Writing the Big Book: the Creation of AA
by William Schaberg
Reviewed by Linda Kurtz
This immense piece of scholarship by William Schaberg zeros in on the very beginning of AA. From the moment Bill Wilson first told his story to Dr. Bob Smith to the publication of the Big Book (formally titled Alcoholics Anonymous) five years passed. During those years a small group of recovering people in New York City dreamed of turning their small success with each other into a national movement that would save the lives of millions. A similar group met in Akron. The New Yorkers asked for help from hundreds of wealthy men who they thought could afford it and who they thought could benefit from what they were doing. No one cared and no one helped (Except for a very small donation from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., which went to Dr. Bob in Akron). Finally, they gave up on raising large amounts of money and spreading their method through hospitals; Bill Wilson decided to write a book that would carry their message of how to survive alcoholism. It seemed highly unlikely that he would succeed or that the book would have the desired effect.
If you have read my husband’s book, Not God: a History of Alcoholics Anonymous, you may think as I did, that you have a good understanding of that history. And you would be wrong. Writing the Big Book zeroes in on the first five years in a way that no other history of AA has captured. And these years were critical. Like a good suspense novel, this book captures the day to day struggles and let downs that these few intrepid men encountered over those years – in the heart of the great depression. Everything they tried to do fell through and yet they persisted. It becomes clear that Bill Wilson, chief protagonist of this suspense story, led this effort. This is especially true when it comes to writing the book. Bill liked for people to think that he had help writing it, but he really did not. He got very little help from other members. This was a big surprise to me because I have a copy of the multilith edition published by Hazelden as The Book That Started it All. But that happened very late in the story.
Another huge surprise to me was the identity of the one man who did come through and finance these struggling, unemployed, down-and-out men. I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing who it was. Another interesting theme throughout these five years was the degree to which Bill and Hank Parkhurst struggled over the inclusion of God in the book and, particularly in the 12 steps. Hank, an atheist, was convinced that mentioning God would drive people away. On the other side of this debate, was the Akron Group, still embedded in the Oxford Groups First Century Christianity and who wanted more religion, not less. But they had less impact than Hank because Hank was working hand-in-hand with Bill on a daily basis. There was not much interaction with Akron. Dr. Bob kept in touch, but he was aware of how his group felt about to the more secular approach in New York and kept Bill’s writing of the book under wraps. Although Bill and Hank worked together closely, Bill often ignored whatever Hank suggested. From today’s standpoint, one can surely see the value in Hank’s position – that God should be left out – but had he succeeded, one wonders whether the fellowship could have been the phenomenon that it is. I think my husband would have said that it would not. Schaberg’s account of the relationship between Bill W. and Hank Parkhurst is surely one of the highlights of this volume.
Schaberg has checked and rechecked his sources so meticulously that he is able over and over to tell us what did happen and debunk many inaccuracies promoted through the years by Bill W. and others whose memories either faded or preferred a different interpretation of events. One of the best parts of this long volume is the story of how Bill wrote the steps. He kept putting it off, but he knew that the book had to explain clearly how followers achieved sobriety; it had to be more than stories in the back of the book. We can see him with his pen and paper trying to tease out the specific actions taken by the men in his New York City group.
What the reader also sees through Schaberg’s authoring is the extreme poverty of these men. The tiny amounts of money tell a story about today’s inflation by comparison, but also how little they needed to do what they were trying to do, i.e., sober up drunks and keep them sober. As long as Bill and Lois Wilson had a home they had men living with them that they were helping to keep sober. And we get to see how little they requested from the rich potential benefactors they petitioned and what small sums they were denied by men who could have spared enough to make them all rich had they been so moved. None of these early AAs had jobs and many were homeless. When Bill and Lois were evicted they lived with other members for two years, homeless themselves. How does a bunch of homeless alcoholics start a worldwide movement? Schaberg’s book tells us how they did it, tiny step by tiny step.
Bill W. knew that there had to be a book, but he got little support from his compatriots and open opposition from those members in Akron. He had to wheedle them into writing recovery stories for the back part of the book. He got the doctor’s opinion. He hoped for an opinion from a famous person but never got it. He labored over the writing. Finally, the first drafts were ready to read by others. With little funds to pay for it, he and Hank had multilith copies made on which revisions were written. Hank Parkhurst helped get editorial contributions from competent and well-known professionals, and finally they found a printer to make the first printing. One of the most charming stories in the book is the one about how Bill W., Hank Parkhurst, and secretary Ruth Hock along with Clarence Snyder’s wife went together to the printer’s shop in Cornwall to help set the type. They were needed for this because there were so many corrections to the manuscript they had to help the printer figure it out. Then they had to spend the night even though they had no money to pay the hotel. Their benefactor paid the bill.
Throughout this final section of this 759 page manuscript, the story and its thrilling ending pull the reader through with bated breath. Of course, any reader will know how the story ends, but even so, it is still hard to believe. This small bunch of penniless drunks started a worldwide movement and their leader wrote one of the bestselling books of all time. Schaberg tells us at the end: there are 2,200,000 AA members in the world today; Time Magazine has named the Big Book one of the top 100 most influential books written since Time Magazine began publication; the Library of Congress named the Big Book one of the 88 books that shaped America; 37 million copies have been sold; the book has been translated into 70 languages.
Linda Farris Kurtz
Author of Recovery Groups
Eastern Michigan University
The Creation of AA and Its Iconic Text
Considerable research has been done on the birth and early evolution of A.A. since Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous by Harvard-trained historian Ernie Kurtz was published in 1979. Ernie was subsequently encouraged and enthralled by each new historical discovery about A.A. but remained in the final years of his life disappointed that no one had since published a scholarly update of A.A.’s birth and continued evolution.
If Ernie was still with us, he would be the first to congratulate William H. Schaberg on the publication of Writing the Big Book: The Creation of A.A.
Recent decades have witnessed growing interest in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous, with both professionals and amateurs (e.g., many members of AA HistoryLovers) making important discoveries. Numerous biographical works on early A.A. figures include Bill Wilson, Lois Wilson, Dr. Bob, Anne Smith, Dr. William Silkworth, Clarence Snyder, Marty Mann, Sister Ignatia, Nell Wing, and Fr. Ed Dowling. Equally important works on the history and experience of particular groups within A.A. have been published, most notably Glen C.’s Heroes of Early Black AA, , Jolene Sanders’ Women in Alcoholics Anonymous, Roger C.’s A History of Agnostics in AA, and Audrey Borden’s The History of Gay People in Alcoholics Anonymous.
But until publication of Writing the Big Book, there has been no scholarly history of early AA with the academic rigor or quality of storytelling found in Not-God.
Comparisons between Writing the Big Book and Not-God are apt as Schaberg follows the major admonitions Ernie Kurtz shared with so many of us about how do to exemplary historical research and writing. Schaberg tells the story of early AA chronologically so that we as readers retain a clear sense of sequence and how each event flowed from what preceded it and influenced what followed, and he identifies crucial events and decisions that defy such orderly sequence. He tells the story in context so that we as readers understand the cultural and organizational atmosphere in which key decisions were made. Like Kurtz, Schaberg provides us with all the evidentiary sources that help separate fact from widely-promulgated myths about A.A.’s birth and early evolution. His liberal use of excerpts from primary sources is crucial as many of the contemporary documents challenge popular origin myths about A.A. Schaberg tells the A.A. story from multiple personal and localized (e.g., Akron, New York, and Cleveland) perspectives, clearly identifying what we know and the mysteries that remain pending the discovery of new evidence. Finally, Schaberg defies the “history is boring” trope by detailing a most fascinating story that keeps the reader—even the informed reader—wanting to keep turning pages to find out what happens next.
There are some surprises in these pages!
The early history of A.A. as first outlined in 1979 in Not-God has now been skillfully and eloquently updated.
What remains is a new scholarly history that documents the ongoing evolution of A.A. over the last five decades—a history every bit as complex and engaging as A.A.’s birth and early years, but a story that remains untold. Researching more recent decades and A.A.’s history as it is now unfolding is as great a challenge as that faced by Kurtz and Schaberg. Perhaps someone reading Writing the Big Book will have the commitment, skill, and persistence to research and share this still-unfolding story. I hope so, as the future of A.A. may well rest with understanding these later years of A.A. William H. Schaberg has performed a great service by placing Writing the Big Book—The Creation of A.A. in our hands. The remaining question is how A.A. has adapted and evolved since its founding decades? It will be up to future historians to reveal the continuing history of A.A. and the larger history of addiction recovery
William L. White, author of Slaying the Dragon
This book is an extraordinary piece of research, which A.A. historians will want to read and make footnotes to from now on, whenever they are writing about how the Big Book was created. It is the product of a good deal of incredibly detailed research in the archives at both the central A.A. office in New York City and at Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York, along with Lois Wilson’s diary and a host of other primary sources. Most A.A. historians who read this book for the first time will be surprised at how many letters and documents there were in those archives which are relevant to this study.
This work gives the details of how the first part of the Big Book was written and revised, on a chapter by chapter basis, together with a careful account of the way that the Twelve Steps were written, along with much of what can be known about the writing of the stories which were then placed at the end of the book.
But future historians will also want to footnote to Schaberg’s book even when they are writing about the more general topic of what A.A. itself was like during this period, including the way A.A. meetings were run and how the spiritual side of A.A. was discussed and argued. This book is also our best account at present of the activities of a number of major figures, including Hank Parkhurst and Frank Amos (the latter of whom helped play a shaping role on the development of early A.A. to a far greater extent than most historians have recognized).
This book will become one of the classic reference works for future A.A. historians. They will need to read it and refer to it frequently in order to do a responsible job of writing their own studies.
Glenn F. Chesnut, author of 14 books including
Father Ed Dowling: Bill Wilson’s Sponsor
Father Ralph Pfau and the Golden Books
A.A. Meetings in Akron and Cleveland 1938-1942
Professor Emeritus of History
Indiana University South Bend
“Writing the Big Book” is a detailed tour de force exposition of the chapter-by-chapter authoring of A.A.’s primary text “Alcoholics Anonymous.” It is also a revealing anthology of its primary contributors.
Schaberg discloses and debunks numerous instances of long-standing common beliefs of so-called “Big Book history” demonstrating them to be the entrenched fabric of anecdotal myths and fiction.
The academically disciplined research and rigorous citation of primary source material is compelling and authoritative. The attention to detail and chronological structure presents and clarifies a wealth of historical cause and effect outcomes over the course of the Big Book’s seminal planning up to its final publication.
The revelation of Hank Parkhurst’s contributions to the Big Book, casts a welcome and inclusive light on the critical importance of his involvement. He is shown to be a true unsung hero.
Schaberg has produced a wonderful work of AA history that will likely take its place next to “Not God” as a primary reference source for A.A. historians and students of the Big Book.
Arthur S of Arlington, TX, AA Historian
Bill Schaberg’s study of the book Alcoholics Anonymous is a monumental work of research and thoroughness. The depth and breadth of his effort to track down the story of how the Big Book was written – the essential activity of A.A.’s early history – is truly impressive; the marshalling of such a large amount of material into a single account is a true contribution and gift to A.A. and its membership, past, present, and future. Bill presents a story told in great detail, but always very clearly sourced and meticulously footnoted, and in doing so sets an example of the requirements for rigorous research that should stand for anyone else who may wish to write seriously about an A.A. topic. People will be referring to this book for a very long time to come.
Writing the Big Book is an invaluable contribution to Alcoholics Anonymous and its membership. Relying on his outstanding research and thoroughness, Schaberg shapes a coherent story out of a vast trove of archival material—and reveals that the Big Book, far from being simply, “divinely inspired,” was the work of perfectly flawed human beings, living and striving under great stress and difficulty. The humanizing of Bill Wilson, Hank Parkhurst, Ruth Hock, Bob Smith, other A.A. members in Akron and New York, and the many additional figures who emerge as part of this story is invaluable. Bill has made a tremendous effort to hunt down much information outside of the usual A.A. sources that helps to round out the story – in particular, his descriptions of the Rockefeller associates (most importantly, Frank Amos) and of the book editors Tom Uzzell and Janet Blair give a real sense of who each of those people were, and what their crucial roles and contributions meant to A.A.’s fundamental piece of literature.
Kevin Hanlon, Co-Producer, Co-Director of the acclaimed documentary Bill W.
We believe this book is one of the great contributions to Alcoholics Anonymous, clearly documenting what actually happened during the writing of the book and underlining the book’s critical importance to the creation of AA.
Schaberg’s in-depth research and his masterful presentation of previously unpublished facts about A.A.’s early history make for an explosive package. But “Writing the Big Book” is a thoroughly researched, evidence-based book, the product of wading through an almost unimaginable amount of information which had to be absorbed, evaluated and then woven together into this very complicated story. Best of all, the reader is given the sense of being part of an unraveling thriller – one that frequently left us on the edge of our seat.
The book humanized the participants of the writing for us and clearly articulated how Alcoholics Anonymous emerged after a painful and arduous birth. The presentation of the evolution of the Twelve Steps was enlightening. Revealing the fundamental differences of the meetings and culture of sobriety as practiced in Akron and New York in 1938 was fascinating. Detailing the fact that Dr. Bob and Bill did not have the sort of collaborative relationship that is commonly perpetuated by AA myths was a revelation.
In addition to the compelling and masterfully presented information, a significant contribution is the way the book is written. It is very far from dry historical record. “Writing the Big Book” is lively, fascinating, compelling, insightful and about 60% of it, a delightfully fun detective novel. This book is more like a thriller than a documentary. The ‘cliff hangers’ at the end of sections and chapters was outstandingly executed.
Reading this book was an informative, stimulating and enlightening exercise. We are both incredibly enriched by its gravity, depth and pacing.
Jay Stinnett, A.A. historian. & his wife, Adell Shay
The research and historical conclusions of your book are outstanding. They speak for themselves, but the attention to detail in tracking down the facts and then stringing the story together so skillfully are a testament to your own writing skills along with your dedication and persistence with the subject. I loved it!
As history, the book is engaging, clear, and firmly rooted in the relevant documentation and the context of the time period.
But most of all, the book surprises in how well the narrative defines and demonstrates the actual condition of alcoholism for a non-alcoholic like myself, while so clearly rendering the portraits of its interesting cast of characters. There were times when I forgot I was reading about the founding of an American institution and simply became engrossed in the personal struggles of Bill and Lois Wilson, Hank Parkhurst, Ebby Thacher, and the rest. It reads just as well as a compelling collection of biographies as it does a carefully crafted work of historical scholarship.
In the end, I came away from this book with a much better understanding of what some of my dearest friends and family struggle with as alcoholics, along with a deep appreciation for the work that went into the creation of AA, and how profoundly the program has shaped our culture.
Well done, William!
(who helped edit Schaberg’s first book,
The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography)