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Fraser Trevor Fraser Trevor Author
Title: As a 30 year member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am still awed by the combination of simplicity, practicality, and profundity built into the Twelve Steps; the AA recovery plan.
Author: Fraser Trevor
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As a 30 year member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am still awed by the combination of simplicity, practicality, and profundity built into the T...

As a 30 year member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am still awed by the combination of simplicity, practicality, and profundity built into the Twelve Steps; the AA recovery plan.

This audacious blueprint for life change was drawn up in 1939 by a former dead-end drunk serving as spokesman for an unknown, unproven society of 100 reformed problem drinkers, many of whom were still in the relatively early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction.

Yet for all their boldness of scope, the Steps are so plainly worded, and so well-explained in chapters five and following of "Alcoholics Anonymous," the AA "Big Book," that they can be done by anyone. And, therein lies their greatest genius. There is no prior requirement of purity of life or advancement of learning. Just a willingness to admit personal defeat and a sincere desire to change.

The Twelve Steps sharply contradict the secular psychological axiom that where the level of performance is low you must set a low level of aspiration in order to gain a positive result in life. By this view, the proper approach for the early AA's would have been to put together a program aimed certainly no higher than alcohol abstinence and a return to life as it had been in the pre-alcoholic days, life as ordinary men and women of the world. But these newly-sobered-up drunks set out to become totally committed men and women of God.

The authors of the Big Book knew that this radical recovery plan was apt to jar many of the newcomers they were trying to reach with their message and they made two moves to sugarcoat their pill. First, they put the following disclaimer immediately after listing the Twelve Steps in chapter five: "Many of us exclaimed, I can't go through with it. Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection."

That short paragraph was a stroke of inspiration, especially the phrase, "We are not saints." It has eased thousands of new, half-convinced AA members (myself included) past the fact that we were headed, under the guidance of the Steps, in the completely unfamiliar direction of spiritual perfection.

Most of us began practicing the Steps without realizing their full implications. Experience quickly taught us that they worked. They got us sober and enabled us to stay sober. From our intensely pragmatic standpoint, that was what mattered. We were content to enjoy our sobriety and leave all debates as to why the Steps worked to non-alcoholic theorizers - whose lives did not hang in the balance if they got themselves confused and came to some wrong conclusions.

AA's founders did something else to keep the spiritual rigor and power of the Twelve Steps from scaring off new prospects. They put the Steps forth as suggestions rather than as directives. The sentence, which introduces the Steps in chapter five of the Big Book, says, "Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery." This idea had enormous appeal throughout the AA movement from the time the Big Book was first published. We drunks hate to be told to do anything. The freedom to take the Steps at their own pace and in their own way quickly grew to be deeply cherished among AA members.

Before we explore the results of this permissive approach to the Steps, there is one oddity worth noting. AA existed for four full years before the Steps were put in their final written form. During that time there was a program and it was sobering up alcoholics. It consisted of two parts: a Six-step word-of-mouth program, and the Four Absolutes - absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love - taken over from the Oxford Group, the evangelical Christian movement out of which AA was born. The six steps of the word-of-mouth program from the early pioneering years of Alcoholics Anonymous as given in "Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age" are:

1 - We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol.
2 - We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins.
3 - We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence.
4 - We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking.
5 - We tried to help other alcoholics with no thought of reward in money or prestige.
6 - We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.

In those early days of AA there was no talk of suggestions. The basic points of the program were regarded by all the older members as directives, as indispensable essentials, and were passed on to newcomers as such.

When Bill first formulated the Twelve Steps, he conceived of them, too, as instructions, not as suggestions. When the idea of presenting the Steps as suggestions came up, Bill for a long time flatly opposed it. Finally - and reluctantly - he agreed. In "Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age" he related how this concession enabled countless AA's to approach the fellowship who would otherwise have been turned off AA - and back to active alcoholism.

Still, Bill was a man whose watchword was prudence and who went out of his way to steer clear of destructive controversy. One cannot help wondering if his feelings on the decision to present the Twelve Steps in the form of suggestions were not a bit more ambiguous than he was willing to let on in public once the compromise had been reached. There is no denying that the paragraphs of chapter five of the Big Book which introduce the Twelve Steps are full of language that would be utterly appropriate as a preamble to a set of action directions, but is not nearly as fitting as an introduction to a group of suggestions. Here is the beginning of chapter five, with the key words and phrases underlined:

"Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest. Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it - then you are ready to take certain steps.

"At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not.With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.

"Remember that we deal with alcohol - cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power - that One is God. May you find Him now!

"Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon. Here are the steps we took..."

Granting that Bill ended up fully reconciled to the compromise, his initial misgivings may turn out in the long run to have been prophetic. At the time, however, there were no indications whatsoever that the permissive, suggestions only approach was anything but a boon to the movement.


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