Challenging the Foundation Myths

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Matthew J. Raphael, a retired professor of English. Raphael is author of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), as well as other books and essays on the place of alcohol in American literature and culture.

Screenshot 2020-03-03 at 4.18.12 PM“Over the years,” observes William H. Schaberg in Writing the Big Book, the image of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith laying the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous “has become deeply encrusted with so many layers of adulation and myth that it is hard to recapture the reality of the moment.” The objective of Schaberg’s book, the most important study of A.A. since Ernest Kurtz’s monumental Not-God, is to challenge the hoary stories of A.A.’s early days, from Wilson’s attaining sobriety in 1935 to the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.

Ten years in the making, based on exhaustive research in the A.A. archives and other collections, Writing the Big Book runs nearly 800 pages: thicker and heavier than the original Big Book. The book is truly definitive – a word thrown mindlessly around – insofar as it will never likely be redone and thus will remain unsurpassed.

This is high-definition history, in which even the pores show through the makeup. Received wisdom about A.A. does not withstand Schaberg’s scrutiny. He reveals cracks in the foundation of the foundational myths in the dubiousness of their sources. Much of A.A.’s “bedtime story,” as Bill W. called it, proves to be just that: a reassuringly fantastical tale. 

Wilson himself was a fount of misinformation: Schaberg argues that “the man who contributed more ‘factual’ information than anyone else to the traditional story of A.A., was by far the worst offender when it came to accuracy regarding that early history.” Drafts of Bill W.’s Big Book story, the first chapter he wrote, show Bill fudging and juggling the details. Even with Bill’s “white light” conversion experience, the crucial event that fixed his faith forever, its time and place are contradictory from one telling to another. 

It has long been recognized that Bill W. was a superb storyteller, who bent and embellished what he remembered (or didn’t) at his own convenience and for his own purposes, some of them self-serving. This truth does not, however, necessarily lead to the conclusion that Wilson was simply a liar, a purveyor of alternative facts. Memory is slippery, and it slides into greater unreliability over time. Oft-told and well-worn tales, furthermore, become glossier as they are “improved.” 

Schaberg follows others in suggesting that Wilson practiced “willful, conscious mythmaking,” creating parables for the benefit of other alcoholics. As with Wilson’s story, the effect was to render his own life as less personal than exemplary, representative, generic. In a way, it might further be argued, Bill W. was pioneering the genre now known as “autofiction.”

Others recalling A.A.’s inception are also exposed as unreliable narrators. Schaberg painstakingly fact-checks their stories against the archival evidence, which provides innumerable new findings about what was really going on – for instance with the clashes between the Akron and New York meetings over adherence to the Oxford Group, from which the program sprang. 

There is broad coverage in Writing the Big Book of various attempts to raise enough money to keep A.A. solvent. One initial pipe dream was to franchise A.A. (as it were) by creating a chain of sobriety hospitals. Then the focus turned toward persuading wealthy men to back the cause. The highest hopes were pinned on John D. Rockefeller, a fierce temperance advocate. But he and his advisors averred that money might well contaminate A.A.’s mission. Only a pittance, a stipend to sustain Dr. Bob Smith, was forthcoming from Rockefeller’s coffers. 

After other failures to obtain patronage, tactics changed to producing a profitable trade book. But a sympathetic editor pointed out the drawbacks of the scheme and urged A.A. to pursue self-publication. That became the plan. Writing the Big Book meticulously examines how each chapter evolved, month by month, from May 1938, when Bill broke ground and schooled himself to write along the way, through publication day in early April 1939. 

Most important, Schaberg traces the genesis of the Twelve Steps. He debunks A.A. lore, derived from Wilson’s accounts, that the Steps were written collectively by the New York group, supposedly through give-and-take between Bill W. as centrist mediator and the warring factions at both extremes: those who wished to emphasize religion and those, averse to God-stuff, who wanted a secular and psychological approach. This claim “completely ignores the fact that Bill Wilson single-handedly wrote down almost every key element contained in A.A.’s core teaching in his very first attempts to write material for the book.” And in the end, the Big Book, despite the compromising wording about “God as we understood him,” leaned heavily toward the God of Protestant Evangelism. 

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Hank Parkhurst

In my opinion, the most exciting thing about Writing the Big Book is Schaberg’s provocative emphasis on the catalytic and enabling role of the “opinionated and irrepressible” Hank Parkhurst: Wilson’s close friend and business partner, his motivator-cheerleader-sounding board, and an unrelenting lobbyist for his ungodly ideas about the book Bill was dictating literally across the office they shared. Throughout the process, Parkhurst was both a bee in Bill’s bonnet and a royal pain in his ass. 

Hank Parkhurst has been nearly disappeared from official A.A. literature, no doubt because he returned to drinking soon after the Big Book appeared. The rest of his life was a disaster area of debt, divorce, and alcoholic debility. 

Nonetheless, Ernest Kurtz wrote that “Dr. Bob isn’t really a co-founder of AA. . . . A person with a much better claim to be a co-founder of AA would have been Hank Parkhurst.” Schaberg doubles down on this idea. Aside from Wilson, he claims, “there is no more central person in the history of the writing of the Big Book than Henry G. Parkhurst or more critical to the formation of the program of recovery unveiled to the world when that book was published.” This audacious and unequivocal pronouncement that will inevitably stir up controversy in A.A.