The ‘Big Book’ Sets a Standard for Self-Help

Years ago, Dr. Norman Miller and I wrote a pamphlet about the disease concept of alcoholism that was published by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation.

During our collaboration, Norman told me that Alcoholics Anonymous remains the best book ever written for a general audience about alcoholism.

I’ve never forgotten that remark. And after rereading the book recently, I still agree.

First published in 1939, the “Big Book” — as it’s known to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) members — has gone through four editions and sold over 20 million copies.  

AA doesn’t conduct research or collect personal information about members. Yet I’m willing to venture that millions of people owe their sobriety and sanity to the ideas first expressed in this book.

It still speaks

Turning the pages of the Big Book, I was surprised to discover how fresh it seems.

Many of the elements I expect to find in a contemporary self-help book are already present here: Personal stories. Suggested action steps. Slogans that summarize key points. (See Wear the World Like a Loose Garment.) And a clear organizing schema that gives readers “pegs” on which to hang the basic ideas — in this case, the Twelve Steps.

But there’s something more going on here — a quality that lies behind the pages and beneath the words. It’s hard to pin down.

The closest I can come is to say that the Big Book speaks with a human voice. And this has everything to do with its primary author and co-founder of AA — Bill W.

Bill’s accomplishment

As a writer, I stand in awe of what Bill achieved in the the Big Book. He outlined a program that is specific and compelling, explained with an aching acknowledgment of human frailty and the possibility of fundamental healing.

Bill did this with a respect for the diversity of AA members — including atheists and agnostics — giving them permission to “take what works and leave the rest.”

That kind of balance is hard to maintain for one paragraph, let alone 575 pages.

Moreover, Bill’s voice still rings true, sounding through the pages of a book published more than 80 years ago.

In this age of ghostwritten, derivative, and content-free “advice” literature, the Big Book remains a beacon. It validates Alain de Botton’s claim that self-help can rise to the level of timeless literature.

Bill’s choice

Chapter 1 of the Big Book is wholly devoted to Bill’s first-person account of alcohol debauchery and eventual recovery.

These pages set an example of radical self-disclosure that you can still find in good AA meetings. Bill tells his story with the kind of grit and insight that’s only possible for someone who’s “been there.”

Bill nearly drank himself to death. Recalling one phase of his drinking life — still laced with denial — he wrote that:

Liquor ceased to be a luxury; it became a necessity. “Bathtub” gin, two bottles a day, and often three, got to be routine. Sometimes a small deal would net a few hundred dollars, and I would pay my bills at the bars and delicatessens. This went on endlessly, and I began to waken very early in the morning shaking violently. A tumbler of gin followed by half a dozen bottles of beer would be required if I were to eat any breakfast. Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation….

This continued for months, culminating in Bill’s third “detox” at Town’s Hospital in New York.

The doctor gave Bill a choice: Either quit drinking. Or die.

Bill’s “white light” experience

The Big Book alludes to this event, but my favorite description of it comes from Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age:

My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit. I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself, but finally, just for the moment, the last vestige of my proud obstinacy was crushed. All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!”

Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. 

After the white light, Bill stayed sober for the rest of his life. This alone is remarkable. But what astonishes me is how it ever happened in the first place, given Bill’s history of religious skepticism.

While confessing a grudging admiration for Jesus, Bill had dismissed Christianity as a whole: “The wars that had been fought, the burnings and chicanery that religious dispute had facilitated, made me sick.” He wanted no part of churches and creeds.

How does a man make the leap from that attitude to beholding “the God of the preachers?”

The answer is crucial to Bill’s story — and the founding of AA.

How Bill met his Higher Power

One day, while he was still drinking heavily, Bill got a surprise visit from an old classmate and former drinking buddy named Ebby.

They sat down in Bill’s kitchen to talk.

Bill cordially offered Ebby a drink.

Ebby tactfully refused it. He smiled and said that a change had come over him: “I’ve got religion.”

Also, he was two months sober.

Bill recoiled at the revelation:

I was aghast. So that was it — last summer an alcoholic crackpot; now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion. He had that starry-eyed look. Yes, the old boy was on fire all right. But bless his heart, let him rant! Besides, my gin would last longer than his preaching.

Ebby persisted, however, revealing that he’d sobered up through a community of drinkers who joined the Oxford Group and embraced its practices. These included a “moral inventory” based on “absolute honesty” and making amends (all eventually adopted by AA).

Bill listened to his friend, impressed that that Ebby “did no ranting.” Yet Bill’s mind closed to the notion of a personal God who granted sobriety to alcoholics.

“I could go for such conceptions as Creative Intelligence, Universal Mind or Spirit of Nature but I resisted the thought of a Czar of the Heavens, however loving his sway might be,” Bill recalled.

That was an opening, and it was all that Ebby needed.

“Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” Ebby said.

This statement “floored” Bill: “It melted the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered for many years.”

The conversation continued for hours as Bill gradually surrendered to the simplicity of Ebby’s message:

It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning…. Would I have it? Of course I would!

Spiritual, not religious

I tell this story to anyone who struggles with the religious tone of the Twelve Steps. At one point I, too, linked their “God language” to desiccating doctrine, suppression of dissent, and soul-destroying conformity.

Yes, the Oxford Group was a Christian movement. Yet it was also an open-minded Christianity — something that’s hard to conceive given the brutal fundamentalism of the church’s far right wing.

The concept of a “Higher Power” is what makes all the difference. Yes, the term can refer to the God of mainstream Christianity. But it can also refer to your AA group, your mentor, your family, your favorite spot in nature — or any other source of help outside yourself.

Once you accept this wide-open notion of a Higher Power, the whole AA program starts to unfold itself to you.

This notion is what allows atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, and church-goers to all sit in the same room for a Twelve Step meeting, discover what they have in common, and help each other stay sober.

And it all started with the Big Book.