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Collecting@Large

One Day at a Time

Bill went back to New York, and from November of 1937 until the following May, he made valiant efforts to raise money for these grand plans—in the meantime, all but shelving the idea of writing a book. This was understandable because the possibility of raising large amounts of cash looked very promising during those next few months. Bill’s most likely prospect for contributing “millions” to the cause was a successful contact with John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s personal secretary, a man mightily impressed by the stories Bill and a handful of other recovered New York drunks told him. Everyone fully expected Rockefeller, who had been a generous supporter of the temperance and prohibition movements (now broken and failed dreams) to contribute vast sums of money to the fledgling movement. But Rockefeller surprised everyone by refusing to make any substantive contribution to the group, claiming that money would surely spoil the success of what was basically a ‘one drunk talking to another drunk’ approach to sobriety.

Sales of the first printing of Alcoholics Anonymous were painfully slow. It took almost two years to sell all 4,650 copies.

Finally, in May of 1938, Bill W. wrote the first two chapters of the Big Book—the story of his own downfall and subsequent recovery, along with a chapter he called “There is a Solution.” While there was quite a bit of talk about what the rest of the book might eventually look like, any further writing was temporarily put on hold while these two chapters were used as tools in further attempts to raise money. They didn’t raise a single cent.

Then, in September of 1938, the book project resurfaced with a new sense of urgency mostly driven by Bill’s closest friend in New York AA. Hank P. was the first person Bill had helped to sober up after returning from Akron. While people frequently characterize Bill as a promoter and a salesman, Hank lived at a significantly higher level of intensity. One contemporary referred to him as a “high-pressure human dynamo.” Hank, a former executive at Standard Oil, had visions of the book selling hundreds of thousands of copies, and of the money that could be made from those sales.

The problem was that Hank and Bill had no money to live on while writing and promoting the book. Hank went to a stationary store and bought a book of blank stock certificates and started selling ‘shares’ in the new book for $25 each. The Akron drunks—who had a deep (and ongoing) distrust of anything that came out of New York—wouldn’t subscribe at all and the New York drunks were almost uniformly broke. Hank set up a deal whereby they could pay just $5 a month to buy their share of stock and a small amount of money finally began to trickle in to support the book writing project.

Bill would write the chapters and read them aloud at the weekly New York AA meeting and then send them off to Dr. Bob in Akron for review and approval. The stories of the arguments that ensued over each and every detail of the emerging book were considered legendary by all of the participants in their later recountings—although the contemporary records don’t support that level of interest in the first several chapters that Bill wrote.

By December of 1938, all of the preliminary and concluding chapters had been roughed out and Bill reached the point where the central section—an explicit statement of “How It Works”—had to be written. He often told the story of feeling physically out-of-sorts, but nonetheless taking a pad of legal paper and settling down to write. In less than a half-hour, he had recapitulated all of the points he felt were necessary to attain sobriety and when he counted them up, they numbered twelve. The central three chapters of the book came from the articulation of exactly what was entailed in ‘taking’ these 12 steps—the “spiritual program of action” that is the foundation of AA’s approach to staying sober.

Recovery in AA is based on “a spiritual awakening,” but the various understandings of that concept led to the biggest fights over the text. On one side were the people who wanted this to be all about God (understood in a very traditional Christian sense); on the other, those who thought the steps of recovery should be understood primarily in a psychological way. Fitz M., a minister’s son, was the leader of the ‘God contingent’ while the “psychology crew” was headed by Hank, an agnostic, and Jim B., an avowed atheist. Bill finally brokered a compromise between these two contingents by inserting the phrase “as we understood him” after the word “God” in the twelve steps, a non-dogmatic approach considered by many to be the defining genius of the AA program.

Bill did the primary writing for most of the chapters in the book, but not all. “To the Employer” was written by Hank, based on his extensive past executive experience. The chapter called “To Wives” (the book was, and is, very male-chauvinistic!) was first offered to Dr. Bob’s wife Anne, but she demurred. Bill’s wife, Lois, presumed that she would be asked to write this chapter, but Bill never brought the subject up and he wrote the chapter himself—some say with the initial help of a woman whose husband had gotten sober in Akron.

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