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Law and Alcoholics Anonymous
Tom P., Jr.
Four of Four
term is “spiritual experience” in the Twelfth Step. A member
of my AA home group, who first came into the Fellowship
in 1941 tells it this way: “When I first came in, they were
still talking about “spiritual experience”. A year or two
later they started calling it “spiritual awakening”. It
was at this time that the “official version” of the Twelfth
Step was changed to read: “Having had a spiritual awakening
as the result of these steps....” The term spiritual experience,
which had been perfectly acceptable in the early years when
the Fellowship was small and explicitly conversion-oriented,
came to be viewed as too narrow and prejudicial against
the less-profound life changes resulting from the mimesis-oriented
AA, which were coming to be the majority recovery pattern
explanatory note was added to the Big Book, as follows:
terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” are
used many times in this book which, upon careful reading,
shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about
recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us
in many different forms.
Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers
the impression that these personality changes, or religious
experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular
upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.....
you compare the above statement to the statement which introduced
the Twelve Steps in chapter five of the Big Book, the difference
in tone is astonishing. Chapter five rings with a series
of booming affirmations that the goal of the program is
a life given to God and the way is an uncompromisingly spiritual
one. In the later-added explanatory note there is virtually
a full retreat from the earlier vigor and joy in God-commitment.
The stated purpose of the explanatory note is to reassure
people that the spiritual change accompanying an AA recovery
need not be in the form of a sudden upheaval. The point
needed making and was well made.
a further point was made: the point that spirituality was
not an essential of the program but that willingness, honesty,
and open-mindedness were all that was needed. This point
was not made directly, but by clear, strong and unmistakable
implication - by the indirect , defensive, almost apologetic
treatment of the whole subject of religious and spiritual
experience. The founders of the Movement were responding
to the spiritual problem by lowering the spiritual level
of aspiration of the society, a move they could not make
in the early days, but could make, and even felt they must
make, now that the society had become large and gained a
reputation for respectability and reasonableness.
facts of the situation in AA which prompted the rewording
of the Twelfth Step, and adding of the explanatory note
to the Big Book, could have been summarized this way:
is now possible to recover in one of two ways in AA. Option
number one is the original, spiritual-experience way which
follows from working all the Steps. Option number two is
the way of partial practice of the Steps and primary dependence
on the social aspects of life in AA. This second approach
does not produce a strong spiritual experience. It also
does not follow our tradition that we should always place
principles before personalities. But in its favor, it requires
less commitment and less work; it involves less in the way
of life rearrangement; and it has proven itself sufficient
in many cases to produce lasting abstinence from drinking.
such clarifying statement was made, however, and the switch
in terms from spiritual experience to spiritual awakening
had the net effect of clouding in everyone’s mind the real
nature of the change which had come about. It was not a
matter of conscious deception. The mistake was simply a
failure to see a dividing into two camps when the division
had occurred. This was a quite understandable failure to
see a trend developing, comparable to a mother’s inability
to notice growth changes in her own child. But in a Movement
now strongly committed almost before all else to the avoidance
to controversy, blindness to the split in the Movement was
blindness has prevented AA members from seeing the serious
flaws built into the weak-cup-of-tea practice. The relatively
superficial life change which weak AA produces is sufficient
to get some alcoholics sober. It is not adequate - it is
not effective - it simply doesn’t work - for a very large
number of others. This situation is evident both in the
“easy” cases and the “hard”cases, that is, those alcoholics
who have been very badly damaged physically and mentally
before they arrive at their first AA meeting, those whose
alcoholism is complicated with drug abuse, crazy sex, criminal
or psychotic tendencies, or a hard streak of socio-psychopathology.
weak AA simply doesn’t work with the very large population
of AAs who are known everywhere as “slippers” - those alcoholics
who have developed a pattern of hanging around AA, staying
sober for periods, but relapsing repeatedly into drinking.
well: if the above-mentioned “hard” cases manage to find
their way into a group where strong AA, and nothing but
strong AA, is being practiced, many of them are able to
achieve lasting sobriety. The East Ridge Recovery Facility
in upstate New York has worked with thousands of these “hard”
cases over the past twenty-nine years. Strong AA is standard
practice in the East Ridge group, and this group has a recovery
rate of over seventy percent with these so-called AA failures.
No-success has turned to success with this large majority
of the “hard” cases, when weak AA is replaced with strong
is yet another and more insidious danger built into weak
AA. In many cases the “recovery” produced by watered-down
approaches to the Twelve Steps fails to hold up over the
long haul. What looked in the beginning like an easier,
softer way to maintain happy sobriety yields progressively
less and less serenity and real happiness, finally ending
in complete reversal of momentum and a relapse into serious
personal misery. The end result may be a return to active
alcoholism; or it may be a sinking-out into a life of discontented
abstinence, marred by some combination of tension, resentment,
depression, compulsive sick sex, and an overall sense of
meaninglessness. It is a final failure to reap the benefits
of the AA program; it is, in the last analysis,a failure
ominous tendencies are noticeable in contemporary AA. One
tendency is toward a lower recovery rate overall. For the
first twenty years, the standard AA recovery estimate was
seventy-five percent. AA experience was that fifty percent
of the alcoholics who came to AA got sober right away and
stayed sober. Another twenty-five percent had trouble for
awhile but eventually got sober for good, and the remaining
twenty-five percent never made a recovery. Then there was
a period of some years when AA headquarters stopped making
the seventy-five percent recovery claim in their official
literature. In 1968’s General Service Board published a
survey indicating an overall recovery rate of sixty-seven
percent. The net of all of this seems to be that as AA got
bigger and older, its effectiveness dropped from about three
in four to about two in three.
second ominous trend in the Movement is not indicated by
statistics, but it is clear enough to any careful observer
of the AA scene. As the Fellowship grows older its class
of old-timers, alcoholics sober ten years and longer, grows.
And the question of the staying power of an AA recovery
looms ever larger. It is an unhappy fact that growing numbers
of these old-timers find the joy going out of their sobriety.
Many of them search around frantically for ways to recapture
the old zest for alcohol-free living, and many of them end
up in such blind alleys as lunatic religions, pop psychological
fads, or chemical alternatives like psychedelics, pot, tranquilizers
and mood elevators. And many end up either back drinking
or sunk in despondency., hostility, bizarre acting-out patterns
of one sort or another, or just plain, devastating boredom.
of this is unnecessary. The gradual shrinking recovery rate
and the old-timer blues do not require a complex or an innovative
solution. The answer lies in a return to original, strong
AA. It turns out that the men who wrote the Big Book were
right after all. It turns out that there really is no easier,
softer way. The extra work and commitment demanded by the
full-Program approach pays out in enormous and indispensable
dividends. The extra work and commitment make sobriety fun,
because they do not make sobriety an end in itself.
majority of those who become addicted are people with a
mystical streak, an appetite for inexhaustible bliss. We
sought in bottles what can only be found in spiritual experience.
AA worked in the first place because its Twelve Steps were
a workable set of guidelines to real spiritual experience.
The growth of the Movement made possible for a time a kind
of parasitism in which partial practitioners of the spiritual
principles were able to feed off the strength of full practitioners;
those who had undergone real spiritual experience.
now, the parasites have already drained the host organism
of a considerable portion of its life force, with no benefit
is late in the day for anybody to be sounding a call for
a return to the original way, to faithful practice of the
full Program. However, a great deal of life is left in the
Fellowship, and a major revival is possible. If enough of
us see in time our dangerous situation, personally and as
a Fellowship. What we need to do is clear enough. What we
need to do is spelled out in the first seven chapters of
the Big Book. What it all boils down to - especially for
us old-timers - is a willingness to continue practicing
all the principles in all our affairs today, rather than
resting on our laurels, taking our stand on what we did
way back then, in our first weeks and months of sobriety.
we must not fail to face squarely the need to change, the
need for rededication. Complacency, smugness in our record
of success, is our greatest enemy. If we as a recovered-addict
society are unwilling to reverse our present course, the
outlook is clear enough. We stand to recapitulate in less
than a century what the great religious communities of the
world have spent the last two thousand years demonstrating:
that even the very best and highest of human institutions
tend to deteriorate in time; and that size in spiritual
organizations is often achieved at the expense of the abandonment
of original goals and practices.
owe my life to AA. I hope we have the vision and the humility
to change. I believe we can if we will. This much is certain:
the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are as inspired,
as effective, as un-compromised, and as practical now as
they were when they were first put in writing fifty-four
years ago. Whatever else may have gone downhill, they haven’t.
Law and Alcoholics Anonymous,
by Tom P, Jr., © 1993. This article originally appeared
in 24 Magazine, with minor revisions to bring the numbers
and the history up-to-date. Address questions and comments
to 24 Magazine, Box 10, Hankins, NY 12741.
Part 1: Gresham's Law
and Alcoholics Anonymous - front page.
Part 2: America was
boozy and was spawning a great many alcoholics.
Part 3: What they were
shooting for, and what they aimed their program at, was
not mere sobriety...
Part 4: There is only one term in the Twelve Steps that
has been changed since the Big Book was first published