AMERICA, November 9, 1957




John C. Ford

After the first four years of its existence the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous totaled only one hundred persons.  Today the membership is over 200,000 in 7,000 groups in 70 countries and U.S. possessions.  The present volume, most of which has been written (anonymously, of course) by the surviving co-founder of A.A., is the fascinating story of the beginnings and the development of this unique organization.  No other movement or method has been so successful in the large-scale recovery of alcoholics.

The author, Bill W., begins with an account of the Twentieth Anniversary Convention of A.A. at St. Louis, and uses the proceedings there as a starting point for a series of flashbacks which reveal the principal events in the early days of the movement.  A.A. originally had a close connection with the Oxford Groups and was influenced in some of its terminology, ideas and methods by that movement.  Fortunately for Catholics, however, it completely divorced itself from that movement at an early date in its history, and never incorporated into its program any of those theological ideas or practices which made the Oxford Group movement unacceptable to Catholics.

The first part of the book ends with an account of how the old-timers in A.A., on July 3, 1955, turned over the affairs of the organization to the fellowship itself, as represented by its General Service conference.  "There our fellowship declared itself come to the age of full responsibility, and there it received from its founders and old-timers permanent keeping of its three great legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service.

The Legacy of Recovery is embodied in the Twelve Steps, the heart of "the program."  The Legacy of Unity is embodied in the Twelve Traditions, which are the fruit of A.A. experience in the days of its mushroom growth.  These traditions are meant to safeguard the unity of the fellowship with a minimum of organization and an absolute minimum of anything like formal authority or government.  The Third Legacy, of Service, is essentially derived from the Steps and Traditions, especially the Twelfth Step; "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs" but the Third Legacy is administered, as it were, by the elected representatives who constitute the General Service Conference.  This is not a governing body -- there is none in A.A. It exists merely to provide the services which are obviously required if the message of Recovery is to be spread around the world.

A.A.'s renunciation of formal authority over its members goes so far that it does not even claim the right to determine who are or who are not members.  There are sanctions, of course.  First, the most powerful one of John Barleycorn himself, who may well condemn to death those who do not live by the Steps and Traditions and who thus relapse.  There is also the sanction of public opinion within the fellowship, which may bear heavily on those who do not conform to some important traditions, e.g., that of anonymity at the public level.  It remains to be seen whether in the course of time such vague and indeterminate sanctions will continue to be both effective in maintaining some basic unity in the organization, and just to the individual members, who are frequently assured, on being received into the groups, that 'there are no rules and no musts in A.A."

Bill, the co-founder, explains the three legacies in three talks which in substance were delivered by him at the St. Louis convention; they continue the narration of A.A.'s history and growth.  This method of grouping past events around the ideas of Recovery, Unity and Service, though it forsakes chronological order, is a very effective method of imparting instruction and maintaining interest at the same time.  It would be confusing were it not for an excellent chronological table provided at the beginning of the book.  In the last pages there are included some of the talks given by friends of A.A. at the St. Louis convention.  One chapter is entitled 'Medicine Looks at A.A.,"and another "Religion Looks at A.A."

A.A. emphatically repudiates the idea that it is a religious sect or movement, or that it advocates any system of theological doctrine.  Except for the simple idea that the alcoholic should acknowledge a Higher Power, "God, as we understood Him," and should ask for God's help, A.A. steers clear of any further theological involvement.  An important declaration is made on p. 232 by Bill W. "Speaking for Dr. Bob (the other co-founder) and myself I would like to say that there has never been the slightest intent, on his part or mine, of trying to found a new religious denomination.  Dr. Bob held certain religious convictions, and so do I.  This is, of course, the personal privilege of every A.A. member.  Nothing, however, would be so unfortunate for A.A.'s future as an attempt to incorporate any of our personal theological views into A.A.'s teaching, practice or traditions.  Were Dr. Bob still with us, I am positive he would agree that we could never be too emphatic about this matter."

Catholics will find in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions nothing contrary to Catholic ascetical and theological teaching.  In fact the vast majority of Catholics who sober up in A.A. become better Catholics in the process.

Not only the members of A.A. will enjoy this well-written and absorbing account.  Anyone who is interested in seeing what can happen when men and women with a common problem love and help one another should read it.  The paradox of victory through defeat comes to life here.


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