Lets Ask Bill W.
Question & Answer # 10
What were the conditions that led to the Twelve Traditions?
After the Jack Alexander article was published in 1941 it brought down a deluge on our little New York office of thousands upon thousands of inquiries from frantic alcoholics, their wives, their employers and at that moment we passed out of our infancy and embarked upon our next phase- the phase of adolescence.
Well, adolescence by definition is a troubled time of young life and we were no exception as groups began to take shape all over the land and these groups immediately had trouble. We made the very sad discovery that just because you sobered up a drunk you haven’t made a saint out of him by a long shot. We found that we could be bitterly resentful and we discovered that we had a much better booze cure than we thought possible. A lot of us found that we could gripe like thunder and still stay sober. We found that we were in all sorts of petty struggles for leadership and prestige. A lot of us were very suspicious of the Book enterprise in the hands of that fellow Wilson who has a truck backed up to Mr. Rockefeller who has all the dough. And we began to have all sorts of troubles.
Money had entered the picture – it had to. We had to hire halls that didn’t come for nothing, the book cost something, we had dinners once in a while. Yes, money came into it.
Then we found little by little that the groups had to have chores done. Who was going to be the Chairman, would we hand pick him or elect him or what? You know what those troubles were and they became so fearsome that we went through another period of flying blind. The first period of flying blind you remember had to do with whether the individual could be restored into one piece, whether the forces of destruction in him could be contained and subdued. Now, we were beginning to wonder in the early part of our adolescence, whether the destructive forces in our groups would rend us apart and destroy the society. Ah, those were fearsome days.
Our little New York office began to be deluged with mail from these groups, growing up at distances and not in contact with our old centers and they were having these troubles: There were people coming out of the insane asylums. Lord, what would these lunatics do to us? There were prisoners, would we be sandbagged? There were queer people. There were people, believe it or not whose morals were bad and the respectable alcoholics of that time shook their heads and said, “surely these immoral people are going to render us asunder.” Little Red Riding Hood and the bad wolves began to abound. Ah yes, could our society last?
It kept growing, more groups, more members. Sometimes the groups divided because the leaders were mad at each other and sometimes they divided because they were just too big. But by a process of fission and sub-division this movement grew and grew and grew. Ten years later it had spread into thirty countries.
Out of that vast welter of experience in our adolescence it began to be evident that we were going to take very different attitudes towards many things than our fellow Americans. We were deeply convinced for example, that the survival of the whole was far more important than the survival of any individual or group of individuals. This was a thing far bigger than any one of us. We began to suspect that once a mass of alcoholics were adhering even halfway to the Twelve Steps, that God could speak in their Group conscience and up out of that Group conscience could come a wisdom greater than any inspired leadership.
In the early days we all had membership rules. Where have they gone now? We’re not afraid anymore. We open our arms wide, we say we don’t care who you are, what your difficulties are. You just need say, “I’m an alcoholic and I’m interested.” You declare yourself in. Our membership idea is put exactly in reverse.
Years ago we thought this society should go into research and education, to do everything for drunks all the time. We know better now. We have one sole object in this society, we shoemakers are going to stick to our last and we will carry that message to other alcoholics and leave these other matters to the more competent. We will do one thing supremely well rather than many things badly.
And so our Tradition grew. Our Tradition is not American tradition. Take our public relations policy. Why, in America everything runs on big names, advertising people. We are a country devoted to heroism, it is a beloved tradition and yet this movement in the wisdom of it’s Group’s soul, knew that this was not for us. So our public relations policy is anonymity at the public level. No advertising of people, principles before personalities. Anonymity has a deep spiritual significance – the greatest protection this movement has.
As our society has grown up it has developed its way of life. It’s a way of relating ourselves together, it’s a way of relating ourselves to these troublesome questions of property, money and prestige and authority and the world at large. The A.A. Tradition developed not because I dictated it but because you people, your experience formed it and I merely set it on paper and tried beginning four years ago (1946) to reflect it back to you. Such were our years of adolescence, and before we leave them I must say that a powerful impetus was given the Traditions by the Gentleman who introduced me. (Earl T.)
One day he came down to Bedford Hills after the long form of the Traditions were written out at some length, because in the office we were forever having to answer questions about Group troubles, so the original Traditions were longer and covered more possibilities of trouble. Earl looked at me rather quizzically and he said “Bill, don’t you get it through your thick head that these drunks do not like to read. They will listen for a while but they will not read anything. Now, you want to capsule these Traditions as simply as are the Twelve Steps to Recovery.”
So he and I started the capsulizing process, which lasted a day or two and that put the Traditions into their present form. Well, by this time we had a lot of experience on these principles, which we began to think might bind us together in unity for so long as God might need us. And at Cleveland (1950), seven thousand of us did declare “Yes, these are the traditional principles upon which we are willing to stand, upon which we can safely commit ourselves to the future, and so we emerged from adolescence. Again, last year we took destiny by the hand. (Transcribed from tape. Chicago, IL, February 1951).