In 1939, about 5,000 copies of a book offering hopeless drunks a spiritual path to recovery through 12 steps was released by a fledgling fellowship of alcoholics.
They called it “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism.”
Sales were dismal at first, but interest picked up in 1941 with help from a story in the Saturday Evening Post and grew into a recovery revolution for everybody from overeaters and the oversexed to gamblers and “shopaholics.”
More than 27 million copies of the so-called Big Book in more than 50 languages have been sold, but little was known about how the manual where none had ever existed was conceived. Did AA’s co-founder Bill Wilson, a fallen New York stockbroker, really write much of it himself with the help of early adherents?
Turns out the group’s bible was heavily edited, as reflected in a working manuscript to be published Friday for the first time. Called “The Book That Started It All,” the document is filled with crossouts, inserts and notes, presumably based on feedback sought from about 400 hand-picked outsiders who included doctors and psychiatrists.
Some of the edits made it into print, especially in early chapters for fragile readers. Many others were rejected as the still-anonymous personalities behind the notes fretted over how to handle God and religion, a higher power “bigger than ourselves” and the influence of the Oxford Group, a religious movement embraced by Wilson and his fellow founder, Ohio physician Bob Smith, but later considered a preachy hindrance in working with problem drinkers.
“The goal was to increase the likelihood that there would be fewer distractions and fewer reasons for throwing the book across the room,” said Fred Holmquist, a student of AA history and director of the Lodge Program for the treatment program Hazelden.
Hazelden’s publishing arm was given high-resolution scans of the typed manuscript by its current owner, an Alabama businessman. They show off the mysterious edits and marginalia and are being published with commentary from AA historians. The manuscript passed to Wilson’s widow, Lois, after he died in 1971 and has surfaced twice at auction since, including one sale for $1.56 million in 2004 to a California lawyer.
It’s a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an organization that was shrouded in mystery (some early members wore face masks when speaking in public) but remains the dominant force in addiction recovery.
“The spirituality side is what enabled the movement to grow very rapidly,” said Nick Motu, a Hazelden senior vice president and head of the publishing division. “Had this been about religion, I have doubts it would have succeeded as it had.”
Striking that tone is evident throughout the manuscript, including this note in one margin: “We have said constantly the trouble with org (sic) religion is that they try to dogmatically pour people into moulds. So why should we give specific instructions in the book such as saying do this and do that? You can obscure many alcoholics.”
Walking the God tightrope has taken AA far over the years, with the book now in its fourth edition, circulating in China and Iran — and in Russia and Romania before the fall of communism, Mr. Motu said.
Founded in 1935, before addiction was understood as an illness, Wilson believed “you can’t tell drunks what to do. That was his genius,” said Susan Cheever, who wrote the Wilson biography “My Name Is Bill.”
Wilson’s spiritual “inclusiveness,” as Ms. Cheever put it, apparently struck the right tone in a chapter for atheists and agnostics that made it through vetting with few changes. One telling sentence weighing a life in “alcoholic hell” against being “saved” was edited to say “alcoholic death” or life “on a spiritual basis.”
Patrick H. of Las Vegas knows that chapter well. He’s four years sober with help from AA, and he’s also an atheist.