Who’s qualified to write Cliff Notes on the Big Book?
Absolutely nobody. Certainly not me.
But here’s the thing. When I was brand new to AA, I dismissed the Big Book as a dated, sophomoric, somewhat embarrassing artifact of some well-meaning old white guys from the ’30s. Certainly I never imagined that, with the help of an informed sponsor, this book would come alive to 1) save my life and 2) transform my entire experience of the world.
My sponsor and I would read the book together each time we met, taking turns. She’d ask me certain questions, tell me what to highlight, and suggest annotations. Unfortunately, not everybody gets access to a sponsor who’s worked with such a sponsor, passing down a lens, so here goes my take for this chapter.
The Big Book in general is divinely inspired. It’s the brainchild, not of Bill W., but of the first 100 sober alcoholics, who haggled and argued and revised over and over until they arrived at a manuscript they could all live with. In that lengthy dialectic of passionate feelings and hard-won compromises, spiritual truths somehow saturated this pioneering text — one that articulates a way of life for millions and yet means precisely the same thing to no two.
There is a Solution. Bill W. doubtless had in mind a fancier title, but I can just hear Dr. Bob and others insisting, “Let’s keep it simple!”
Today, in an era when detox centers and (money-grubbing) treatment programs abound, we may have a hard time imagining a world with NO SOLUTION ANYWHERE. If you developed an alcoholic/ addictive mind, you were pretty much screwed — on your way to jails, institutions, or death — or, best case scenario, life as a a confused, resentful, self-censuring drunk.
The first paragraphs emphasize universality amid diversity for “thousands” who were “once as hopeless as Bill.” Rescued from the same demise, sober alcoholics can all, “from the steerage to the Captain’s table,” i.e. from the poorest (cargo passengers) to the richest (fat cats who sit with the captain), rejoice over the solution that unites us. In this sense, AA was way ahead of its time; class delineations were far stronger in the U.S. in the 30s.
Next, the authors drop another big bomb that seems common knowledge today: that alcoholism is not just a destructive habit, but an illness. Unlike cancer and other diseases, however, this illness causes us to break out in uncontrollable asshole-ness, fucking up not only our own lives but those of every person who loves or depends on us. The only sane voice that can get through to such a diseased mind is that of a fellow alcoholic, one who isn’t shoulding on the asshole from the safe shore of sanity, but has lived awash in the same insanity. What that person has to offer — well, that’s what they hope to capture in this book.
They were in wholly new territory. Think about that.
What’s the difference between a true alcoholic an a heavy drinker? That’s what they cover next: a heavy drinker may look exactly like an alcoholic — until they really need to stop. Heavy drinkers have brakes, however reluctant they may be to apply them. True alcoholics, by contrast, are careening down a mountain road with their brakes shot to hell, having lost “all control of [our] liquor consumption, once [we] start to drink.”
Perhaps the Jekyll and Hyde description of an alcoholic that follows is a bit drastic. I myself was looking for something more like, “…fools everyone into thinking she’s perfectly fine while hating herself and wanting to die.” Still, I did see glimpses of myself in the “fine fellow” who is “sensible and well balanced” with “special abilities” and yet — repeatedly turns into a shitfaced asshole.
On page 23 they drop another bomb: “The main problem of the alcoholic centers in their** mind rather than their body…The truth is that they have no more idea why they took that first drink than you have.” Many of us refer to this phenomenon as the “curious mental blank spot.”
“We are unable at certain times to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago… If these thoughts do occur they are hazy and readily supplanted with the old threadbare idea that this time we shall handle ourselves like other people..”
Here was the discovery that bonded Bill W. and Dr. Bob as the 15-minute conversation Dr. Bob had consented to ballooned into a 4-month brainstorm on alcoholism. For the first time in human history, two drunks hashed out the fact that, when the craving struck, they could not remember why they did not want to drink. They understood, also, that we are totally pucked: We cannot fix our broken brain with our broken brain.
At long last, here’s the solution, which turns out to be good for us but murder on our precious egos:
“Almost none of us liked…” (sponsors: “Hooray! You don’t have to like it!!”) …the self searching, leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation…. The central fact of our lives today is that our Creator has…commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”
The solution, like it or not, is to seek god’s help as we take an honest look at our self-centered fears, own them, and begin to live on a basis of faith in something greater than ourselves. We can choose freely to either A) do this or B) go on drinking ourselves to death, “blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable condition as best we [can].”
Along comes the story of Rowland Hazard’s work with Carl Jung. (Rowland, by the way, is one of the guys who sobered up Ebby T., who in turn carried the message to Bill W.). Jung is quoted in his description of the “spiritual experience” or psychic change needed to revolutionize an alcoholic’s perspective and transform their life. Basically, everything has to change as we give up all the delusions we’ve lived by. Inward faith, not outward religion, is the foundation of sobriety.
The chapter wraps up with a little preview of chapters ahead and a “taste” disclaimer for the personal stories at the back of the book, intended to spark the recognition that bonds one alcoholic to another. Alcoholism is a disease of loneliness and isolation, but it has one flaw: it’s the same for all of us, so when we break that isolation via the fellowship of AA, we have it by the short ones.
So what’s the solution? God, love, honesty, humility, and community — to be unpacked via the 12 steps. Simple, but not easy.
Alcoholics Anonymous 1940s video:
Corny, perhaps, but the elusive cure for alcoholism is in the guy’s tiny smile in the final shot.
**Yes, of course, the language and entire mindset of the Big Book is grossly sexist, which is annoying as hell for anyone who doesn’t identify as “he” or think of god as a dude. But if we want to get well, it seems a small price to pay to forgive their ignorance and change all the pronouns to fit our reality.