a 1960 reality or further out—contrary to what actually happened. It’s a perfectly understandable human tendency.” 

The Fix: “There’s a difference between investigative inquiry and looking for fault like there’s a reward for it. It’s hard not to have an agenda when researching history. I’m not surprised that Writing the Big Book, maintains a fact-driven discipline. What did surprise me, as an academic text, it read like a detective novel. I’m surprised that it is such a page-turner.”

WS: “The historian’s everlasting quest is to answer, ‘What really happened?’ I don’t know what really happened, but I have a better idea of what happened, having done all that research. When you start finding out the stories Bill told just aren’t true in some sense, you ask, ‘Was the guy a liar? What am I doing being involved with this project, with this guy who’s a liar?’ And I actually had a couple of people who came at me from that direction. 

But it wasn’t too long before I came to see Bill Wilson as a man of vision. Wilson wasn’t a historian; he wasn’t trying to be. Bill Wilson wasn’t a liar. He was a salesman, with a solution to alcoholism, a problem that had ravaged the nation for centuries. He thought he could save hundreds-of-thousands of lives and that is what he was trying to do. Wilson was the ultimate pragmatist; he wasn’t a dogma guy; he wasn’t a this-is-the-way-it-is guy. If it worked, he was all for it. He was telling stories that left out messy details, closer to parables than a historical account. Frequently he slips into mythmaking. The stories were supposed to be powerful, incisive, impressionable stories for people who were trying to get sober or who weren’t quite convinced yet to get sober. A myth captures the essence—not the details—of truth.”

The Fix: “It’s fair to expect that this book will put a target on your back by both the Big Book zealots and AA’s harshest critics—you will be perceived as either blasphemous for criticizing a saint or not going far enough to expose a fraud. To skeptics, what would you say?” 

WS: “There are 1570 citations at the back of the book along with 416 footnotes throughout the text – if you don’t believe what I’ve said in the book, or the facts I’m quoting in the book, go down to archives and find another document; I’m on board with that. 

We need to get back to primary document research; we have to get off of this quoting Bill Wilson thing because that’s not always what happened. It makes a good story. If you’re trying to tell an inspirational story, tell that story, but if you’re trying to tell a historically accurate story, go back to the archives and read the pieces of paper that are there.”

Fix readers wanting to learn more about Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A., visit http://www.writingthebigbook.com/ and read a sample chapter for free. 

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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 https://rebelliondogspublishing.com, Twitter, and Facebook.