Written By: Fiona Stockard

The Big Book Broken Down – Part One

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who help each other to recover from alcohol and drug addiction. It was founded in June of 1935, just celebrated its seventy-ninth anniversary, and boasts over two million members.

AA’s central text is the Big Book. With a sponsor and a Big Book, AA members work the twelve steps, and “recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” (title page).

What exactly is the Big Book? How does reading a book help someone achieve and maintain sobriety? The aim of these articles are to answer exactly those questions.

Big Book


The Big Book is now in its fourth edition. In each edition there’s been a short forward outlining what changes have been included.

Of particular note is the forward to the second edition, published in 1955. A short section states, “Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement” (XX).

Here we see true statistics, none of that 1% stuff, but true hope for the suffering alcoholic. Remember though, these stats are for alcoholics who work steps!

The Doctor’s Opinion

This chapter outlines the disease model of alcoholism, as presented by doctor William Silkworth. In 1939, when the first edition of the Big Book was published, Silkworth was a leading authority on addiction medicine.

In The Doctor’s Opinion, Silkworth proposes that alcoholism is a three-part disease: physical, mental, and spiritual.

There’s the physical allergy to alcohol. This means that once an alcoholic begins drinking, they cannot stop. Their bodies process alcohol differently. In order to abstain from drinking, they have to be physically stopped (think getting arrested or going to detox).

There’s the mental obsession. This is when the thought to get drunk crowds out all else in the alcoholic’s mind. Basically, getting drunk ceases to be a thought and becomes an all-consuming fixation. This lasts until the alcoholic takes a drink, at which point the physical allergy kicks in.

There’s the spiritual malady. This is compromised of all the things that make the alcoholic drink in the first place. Things like low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. This spiritual malady leaves the alcoholic “restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks” (xxviii-xxix).

Bill’s Story

This chapter is a brief biography of Bill Wilson. Bill, along with Dr. Bob Smith, founded AA in 1935. Bill was a New York stockbroker who had been trying to get sober for years. Although Bill found material and marital success, he struggled privately with alcoholism for most of his adult life.

Bill outlines the progression of his drinking career. He started drinking for fun, to bring out creativity, to loosen his shirttails. He progressed to drinking for necessity. Finally, he drank for oblivion. Bill mixed gin with sedatives and was in-and-out of a dozen treatment centers.

Finally, an old friend introduced Bill to the Oxford Groups. These were the predecessors to AA. Bill met Dr. Bob on a business trip and the rest, as they say, is history.

While reading this chapter, we see how each of the twelve steps are introduced and incorporated into Bill’s life. Just as we saw his descent into alcoholism, we now see his climb out.

Bill’s Story ends with the quote, “Each day my friend’s simple talk in our kitchen multiplies itself in a widening circle of peace on earth and good will to men” (16).

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