This article incorrectly indicated that the Alcoholics Anonymous movement began in 1939. The organization was founded in 1935.
AA original manuscript reveals profound debate over religion
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:59 AM
For millions of addicts around the world, Alcoholics Anonymous's basic text - informally known as the Big Book - is the Bible. And as they're about to find out, the Bible was edited.
After being hidden away for nearly 70 years and then auctioned twice, the original manuscript by AA co-founder Bill Wilson is about to become public for the first time next week, complete with edits by Wilson-picked commenters that reveal a profound debate in 1939 about how overtly to talk about God.
The group's decision to use "higher power" and "God of your understanding" instead of "God" or "Jesus Christ" and to adopt a more inclusive tone was enormously important in making the deeply spiritual text accessible to the non-religious and non-Christian, AA historians and treatment experts say.
The editors softened Step 7 of AA's renowned 12 Steps for example, by deleting a phrase that evoked church worship. "Humbly, on our knees, asked Him to remove our shortcomings - holding nothing back," became "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."
In the first chapter, a sentence that read "God has to work twenty-four hours a day in and through us, or we perish," was edited to replace "God" with "faith," and a question was added: "Who are we to say what God has to do?"
Wide range of addictions
In the years since the Big Book was first published, AA's 12-step program has been adopted by millions of people battling a wide range of addictions, from drugs to food to sex to e-mail. It has been embraced by the authorities in the Islamic republic of Iran and the former Soviet Union and retooled by groups ranging from Chabad (for Jews) to Rick Warren's Celebrate Recovery (for evangelical Christians).
"If it had been a Christian-based book, a religious book, it wouldn't have succeeded as it has," said Nick Motu, senior vice president of Hazelden Publishing, the world's largest purveyor of materials related to addiction. Hazelden is publishing the 4.5-pound, $65 manuscript, titled "The Book That Started It All" (the original was called, simply, "Alcoholics Anonymous").
But the crossed-out phrases and scribbles make clear that the words easily could have read differently. And the edits embody a debate that continues today: How should the role of spirituality and religion be handled in addiction treatment?
They also take readers back to an era when churches and society generally stigmatized alcohol addicts as immoral rather than ill. The AA movement's reframing of addiction as having a physical component (the "doctor's opinion" that opens the book calls it "a kind of allergy") was revolutionary, experts say.
"We didn't have any knowledge then about the brain. Today we know there is a neurological component, we know there are spiritual, psychological and environmental components," said Joseph Califano, founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Califano said "virtually every rehabilitation program" in the country today includes a requirement to join an AA group. "The concept of the 'higher power' was important because it made the whole spiritual aspect available to Catholics, Jews, others," he said.
While the Big Book describes addiction in a way that was complex for the time, the 75-year-old movement has changed significantly as well. In addition to AA meetings, mainstream treatment today includes psychiatric treatment, group therapy, even nutrition. And despite objections from some secularists, experts generally believe that "there is a significant spiritual component for the overwhelming majority of people" coming out of addiction to alcohol and drugs, Califano said.
The question was - and is - in what way? The notes in the margins of the manuscript make clear there was disagreement, and even Wilson was torn.
A sometime stock speculator from Vermont who wrestled with depression as well as alcoholism, Wilson didn't attend church and had "the classic white flash experience" of a universal spirituality that gave him the strength to become sober, said Sid Farrar, Hazeldon's editorial director. Later in his life, he experimented briefly with LSD and parapsychology.
"Wilson was divided, too," on how to talk about God in the Big Book, Farrar said. "But it's not generally known that there was a debate about religion."
Analyzing the scribbles
Much remains unknown about how the manuscript was edited - and by whom. Hazelden said it hasn't had the resources to analyze the handwriting in the margins. Historians of AA and addiction treatment will not begin analyzing the scribbles and debating who wrote each one until the manuscript is published next week.
Motu said Wilson sent his original book to about 300 recovering addicts, religious leaders and doctors, among others, but some think the writing visible in the margins belonged to a small number of commenters.
The Big Book was first published in 1939, and the only things that have changed through four editions are the personal stories of recovery added to the end. The manuscript - which Hazelden says is the only one in existence - was stored for nearly 40 years in the New York home of Lois and Bill Wilson.
In the late 1970s, Lois Wilson gave the book as a gift to a friend in Montreal, who kept it private for decades. It was put up for auction in 2004 at Sotheby's, who sold it for $1.56 million. At the time, there was a flurry of criticism from historians who said it was a major document that should be available to scholars.
The buyer sold it a couple years later to a Houston man, who asked Hazelden to make it public.
As word is beginning to get out about the manuscript, some see fuel for the current fight about faith-based treatment and whether it's more effective.
Jack Cowley, a former prison warden who worked with AA for decades and now helps run faith-based prison programs, said the manuscript reflects "a cop-out" on Wilson's part, to make an inherently religious process "the least confrontational."
"The power is in the understanding of how Christ can apply these [steps]," Cowley said. "It's the scripture where the power is, it's not AA. . . . This is the same thing we're doing today. We're downplaying the faith issue to get more people."