Mel B. got sober on April 15, 1950, in Norfolk, Nebraska.
He has lived in Toledo, Ohio, for the past thirty-four years. His home group is the Raab Road Group near Toledo.
GV: How did you come to Alcoholics Anonymous?
Mel: At sixteen years of age, I was on the threshold of alcoholism. In 1946, I saw a March of Time documentary film about AA. I had read about AA even before that. The Fellowship was still new and several magazines wrote positive articles about it.
I went to my first AA meeting in Santa Paula, California, in October 1948, about a month after my twenty-third birthday. It was a small meeting, with only about ten people. I remember that a guy came in drunk. In thousands of meetings since then, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone come in drunk. Drinking, maybe, but not staggering into the meeting. Everyone handled this man very gently, and one member took him home. The way they helped him made quite an impression on me.
It took me another year and a half to get sober. Finally, in 1950, I went into the Nebraska state hospital in Norfolk, my hometown. Once again, I joined AA. I’ve stayed sober ever since.
GV: What compelled you to join AA at age twenty-four? Back then it was considered to be a young age to join.
Mel: I was having blackouts and I was out of control. I couldn’t work and had a lot of trouble getting along with people. I went to jail several times. I was in bad shape mentally and emotionally. Between drunks, I was tense, withdrawn, sensitive, and nervous.
But when I got sober, I could see that using AA principles helped me solve some of my problems and I gained some confidence. I read the Grapevine, and I read the Big Book many times. When Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions came out, I read that, and then I read AA Comes of Age. I admired Bill right from the beginning.
GV: What kept you coming back when many of your peers didn’t?
Mel: I learned from other people’s mistakes. For example, when I was about three years sober, I met a guy with eight years of sobriety. In 1953, eight years was a lot of time. He said that he wasn’t going to meetings anymore. If you hadn’t learned enough in eight years to stay sober without meetings, he said, then you hadn’t listened. The man was drunk three months later.
GV: When you first joined AA, did you have a relationship with a Higher Power?
Mel: I was an agnostic or an atheist or something. I was bitter about religion. I had been involved in it as a teenager, and it wasn’t a good experience. I see now that it was my poor attitude.
GV: You have been a frequent contributor to the Grapevine over the years.
Mel: I’ve always wanted to write. When I first came to AA and got sober, I told myself that being a professional writer was just a fantasy. People in my family didn’t do things like that, I said. My dad thought I should be a mechanic, but I’m a terrible mechanic. I should never get near a set of tools.
I got a job doing production control work in Jackson, Michigan. The company had a magazine, and I started writing articles for it. My first article was published in June 1955, and the Grapevine published one in September of the same year. Seeing your work in print is a big thing. You see it on the typewriter, but when it actually gets into print, that does something to you.
The next year, 1956, the company magazine needed an editor and they gave me the job. I didn’t have a college degree or real writing experience, but the company president liked my work. Later, I became their public relations manager and stayed on with them until I retired. AA made that possible.
GV: You were in AA when Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was published. Do you remember what kind of reaction it got?
Mel: I don’t remember any unfavorable reaction. Although later, in the early 1980s, I interviewed a member who was critical of Bill and didn’t like the “Twelve and Twelve.” Later, I discovered that Bill was depressed when he wrote it. At first, I resented him for giving the rest of us advice while he was in this big slump. Now, I see that the “Twelve and Twelve” has a lot of wisdom. Bill talked about dealing with real human problems as you go along in sobriety.
GV: How did people feel about Dr. Bob?
Mel: I met people who knew Dr. Bob, and none of them spoke of disliking him. It was usually Bill who was the lightning rod.
GV: Of the two men, Bill was more outgoing?
Mel: Yes, and he also thought of the future from the beginning. Yev G., an early member of AA, said that when they were just a rinky-dink outfit with a handful of people, Bill was already talking about AA as a worldwide Fellowship. When The Saturday Evening Post said they wanted to do a story, Bill saw it as a great opportunity for AA. There’s a picture with the story showing an early meeting, and Bill’s right in the center of it. They aren’t mentioned by name but the Post demanded a photograph of a meeting. No photograph, no article, they said, so Bill made an exception and allowed it. The Post was the leading family magazine then and went into almost every home. He knew it would be a big breakthrough, and it was.
GV: Do you think attitudes about the co-founders have changed?
Mel: We now have more devotion to them. In Akron, there’s Dr. Bob’s house with a monument on the lawn. Stepping Stones is a shrine. Bill’s birthplace in East Dorset has become a shrine. People go to his grave and leave mementos. I have a picture I took in 1958, and there were about three dozen people at Dr. Bob’s grave for a Founder’s Day memorial program. Now on every Founder’s Day, thousands of people visit.
GV: What changes have you seen in Alcoholics Anonymous?
Mel: There have been a lot of changes in society over the last fifty years. It’s hard to imagine how many until you sit down and start to think about it. And, of course, some of those changes have come to AA. For instance, in 1950 we didn’t have gay meetings or anything like that. So, that’s one big change. But there is still the basic program and a strong belief in a Higher Power.
GV: What are your thoughts about women’s and men’s meetings?
Mel: I think they are necessary because some members need them. My dentist goes to an Al-Anon men’s meeting and gets something big out of that meeting. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them.
GV: Are there any personal moments in your recovery that stand out?
Mel: Those times when I’ve learned something new. For example, early in my sobriety I postponed taking the Fifth Step for a long time. Then I read an AA Grapevine story, “The Big Hump,” in the January 1955 issue. It called taking that Step “a big hump” to get over. Today, I still tell people at AA meetings about how that article helped me. Until I read that article, I had held back on taking the Fifth Step because of fear.
GV: Do you have any concerns, as some members do, about the future of AA?
Mel: Although the membership seems to have leveled off at two million or whatever it is, we may have reached a point where we shouldn’t expect much more growth. We know that a lot of people won’t respond to AA, although we wish they would.
On the other hand, the AA principles have influenced far more people than we realize. Today, you can watch a TV show and somebody will parody AA. A guy will say, “Hello, my name is Joe, and I’m a so-and-so,” like it’s an AA meeting. That shows how much AA has become identifiable. But one thing that assures our future, I think, is the literature, and how much of it has been produced. Anyone who wants to know about AA shouldn’t have any trouble finding information.
GV: Today, AAs have meetings online and we hear stories of Twelfth Step calls via e-mail. Does technology have a role in helping us carry the message? What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of technology?
Mel: I have no quarrel with technology. There was a time when people didn’t have telephones; today, we take it for granted. When I was growing up, we didn’t get a telephone until 1940. Today, the Internet is a better way of communicating. If you ask me to write an article about a subject, first I go online and find out what information is available.
GV: How do you think the information explosion has affected the tradition of anonymity?
Mel: Some prominent people have broken their anonymity, or at least come out as alcoholic, and I think it’s helped. In the 1950s, an actress named Lillian Roth wrote a book called I’ll Cry Tomorrow and broke her anonymity. They also made a movie based on the book, and both were successful. An AA member I knew said he thought that Lillian Roth helped women accept their alcoholism. Some good came out of it, he said, although it violated an AA Tradition. When Betty Ford came out, it probably did recovery a lot of good. She never said she was an AA member, but she certainly made it more respectable to be in recovery.
GV: What would you say to today’s young people coming into AA?
Mel: We have a lot of good young people coming in. A lot of drug stuff is cropping up. The old-timers are fading away and many people coming in today have had some experience with drugs. We should face the fact that many people in AA were cross-addicted before they came in.
It is important to be careful and not judge everybody by our own feelings and experiences. I think Bill was always open to change. When young people went to see him, he thought they were terrific. Bill provided a good example of open-mindedness to the people who appealed to him.
GV: Do you have any closing remarks about the benefits of the Twelve Steps and the AA Fellowship?
Mel: I’m eighty-one years old and I still go to three or four meetings a week. I couldn’t have the life I’ve had without AA and sobriety.
Mel B. has written sixty articles for the AA Grapevine that can be found in the Digital Archive at www.aagrapevine.org. The article “The Big Hump” (January 1955), was reprinted in October 1964 and is called “Three Suggestions” in the Digital Archive