The Alcoholics Anonymous book has stats most authors only dream of: more than 30 million copies sold. Translated into 67 languages. In 2012, the Library of Congress ranked it No. 10 in its top 25 “Books That Shaped America.”
But when it was published in 1939, its primary writer, William “Bill W.” Wilson, received neither payment (save writing costs) nor credit. The official author is still listed as “Anonymous.”
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Now the original manuscript — lost for decades and containing handwritten notes by Wilson and his friends — has been sold at auction for $2.4 million to billionaire Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who attended his first AA meeting 25 years ago, the Associated Press reported.
Irsay told the AP that he will display the manuscript publicly for several months a year at Alcoholics Anonymous’s headquarters in New York. “I’ve held it. I’ve looked through it. It is absolutely mind-blowing,” he said. “It was just a miracle to see this thing live.”
The sale Saturday at Profiles in History auction house in Los Angeles came after a year of legal wrangling. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, the publishing wing of A.A., tried unsuccessfully to halt the auction.
When Wilson, a once-successful stockbroker, descended into alcoholism in the 1920s and ’30s, addiction was largely regarded as a moral failing, a crime, a sin — or all three. (This was the height of Prohibition, after all.) There were no fancy rehabs, but there were a few hospitals that specialized in the treatment of alcoholics. Wilson found himself in one of them, Towns Hospital in Manhattan, in the fall of 1933.
There he met William D. Silkworth, who told Wilson his theory that addiction was actually a medical condition akin to an allergy and that the only long-term solution was total abstinence from alcohol. (The American Medical Association declared alcohol and drug addiction an illness in 1956. In 2016, a Surgeon General’s report described it as a chronic brain disease with the potential for both relapse and recovery.)
Wilson latched on to Silkworth’s medical theory, but that didn’t help him abstain. He ended up in Towns Hospital three more times over the next year. With Wilson unable to work, his long-suffering wife, Lois, took a job at Macy’s.
During this period, Wilson was visited by an old drinking buddy who’d managed to quit after joining something called the Oxford Group.
Started in 1921 by missionary Frank Buchman, the Oxford Group was a Christian evangelical movement that promoted confession of one’s sins, restitution for harms caused, frequent meditation and unselfish service to others. Wilson’s friend encouraged him to join.
Never a religion buff, Wilson demurred. In hopes he’d come around, his friend told him about William James’s book “The Varieties of Religious Experience” and described another Oxford Group member’s meeting with famed psychiatrist Carl Jung, who told him he’d only quit drinking via a “spiritual awakening.”
Finally, following his fourth trip to the hospital and a “bright light” conversion experience, Wilson took his last drink in late 1934. He threw himself into the Oxford Group, focusing his service efforts on getting other alcoholics sober. For months, he was unsuccessful.
Wilson kept trying — this time meeting with a doctor in Akron, Ohio, who had been struggling with alcohol for years. It worked; Dr. Robert Smith took his last drink on June 10, 1935, which A.A. now regards as the day of its founding.
Within a few years, Wilson and Smith assembled about 100 recovered alcoholics, who were eventually pushed out of the Oxford Group. To help their movement grow, they wrote a book. Wilson volunteered to write it, but the group’s members, sticking to the notion of unselfish service, voted not to pay him.
Wilson threw all his influences into writing the new program — Silkworth, James, Jung — and he expanded the Oxford Group’s six steps to 12.
On the 161-page review copy, Wilson and his friends scribbled edits in red, blue and black pencil. One of them persuaded Wilson to change the tone of the entire thing from lecturing advice to a humble offering of personal experience. Thus, “Half measures will avail you nothing” became “Half measures availed us nothing.”
Initially, the self-published book seemed doomed. According to “Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World,” 5,000 copies sat in a warehouse for months, nearly bankrupting them. But after positive coverage on radio and in the Saturday Evening Post, sales exploded, and requests for help came flooding in to the newly formed Alcoholic Foundation.
Today, A.A. claims more than 2 million members in 170 countries.
While the 12-step message spread worldwide, the printer’s copy and its historic value remained with Wilson until his death in 1971.
In 1978, Wilson’s wife, Lois, gave it to the couple’s close friend Barry Leach. According to a 2017 lawsuit, Leach signed a notarized letter in 1979 gifting the manuscript to A.A. World Services. (The nonprofit Alcoholic Foundation is now called the General Service Office of A.A. The publishing house is called A.A. World Services. Both are funded through book sales and member donations.) In exchange, Leach asked only to be able to keep it in his possession until his death.
Somewhere between 1979 and Leach’s death in 1985, however, everyone at A.A. World Services apparently forgot about this arrangement. Leach’s brother, as executor of Leach’s estate, declared that Leach had “no tangible personal property of significant value.”
The whereabouts of the manuscript remained unknown until it reappeared at an auction house in 2004, sold by a “Joseph B.” for $1.5 million. It was auctioned again in 2007 to Alabama resident Ken Roberts for $992,000.
A few months later, according to court documents, A.A. World Services rediscovered Leach’s notarized letter. When Roberts moved to auction the manuscript last year, the organization sued to stop him, claiming it was the rightful owner.
Details of the settlement are unclear, but A.A. agreed to waive its right to the manuscript.
Irsay said in his interview with AP that he decided to reveal his identity as the purchaser to fight the stigma associated with alcoholism and addiction.
“The only way we stay sober is to give it away,” Irsay said. “I think it’ll help a lot of people. That’s the reason I’m doing it.”
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