“Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”
THE unity of Alcoholics Anonymous is the most cherished quality our Society has. Our lives, the lives of all to come, depend squarely upon it. We stay whole, or A.A. dies. Without unity, the heart of A.A. would cease to beat; our world arteries would no longer carry the life-giving grace of God; His gift to us would be spent aimlessly. Back again in their caves, alcoholics would reproach us and say, “What a great thing A.A. might have been!”
“Does this mean,” some will anxiously ask, “that in A.A. the individual doesn't count for much? Is he to be dominated by his group and swallowed up in it?”
We may certainly answer this question with a loud “No!” We believe there isn't a fellowship on earth which lavishes more devoted care upon its individual members; surely there is none which more jealously guards the individual's right to think, talk, and act as he wishes. No A.A. can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled. Our Twelve Steps to recovery are suggestions; the Twelve Traditions which guarantee A.A.'s unity contain not a single “Don't.” They repeatedly say “We ought . . .” but never “You must!”
To many minds all this liberty for the individual spells sheer anarchy. Every newcomer, every friend who looks at A.A. for the first time is greatly puzzled. They see liberty verging on license, yet they recognize at once that A.A. has an irresistible strength of purpose and action. “How,” they ask, “can such a crowd of anarchists function at all? How can they possibly place their common welfare first? What in Heaven's name holds them together?”
Those who look closely soon have the key to this strange paradox. The A.A. member has to conform to the principles of recovery. His life actually depends upon obedience to spiritual principles. If he deviates too far, the penalty is sure and swift; he sickens and dies. At first he goes along because he must, but later he discovers a way of life he really wants to live. Moreover, he finds he cannot keep this priceless gift unless he gives it away. Neither he nor anybody else can survive unless he carries the A.A. message. The moment this Twelfth Step work forms a group, another discovery is made—that most individuals cannot recover unless there is a group. Realization dawns that he is but a small part of a great whole; that no personal sacrifice is too great for preservation of the Fellowship. He learns that the clamor of desires and ambitions within him must be silenced whenever these could damage the group. It becomes plain that the group must survive or the individual will not.
So at the outset, how best to live and work together as groups became the prime question. In the world about us we saw personalities destroying whole peoples. The struggle for wealth, power, and prestige was tearing humanity apart as never before. If strong people were stalemated in the search for peace and harmony, what was to become of our erratic band of alcoholics? As we had once struggled and prayed for individual recovery, just so earnestly did we commence to quest for the principles through which A.A. itself might survive. On anvils of experience, the structure of our Society was hammered out.
Countless times, in as many cities and hamlets, we reenacted the story of Eddie Rickenbacker and his courageous company when their plane crashed in the Pacific. Like us, they had suddenly found themselves saved from death, but still floating upon a perilous sea. How well they saw that their common welfare came first. None might become selfish of water or bread. Each needed to consider the others, and in abiding faith they knew they must find their real strength. And this they did find, in measure to transcend all the defects of their frail craft, every test of uncertainty, pain, fear, and despair, and even the death of one.
Thus has it been with A.A. By faith and by works we have been able to build upon the lessons of an incredible experience. They live today in the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which—God willing—shall sustain us in unity for so long as He may need us.
“For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
WHERE does A.A. get its direction? Who runs it? This, too, is a puzzler for every friend and newcomer. When told that our Society has no president having authority to govern it, no treasurer who can compel the payment of any dues, no board of directors who can cast an erring member into outer darkness, when indeed no A.A. can give another a directive and enforce obedience, our friends gasp and exclaim, “This simply can't be. There must be an angle somewhere.” These practical folk then read Tradition Two, and learn that the sole authority in A.A. is a loving God as He may express Himself in the group conscience. They dubiously ask an experienced A.A. member if this really works. The member, sane to all appearances, immediately answers, “Yes! It definitely does.” The friends mutter that this looks vague, nebulous, pretty naive to them. Then they commence to watch us with speculative eyes, pick up a fragment of A.A. history, and soon have the solid facts.
What are these facts of A.A. life which brought us to this apparently impractical principle?
John Doe, a good A.A., moves—let us say—to Middletown, U.S.A. Alone now, he reflects that he may not be able to stay sober, or even alive, unless he passes on to other alcoholics what was so freely given him. He feels a spiritual and ethical compulsion, because hundreds may be suffering within reach of his help. Then, too, he misses his home group. He needs other alcoholics as much as they need him. He visits preachers, doctors, editors, policemen, and bartenders . . . with the result that Middletown now has a group, and he is the founder.
Being the founder, he is at first the boss. Who else could be? Very soon, though, his assumed authority to run everything begins to be shared with the first alcoholics he has helped. At this moment, the benign dictator becomes the chairman of a committee composed of his friends. These are the growing group's hierarchy of service—self-appointed, of course, because there is no other way. In a matter of months, A.A. booms in Middletown.
The founder and his friends channel spirituality to newcomers, hire halls, make hospital arrangements, and entreat their wives to brew gallons of coffee. Being on the human side, the founder and his friends may bask a little in glory. They say to one another, “Perhaps it would be a good idea if we continue to keep a firm hand on A.A. in this town. After all, we are experienced. Besides, look at all the good we've done these drunks. They should be grateful!” True, founders and their friends are sometimes wiser and more humble than this. But more often at this stage they are not.
Growing pains now beset the group. Panhandlers pan-handle. Lonely hearts pine. Problems descend like an avalanche. Still more important, murmurs are heard in the body politic, which swell into a loud cry: “Do these old-timers think they can run this group forever? Let's have an election.” The founder and his friends are hurt and depressed. They rush from crisis to crisis and from member to member, pleading; but it's no use, the revolution is on. The group conscience is about to take over.
Now comes the election. If the founder and his friends have served well, they may—to their surprise—be reinstated for a time. If, however, they have heavily resisted the rising tide of democracy, they may be summarily beached. In either case, the group now has a so-called rotating committee, very sharply limited in its authority. In no sense whatever can its members govern or direct the group. They are servants. Theirs is the sometimes thankless privilege of doing the group's chores. Headed by the chairman, they look after public relations and arrange meetings. Their treasurer, strictly accountable, takes money from the hat that is passed, banks it, pays the rent and other bills, and makes a regular report at business meetings. The secretary sees that literature is on the table, looks after the phone-answering service, answers the mail, and sends out notices of meetings. Such are the simple services that enable the group to function. The committee gives no spiritual advice, judges no one's conduct, issues no orders. Every one of them may be promptly eliminated at the next election if they try this. And so they make the belated discovery that they are really servants, not senators. These are universal experiences. Thus throughout A.A. does the group conscience decree the terms upon which its leaders shall serve.
This brings us straight to the question “Does A.A. have a real leadership?” Most emphatically the answer is “Yes, notwithstanding the apparent lack of it.” Let's turn again to the deposed founder and his friends. What becomes of them? As their grief and anxiety wear away, a subtle change begins. Ultimately, they divide into two classes known in A.A. slang as “elder statesmen” and “bleeding deacons.” The elder statesman is the one who sees the wisdom of the group's decision, who holds no resentment over his reduced status, whose judgment, fortified by consider- able experience, is sound, and who is willing to sit quietly on the sidelines patiently awaiting developments. The bleeding deacon is one who is just as surely convinced that the group cannot get along without him, who constantly connives for reelection to office, and who continues to be consumed with self-pity. A few hemorrhage so badly that—drained of all A.A. spirit and principle—they get drunk. At times the A.A. landscape seems to be littered with bleeding forms. Nearly every oldtimer in our Society has gone through this process in some degree. Happily, most of them survive and live to become elder statesmen. They become the real and permanent leadership of A.A. Theirs is the quiet opinion, the sure knowledge and humble example that resolve a crisis. When sorely perplexed, the group inevitably turns to them for advice. They become the voice of the group conscience; in fact, these are the true voice of Alcoholics Anonymous. They do not drive by mandate; they lead by example. This is the experience which has led us to the conclusion that our group conscience, well-advised by its elders, will be in the long run wiser than any single leader.
When A.A. was only three years old, an event occurred demonstrating this principle. One of the first members of A.A., entirely contrary to his own desires, was obliged to conform to group opinion. Here is the story in his words.
“One day I was doing a Twelfth Step job at a hospital in New York. The proprietor, Charlie, summoned me to his office. 'Bill,' he said, 'I think it's a shame that you are financially so hard up. All around you these drunks are getting well and making money. But you're giving this work full time, and you're broke. It isn't fair.' Charlie fished in his desk and came up with an old financial statement. Handing it to me, he continued, 'This shows the kind of money the hospital used to make back in the 1920's. Thousands of dollars a month. It should be doing just as well now, and it would—if only you'd help me. So why don't you move your work in here? I'll give you an office, a decent drawing account, and a very healthy slice of the profits. Three years ago, when my head doctor, Silkworth, began to tell me of the idea of helping drunks by spirituality, I thought it was crackpot stuff, but I've changed my mind. Some day this bunch of ex-drunks of yours will fill Madison Square Garden, and I don't see why you should starve meanwhile. What I propose is perfectly ethical. You can become a lay therapist, and more successful than anybody in the business.'
“I was bowled over. There were a few twinges of conscience until I saw how really ethical Charlie's proposal was. There was nothing wrong whatever with becoming a lay therapist. I thought of Lois coming home exhausted from the department store each day, only to cook supper for a houseful of drunks who weren't paying board. I thought of the large sum of money still owing my Wall Street creditors. I thought of a few of my alcoholic friends, who were making as much money as ever. Why shouldn't I do as well as they?
“Although I asked Charlie for a little time to consider it, my own mind was about made up. Racing back to Brooklyn on the subway, I had a seeming flash of divine guidance. It was only a single sentence, but most convincing. In fact, it came right out of the Bible—a voice kept saying to me, 'The laborer is worthy of his hire.' Arriving home, I found Lois cooking as usual, while three drunks looked hungrily on from the kitchen door. I drew her aside and told the glorious news. She looked interested, but not as excited as I thought she should be.
“It was meeting night. Although none of the alcoholics we boarded seemed to get sober, some others had. With their wives they crowded into our downstairs parlor. At once I burst into the story of my opportunity. Never shall I forget their impassive faces, and the steady gaze they focused upon me. With waning enthusiasm, my tale trailed off to the end. There was a long silence.
“Almost timidly, one of my friends began to speak. 'We know how hard up you are, Bill. It bothers us a lot. We've often wondered what we might do about it. But I think I speak for everyone here when I say that what you now propose bothers us an awful lot more.' The speaker's voice grew more confident. 'Don't you realize,' he went on, 'that you can never become a professional? As generous as Charlie has been to us, don't you see that we can't tie this thing up with his hospital or any other? You tell us that Charlie's proposal is ethical. Sure, it's ethical, but what we've got won't run on ethics only; it has to be better. Sure, Charlie's idea is good, but it isn't good enough. This is a matter of life and death, Bill, and nothing but the very best will do!' Challengingly, my friends looked at me as their spokesman continued. 'Bill, haven't you often said right here in this meeting that sometimes the good is the enemy of the best? Well, this is a plain case of it. You can't do this thing to us!'
“So spoke the group conscience. The group was right and I was wrong; the voice on the subway was not the voice of God. Here was the true voice, welling up out of my friends. I listened, and—thank God—I obeyed.”
“The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
THIS Tradition is packed with meaning. For A.A. is really saying to every serious drinker, “You are an A.A. member if you say so. You can declare yourself in; nobody can keep you out. No matter who you are, no matter how low you've gone, no matter how grave your emotional complications—even your crimes—we still can't deny you A.A. We don't want to keep you out. We aren't a bit afraid you'll harm us, never mind how twisted or violent you may be. We just want to be sure that you get the same great chance for sobriety that we've had. So you're an A.A. member the minute you declare yourself.”
To establish this principle of membership took years of harrowing experience. In our early time, nothing seemed so fragile, so easily breakable as an A.A. group. Hardly an alcoholic we approached paid any attention; most of those who did join us were like flickering candles in a windstorm. Time after time, their uncertain flames blew out and couldn’t be relighted. Our unspoken, constant thought was “ Which of us may be the next?”
A member gives us a vivid glimpse of those days. “At one time,” he says, “every A.A. group had many membership rules. Everybody was scared witless that something or somebody would capsize the boat and dump us all back into the drink. Our Foundation office* asked each group to send in its list of 'protective' regulations. The total list was a mile long. If all those rules had been in effect everywhere, nobody could have possibly joined A.A. at all, so great was the sum of our anxiety and fear.
“We were resolved to admit nobody to A.A.. but that hypothetical class of people we termed 'pure alcoholics.' Except for their guzzling, and the unfortunate results thereof, they could have no other complications. So beggars, tramps, asylum inmates, prisoners, queers, plain crackpots, and fallen women were definitely out. Yes sir, we'd cater only to pure and respectable alcoholics! Any others would surely destroy us. Besides, if we took in those odd ones, what would decent people say about us? We built a fine-mesh fence right around A.A.
“Maybe this sounds comical now. Maybe you think we old-timers were pretty intolerant. But I can tell you there was nothing funny about the situation then. We were grim because we felt our lives and homes were threatened, and that was no laughing matter. Intolerant, you say? Well, we were frightened. Naturally, we began to act like most everybody does when afraid. After all, isn't fear the true basis of intolerance? Yes, we were intolerant.”
How could we then guess that all those fears were to prove groundless? How could we know that thousands of these sometimes frightening people were to make astonishing recoveries and become our greatest workers and intimate friends? Was it credible that A.A. was to have a divorce rate far lower than average? Could we then foresee that troublesome people were to become our principal teachers of patience and tolerance? Could any then imagine a society which would include every conceivable kind of character, and cut across every barrier of race, creed, politics, and language with ease?
Why did A.A. finally drop all its membership regulations? Why did we leave it to each newcomer to decide himself whether he was an alcoholic and whether he should join us? Why did we dare to say, contrary to the experience of society and government everywhere, that we would neither punish nor deprive any A.A. of membership, that we must never compel anyone to pay anything, believe any- thing, or conform to anything?
The answer, now seen in Tradition Three, was simplicity itself. At last experience taught us that to take away any alcoholic's full chance was sometimes to pronounce his death sentence, and often to condemn him to endless misery. Who dared to be judge, jury, and executioner of his own sick brother?
As group after group saw these possibilities, they finally abandoned all membership regulations. One dramatic experience after another clinched this determination until it became our universal tradition. Here are two examples:
On the A.A. calendar it was Year Two. In that time nothing could be seen but two struggling, nameless groups of alcoholics trying to hold their faces up to the light.
A newcomer appeared at one of these groups, knocked on the door and asked to be let in. He talked frankly with that group's oldest member. He soon proved that his was a desperate case, and that above all he wanted to get well. “But,” he asked, “will you let me join your group? Since I am the victim of another addiction even worse stigmatized than alcoholism, you may not want me among you. Or will you?”
There was the dilemma. What should the group do? The oldest member summoned two others, and in confidence laid the explosive facts in their laps. Said he, “Well, what about it? If we turn this man away, he'll soon die. If we allow him in, only God knows what trouble he'll brew. What shall the answer be—yes or no?”
At first the elders could look only at the objections. “We deal,” they said, “with alcoholics only. Shouldn't we sacrifice this one for the sake of the many?” So went the discussion while the newcomer's fate hung in the balance. Then one of the three spoke in a very different voice. “ What we are really afraid of,” he said, “is our reputation. We are much more afraid of what people might say than the trouble this strange alcoholic might bring. As we've been talking, five short words have been running through my mind. Something keeps repeating to me, 'What would the Master do?'” Not another word was said. What more indeed could be said?
Overjoyed, the newcomer plunged into Twelfth Step work. Tirelessly he laid A.A.'s message before scores of people. Since this was a very early group, those scores have since multiplied themselves into thousands. Never did he trouble anyone with his other difficulty. A.A. had taken its first step in the formation of Tradition Three.
Not long after the man with the double stigma knocked for admission, A.A.'s other group received into its membership a salesman we shall call Ed. A power driver, this one, and brash as any salesman could possibly be. He had at least an idea a minute on how to improve A.A. These ideas he sold to fellow members with the same burning enthusiasm with which he distributed automobile polish. But he had one idea that wasn't so salable. Ed was an atheist. His pet obsession was that A.A. could get along better without its “God nonsense.” He browbeat everybody, and everybody expected that he'd soon get drunk—for at the time, you see, A.A. was on the pious side. There must be a heavy penalty, it was thought, for blasphemy. Distressingly enough, Ed proceeded to stay sober.
At length the time came for him to speak in a meeting. We shivered, for we knew what was coming. He paid a fine tribute to the Fellowship; he told how his family had been reunited; he extolled the virtue of honesty; he recalled the joys of Twelfth Step work; and then he lowered the boom. Cried Ed, “I can't stand this God stuff! It's a lot of malarkey for weak folks. This group doesn't need it, and I won't have it! To hell with it!”
A great wave of outraged resentment engulfed the meeting, sweeping every member to a single resolve: “Out he goes!”
The elders led Ed aside. They said firmly, “You can't talk like this around here. You'll have to quit it or get out.” With great sarcasm Ed came back at them. “Now do tell! Is that so?” He reached over to a bookshelf and took up a sheaf of papers. On top of them lay the foreword to the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” then under preparation. He read aloud, “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Relentlessly, Ed went on, “When you guys wrote that sentence, did you mean it, or didn't you?”
Dismayed, the elders looked at one another, for they knew he had them cold. So Ed stayed.
Ed not only stayed, he stayed sober—month after month. The longer he kept dry, the louder he talked—against God. The group was in anguish so deep that all fraternal charity had vanished. “When, oh when,” groaned members to one another, “will that guy get drunk?”
Quite a while later, Ed got a sales job which took him out of town. At the end of a few days, the news came in. He'd sent a telegram for money, and everybody knew what that meant! Then he got on the phone. In those days, we'd go anywhere on a Twelfth Step job, no matter how un- promising. But this time nobody stirred. “Leave him alone! Let him try it by himself for once; maybe he'll learn a lesson!”
About two weeks later, Ed stole by night into an A.A. member's house and, unknown to the family, went to bed. Daylight found the master of the house and another friend drinking their morning coffee. A noise was heard on the stairs. To their consternation, Ed appeared. A quizzical smile on his lips, he said, “Have you fellows had your morning meditation?” They quickly sensed that he was quite in earnest. In fragments, his story came out.
In a neighboring state, Ed had holed up in a cheap hotel. After all his pleas for help had been rebuffed, these words rang in his fevered mind: “They have deserted me. I have been deserted by my own kind. This is the end . . . nothing is left.” As he tossed on his bed, his hand brushed the bureau near by, touching a book. Opening the book, he read. It was a Gideon Bible. Ed never confided any more of what he saw and felt in that hotel room. It was the year 1938. He hasn't had a drink since.
Nowadays, when old-timers who know Ed foregather, they exclaim, “What if we had actually succeeded in throwing Ed out for blasphemy? What would have happened to him and all the others he later helped?”
So the hand of Providence early gave us a sign that any alcoholic is a member of our Society when he says so.
“Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups
or A.A. as a whole.”
AUTONOMY is a ten-dollar word. But in relation to us, it means very simply that every A.A. group can manage its affairs exactly as it pleases, except when A.A. as a whole is threatened. Comes now the same question raised in Tradition One. Isn't such liberty foolishly dangerous?
Over the years, every conceivable deviation from our Twelve Steps and Traditions has been tried. That was sure to be, since we are so largely a band of ego-driven individualists. Children of chaos, we have defiantly played with every brand of fire, only to emerge unharmed and, we think, wiser. These very deviations created a vast process of trial and error which, under the grace of God, has brought us to where we stand today.
When A.A.'s Traditions were first published, in 1946, we had become sure that an A.A. group could stand almost any amount of battering. We saw that the group, exactly like the individual, must eventually conform to whatever tested principles would guarantee survival. We had discovered that there was perfect safety in the process of trial and error. So confident of this had we become that the original statement of A.A. tradition carried this significant sentence: “Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an A.A. group provided that as a group they have no other affiliation.”
This meant, of course, that we had been given the courage to declare each A.A. group an individual entity, strictly reliant on its own conscience as a guide to action. In charting this enormous expanse of freedom, we found it necessary to post only two storm signals: A group ought not do anything which would greatly injure A.A. as a whole, nor ought it affiliate itself with anything or anybody else. There would be real danger should we commence to call some groups “wet,” others “dry,” still others “Republican” or “Communist,” and yet others “Catholic” or “Protestant.” The A.A. group would have to stick to its course or be hopelessly lost. Sobriety had to be its sole objective. In all other respects there was perfect freedom of will and action. Every group had the right to be wrong.
When A.A. was still young, lots of eager groups were forming. In a town we'll call Middleton, a real crackerjack had started up. The townspeople were as hot as firecrackers about it. Stargazing, the elders dreamed of innovations. They figured the town needed a great big alcoholic center, a kind of pilot plant A.A. groups could duplicate everywhere. Beginning on the ground floor there would be a club; in the second story they would sober up drunks and hand them currency for their back debts; the third deck would house an educational project—quite noncontroversial, of course. In imagination the gleaming center was to go up several stories more, but three would do for a start. This would all take a lot of money—other people's money. Believe it or not, wealthy townsfolk bought the idea.
There were, though, a few conservative dissenters among the alcoholics. They wrote the Foundation, A.A.'s headquarters in New York, wanting to know about this sort of streamlining. They understood that the elders, just to nail things down good, were about to apply to the Foundation for a charter. These few were disturbed and skeptical.
Of course, there was a promoter in the deal—a super promoter. By his eloquence he allayed all fears, despite advice from the Foundation that it could issue no charter, and that ventures which mixed an A.A. group with medication and education had come to sticky ends elsewhere. To make things safer, the promoter organized three corporations and became president of them all. Freshly painted, the new center shone. The warmth of it all spread through the town. Soon things began to hum. To insure foolproof, continuous operation, sixty-one rules and regulations were adopted.
But alas, this bright scene was not long in darkening. Confusion replaced serenity. It was found that some drunks yearned for education, but doubted if they were alcoholics. The personality defects of others could be cured maybe with a loan. Some were club-minded, but it was just a question of taking care of the lonely heart. Sometimes the swarming applicants would go for all three floors. Some would start at the top and come through to the bottom, becoming club members; others started in the club, pitched a binge, were hospitalized, then graduated to education on the third floor. It was a beehive of activity, all right, but unlike a beehive, it was confusion compounded. An A.A. group, as such, simply couldn't handle this sort of project. All too late that was discovered. Then came the inevitable explosion—something like that day the boiler burst in Wombley's Clapboard Factory. A chill chokedamp of fear and frustration fell over the group.
When that lifted, a wonderful thing had happened. The head promoter wrote the Foundation office. He said he wished he'd paid some attention to A.A. experience. Then he did something else that was to become an A.A. classic. It all went on a little card about golf-score size. The cover read: “Middleton Group #1. Rule #62.” Once the card was unfolded, a single pungent sentence leaped to the eye: “Don't take yourself too damn seriously.”
Thus it was that under Tradition Four an A.A. group had exercised its right to be wrong. Moreover, it had performed a great service for Alcoholics Anonymous, because it had been humbly willing to apply the lessons it learned. It had picked itself up with a laugh and gone on to better things. Even the chief architect, standing in the ruins of his dream, could laugh at himself—and that is the very acme of humility.
“Each group has but one primary purpose—
to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
“SHOEMAKER, stick to thy last!”... better do one thing supremely well than many badly. That is the central theme of this Tradition. Around it our Society gathers in unity. The very life of our Fellowship requires the preservation of this principle.
Alcoholics Anonymous can be likened to a group of physicians who might find a cure for cancer, and upon whose concerted work would depend the answer for sufferers of this disease. True, each physician in such a group might have his own specialty. Every doctor concerned would at times wish he could devote himself to his chosen field rather than work only with the group. But once these men had hit upon a cure, once it became apparent that only by their united effort could this be accomplished, then all of them would feel bound to devote themselves solely to the relief of cancer. In the radiance of such a miraculous discovery, any doctor would set his other ambitions aside, at whatever personal cost.
Just as firmly bound by obligation are the members of Alcoholics Anonymous, who have demonstrated that they can help problem drinkers as others seldom can. The unique ability of each A.A. to identify himself with, and bring recovery to, the newcomer in no way depends upon his learning, eloquence, or on any special individual skills. The only thing that matters is that he is an alcoholic who has found a key to sobriety. These legacies of suffering and of recovery are easily passed among alcoholics, one to the other. This is our gift from God, and its bestowal upon others like us is the one aim that today animates A.A.'s all around the globe.
There is another reason for this singleness of purpose. It is the great paradox of A.A. that we know we can seldom keep the precious gift of sobriety unless we give it away. If a group of doctors possessed a cancer cure, they might be conscience-stricken if they failed their mission through self-seeking. Yet such a failure wouldn't jeopardize their personal survival. For us, if we neglect those who are still sick, there is unremitting danger to our own lives and sanity. Under these compulsions of self-preservation, duty, and love, it is not strange that our Society has concluded that it has but one high mission—to carry the A.A. message to those who don't know there's a way out.
Highlighting the wisdom of A.A.'s single purpose, a member tells this story:
“Restless one day, I felt I'd better do some Twelfth Step work. Maybe I should take out some insurance against a slip. But first I'd have to find a drunk to work on.
“So I hopped the subway to Towns Hospital, where I asked Dr. Silkworth if he had a prospect. 'Nothing too promising,' the little doc said. 'There's just one chap on the third floor who might be a possibility. But he's an awfully tough Irishman. I never saw a man so obstinate. He shouts that if his partner would treat him better, and his wife would leave him alone, he'd soon solve his alcohol problem. He's had a bad case of D.T.'s, he's pretty foggy, and he's very suspicious of everybody. Doesn't sound too good, does it? But working with him may do something for you, so why don't you have a go at it?'
“I was soon sitting beside a big hulk of a man. Decidedly unfriendly, he stared at me out of eyes which were slits in his red and swollen face. I had to agree with the doctor—he certainly didn't look good. But I told him my own story. I explained what a wonderful Fellowship we had, how well we understood each other. I bore down hard on the hopelessness of the drunk's dilemma. I insisted that few drunks could ever get well on their own steam, but that in our groups we could do together what we could not do separately. He interrupted to scoff at this and asserted he'd fix his wife, his partner, and his alcoholism by himself. Sarcastically he asked, 'How much does your scheme cost?'
“I was thankful I could tell him, 'Nothing at all.'
“His next question: 'What are you getting out of it?'
“Of course, my answer was 'My own sobriety and a mighty happy life.'
“Still dubious, he demanded, 'Do you really mean the only reason you are here is to try and help me and to help yourself?'
“'Yes,' I said. 'That's absolutely all there is to it. There's no angle.'
“Then, hesitantly, I ventured to talk about the spiritual side of our program. What a freeze that drunk gave me! I'd no sooner got the word 'spiritual' out of my mouth than he pounced. 'Oh!' he said. 'Now I get it! You're proselytizing for some damn religious sect or other. Where do you get that “no angle” stuff? I belong to a great church that means everything to me. You've got a nerve to come in here talking religion!'
“Thank heaven I came up with the right answer for that one. It was based foursquare on the single purpose of A.A. 'You have faith,' I said. 'Perhaps far deeper faith than mine. No doubt you're better taught in religious matters than I. So I can't tell you anything about religion. I don't even want to try. I'll bet, too, that you could give me a letter-perfect definition of humility. But from what you've told me about yourself and your problems and how you propose to lick them, I think I know what's wrong.'
“'Okay,' he said. 'Give me the business.'
“'Well,' said I, 'I think you're just a conceited Irishman who thinks he can run the whole show.'
“This really rocked him. But as he calmed down, he began to listen while I tried to show him that humility was the main key to sobriety. Finally, he saw that I wasn't attempting to change his religious views, that I wanted him to find the grace in his own religion that would aid his recovery. From there on we got along fine.
“Now,” concludes the old-timer, “suppose I'd been obliged to talk to this man on religious grounds? Suppose my answer had to be that A.A. needed a lot of money; that A.A. went in for education, hospitals, and rehabilitation? Suppose I'd suggested that I'd take a hand in his domestic and business affairs? Where would we have wound up? No place, of course.”
Years later, this tough Irish customer liked to say, “My sponsor sold me one idea, and that was sobriety. At the time, I couldn't have bought anything else.”
“An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name
to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money,
property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”
THE moment we saw that we had an answer for alcoholism, it was reasonable (or so it seemed at the time) for us to feel that we might have the answer to a lot of other things. The A.A. groups, many thought, could go into business, might finance any enterprise whatever in the total field of alcoholism. In fact, we felt duty-bound to throw the whole weight of the A.A. name behind any meritorious cause.
Here are some of the things we dreamed. Hospitals didn't like alcoholics, so we thought we'd build a hospital chain of our own. People needed to be told what alcoholism was, so we'd educate the public, even rewrite school and medical textbooks. We'd gather up derelicts from skid rows, sort out those who could get well, and make it possible for the rest to earn their livelihood in a kind of quarantined confinement. Maybe these places would make large sums of money to carry on our other good works. We seriously thought of rewriting the laws of the land, and having it declared that alcoholics are sick people. No more would they be jailed; judges would parole them in our custody. We'd spill A.A. into the dark regions of dope addiction and criminality. We'd form groups of depressive and paranoid folks; the deeper the neurosis, the better we'd like it. It stood to reason that if alcoholism could be licked, so could any problem.
It occurred to us that we could take what we had into the factories and cause laborers and capitalists to love each other. Our uncompromising honesty might soon clean up politics. With one arm around the shoulder of religion and the other around the shoulder of medicine, we'd resolve their differences. Having learned to live so happily, we'd show everybody else how. Why, we thought, our Society of Alcoholics Anonymous might prove to be the spearhead of a new spiritual advance! We might transform the world.
Yes, we of A.A. did dream those dreams. How natural that was, since most alcoholics are bankrupt idealists. Nearly every one of us had wished to do great good, perform great deeds, and embody great ideals. We are all perfectionists who, failing perfection, have gone to the other extreme and settled for the bottle and the blackout. Providence, through A.A., had brought us within reach of our highest expectations. So why shouldn't we share our way of life with everyone?
Whereupon we tried A.A. hospitals—they all bogged down because you cannot put an A.A. group into business; too many busybody cooks spoil the broth. A.A. groups had their fling at education, and when they began to publicly whoop up the merits of this or that brand, people became confused. Did A.A. fix drunks or was it an educational project? Was A.A. spiritual or was it medical? Was it a reform movement? In consternation, we saw ourselves getting married to all kinds of enterprises, some good and some not so good. Watching alcoholics committed willy-nilly to prisons or asylums, we began to cry, “There oughtta be a law!” A.A.'s commenced to thump tables in legislative committee rooms and agitated for legal reform. That made good newspaper copy, but little else. We saw we'd soon be mired in politics. Even inside A.A. we found it imperative to remove the A.A. name from clubs and Twelfth Step houses.
These adventures implanted a deep-rooted conviction that in no circumstances could we endorse any related enterprise, no matter how good. We of Alcoholics Anonymous could not be all things to all men, nor should we try.
Years ago this principle of “no endorsement” was put to a vital test. Some of the great distilling companies proposed to go into the field of alcohol education. It would be a good thing, they believed, for the liquor trade to show a sense of public responsibility. They wanted to say that liquor should be enjoyed, not misused; hard drinkers ought to slow down, and problem drinkers—alcoholics—should not drink at all.
In one of their trade associations, the question arose of just how this campaign should be handled. Of course, they would use the resources of radio, press, and films to make their point. But what kind of person should head the job? They immediately thought of Alcoholics Anonymous. If they could find a good public relations man in our ranks, why wouldn't he be ideal? He'd certainly know the problem. His connection with A.A. would be valuable, because the Fellowship stood high in public favor and hadn't an enemy in the world.
Soon they'd spotted their man, an A.A. with the necessary experience. Straightway he appeared at New York's A.A. headquarters, asking, “Is there anything in our tradition that suggests I shouldn't take a job like this one? The kind of education seems good to me and is not too controversial. Do you headquarters folks see any bugs in it?”
At first glance, it did look like a good thing. Then doubt crept in. The association wanted to use our member's full name in all its advertising; he was to be described both as its director of publicity and as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Of course, there couldn't be the slightest objection if such an association hired an A.A. member solely because of his public relations ability and his knowledge of alcoholism. But that wasn't the whole story, for in this case not only was an A.A. member to break his anonymity at a public level, he was to link the name Alcoholics Anonymous to this particular educational project in the minds of millions. It would be bound to appear that A.A. was now backing education—liquor trade association style.
The minute we saw this compromising fact for what it was, we asked the prospective publicity director how he felt about it. “Great guns!” he said. “Of course I can't take the job. The ink wouldn't be dry on the first ad before an awful shriek would go up from the dry camp. They'd be out with lanterns looking for an honest A.A. to plump for their brand of education. A.A. would land exactly in the middle of the wet-dry controversy. Half the people in this country would think we'd signed up with the drys, the other half would think we'd joined the wets. What a mess!” “Nevertheless,” we pointed out, “you still have a legal right to take this job.”
“I know that,” he said. “But this is no time for legalities. Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life, and it comes first. I certainly won't be the guy to land A.A. in big-time trouble, and this would really do it!”
Concerning endorsements, our friend had said it all. We saw as never before that we could not lend the A.A. name to any cause other than our own.
“Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.”
SELF-SUPPORTING alcoholics? Who ever heard of such a thing? Yet we find that's what we have to be. This principle is telling evidence of the profound change that A.A. has wrought in all of us. Everybody knows that active alcoholics scream that they have no troubles money can't cure. Always, we've had our hands out. Time out of mind we've been dependent upon somebody, usually moneywise. When a society composed entirely of alcoholics says it's going to pay its bills, that's really news.
Probably no A.A. Tradition had the labor pains this one did. In early times, we were all broke. When you add to this the habitual supposition that people ought to give money to alcoholics trying to stay sober, it can be understood why we thought we deserved a pile of folding money. What great things A.A. would be able to do with it! But oddly enough, people who had money thought otherwise. They figured that it was high time we now—sober—paid our own way. So our Fellowship stayed poor because it had to.
There was another reason for our collective poverty. It was soon apparent that while alcoholics would spend lavishly on Twelfth Step cases, they had a terrific aversion to dropping money into a meeting-place hat for group purposes. We were astounded to find that we were as tight as the bark on a tree. So A.A., the movement, started and stayed broke, while its individual members waxed prosperous.
Alcoholics are certainly all-or-nothing people. Our reactions to money prove this. As A.A. emerged from its infancy into adolescence, we swung from the idea that we needed vast sums of money to the notion that A.A. shouldn't have any. On every lip were the words “You can't mix A.A. and money. We shall have to separate the spiritual from the material.” We took this violent new tack because here and there members had tried to make money out of their A.A. connections, and we feared we'd be exploited. Now and then, grateful benefactors had endowed clubhouses, and as a result there was sometimes outside interference in our affairs. We had been presented with a hospital, and almost immediately the donor's son became its principal patient and would-be manager. One A.A. group was given five thousand dollars to do with what it would. The hassle over that chunk of money played havoc for years. Frightened by these complications, some groups refused to have a cent in their treasuries.
Despite these misgivings, we had to recognize the fact that A.A. had to function. Meeting places cost something. To save whole areas from turmoil, small offices had to be set up, telephones installed, and a few full-time secretaries hired. Over many protests, these things were accomplished. We saw that if they weren't, the man coming in the door couldn't get a break. These simple services would require small sums of money which we could and would pay ourselves. At last the pendulum stopped swinging and pointed straight at Tradition Seven as it reads today.
In this connection, Bill likes to tell the following pointed story. He explains that when Jack Alexander's Saturday Evening Post piece broke in 1941, thousands of frantic letters from distraught alcoholics and their families hit the Foundation* letterbox in New York. “Our office staff,” Bill says, “consisted of two people: one devoted secretary and myself. How could this landslide of appeals be met? We'd have to have some more full-time help, that was sure. So we asked the A.A. groups for voluntary contributions. Would they send us a dollar a member a year? Otherwise this heartbreaking mail would have to go unanswered.
“To my surprise, the response of the groups was slow. I got mighty sore about it. Looking at this avalanche of mail one morning at the office, I paced up and down ranting how irresponsible and tightwad my fellow members were. Just then an old acquaintance stuck a tousled and aching head in the door. He was our prize slippee. I could see he had an awful hangover. Remembering some of my own, my heart filled with pity. I motioned him to my inside cubicle and produced a five-dollar bill. As my total income was thirty dollars a week at the time, this was a fairly large donation. Lois really needed the money for groceries, but that didn't stop me. The intense relief on my friend's face warmed my heart. I felt especially virtuous as I thought of all the ex-drunks who wouldn't even send the Foundation a dollar apiece, and here I was gladly making a five-dollar investment to fix a hangover.
“The meeting that night was at New York's old 24th Street Clubhouse. During the intermission, the treasurer gave a timid talk on how broke the club was. (That was in the period when you couldn't mix money and A.A. ) But finally he said it—the landlord would put us out if we didn't pay up. He concluded his remarks by saying, 'Now boys, please go heavier on the hat tonight, will you?'
“I heard all this quite plainly, as I was piously trying to convert a newcomer who sat next to me. The hat came in my direction, and I reached into my pocket. Still working on my prospect, I fumbled and came up with a fifty-cent piece. Somehow it looked like a very big coin. Hastily, I dropped it back and fished out a dime, which clinked thinly as I dropped it in the hat. Hats never got folding money in those days.
“Then I woke up. I who had boasted my generosity that morning was treating my own club worse than the distant alcoholics who had forgotten to send the Foundation their dollars. I realized that my five-dollar gift to the slippee was an ego-feeding proposition, bad for him and bad for me. There was a place in A.A. where spirituality and money would mix, and that was in the hat!”
There is another story about money. One night in 1948, the trustees of the Foundation were having their quarterly meeting. The agenda discussion included a very important question. A certain lady had died. When her will was read, it was discovered she had left Alcoholics Anonymous in trust with the Alcoholic Foundation a sum of ten thousand dollars. The question was: Should A.A. take the gift?
What a debate we had on that one! The Foundation was really hard up just then; the groups weren't sending in enough for the support of the office; we had been tossing in all the book income and even that hadn't been enough. The reserve was melting like snow in springtime. We needed that ten thousand dollars. “Maybe,” some said, “the groups will never fully support the office. We can't let it shut down; it's far too vital. Yes, let's take the money. Let's take all such donations in the future. We're going to need them.”
Then came the opposition. They pointed out that the Foundation board already knew of a total of half a million dollars set aside for A.A. in the wills of people still alive. Heaven only knew how much there was we hadn't heard about. If outside donations weren't declined, absolutely cut off, then the Foundation would one day become rich. Moreover, at the slightest intimation to the general public from our trustees that we needed money, we could become immensely rich. Compared to this prospect, the ten thousand dollars under consideration wasn't much, but like the alcoholic's first drink it would, if taken, inevitably set up a disastrous chain reaction. Where would that land us? Whoever pays the piper is apt to call the tune, and if the A.A. Foundation obtained money from outside sources, its trustees might be tempted to run things without reference to the wishes of A.A. as a whole. Relieved of responsibility, every alcoholic would shrug and say, “Oh, the Foundation is wealthy—why should I bother?” The pressure of that fat treasury would surely tempt the board to invent all kinds of schemes to do good with such funds, and so divert A.A. from its primary purpose. The moment that happened, our Fellowship's confidence would be shaken. The board would be isolated, and would fall under heavy attack of criticism from both A..A. and the public. These were the possibilities, pro and con.
Then our trustees wrote a bright page of A.A. history. They declared for the principle that A.A. must always stay poor. Bare running expenses plus a prudent reserve would henceforth be the Foundation's financial policy. Difficult as it was, they officially declined that ten thousand dollars, and adopted a formal, airtight resolution that all such future gifts would be similarly declined. At that moment, we believe, the principle of corporate poverty was firmly and finally embedded in A.A. tradition.
When these facts were printed, there was a profound reaction. To people familiar with endless drives for charitable funds, A.A. presented a strange and refreshing spectacle. Approving editorials here and abroad generated a wave of confidence in the integrity of Alcoholics Anonymous. They pointed out that the irresponsible had become responsible, and that by making financial independence part of its tradition, Alcoholics Anonymous had revived an ideal that its era had almost forgotten.
“Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever nonprofessional,
but our service centers may employ special workers.”
ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS will never have a professional class. We have gained some understanding of the ancient words “Freely ye have received, freely give.” We have discovered that at the point of professionalism, money and spirituality do not mix. Almost no recovery from alcoholism has ever been brought about by the world's best professionals, whether medical or religious. We do not decry professionalism in other fields, but we accept the sober fact that it does not work for us. Every time we have tried to professionalize our Twelfth Step, the result has been exactly the same: Our single purpose has been defeated.
Alcoholics simply will not listen to a paid twelfth-stepper. Almost from the beginning, we have been positive that face-to-face work with the alcoholic who suffers could be based only on the desire to help and be helped. When an A.A. talks for money, whether at a meeting or to a single newcomer, it can have a very bad effect on him, too. The money motive compromises him and everything he says and does for his prospect. This has always been so obvious that only a very few A.A.'s have ever worked the Twelfth Step for a fee.
Despite this certainty, it is nevertheless true that few subjects have been the cause of more contention within our Fellowship than professionalism. Caretakers who swept floors, cooks who fried hamburgers, secretaries in offices, authors writing books—all these we have seen hotly assailed because they were, as their critics angrily remarked, “making money out of A.A.” Ignoring the fact that these labors were not Twelfth Step jobs at all, the critics attacked as A.A. professionals these workers of ours who were often doing thankless tasks that no one else could or would do. Even greater furors were provoked when A.A. members began to run rest homes and farms for alcoholics, when some hired out to corporations as personnel men in charge of the alcoholic problem in industry, when some became nurses on alcoholic wards, when others entered the field of alcohol education. In all these instances, and more, it was claimed that A.A. knowledge and experience were being sold for money, hence these people, too, were professionals.
At last, however, a plain line of cleavage could be seen between professionalism and nonprofessionalism. When we had agreed that the Twelfth Step couldn't be sold for money, we had been wise. But when we had declared that our Fellowship couldn't hire service workers nor could any A.A. member carry our knowledge into other fields, we were taking the counsel of fear, fear which today has been largely dispelled in the light of experience.
Take the case of the club janitor and cook. If a club is going to function, it has to be habitable and hospitable. We tried volunteers, who were quickly disenchanted with sweeping floors and brewing coffee seven days a week. They just didn't show up. Even more important, an empty club couldn't answer its telephone, but it was an open invitation to a drunk on a binge who possessed a spare key. So somebody had to look after the place full time. If we hired an alcoholic, he'd receive only what we'd have to pay a nonalcoholic for the same job. The job was not to do Twelfth Step work; it was to make Twelfth Step work possible. It was a service proposition, pure and simple.
Neither could A.A. itself function without full-time workers. At the Foundation* and intergroup offices, we couldn't employ nonalcoholics as secretaries; we had to have people who knew the A.A. pitch. But the minute we hired them, the ultraconservative and fearful ones shrilled, “Professionalism!” At one period, the status of these faithful servants was almost unbearable. They weren't asked to speak at A.A. meetings because they were “making money out of A.A.” At times, they were actually shunned by fellow members. Even the charitably disposed described them as “a necessary evil.” Committees took full advantage of this attitude to depress their salaries. They could regain some measure of virtue, it was thought, if they worked for A.A. real cheap. These notions persisted for years. Then we saw that if a hardworking secretary answered the phone dozens of times a day, listened to twenty wailing wives, arranged hospitalization and got sponsorship for ten newcomers, and was gently diplomatic with the irate drunk who complained about the job she was doing and how she was overpaid, then such a person could surely not be called a professional A.A. She was not professionalizing the Twelfth Step; she was just making it possible. She was helping to give the man coming in the door the break he ought to have. Volunteer committeemen and assistants could be of great help, but they could not be expected to carry this load day in and day out.
At the Foundation, the same story repeats itself. Eight tons of books and literature per month do not package and channel themselves all over the world. Sacks of letters on every conceivable A.A. problem ranging from a lonely heart Eskimo to the growing pains of thousands of groups must be answered by people who know. Right contacts with the world outside have to be maintained. A.A.'s lifelines have to be tended. So we hire A.A. staff members. We pay them well, and they earn what they get. They are professional secretaries,* but they certainly are not professional A.A.'s.
Perhaps the fear will always lurk in every A.A. heart that one day our name will be exploited by somebody for real cash. Even the suggestion of such a thing never fails to whip up a hurricane, and we have discovered that hurricanes have a way of mauling with equal severity both the just and the unjust. They are always unreasonable.
No individuals have been more buffeted by such emotional gusts than those A.A.'s bold enough to accept employment with outside agencies dealing with the alcohol problem. A university wanted an A.A. member to educate the public on alcoholism. A corporation wanted a personnel man familiar with the subject. A state drunk farm wanted a manager who could really handle inebriates. A city wanted an experienced social worker who understood what alcohol could do to a family. A state alcohol commission wanted a paid researcher. These are only a few of the jobs which A.A. members as individuals have been asked to fill. Now and then, A.A. members have bought farms or rest homes where badly beat-up topers could find needed care. The question was—and sometimes still is—are such activities to be branded as professionalism under A.A. tradition?
We think the answer is “No. Members who select such full-time careers do not professionalize A.A.'s Twelfth Step.” The road to this conclusion was long and rocky. At first, we couldn't see the real issue involved. In former days, the moment an A.A. hired out to such enterprises, he was immediately tempted to use the name Alcoholics Anonymous for publicity or money-raising purposes. Drunk farms, educational ventures, state legislatures, and commissions advertised the fact that A.A. members served them. Unthinkingly, A.A.'s so employed recklessly broke anonymity to thump the tub for their pet enterprise. For this reason, some very good causes and all connected with them suffered unjust criticism from A.A. groups. More often than not, these onslaughts were spearheaded by the cry “Professionalism! That guy is making money out of A.A.!” Yet not a single one of them had been hired to do A.A.'s Twelfth Step work. The violation in these instances was not professionalism at all; it was breaking anonymity. A.A.'s sole purpose was being compromised, and the name of Alcoholics Anonymous was being misused.
It is significant, now that almost no A.A. in our Fellowship breaks anonymity at the public level, that nearly all these fears have subsided. We see that we have no right or need to discourage A.A.'s who wish to work as individuals in these wider fields. It would be actually antisocial were we to forbid them. We cannot declare A.A. such a closed corporation that we keep our knowledge and experience top secret. If an A.A. member acting as a citizen can become a better researcher, educator, personnel officer, then why not? Everybody gains and we have lost nothing. True, some of the projects to which A.A.'s have attached themselves have been ill-conceived, but that makes not the slightest difference with the principle involved.
This is the exciting welter of events which has finally cast up A.A.'s Tradition of nonprofessionalism. Our Twelfth Step is never to be paid for. but those who labor in service for us are worthy of their hire.
“A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards
or committees directly responsible to those they serve.”
WHEN Tradition Nine was first written, it said that “Alcoholics Anonymous needs the least possible organization.” In years since then, we have changed our minds about that. Today, we are able to say with assurance that Alcoholics Anonymous—A.A. as a whole—should never be organized at all. Then, in seeming contradiction, we proceed to create special service boards and committees which in themselves are organized. How, then, can we have an unorganized movement which can and does create a service organization for itself? Scanning this puzzler, people say, “What do they mean, no organization?”
Well, let's see. Did anyone ever hear of a nation, a church, a political party, even a benevolent association that had no membership rules? Did anyone ever hear of a society which couldn't somehow discipline its members and enforce obedience to necessary rules and regulations? Doesn't nearly every society on earth give authority to some of its members to impose obedience upon the rest and to punish or expel offenders? Therefore, every nation, in fact every form of society, has to be a government administered by human beings. Power to direct or govern is the essence of organization everywhere.
Yet Alcoholics Anonymous is an exception. It does not conform to this pattern. Neither its General Service Conference, its Foundation Board,* nor the humblest group committee can issue a single directive to an A.A. member and make it stick, let alone mete out any punishment. We've tried it lots of times, but utter failure is always the result. Groups have tried to expel members, but the banished have come back to sit in the meeting place, saying, “This is life for us; you can't keep us out.” Committees have instructed many an A.A. to stop working on a chronic backslider, only to be told: “How I do my Twelfth Step work is my business. Who are you to judge?” This doesn't mean an A.A. won't take advice or suggestions from more experienced members, but he surely won't take orders. Who is more unpopular than the old-time A.A., full of wisdom, who moves to another area and tries to tell the group there how to run its business? He and all like him who “view with alarm for the good of A.A.” meet the most stubborn resistance or, worse still, laughter.
You might think A.A.'s headquarters in New York would be an exception. Surely, the people there would have to have some authority. But long ago, trustees and staff members alike found they could do no more than make suggestions, and very mild ones at that. They even had to coin a couple of sentences which still go into half the letters they write: “Of course, you are at perfect liberty to handle this matter any way you please. But the majority experience in A.A. does seem to suggest . . .” Now, that attitude is far removed from central government, isn't it? We recognize that alcoholics can't be dictated to—individually or collectively.
At this juncture, we can hear a churchman exclaim, “They are making disobedience a virtue!” He is joined by a psychiatrist who says, “Defiant brats! They won't grow up and conform to social usage!” The man in the street says, “I don't understand it. They must be nuts!” But all these observers have overlooked something unique in Alcoholics Anonymous. Unless each A.A. member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant. His drunkenness and dissolution are not penalties inflicted by people in authority; they result from his personal disobedience to spiritual principles.
The same stern threat applies to the group itself. Unless there is approximate conformity to A.A.'s Twelve Traditions, the group, too, can deteriorate and die. So we of A.A. do obey spiritual principles, first because we must, and ultimately because we love the kind of life such obedience brings. Great suffering and great love are A.A.'s disciplinarians; we need no others.
It is clear now that we ought never to name boards to govern us, but it is equally clear that we shall always need to authorize workers to serve us. It is the difference between the spirit of vested authority and the spirit of service, two concepts which are sometimes poles apart. It is in this spirit of service that we elect the A.A. group's informal rotating committee, the intergroup association for the area, and the General Service Conferences of Alcoholics Anonymous for A.A. as a whole. Even our Foundation, once an independent board, is today directly accountable to our Fellowship. Its trustees are the caretakers and expediters of our world services.
Just as the aim of each A.A. member is personal sobriety, the aim of our services is to bring sobriety within reach of all who want it. If nobody does the group's chores, if the area's telephone rings unanswered, if we do not reply to our mail, then A.A. as we know it would stop. Our communications lines with those who need our help would be broken.
A.A. has to function, but at the same time it must avoid those dangers of great wealth, prestige, and entrenched power which necessarily tempt other societies. Though Tradition Nine at first sight seems to deal with a purely practical matter, in its actual operation it discloses a society without organization, animated only by the spirit of service
—a true fellowship.
“Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues;
hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
NEVER since it began has Alcoholics Anonymous been divided by a major controversial issue. Nor has our Fellowship ever publicly taken sides on any question in an embattled world. This, however, has been no earned virtue. It could almost be said that we were born with it, for, as one old-timer recently declared, “Practically never have I heard a heated religious, political, or reform argument among A.A. members. So long as we don't argue these matters privately, it's a cinch we never shall publicly.”
As by some deep instinct, we A.A.'s have known from the very beginning that we must never, no matter what the provocation, publicly take sides in any fight, even a worthy one. All history affords us the spectacle of striving nations and groups finally torn asunder because they were designed for, or tempted into, controversy. Others fell apart because of sheer self-righteousness while trying to enforce upon the rest of mankind some millennium of their own specification. In our own times, we have seen millions die in political and economic wars often spurred by religious and racial difference. We live in the imminent possibility of a fresh holocaust to determine how men shall be governed, and how the products of nature and toil shall be divided among them. That is the spiritual climate in which A.A. was born, and by God's grace has nevertheless flourished.
Let us reemphasize that this reluctance to fight one another or anybody else is not counted as some special virtue which makes us feel superior to other people. Nor does it mean that the members of Alcoholics Anonymous, now restored as citizens of the world, are going to back away from their individual responsibilities to act as they see the right upon issues of our time. But when it comes to A.A. as a whole, that's quite a different matter. In this respect, we do not enter into public controversy, because we know that our Society will perish if it does. We conceive the survival and spread of Alcoholics Anonymous to be something of far greater importance than the weight we could collectively throw back of any other cause. Since recovery from alcoholism is life itself to us, it is imperative that we preserve in full strength our means of survival.
Maybe this sounds as though the alcoholics in A.A. had suddenly gone peaceable, and become one great big happy family. Of course, this isn't so at all. Human beings that we are, we squabble. Before we leveled off a bit, A.A. looked more like one prodigious squabble than anything else, at least on the surface. A corporation director who had just voted a company expenditure of a hundred thousand dollars would appear at an A.A. business meeting and blow his top over an outlay of twenty-five dollars' worth of needed postage stamps. Disliking the attempt of some to manage a group, half its membership might angrily rush off to form another group more to their liking. Elders, temporarily turned Pharisee, have sulked. Bitter attacks have been directed against people suspected of mixed motives. Despite their din, our puny rows never did A.A. a particle of harm. They were just part and parcel of learning to work and live together. Let it be noted, too, that they were almost always concerned with ways to make A.A. more effective, how to do the most good for the most alcoholics.
The Washingtonian Society, a movement among alcoholics which started in Baltimore a century ago, almost discovered the answer to alcoholism. At first, the society was composed entirely of alcoholics trying to help one another. The early members foresaw that they should dedicate themselves to this sole aim. In many respects, the Washingtonians were akin to A.A. of today. Their membership passed the hundred thousand mark. Had they been left to themselves, and had they stuck to their one goal, they might have found the rest of the answer. But this didn't happen. Instead, the Washingtonians permitted politicians and reformers, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic, to use the society for their own purposes. Abolition of slavery, for example, was a stormy political issue then. Soon, Washingtonian speakers violently and publicly took sides on this question. Maybe the society could have survived the abolition controversy, but it didn't have a chance from the moment it determined to reform America's drinking habits. When the Washingtonians became temperance crusaders, within a very few years they had completely lost their effectiveness in helping alcoholics.
The lesson to be learned from the Washingtonians was not overlooked by Alcoholics Anonymous. As we surveyed the wreck of that movement, early A.A. members resolved to keep our Society out of public controversy. Thus was laid the cornerstone for Tradition Ten: “Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.”
“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion;
we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”
WITHOUT its legions of well-wishers, A.A. could never have grown as it has. Throughout the world, immense and favorable publicity of every description has been the principal means of bringing alcoholics into our Fellowship. In A.A. offices, clubs, and homes, telephones ring constantly. One voice says, “I read a piece in the newspapers . . .”; another, “We heard a radio program . . .”; and still another, “We saw a moving picture . . .” or “We saw something about A.A. on television. . . .” It is no exaggeration to say that half of A.A.'s membership has been led to us through channels like these.
The inquiring voices are not all alcoholics or their families. Doctors read medical papers about Alcoholics Anonymous and call for more information. Clergymen see articles in their church journals and also make inquiries. Employers learn that great corporations have set their approval upon us, and wish to discover what can be done about alcoholism in their own firms.
Therefore, a great responsibility fell upon us to develop the best possible public relations policy for Alcoholics Anonymous. Through many painful experiences, we think we have arrived at what that policy ought to be. It is the opposite in many ways of usual promotional practice. We found that we had to rely upon the principle of attraction rather than of promotion.
Let's see how these two contrasting ideas—attraction and promotion—work out. A political party wishes to win an election, so it advertises the virtues of its leadership to draw votes. A worthy charity wants to raise money; forthwith, its letterhead shows the name of every distinguished person whose support can be obtained. Much of the political, economic, and religious life of the world is dependent upon publicized leadership. People who symbolize causes and ideas fill a deep human need. We of A.A. do not question that. But we do have to soberly face the fact that being in the public eye is hazardous, especially for us. By temperament, nearly every one of us had been an irrepressible promoter, and the prospect of a society composed almost entirely of promoters was frightening. Considering this explosive factor, we knew we had to exercise self-restraint.
The way this restraint paid off was startling. It resulted in more favorable publicity of Alcoholics Anonymous than could possibly have been obtained through all the arts and abilities of A.A.'s best press agents. Obviously, A.A. had to be publicized somehow, so we resorted to the idea that it would be far better to let our friends do this for us. Precisely that has happened, to an unbelievable extent. Veteran newsmen, trained doubters that they are, have gone all out to carry A.A.'s message. To them, we are something more than the source of good stories. On almost every news front, the men and women of the press have attached themselves to us as friends.
In the beginning, the press could not understand our refusal of all personal publicity. They were genuinely baffled by our insistence upon anonymity. Then they got the point. Here was something rare in the world—a society which said it wished to publicize its principles and its work, but not its individual members. The press was delighted with this attitude. Ever since, these friends have reported A.A. with an enthusiasm which the most ardent members would find hard to match.
There was actually a time when the press of America thought the anonymity of A.A. was better for us than some of our own members did. At one point, about a hundred of our Society were breaking anonymity at the public level. With perfectly good intent, these folks declared that the principle of anonymity was horse-and-buggy stuff, something appropriate to A.A.'s pioneering days. They were sure that A.A. could go faster and farther if it availed itself of modern publicity methods. A.A., they pointed out, included many persons of local, national, or international fame. Provided they were willing—and many were—why shouldn't their membership be publicized, thereby encouraging others to join us? These were plausible arguments, but happily our friends of the writing profession disagreed with them.
The Foundation wrote letters to practically every news outlet in North America, setting forth our public relations policy of attraction rather than promotion, and emphasizing personal anonymity as A.A.'s greatest protection. Since that time, editors and rewrite men have repeatedly deleted names and pictures of members from A.A. copy; frequently, they have reminded ambitious individuals of A.A.'s anonymity policy. They have even sacrificed good stories to this end. The force of their cooperation has certainly helped. Only a few A.A. members are left who deliberately break anonymity at the public level.
This, in brief, is the process by which A.A.'s Tradition Eleven was constructed. To us, however, it represents far more than a sound public relations policy. It is more than a denial of self-seeking. This Tradition is a constant and practical reminder that personal ambition has no place in A.A. In it, each member becomes an active guardian of our Fellowship.
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions,
ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
THE spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice. Because A.A.'s Twelve Traditions repeatedly ask us to give up personal desires for the common good, we realize that the sacrificial spirit—well symbolized by anonymity—is the foundation of them all. It is A.A.'s proved willingness to make these sacrifices that gives people their high confidence in our future.
But in the beginning, anonymity was not born of confidence; it was the child of our early fears. Our first nameless groups of alcoholics were secret societies. New prospects could find us only through a few trusted friends. The bare hint of publicity, even for our work, shocked us. Though ex-drinkers, we still thought we had to hide from public distrust and contempt.
When the Big Book appeared in 1939, we called it “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Its foreword made this revealing statement: “It is important that we remain anonymous because we are too few, at present, to handle the overwhelming number of personal appeals which may result from this publication. Being mostly business or professional folk, we could not well carry on our occupations in such an event.” Between these lines, it is easy to read our fear that large numbers of incoming people might break our anonymity wide open.
As the A.A. groups multiplied, so did anonymity problems. Enthusiastic over the spectacular recovery of a brother alcoholic, we'd sometimes discuss those intimate and harrowing aspects of his case meant for his sponsor's ear alone. The aggrieved victim would then tightly declare that his trust had been broken. When such stories got into circulation outside of A.A., the loss of confidence in our anonymity promise was severe. It frequently turned people from us. Clearly, every A.A. member's name—and story, too—had to be confidential, if he wished. This was our first lesson in the practical application of anonymity.
With characteristic intemperance, however, some of our newcomers cared not at all for secrecy. They wanted to shout A.A. from the housetops, and did, Alcoholics barely dry rushed about bright-eyed, buttonholing anyone who would listen to their stories. Others hurried to place themselves before microphones and cameras. Sometimes, they got distressingly drunk and let their groups down with a bang. They had changed from A.A. members into A.A. show-offs.
This phenomenon of contrast really set us thinking. Squarely before us was the question “How anonymous should an A.A. member be?” Our growth made it plain that we couldn't be a secret society, but it was equally plain that we couldn't be a vaudeville circuit, either. The charting of a safe path between these extremes took a long time.
As a rule, the average newcomer wanted his family to know immediately what he was trying to do. He also wanted to tell others who had tried to help him—his doctor, his minister, and close friends. As he gained confidence, he felt it right to explain his new way of life to his employer and business associates. When opportunities to be helpful came along, he found he could talk easily about A.A. to almost anyone. These quiet disclosures helped him to lose his fear of the alcoholic stigma and spread the news of A.A.'s existence in his community. Many a new man and woman came to A.A. because of such conversations. Though not in the strict letter of anonymity, such communications were well within its spirit.
But it became apparent that the word-of-mouth method was too limited. Our work, as such, needed to be publicized. The A.A. groups would have to reach quickly as many despairing alcoholics as they could. Consequently, many groups began to hold meetings which were open to interested friends and the public, so that the average citizen could see for himself just what A.A. was all about. The response to these meetings was warmly sympathetic. Soon, groups began to receive requests for A.A. speakers to appear before civic organizations, church groups, and medical societies. Provided anonymity was maintained on these platforms, and reporters present were cautioned against the use of names or pictures, the result was fine.
Then came our first few excursions into major publicity, which were breathtaking. Cleveland's Plain Dealer articles about us ran that town's membership from a few into hundreds overnight. The news stories of Mr. Rockefeller’s dinner for Alcoholics Anonymous helped double our total membership in a year's time. Jack Alexander's famous Saturday Evening Post piece made A.A. a national institution. Such tributes as these brought opportunities for still more recognition. Other newspapers and magazines wanted A.A. stories. Film companies wanted to photograph us. Radio, and finally television, besieged us with requests for appearances. What should we do?
As this tide offering top public approval swept in, we realized that it could do us incalculable good or great harm. Everything would depend upon how it was channeled. We simply couldn't afford to take the chance of letting self-appointed members present themselves as messiahs representing A.A. before the whole public. The promoter instinct in us might be our undoing. If even one publicly got drunk or was lured into using A.A.'s name for his own purposes, the damage might be irreparable. At this altitude (press, radio, films, and television), anonymity—100 per-cent anonymity—was the only possible answer. Here, principles would have to come before personalities, without exception.
These experiences taught us that anonymity is real humility at work. It is an all-pervading spiritual quality which today keynotes A.A. life everywhere. Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction as A.A. members both among fellow alcoholics and before the general public. As we lay aside these very human aspirations, we believe that each of us takes part in the weaving of a protective mantle which covers our whole Society and under which we may grow and work in unity.
We are sure that humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that Alcoholics Anonymous can ever have.