The Big Book and Other A.A. Literature
The Big Book, Alcoholics Anonymous, is probably the most important single factor not only in the recovery of the individual alcoholic who finds sobriety in A.A., but also in the growth of the Fellowship throughout the world. The Big Book is also one of the nonfiction hardcover best sellers of all time.
And yet, it was almost not written.
In 1937, Bill and Bob met in Akron for the first time since Bill had returned from their first meeting in 1935. As they tallied the results of over two years’ work, they counted altogether some 40 sober alcoholics in New York and Akron, and “saw that wholesale recovery was possible.” But they agreed that they needed a book “to explain to alcoholics our methods and results”and, incidentally, to prevent distortion of their program which up to that time had been transmitted by word-of-mouth.
Forthwith, they met with 18 members of the Akron group and proposed the book. The idea met substantial opposition. Bill argued that, in addition to the reasons above, the book could be sent or carried to the alcoholic in different places; it could help publicize the movement among nonalcoholic; and it might even make money which could be used to establish an office, handle inquiries, etc. But many of those present were against any publicity, turned thumbs down on printed material, and argued that the apostles hadn’t needed books. But Bill and Dr. Bob persisted and “by the barest majority” of a single vote, the Akronites agreed that they should proceed.
Bill began work on the book in March or April of 1938. By summer, he had drafted the first two chapters. The text was reviewed, argued over and revised by the alcoholics in Akron and New York. It was also mimeographed and used for a fund-raising operation which “fizzled” out. At this stage Harper and Brothers offered to publish the work. Although Bill was at first elated, he developed grave misgivings about the book’s being owned by an outside publisher. However, he kept his doubts to himself until he had reported the Harper offer to the trustees, who were in “unanimously in favor of the deal.” Bill then expressed his misgivings. But the Board was not impressed and “no conclusion was reached.”
At this time, Bill was associated with Hank P., the first alcoholic in the New York group to stay sober even for a little while, other than Bill. Hank, a “terrific power driver,” urged Bill to ignore the trustees and the Foundation and take matters into their joint hands. They would form a stock company, sell shares to the New York members and publish the book themselves. With little persuasion, Bill agreed to charge ahead with the plan.
Hank worked up a prospectus in which he called the new company “Works Publishing Company”..since he envisioned the forthcoming book as only the first of many “works.” Next, he bought a pad of blank stock certificates in a stationary store, typed “Works Publishing, Inc., par value $25” across the top, and put his signature at the bottom with the title, “President.” Bill said, “When I protested these irregularities, Henry said there was no time to waste; why be concerned with small details?” Hank then “descended like a whirlwind on the New York alcoholics and their friends” trying to sell them stock in the new venture.
Bill and Hank also contacted the Cornwall Press, one of the largest book printers. When they told Dr. Bob what they were doing, he consented dubiously to the venture but felt the idea should be tried out on the trustees. So Bill “laid out this information before the next trustees meeting. I knew the reaction would be bad and it certainly wasI knew we would have to go through with the deal despite all the objections.” And they did. (They eventually sold 200 shares for $5000, and Charles Towns of Towns Hospital loaned them $2,500.) This decision that the embryonic society should control and publish its own literature.so controversial at the time turned out to be of immense importance for the future of A.A.
Meanwhile, Bill had continued with the writing of the book. He would work up basic ideas on a yellow scratch pad and then, at the office in Newark, New Jersey, would stand behind his nonalcoholic and often unpaid secretary, Ruth Hock, dictating to her as she typed. As he went along, he checked the draft with the Akron and New York members, from whom he sometimes got “a real mauling.” After completing Chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism,” and Chapter 4, “We Agnostics,” Bill “reached the famous Chapter 5,” he recalls. “At this point we would have to tell how our program really worked.This problem really worried the life out of me.” It was in this mood that Bill, “tired clear through,” lay in bed at 182 Clinton Street with pencil and tablet in hand. Trying to focus his mind on the procedure that had evolved from the work of William James, the theories of Dr. Silkworth and the principles of the Oxford Group, Bill asked for guidance and began to write the Steps as he saw them. The words came swiftly and easily, and he was done in about half an hour. When he reached his stopping point, he numbered the Steps and found they added up to twelve. He brought them in to dictate to Ruth the next day.
Ruth recalls that when he showed them to local members, there were heated discussions and many other suggestions. Jim B. opposed strong reference to God; Hank wanted to soft-pedal them; but Fizt M. insisted the book should be religious in tone and content. Ruth wrote Bill later about one meeting in the office: “Fitz was for going all the way with ‘God’; you (Bill) were in the middle; Hank was for very little; and I trying to reflect the reaction of the nonalcoholic was for very little. The result of this was the phrase ‘God as we understood Him,’ which I don’t think ever had much of a negative reaction anywhere.” Bill later said these changes “had widened our gateway so all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”
While Bill was working his way through the main text, New York and Akron members were submitting their personal stories. It was felt that these would provide living proof that the program worked and “would identify us with the distant reader.” In addition to Bill’s and Dr. Bob’s stories, the book eventually contained 16 stories from Akron and 12 from New York.
Perhaps one of the most important contributions was “The Doctor’s Opinion,” by Dr. Silkworth, which appears at the very beginning of the book. The idea to include a chapter by a medical person had come from Dr. Esther L. Richards of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, to whom the mimeographed first two chapters had been sent. She wrote an enthusiastic letter in return and suggested getting “a number one physician who has a wide knowledge of the alcoholic’s medical and social problems to write an introduction.” Bill acted on the suggestion at once, and nine days later had Dr. Silkworth’s manuscript in hand.
Bill was worried about the reaction of organized religion. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the highly respected minister of the Riverside Church (the Rockefeller family’s church), warmly approved an advanced copy and promised to review the book on publication, thus virtually guaranteeing favorable interest in Protestant circles. And Morgan R., a new member, knew someone on the Catholic Committee on Publications in the New York Archdiocese. The committee gave the book a wonderful report, though they suggested some minor changes which Bill quickly accepted. The committee’s informal endorsement allowed Bill to breath easier.
Bill said that more than 100 titles were considered for the book. The title that appeared on the Multilithed copies was “Alcoholics Anonymous.” The first documented use of the name is in a letter from Bill to Willard Richardson dated July 15, 1938, in which he uses it to refer to the movement. Among the other possible titles considered for the book were: “One Hundred Men,” “The Empty Glass,” “The Dry Way,” “The Dry Life,” and “The Way Out.”
The choices quickly boiled down to “The Way Out,” favored by most in Akron, and “Alcoholics Anonymous,” favored by most in New York. Bill asked Fitz M., who lived near Washington, D.C., to check both titles through the library of congress. Fitz wired back to the effect that the Library of Congress had 25 books entitled “The Way Out,” 12 entitled “The Way,”.and none called “Alcoholics Anonymous.” That settled the matter. The title of the book quickly became the name of the Fellowship as well. Clarence S. later called himself the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, basing his claim on his being the first to use the name for a group. Which he probably was. But the fact is, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was already off the press, and the name had been used a year earlier to refer to the Fellowship as a whole.
The final editing of the book was done by Tom Uzzell, a faculty member at New York University. He cut the manuscript by a third to a half and sharpened up the writing in the process. Dr. Howard, a psychiatrist in Montclair, New Jersey, who had received an advance copy, made an important contribution when he suggested there were too many “you musts.” Bill credited him with putting the Fellowship on a “we ought” basis rather than a “you must” basis.
When the forward was written, it contained a statement of purpose of the organization. These few sentences with a few changes and additions, became the “Preamble” read at the beginning of tens of thousands of AA meetings every day in the ensuing years.
With the manuscript completed and edited, Hank and Bill took it to Edward Blackwell at Cornwall Press to be printed. There was only one problem they had almost no money. Blackwell helped them in two ways. First he agreed to print the book and to accept $500 all they could afford as a down payment. Second, he suggested an initial printing of 5000 instead of the high figure Bill and Hank were thinking of. (Bill never failed to express gratitude to Blackwell in later years, and AA continued to have the Big Book printed by Cornwell Press and its successor companies until the present time.) A price of $3.50 was decided on (rather high in 1939), and they chose the thickest paper in Blackwell’s plant “to convince the alcoholic purchaser that he was getting his money’s worth!” Bill said later. The original volume proved so bulky that it became known as the “Big Book.”
As the pages came off the presses, they were bound in a thick, dark red cover embossed in gold. The book had been created from scratch in a single year by alcoholics who had no more than two and a half years’ sobriety. Yet it turned out to be not only appealing and attractive, but incredibly powerful and lasting in its effectiveness. Almost everything the book has to say about alcoholics’ problems and their recovery is still applicable today. As one speaker put it at the 50th Anniversary International Convention, “For two thousand years before the Big Book appeared, there was no hope for the alcoholic. Since then, the Big Book has been ultimately responsible for the recovery of literally millions.”
But as the 5,000 copies of the Big Book lay stacked in Edward Blackwell’s warehouse in April 1939, Bill and Hank’s problems were only beginning. Each shareholder in Works Publishing Company received a copy of the book. But beyond that, they not only couldn’t sell it, they weren’t sure they could even give it away. An attempt to get an article in the Reader’s Digest aborted, a national radio program by the immensely popular Gabriel Heatter had produced almost no results, and available funds reached their lowest and most desperate ebb. Alcoholics Anonymous seemed about to go under.
Then, with four separate occurrences, the turning point came. First, Bert T. mortgaged his tailor shop to obtain $1,000 to keep A.A. afloat a few weeks longer. Second, in September, Liberty magazine ran an article on A.A. Third, a series of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer brought a rush of new members and a rush of orders for the book. Forth, nationwide publicity followed John D. Rockefeller’s dinner for Alcoholics Anonymous. An accounting showed that the publishing company was showing a profit about $3,000. Which had been spent on A.A. work at the office.
When they heard that the book was making money, some of the stockholders, including Charlie Towns, began to ask for their money back. Something had to be done. Again, Hank and Bill turned to their pad of blank stock certificates. This time on a number of them they typed “works Publishing, Inc. Preferred Stock, par value $100.” With these in hand, Bill went to Washington, D.C., where some well-to-do members bought the new issue. With the $3,000 thus raised, Charlie Towns was repaid in full and the other grumbling stockholders received their money.
“By 1940, we had begun to see that the A.A. book should belong to our society as a whole,” relates Bill. “If the Foundation could acquire the outstanding shares, the book could be placed in trust for A.A. as a whole.” The treasurer of the Foundation, LeRoy Chipman, raised $8,000 by borrowing from Mr. Rockefeller and his two sons, plus a few others, to be repaid out of income as the books were sold. With this money, the outstanding shares were acquired. A few of the shareholders generously contributed the money to the Foundation.
With the appearance of the Jack Alexander article in the Saturday Evening Post in March 1941, sales of the Big Book were launched in a major way, and a second printing was made. Sales continued to accelerate almost every year since.
By 1953, it was evident that the personal stories in the first edition of the Big Book were somewhat dated. Of the 28 veterans whose stories were represented, five had gone back to drinking, eight more had slipped after the book was published but had come back to A.A., and 15 had remained continuously sober. The experience of the first members now needed to be expanded to include more stories by women, more “high bottom” stories, and more stories by younger members.
For the second edition, Bill went out of his way to include one story that had been conspicuously missing from the first. that of Bill D., A.A. #3. Bill D. said later that he was one of those not interested in the book project in 1938, and he did not share Bill W.’s vision of A.A.’s future. But in 1952, when Bill D.’s health was failing (and after he had experienced two years as delegate at the General Service Conference), Bill W. persuaded him to record his story.
Bill was responsible for getting many of the other stories for the second edition himself, taping the experiences of oldtimers which he thought were particularly helpful. Others were asked to write or record their stories with a view to showing the broader range of the membership in the mid-50’s. All these stories were thoroughly screened, and in the preparation of the second edition, Bill was assisted by Ed B. and Nell Wing.
The original text in the first 164 pages was unchanged. In addition to Bill’s and Dr. Bob’s stories, six others were carried over from the first edition; 30 new stories were included; and the present division of the story section into three parts was instituted.
By the time the second edition was introduced in time for the International Convention in St. Louis in 1955, the first edition had gone through 16 printings and 300,000 copies.
After 18 years had passed, it was again felt that the personal stories needed to be revised in the sections “Those Who Stopped In Time” and “They Nearly Lost All.” Again, they needed to be expanded to reflect the constituency of A.A. in the 70’s, with stories from the Armed Services, Indians, Blacks, retirees. and more women and young people. The Literature Committee also recommended they stress recovery rather than drinking experience. Finally, 78 pages of stories were deleted and replaced with 32 pages of new stories from the Grapevine and 46 pages from individuals. No changes were made in the first 164 pages. After two years of work by a G.S.O. committee, the Trustees’ Literature Committee and the Conference Literature Committee, the third edition was published in 1976. The second edition had gone through 16 printings.
Sales continued to increase as the years sped by. It took 34 years to sell the first million copies of the Big Book; five years to sell the second million; three years to sell the third million; the fourth million was sold in two years, the fifth in a year and a half. To put these figures into another perspective, in 1939-41, it took about two years to sell 5,000 copies of Alcoholics Anonymous; in 1985, it took two days. Big Book sales are especially remarkable in view of the following facts:
It is not available from bookstores; it is obtainable only from A.A.
It has never been advertised or promoted (outside A.A.).
No author or editor is identified.
The basic text has remained unchanged.
The figure of 5,000,000 copies sold by 1985 represents only sales of English-language editions in the United States and Canada. Additional thousands of copies are published by A.A. offices overseas in 13 other languages. Afrikaans, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, German, Icelandic, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.
All three editions of Alcoholics Anonymous were routinely registered with the U.S. Copyright Office in the years they were published. In 1955, there apparently existed an impression, at the time, that the copyright of the second edition served to renew the original copyright. The fact was, only the additional material unique to the second edition was protected. Therefore, there was a failure to renew the original copyright on the first edition before it ran out, unbeknownst to anyone, in 1967. The error was repeated when the renewal date for the second edition came and went in 1983 without action being taken (the third edition had already been published in 1976.) The end result was that the heart and soul of the Big Book, the first 164 pages, had been in the public domain since 1967. and still are.
This situation was discovered when, early in 1985, a non-AA publisher in Ohio announced the publication of a facsimile of the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, jacket design and all, to coincide with the 50th Anniversary International Convention. Consternation befell the A.A. World Services Board, the General Service Board and the G.S.O. staff as they envisioned outside publishers printing the Big Book, free to change the text as they wished, thus compromising and distorting the recovery message. Also and secondarily, financial support of A.A. services was threatened.
As it turned out, these fears were largely unfounded. It became clear that A.A.’s would most likely continue to buy A.A. literature from A.A., regardless of outside publishing endeavors, and that the A.A. message would continue complete unabridged and untampered with. In the case of the facsimile affair, quite apart from the copyright, federal “fair trading” laws protected A.A. against someone marketing a product that appeared to be A.A.’s (After 1985 and therefore beyond the purview of this history, the Board and the office took administrative, organizational, legal and publishing steps to ensure that loss of copyright would not occur again, and that A.A. would be more than competitive with any outside publishers.)
In the early years of A.A., pamphlets were written, printed and distributed by whoever was inspired to do so. A.A.’s in about 20 states either produced pamphlets of their own or distributed those obtained from other states. And much of it was helpful. Mike R., recalling a little group in Cordell, Oklahoma, in the 1940’s says, “we got material from all over. Akron and Little Rock and, I think, Memphis. As well as from New York.” (There was no such thing as Conference-approved literature,” because there was no Conference.) The Akron pamphlets continued to be produced and used well into the 1970’s.
The “headquarters” office of A.A., as it was called then, developed several pamphlets in the 1940’s to meet needs as they arose. One of the earliest was called simply “A.A.” It contained a brief section headed “Am I an Alcoholic?” plus several personal stories and endorsements from medicine and religion, and ended with the Twelve Steps. It measured 81/2 by 51/2 and had a white cover. “Medicine Looks at A.A.” was also one of the earliest, perhaps reflecting Bill’s preoccupation with getting approval from the medical profession. Apparently the problem of doctors’ prescribing sedatives to alcoholic patients and the problem of dual-addiction were present from the start, for, significantly, a pamphlet on “Sedatives and the Alcoholic” was published in 1948. The Jack Alexander article from the Saturday Evening Post was also reprinted.
The A.A. Grapevine came into existence in 1944, and two years later Bill began to write a series of essays for the Grapevine entitled “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future.” These were what were to become A.A.’s Twelve Traditions, which Bill once described as “a set of general principles, simply stated principles that could offer tested solutions to all of A.A.’s problems of living and working together and of relating our Society to the world outside.”
The Grapevine pieces were reprinted in pamphlet form in 1947. Titled “A.A. Tradition,” the pamphlet also contained information on policy regarding hospitalization, anonymity, money, clubs, and the function of the office. By 1952, Bill was ready to write Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, a book which combined the Tradition essays with essays on how each of the Steps applied to sober living.
In a 1952 letter, Bill said, “Now I’m getting down once more to serious writing I expect to do a book which will cover the application of the Twelve Steps to the whole problem of living. The problem of happy sobriety. After that will come a manual on A.A. services. So I am beginning to get on paper our whole experience of the last dozen years.”
In contrast to the joy and gratitude for recovery that permeate the Big Book, the “Twelve and Twelve” is more somber, reflecting the severe, lasting depression which afflicted Bill while he was writing it (and which he describes in its pages.) He found that enlarging upon and interpreting the Steps was particularly difficult because of the diversity among the alcoholics. He wrote to Father Dowling in July 1952, “The problem of the Steps has been to deepen and broaden them, both for newcomers and oldtimers. We have to deal with the atheists, agnostics, believers, depressives, paranoids, clergymen, psychiatrists, and all and sundry. How to widen the opening so it seems right and reasonable to enter there and at the same time avoid distractions, distortions, and the certain prejudices of all who may read, seems fairly much of an assignment.”
He followed the same practice that he had in writing the Big Book; that is, he wrote a section at a time and sent it to friends and editors for their comments. Then he revised the manuscript accordingly. Betty L. and Tom P. were of particular help. Jack Alexander was one friend to whom Bill sent the essays. In the Traditions portion, Alexander suggested he dwell on the lessons from the Washingtonians in more detail. “You should have no worries about your writing style,” Alexander assured him. “More than anyone else, you are qualified to speak the A.A. language and you do it nobly. If you were to professionalize your style, the juice of the message would be lost.” These comments cheered Bill considerably. Alexander made more substantive suggestions for improving the sentence structure and punctuation of the essays on the Steps, sent later, but he concluded, “Otherwise the text is splendid. It has real authority and conviction, and I stayed with you to the end.”
As soon as Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was published in January 1953, it was an immediate success. Somewhat to Bill’s surprise. By October, 25,000 copies had been shipped. It has remained A.A.’s second largest best-selling book. The 1964 Conference approved a gift edition, pocket sized, with blue endpapers and a ribbon marker. It was priced slightly higher than the regular edition. The only change made in the content of the book since it was written was the addition of the Long Form of the Traditions, by Conference action, in 1978.
A related pamphlet, “The Traditions and How They Developed,” was issued in 1955.
After the Conference was formed in 1951, a path developed for the progress of A.A. literature from inception through Conference approval and to actual production. The only criteria for Conference–approved literature is to meet a perceived need by the Fellowship. The original idea for a piece of literature may be brought in any number of ways. Usually by letter from an individual, or through the service structure. To the Literature Committee (or other appropriate committee, depending on the subject) of the General Service Board. There the idea is discussed and either rejected or approved. If approved, it is referred to the Literature Committee (or other appropriate committee, depending on the subject) of the Conference. There the idea is again discussed and either rejected or recommended (i.e., “approved.”) The Committee’s report, containing its recommendations, is brought to the Conference as a whole. Each recommendation is considered separately in the Conference floor, where it may be discussed at length and is voted upon. If it is approved “by substantial unanimity,” it becomes a Conference recommendation.
But that is only the beginning, for the Trustees’ Literature Committee (or other appropriate committee) then becomes responsible for implementing the recommendation. They pass the idea on to A.A. World Services who, working through the General Service Office, hires a writer (and an illustrator, if necessary) and a graphics designer, and physically produces the book or pamphlet in manuscript and layout form. These are then circulated to the G.S.O. staff for their comments and input, following which the final copy goes back through the whole path once more.. through the Trustees’ Committee to the matching Conference Committee to the Conference floor, where it receives final Conference-approval, if all has gone well. If approved, it then goes back to AAWS to be published, priced, included in the next literature catalogue and distributed.
As can be imagined, the elapsed time to go through this path is at least two years and may be much, much longer. All A.A. literature is owned by A.A. Except for Bill, all writers are hired on a contract basis and receive no royalties.
Following are the tracks of most of the individual pieces of A.A. literature. pamphlets, Booklets, books and audio-visual materials. Produced since 1952 insofar as it is possible to reconstruct them.
True to his plans outlined in his 1952 letter (above), Bill wrote “a manual on A.A. services.” Originally titled “Structure & Service,” it was later redone as “The Third Legacy Manual.” Because members were often unfamiliar with the Three Legacies when they entered service and found the title intimidating, it was again changed to “The A.A. Service Manual.” This booklet has been greatly expanded since Bill’s day, as the service structure has developed; and a new edition is issued annually, revised to reflect the actions of each annual Conference. In 1980, the “Twelve Concepts for World Service” was combined with “The A.A. Service Manual” into a single volume, by Conference action.
“The Alcoholic Husband” (reprinted from the Big Book) appeared in the late ’40’s or very early ’50’s. “The Alcoholic Wife” followed shortly. The early use of these titles indicates the importance placed on the understanding and cooperation of the spouse in getting the alcoholic into A.A. The appearance of the Al-Anon Fellowship lessened the need for these pamphlets and eventually, in 1976, they were combined into “Is There an Alcoholic in Your Life?”
“A.A. for the Woman” was probably written in the late 1940’s by Ralph B., for it was being reprinted in ’51. It was revised and updated in 1961-62, and again after 1985.
“44 Questions and Answers,” also written by Ralph B., was first approved in 1952, and became one of A.A.’s basic pamphlets. It remained virtually unchanged until ’74, when it was revised to reduce the institutions sections since other pamphlets on institutions were then available. Concern over dual addiction dictated further rewording in ’81.
“Is A.A. for You?” took the place of the earlier “A.A.” pamphlet in 1953, and has been one of the basic recovery pieces ever since.
Bill’s “Three Talks to Medical Societies” were made available in pamphlet form in the early ’50’s.
The International Convention in St. Louis in 1955 furnished the basis for Bill’s next book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. He wrote it, he said, because he wanted to make sure that nobody misunderstood what had happened at St. Louis. Bill’s biography, Pass It On, calls this book “A masterpiece. Deceptively simple in its guise as a log of the three-day proceedings, it is actually an entire history of the Fellowship and its place in society, with whole sections given over to the vision of A.A. as held by those in society at large. Men of industry, doctors, ministers, and trustees. Who lived in close relationship to the Fellowship.” Bill worked on the book about one-and-a-half years, completing it at the end of 1956. Three hundred pre-publication copies were circulated for comments and it was finally published in 1957. Bill did not think of his recollections contained in his three major talks as definitive history, but continued to speak of his plans to write such a book. He even had a small committee, consisting of Ed B. and Nell Wing, working on it for a while, but Bill’s attention was diverted to other projects and he died before it could be brought to fruition.
“Questions and Answers on Sponsorship” was completed and published in 1958.
“The A.A. Group,” a useful and popular pamphlet almost thick enough to be called a manual, was published in 1965.
“What Happened to Joe,” and “It Happened to Alice,” two stories told in comic book style, were published in 1967 and 1968 respectively, but they had been started almost a decade before. At its January 1958 meeting, the Policy Committee recommended that the idea of a comic book to reach the less literate alcoholic be explored. Four years later, the Literature Committee was still studying the idea; and four years after that, they reported the same status again. At its January 1967 meeting, the Policy Committee again recommended that a comic-book be prepared. And this time the project was completed.
“A.A. and the Armed Services” had an even longer gestation period. Need for such a tool was expressed by the Literature Committee as far back as January 1958, but apparently nothing was done until ’61, when a draft was authorized to be circulated to the Services to assess the need. After six more years of silence, the Literature Committee in 1967 agreed to prepare a pamphlet for the Armed Services. The following year a draft was completed and was reviewed and revised through 1969. Two years afterward, G.S.O. was still trying to collect more stories. In July 1973, the stories were completed and the foreword was being written, and the pamphlet finally came off the press in 1974. Ironically, after all this vacillation and indecision, the U.S. Navy immediately entered the largest order ever received. 250,000 copies!
By 1958, the subject of “Sedatives and the Alcoholic” was being further researched and the 1948 text was revised. The Policy Committee was troubled in 1963, feeling the pamphlet needed to be revised again to stress that it was not written by experts. The aim was to avoid antagonizing the medical profession, as the piece was doing in its existing form. The Committee also expressed the fear that opposition to tranquilizers expressed in the text ran contrary to A.A. Traditions. The pamphlet, now titled, “Sedatives, Stimulants and the Alcoholic,” was periodically revised over the next decade. The pamphlet was withdrawn and was replaced with an entirely new piece on the same general subject, which clarified A.A.’s policy of not “playing doctor” by advising newcomers to discard prescription drugs. Titled, “The A.A. Member – Medications and Other Drugs,” this most recent pamphlet was written by doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous. In it, A.A. members share their experience with medications and other drugs.
In a related vein, Bill wrote his thoughts on the status of drug addicts within A.A. in an article in the Grapevine in 1958. It was reprinted as a pamphlet, “Problems Other Than Alcohol,” and proved so pertinent as a statement of A.A.’s singleness of purpose that excerpts from it were published as a small leaflet and offered free of charge. Bill’s words are still as timely as they were when he first wrote them 30 years ago.
In 1959, the Literature Committee assigned Ralph B. to write a pamphlet on “The Alcoholic Employee.” After several drafts, the piece was published in January 1963. just as employee alcoholism programs were in their ascendancy, spurred first by the National Council on Alcoholism and later represented by ALMACA. A.A. was already well recognized as a resource by these organizations, and the pamphlet was discontinued in 1980.
“Memo to an Inmate Who May Be an Alcoholic” was another Ralph B. – written pamphlet, published in 1960. Initiated under the Literature Committee, it became the province of the Correctional Facilities Committee when the latter was formed. It was judged to be too difficult for inmates to read by 1980, and so a decision was made to discontinue it. However, the demand for it proved to be so great that this decision was rescinded.
“The Clergy Looks at A.A.” was commissioned by the Literature Committee to be written by Ralph B. in July 1959, and was published in 1961. It was redone as “A Clergyman Asks About Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Soon after his work on “Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age” was completed, Bill commenced writing “The Twelve Concepts for World Service.” He had been deeply concerned about the necessity of reducing to writing exactly how the service structure was supposed to work. Just as he had been fearful in the beginning that the recovery program might be watered down or distorted unless it was codified into Twelve Steps; just as he was fearful the groups might repeat their destructive mistakes unless their experience was codified into Twelve Traditions; so Bill now was fearful that the service structure might develop flaws and splits if the ‘how’ and ‘why’ were not codified into Twelve Concepts.
So many entities were involved. The General Service Board was legally responsible for A.A.’s affairs. The Conference had assumed the leadership of A.A. from the co-founders. A tiny publishing operation and a service office had grown in size and importance to the Fellowship. And a monthly journal, the A.A. Grapevine was being published, separately. Small wonder tensions developed among these bodies and confusion was common. Which of the entities was supposed to do what? What was their relationship to each other? Who was in charge? What were their responsibilities and what were their rights? Bill himself had often been at odds with the Alcoholic Foundation, later the General Service Board. So he saw the need to put down in writing his concepts of the reasons for the structure, the lessons to be drawn from experience, the relationships, and above all the spiritual principles that undergirded it all.
As Bill set them down, the Twelve Concepts are a potpourri: Concepts III through V, plus IX and XII, deal with spiritual principles; the remainder, though they have no spiritual overtones, are devoted to describing the relationship of the various service entities and how they work together. Altogether, they provided answers to nearly every question about service.
They also brought into symmetry the Three Legacies of A.A. as shown in the circle-and-triangle symbol; i.e.,
The Legacy of Recovery had its 12 Steps
The Legacy of Unity had its 12 Traditions
The Legacy of Service now had its 12 Concepts
The Concepts codified the Third Legacy.
Bill had completed a draft by 1960 which was sent to the Trustees for review. The following year, a second draft was circulated for review. The following year, a second draft was circulated to the delegates, and final Conference-approval was given, virtually by acclamation, in 1962. It is significant that the Concepts booklet is the only piece of Conference-approved literature that carries a personal by-line: “by Bill W.”
However valuable to A.A.’s future, the text of the Twelve Concepts was hard reading. According to memories of G.S.O. staff members at the time, they were almost ignored for a time. The staff members were required to study them and attend several “classes” on them at the office, but the average A.A. member. Even the average member in service. Was scarcely aware of the Concepts, much less a student of them. Gradually this changed, however, and their worth came to be recognized in the ’70’s. Word spread from service sponsor to service sponsee that here was the cornerstone of the Third Legacy. At assemblies, conferences and other service meetings, workshops on the Concepts, once deserted, became crowded.
The need for literature addressed to young people was discussed by the Board in October 1952. However, nothing was done about it until the late ’50’s when they began to gather case histories. Ralph B. pulled the material together and prepared a first draft in July ’61. It was finally approved in October and “Young People and A.A.” appeared early the next year.
The same year, “Speaking at non-A.A. Meetings” received Conference approval. This was a project of the Public Information Committee, who was aware that over-eager but inexperienced volunteers were sometimes creating a bad impression of A.A. when they spoke to outside groups.
“How A.A. Cooperates with Community Efforts to Help Alcoholics,” was a project of the Committee on Cooperation with the Professional Community. Its original title when it was written in 1961 expresses the theme: “Cooperation, Yes.Affiliation, No.” Updated in 1967, this pamphlet proved enormously helpful in clarifying A.A.’s role as alcoholism agencies and treatment centers proliferated in the ’70’s.
“G.S.R. May Be The Most Important Job In A.A. (the title is a quote from Bill W.) made its appearance in 1965.
Bill’s last book, “The A.A. Way of Life,” was published in 1967. It consists entirely of excerpts from Bill’s other writings.. books, Grapevine articles, letters. Selected and edited by Janet G. at G.S.O. with Bill’s word by word approval. Bill did some editing of his own, polishing his earlier work. It seemed to some people, however, that the total was somewhat pompous and off-putting. So, in 1975, the title was changed to “As Bill Sees It,” with “The A.A. Way of Life” as a sub-title. Sure enough, sales picked up almost immediately and have continued at a steady level. A guide in the front of the book directs the reader to Bill’s comments on such subjects as Acceptance, Character Defects, Fear, Resentment, Serenity and scores of others.
The Grapevine in 1967 ran a series of illustrated feature articles on the Twelve Traditions. Jack M.’s drawings were clever and amusing, but insightful as well. It was immediately suggested that the series be adapted into a hardcover book. The format was changed shortly to a pamphlet, which was published in 1971 and has proved extremely popular.
A.A. literature includes two booklets. “Came to Believe,” published in 1973, is a collection of stories by A.A. members who tell in their own words what the phrase “spiritual awakening” means to them. Five years previously, an A.A. member had pointed out the need, because many newcomers translate the word “spiritual” in A.A. as meaning “religious.” The aim was to show the diversity of convictions implied in “God as we understood Him,”. With which Bill was in delighted agreement. Except for six pieces from the Grapevine the remainder of the contributions were written especially for the book in response to an appeal by G.S.O. and represent the broadest possible sampling of members from all parts of the U.S. and Canada and around the world. The first cover of “Came to Believe” was a photograph of a tender shoot in spring, peeping up through the snow.beautifully symbolic, but perhaps too subtle for the browser at the literature table. It was replaced by a simple dark blue title on an all white background, still low-key and unobtrusive. After 1985, it was given a bright red cover with gold stamping.
“Living Sober,” the other booklet, published in 1975, had a more tortuous history. Around 1968, there were discussions by the Board of the need for a pamphlet for sober old-timers, and the need to point out “traps” or “danger signals.” Members of the Literature Committee and others were asked to submit their ideas. Out of this grew a specific proposal for a piece of literature to be developed around the topic, “How We Stay Sober.” It was in outline form by October 1969, and was assigned to a professional writer on the staff of a prestigious national magazine. After nearly two years of work, he submitted a complete draft. Which everyone agreed would not do at all. They felt it needed such drastic revision that it should be started again from scratch by a new author. Barry L., a seasoned, skillful freelance writer/consultant for G.S.O. was given the task. With Bob H., general manager of G.S.O., he negotiated a flat fee for the project. After four and a half years of organizing material and writing and probably some procrastinating, as well, Barry came up with a simple, intensely practical, charmingly written manual on how to enjoy a happy, productive life without drinking. It was not spiritual and contained nothing about getting sober; but it was chock-full of the kind of advice and suggestions a newcomer might get from a super-sponsor. (“A.A.’s First Aid Kit” was Bayard’s name for it.) And it was written in a style unlike any other A.A. literature: breezy, impertinent, colloquial and informal. “Living Sober” proved to be hugely popular, and after it had sold nearly a million copies, Barry L. felt he should have been compensated more generously and should receive some sort of royalty. He sent a letter to all past Trustees and G.S.O. staff members with whom he was acquainted, to advance his claim. The AAWS Board and the General Service Board considered his case, but declined to take action. He then threatened legal recourse, but perhaps realizing the weakness of his case, never followed through.
In 1970, a need was recognized for a basic informational piece directed not at the alcoholic prospect, but at the nonalcoholic student who was interested in knowing about Alcoholics Anonymous. The result was a pamphlet, “Students’ Guide to A.A.” brought out in 1971. Within a year, it was modified slightly to be suitable for other outside groups as well, and the name was changed to “A Brief Guide to A.A.”
“A Member’s-Eye View of Alcoholics Anonymous,” one of the most powerful and popular pamphlets in the A.A. library, almost never saw the light of day. Trustee Bayard P., an executive with a large advertising agency in New York, while on a business trip to California with his wife, Majorie (also active in the program), look up an old associate at the agency (and fellow A.A. member), Allan McG. (Parenthetically, past trustee George D. remembers Allan McG. As a leader in Southern California A.A. when he joined in 1961, and says of him, “He was the most interesting man I ever met, the most stimulating. He was brilliantly articulate and touched many, many people.”) When Allan met Bayard and Marjorie P. for dinner, he mentioned to them that he was making his annual speech about Alcoholics Anonymous to a class at U.C.L.A. which he had done for a number of years. They asked him if he had a manuscript of the talk, which he later showed them; it was called “A Members Eye View of A.A.” “We were absolutely thrilled by it,” recalls Bayard. “It was the best thing of the kind we’d ever read, and we asked Allan’s permission to take it back to New York and see if it could be an A.A. publication. Which we did.”
When Herb M. brought the manuscript to the AAWS Board, staff member Ann M. raised strenuous objections based on the fact that it was one person’s opinion and one person’s writing and had not evolved through the group conscience as all the other Conference-approved literature had. The same opposition was raised at the Trustees’ Literature Committee. However, the inherent excellence and value of the piece ultimately prevailed. It was approved by the Conference and published in 1970, with a prefatory explanation which read in part, “Though the A.A. program relies upon the sharing of experience the recovery process itself is highly individual Therefore, the program is described here as it appears to one member; but the pamphlet does reflect Fellowship thinking.” Although the pamphlet was originally conceived of to explain the program to alcoholism professionals and other outsiders, it has provided fresh insights for A.A. members as well.
“Understanding Anonymity,” published in 1972, arose out of a need felt by the Public Information Committee to explain and clarify both to A.A. members and to outsiders what anonymity means. It was revised by a 1980 Conference action to remove an ambiguity which existed in Bill’s writings as to the advisability of using full names when speaking at public meetings.
Nell Wing, A.A. Archivist, wrote and submitted to the Literature Committee in 1972, brief biographies of A.A.’s co-founders. She suggested they form a leaflet to fill requests for this information, and the Conference agreed. Two years later, she suggested a companion leaflet consisting of the co-founders’ last talks. The two were combined into a single pamphlet, “The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous,” in 1978.
Recognizing that America’s population was growing older, the Public Information Committee made efforts in the early ’70’s to reach senior citizen alcoholics through magazine articles. Out of this grew the suggestion that a pamphlet was needed to reach this group. Over a couple of years, a number of case histories were gathered from members who had reached A.A. after the age of 60, and the pamphlet “Time to Start Living” was published in 1979. To make the message even more accessible to this audience, it was also offered in a large-print version.
In the last decade of A.A.’s first 50 years, two handsome historical biographies of its co-founders were added to its major hardcover books. The need for such information was discussed many times in the early 70’s especially as the early members who had known Dr. Bob and Bill were dying off. Then, at the World Service Meeting in New York in 1976, delegates from overseas requested strongly that priority be given to a biography of Dr. Bob, as they felt they knew too little about him. Partly because of that impetus, the 1977 Conference authorized the joint-biography project to go ahead.
The task was assigned to Niles P., a past trustee and past assistant general manager of G.S.O. under Bob H. Niles quickly exhausted the material in the archives and then undertook interviews on tape with relatives, friends and acquaintances of Dr. Bob and pioneer members of Midwestern A.A. The locals of these interviews included not only Ohio and Dr. Bob’s native Vermont, but California, the D.C. area, Florida, North Carolina, New York and Texas (where he spent time with Dr. Bob’s son.) In the course of the research, the book naturally expanded from biographical limits into a memoir of early A.A. in the Midwest. Niles’ enormous and sensitive job of digesting, organizing and assembling the material from the tapes was supplemented by prodigious editing by Janet C. Tastefully and masterfully designed by a nonalcoholic book designer Nelson Gruppo, the book was illustrated with 26 photos. Entitled “Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers,” it was published in 1980.
Niles P. immediately began research for a similar biography of Bill W., except that the problem was now one of selection from the plethora of material to draw on, including the Robert Thompson biography published by Harper & Row. Also, Niles felt overwhelmed by the challenge of portraying Bill’s complex character, colored by his own personal acquaintanceship with the co-founder. Finally Niles fell ill with cancer and resigned from the assignment.
Mel B., a professional writer working in corporate relations in Toledo, Ohio, was engaged to take over. After working for two years, Mel produced a voluminous, thoroughly researched, well-written manuscript. (A remark made by the nonalcoholic stenographer whom Mel hired to type the final manuscript should be preserved for posterity. Unfamiliar with A.A., she got caught up in the drama of Bill’s story, and when she had finished, she said, “He was such an intelligent and talented man. It’s too bad he never did anything with his life!”)
The Literature Committee felt that Mel B.’s manuscript lacked vitality and failed to make Bill come alive. So the project was turned over to Catherine N., a freelance writer in New York, to add human interest touches. After conducting additional interviews, she started to work on the manuscript. Soon, however, Catherine stopped in frustration, reporting that she could not do justice to the subject by patching and filling and asking for permission to do a complete rewrite in her own style. She was given a go-ahead and spent another year and a half in producing the final book.
A number of suggested titles were considered, but none seemed quite right. Then one day, a staff member showed Bob P. general manager of G.S.O. a thank you letter from a member who was the delegate from Delaware for his visit to G.S.O. on Open House Day. He compared his feelings with the first time he had met Bill. “I was a couple of months sober and so excited,” he wrote, “so thrilled to actually meet the co-founder that I gushed all over him with what my sobriety meant to me and my undying gratitude for his starting A.A. When I ran down, he took my hand in his and said simply, ‘Pass It On'” Bob P. exclaimed, “There’s our title!” The book was subtitled, “The Story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world.” Again designed by Nelson Gruppo, it came off the press just before Christmas 1984.
“So You Think Your Different” was intended in part to forestall requests for separate pamphlets directed to special groups of alcoholics. It contained the stories of 13 people who thought A.A. wouldn’t work for them because they were somehow “different”. Black or Jewish, teenaged or nearing 80, gay, lesbian, etc.
As the number of alcoholism treatment centers grew in the ’60’s and exploded in the ’70’s, demand grew for shared information on their relationship with A.A. The result was pamphlet “A.A. in Treatment Centers,” first published in 1965.
By the mid-70’s, alcohol use and abuse among teenagers was receiving a lot of attention in the national press. Pressure was building outside and inside the Fellowship for A.A. to produce a pamphlet targeted at teenage alcoholics. The 1975 Conference recommended that two teenage stories be added to “Young People in A.A.,” but it was then decided that a separate piece, in cartoon style, would better fit the need. To bring it off required perhaps the oddest collaboration in the history of A.A. literature. Dr. George G., middle-aged head of the Department of Communications at a distinguished university; and Yvonne D., functionally illiterate but street-wise teenaged black girl from a Harlem ghetto. Yvonne was also an A.A. member, the sponsee of G.S.O. staffer Susan D. Together, she and George G. drew up the personal stories of the teenagers and worked with an illustrator from Mad magazine to create the pamphlet entitled “Too Young?” Its graphic illustrations shocked some older A.A. members at first, but the teenagers related to them and the piece became very popular. On recommendation of the Public Information Committee, excerpts from “Too Young?” were issued in leaflet form, entitled “Message to Teenagers,” and offered free of charge. Hundreds of thousands of copies of the leaflet were distributed annually.
To aid in A.A.’s work in correctional institutions, two primary pieces of literature were available. “A.A. in Prisons” was directed at corrections officials, describing how A.A. groups function behind bars and containing prison officials’ commendation of A.A. It was first published in 1964 and revised in 1969. And “Memo to an Inmate Who May Be an Alcoholic.” What was still needed. According to the Trustees’ Correctional Institutions Committee was a pamphlet containing inmates’ personal stories, directed to inmates, many of whom had only the lowest level of reading ability. In 1976, the challenge of creating such a piece was undertaken. It was completed and published the following year, with simple, convincingly authentic stories from a variety of inmates. male and female, Black, Hispanic, etc.. and liberally illustrated.
At one of the committee meetings, a member, who was an ex-con himself, related a remark made to him by a fellow convict who had suggested he attend the prison A.A. meeting. “why should I?” the Committee member had asked. The other convict had replied with a shrug, “It sure beats hell out of sitting in a cell!” That remark was adopted as the title for the proposed pamphlet. However, before the piece reached publication in 1977, the Committee decided the mild profanity might offend someone, so the “hell” was removed and the title became, “It Sure Beats Sitting in a Cell.”
As A.A. literature originated in the U.S., the term “Conference-approved” refers to the U.S./Canada Conference. Although A.A. literature in other countries is usually a translation of U.S./Canada literature, A.A. is autonomous in each country and may develop pamphlets as directed by its own Conference. Such a pamphlet was “A Newcomer Asks,” written and published in 1979 in Great Britain. When the G.S.O./London sent copies to G.S.O./New York, the piece was recognized as meeting a need frequently expressed on this side of the Atlantic. So, except for Americanizing a few expressions, the pamphlet was “borrowed” intact. It was the first instance of a reverse flow of literature. (The round metal meeting sign designed to be hung outside meeting places was “borrowed” from Finland.)
The editors at G.S.O. who check each pamphlet for changes in facts or figures that may be needed before reprinting, noticed in early 1975 that where the Steps were appended at the end of pamphlets or books, they were sometimes referred to as “The Twelve Suggested Steps” or simply “The Suggested Steps,” but more often as “The Twelve Steps.” The editors asked if they should not make the usage consistent by eliminating the word “suggested” where it appeared in a heading. The staff agreed and the change was made routinely as pamphlets came up for reprinting.
Then a sharp-eyed alternate delegate in the Southeast New York Area noticed the change and stormed into G.S.O. with several followers accusing the staff of subverting Conference–approved literature, going against Bill’s wishes, and other misdemeanors. (Their objections may have been rooted in their familiarity with a privately manufactured window-shade type of “suggested Steps” wall displays in common use at that time in the New York area.) It was pointed out to them that the wording “The Twelve Steps” was used in the Big Book (where they are “suggested as a program of recovery”), the Twelve and Twelve, the A.A. Grapevine and the parchments. But the dissidents remained adamant and aroused the SENY area assembly to vote to ask the Conference to recommend that the deletions be restored. The controversy raged a year with both views being carried to all the delegates in letters. The matter was laid to rest by a recommendation of the 1976 Conference affirming the usage of “The Twelve Steps” without the word “suggested.”
The delegates in 1979-80 became concerned that A.A.’s service material (including about a dozen leaflets and single-sheet flyers, and all Guidelines) did not carry the “Conference-approved” seal and were not, in fact, Conference-approved. This situation was tidied-up by the 1980 Conference with three advisory actions as follows:
“That the following pamphlets, leaflets, and flyers be approved with their present content:
“Where Do I Go From Here”
“You’re A.A. G.S.O.”
“Self-Supporting? The 60-30-10 Plan”
“Carrying the Message Inside the Walls”
“Circles of Love and Service”
“A.A. In Your Community”
“A.A. At A Glance”
“The A.A. Member”
“If You Are a Professional”
“Any factual or statistical information may be updated whenever practical without going through the process of Conference action
“Since A.A. Guidelines are a reflection of collective experience that is shared through G.S.O. relating to specialized topics not necessarily relevant to all groups or members. the A.A. Guidelines may be produced or revised..at the discretion of the G.S.O. staff without Conference approval.”
The history of A.A. literature is also told in the history of what was not published. Several Conferences had to deal with the request that the Twenty-Four Hours A Day book be adopted as A.A. literature, since it was written by an A.A. member and was in widespread use in A.A. (It was copyrighted and published by Hazelden and hence was not available. Also, being written in specific religious language, it would be inappropriate.) The Trustees Literature Committee, and sometimes the Conference as well, repeatedly turned down the suggestion that a guide to Fourth Step Inventory be published. (It is adequately explained in the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve, and also such a guide is available from the outside for those who insist they need one.) Repeatedly throughout the history of the Conference, delegates have come in with the complaint, “there’s too much literature”. Oblivious to the fact that (except for service pieces) a new piece of literature is produced only by Conference action, following the tortuous path of approval described earlier. As each book or pamphlet originated to fill a perceived need, it is not easy to decide what should be eliminated. At least twice in 1974 and 1981 committees or task forces were appointed to review all literature with a view to see what could be combined or dropped, and several helpful suggestions resulted. But the total number of titles continues slowly to increase. On several occasions, a moratorium has been declared on the publication of new literature.. only to have the moratorium ignored by the next Conference when the need for a new pamphlet was felt.
A separate chapter could be written about the path followed by one suggested piece of literature that was not published; namely, a pamphlet for the homosexual alcoholic. The substantial number of gay groups in Alcoholics Anonymous led to an expressed need for such a pamphlet. The suggestion reached the 1981 Conference, where it was discussed and debated at length, and was finally tabled until the 1982 Conference “to allow time for all delegates to get the group conscience from the groups in their areas.” In 1982, after further lengthy discussion, the Conference said that the issue could not be intelligently decided without seeing a draft of the pamphlet, which was authorized to be written. A special task force was appointed to meet with homosexual A.A.’s and write the draft. The draft was distributed to all delegates in early 1983 as pre-Conference material, to be kept confidential. Instead, the draft was copied or mimeographed in many locations, where it stirred up additional furor. The 1983 Conference discussed and debated the subject further, with more emotion than before, pro and con, and finally recommended that such a pamphlet not be produced at that time.
One pamphlet that was rejected two times and finally published (after 1985) was “The Twelve Concepts Illustrated.” The suggestion first came by letter from a member in the State of Washington in 1980. The Trustees Literature Committee discussed it earnestly. and then threw up their hands. The Concepts, they felt, were too lengthy, too complex, to hard to read to lend themselves to light illustrations. So they rejected the proposal. But the person who had originated the idea didn’t give up, and persuaded the Washington area assembly to resubmit the proposal with the added support of the regional trustee. This time the proposal was forwarded to the Conference which, in 1984, recommended the pamphlet be prepared. So the G.S.O. engaged Jack M., who had illustrated the Twelve Traditions pamphlet, to do some trial drawings. They turned out to be clear and amusing. Right on target. The Committee was delightful and gave their go-ahead. But after a delay of several months the cartoonist declared the job was too difficult for him.
The project then lay fallow for about a year (the failure to complete it being reported with “regret” to the 1985 Conference.) A few months later, Sarah P., literature coordinator on the G.S.O. staff, and Vinnie M., newly appointed director of publications, decided on a new approach; namely, to write the text for the pamphlet first. They assigned a seasoned writer with long service experience to prepare a simplified and popularized text and also to suggest how this text might be illustrated. This approach worked, although two new artists were tried before the right style and appeal were achieved.
During the first 25 years, Bill’s telling his story was a part of almost every group meeting and A.A. gathering at which the co-founder appeared. But thereafter, with the enormous growth of the Fellowship and Bill’s reduced travel, only a relatively few members had ever seen him or heard him tell his story. So it was decided (mostly by Bill himself) in the early 1960’s to record “Bill’s Own Story” on film for archival purposes and for the sake of A.A.’s to come. The product, filmed with Lois at Stepping Stones, was almost of home-movie quality with a bad sound-track, but it did accomplish the objective of preserving Bill on film. It was followed up about a year later with a similar home-movie style production, “Bill Discusses the Twelve Traditions,” which showed Bill speaking to a group of G.S.O. people (though no so identified) around a conference table. These films were something of an embarrassment to the Conference as they were not “Conference-approved” and were technically in violation of the Eleventh Tradition. On the other hand, they were treasured by the Fellowship, and were offered for rental from G.S.O. They have been seen and enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of A.A.’s in the years since at gatherings from group meetings to International Conventions. They are restricted to use within A.A. only, by action of the 1965 Conference.
A decade later the employment of audio-visual material was so universal that both the Trustees’ Public Information Committee and Literature Committee were discussing the need for a film about Alcoholics Anonymous to carry the message to the general public. Since audio-visual materials were considered to be “literature” in another form, the Literature Committee was given the responsibility of exploring whether such a film could be made within the Traditions. An audio-visual subcommittee was appointed consisting of people with heavy media experience: Chuck H., Jerry D., and Bob P. Lois F., a brand-new but highly capable G.S.O. staff member, was secretary of the Literature Committee and therefore of the subcommittee as well.
The subcommittee met several times in 1977 and made three fundamental decisions which were crucial to the accomplishment of the project. First, they agreed that the objective would be to portray Alcoholics Anonymous as it actually was, to counter the misconceptions and stereotyping that existed in the public mind. Second, in keeping with this objective, it was determined not to employ professional actors, but to photograph actual A.A.’s in real settings if it could be done without showing faces. And third, no script would be written; the actual words of the members would tell the story. Thus, it was hoped, any hint of promotion would be voided.
Authorization was given by the Trustees to film some test footage to see if anonymity could be preserved. Lois F. was directed to find three filmmakers from which one could be selected, which she did. As she was from San Francisco, where she had known Mark Chase, director of the San Francisco Film Festival, Lois asked him for recommendations. He told her his pick would be Crommie & Crommie, a husband and wife team of exceptional artistic talent and sensitivity, who were “into making films that affect people’s lives.” And they were the filmmakers finally selected. Lois said later, “I sometimes think the greatest contribution I made while at G.S.O. was finding the Crommies.”
The test footage was shot in New York, California and Chicago at the end of 1977 and the first part of January 1978. Lois F. did the advanced work and accompanied Karen and David Crommie during the test filming, always going through area and local service people, painstakingly explaining what was proposed and getting the group conscience of the individuals and groups being filmed. Even so, Lois recalls there was “lots of criticism,” tears, protests, threats and wild rumors.” The General Service Board viewed the test footage at their January 1978 meeting, gave some guidance and okayed it to be shown to the Conference. The Conference recommended that “The test film shown to the Conference Literature Committee be expanded to a film approximately 25 minutes in length for the purpose of carrying the A.A. message to the general public” This action was implemented during 1978, and the finished film, entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous–An Inside View,” was shown to the 1979 Conference for their approval.
Meanwhile, however, “the great film festival flap” had occurred. It began about a month before the Conference with the Crommies’ asking Lois if they could enter the film in the San Francisco International Film Festival as an example of their work. Lois asked Bob P., who inquired what exposure it would involve. Lois explained that the films are shown to small groups of judges in small meeting rooms, so the exposure would be very limited. Bob P., feeling that this was a professional matter involving primarily filmmakers, gave permission. Within a fortnight a major uproar was taking place on the West Coast, angry phone calls were pouring into G.S.O., and a petition to impeach Bob P. as general manager was being circulated in the Northern Interior Area.
What had happened was that, unexpectedly, the “Inside View” film had won first in its category of “Health Care,” and had then gone on to win the Silver Award among all documentary films in the Festival. An announcement had appeared in a San Francisco paper, further inviting the public to see the film at the award ceremonies. All this before the Conference had even seen the film, much less approved it! Following a hurried phone call, the Festival officials agreed not to show the film to the public. But the fat was on the fire. Lois and Bob P. credit George D., Pacific Regional Trustee, with valiant and effective service traveling to gatherings throughout his region to calm people down.
Partly as a result of this flap, the 1979 Conference imposed a series of seven restrictions and conditions on the distribution of the film for the first year. The Trustees’ Public Information Committee was charged with reviewing and evaluating the entire experience at the end of that time and formulating a suitable policy. This was done, and the recommendation was made to release the film for general distribution.
“A.A……An Inside View” has been shown on TV scores of times and has had wide use both outside and inside the Fellowship. It has been particularly useful in lowering the anxiety of patients in treatment centers facing their first exposure to A.A. In fact, Lois F. says the story that touched her most was of a Winnipeg, Manitoba, woman who had seen the film in a trial showing under the auspices of regional trustee Don N. on a Fargo/Moorhead TV station. This woman had called the Winnipeg central office for help on several occasions, but always refused to go to an A.A. meeting. The day after the showing, she called once more to say she had seen the film and didn’t know what she had been afraid of, as she was now ready to go to A.A.
Because of its impact, footage from the film was later used in a series of public service announcements produced by Crommie & Crommie for A.A. (After 1985, the Crommies also produced two more documentary films in the same style, one directed at young alcoholics and the other at inmates, which were enthusiastically received.) David and Karen have stated many times that knowing A.A. during the making of the films has profoundly changed their lives.