Why Study and Use A.A. Literature?

I got sober in 1987, when Alcoholics Anonymous was the tender age of 52. The fellowship would turn 53 just 10 weeks after I stopped drinking. The Founder’s Day celebration in Akron, which is A.A.’s birthday party held at Akron University, was my very first A.A. convention.

Dr. Bob's House
Dr. Bob's House

At 10 weeks sober I was still unhappy with the notion that I was powerless, wasn’t real sure that I wanted to be sober for the next 75 years, and didn’t understand what all the hoopla in Akron was all about. I went to meetings in Akron and Cleveland and the surrounding area and thought they were all boring and full of old people who wanted to control my life. Spending a weekend celebrating this organization that was taking over every part of my life was not my idea of a good time.

Secretly, though, I loved being with people who laughed a lot and seemed to love each other.

I was taken to Dr. Bob’s house on Ardmore St. in Akron. There must have been a couple thousand people there. The lawn was full of people praying, smoking cigarettes, hugging each other and sharing a sense of awe and wonder. Me, I just wanted a place in the shade to sit away from the crowd, somewhere no one would ever consider hugging me. I saw an open spot on the porch swing next to some old guy who wasn’t busily talking or hugging — my type of person. Promising him I wouldn’t talk to him if he wouldn’t talk to me, I asked if I could sit down. He agreed to my terms and I sat.

As we swung on the porch in silence I watched at least a hundred people climbing the steps that led from the sidewalk to the porch, all counting as they climbed. Breaking my promise, I asked my silent seat mate what they were doing. He hesitated, then explained there were twelve steps from the sidewalk to the porch and that was a big deal to many. Some saw it as symbolism or a "God thing."

Of course, I had to act as if the symbolism wasn’t wasted on me, so I just said I too "got it," but it was silly to put much stock in such things. I was too practical to experience any goose bumps or moments of awe over some unremarkable steps from a street to a door. If you asked me, these new people of "mine" (after 10 weeks I still wasn't convinced that I was one of them — that came much later) weren’t wrapped too tightly; they were a bit weak to take to such nonsense.

Then a man walked up to us and shouted, "Smitty, it’s so good to see you, my friend!" So that was his name, "Smitty." I hadn’t even thought to ask. Smitty stood and hugged the guy and they exchanged pleasantries. I was a bit disappointed to see that "my" guy was a hugger. He and I were not as much alike as I'd assumed. The new man asked Smitty if he was grateful and emotionally moved each year at this time, with his Dad being such a big deal.

I had no idea what they were talking about. Despite their age difference, they just talked and talked about those "old days" everyone but me seemed to know so much about. Smitty talked a lot about his folks and more about his mother than his father. I became a little irritated and thought the intruder would never shut up and go away. I was curious now, and had some questions for Smitty.

Our visitor finally took his leave, and Smitty again sat down and with a slight smile gazed at the steps, watching the people carefully counting.

It took what felt like an hour to gather the courage to speak, which was unlike me. If there was one thing I could do, it was talk — much to my sponsor’s chagrin. Finally I asked Smitty if the two of them had grown up together. He sort of snorted and said that, no, he’s from Pennsylvania and I grew up here. Here like in Ohio or here like in Akron? I asked. He said, here, like "in this house." So your Dad is this doctor everyone keeps talking about? (No getting anything past me!)

Dr. Bob
Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith
"Dr. Bob"

He smiled a little more broadly and shook his head slowly as if he couldn’t believe what I had just said. This was a look I received from lots of old guys at A.A. meetings when they talked with me. Finally, I got a straight answer out of him and, yes, Smitty's father was the Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Since my father, too, was an alcoholic, and we didn’t get along at all, I inquired about his relationship with his own father. Smitty said that though it took a while, thanks to God and A.A. he and his Dad were on good terms when his father passed away. Smitty was in Al-Anon, which he said helped a lot, too.

He didn’t say much more, which was really okay by me. He did say, however, that I should remember his Dad put on his pants one leg at a time like everyone else; I should be careful to put no man on a pedestal.

Then Dr. Bob’s son said something I’ll never forget: He said I should read my Big Book and all the other A.A. books I could get my hands on. They would never change, and their contents would teach me how to work the program of A.A. Reading the books would encourage me to respect the history of A.A., and to protect it from those who always want to change it. He said that though each person at the conference had their personal experience with the program, only the books have the real directions.

So there I sat, next to the son of one of the founders of A.A., receiving the "keys to the kingdom," so to speak. It was an unbelieveable experience, a "God thing," an opportunity any A.A. would have given almost anything to have experienced.

And of course, because I didn’t like to be told what to do I immediately decided to read as little as possible.

In the end, however, I came to understand and appreciate the wisdom of Smitty's words. There are times I am not sure why that conversation stuck with me all these years — but I am grateful it did.

•  •  •

Needless to say, over 21 years later I continue to read and reread A.A. literature — especially the Big Book and A.A. Comes of Age. I’ve learned the program of A.A. isn’t just the Twelve Steps hanging on our wall; they can’t stand alone without the directions on how to use them.

We in the fellowship of A.A. have created all kinds of traditional practices that aren’t anywhere in our literature. For instance, nowhere in our literature does it say "meeting makers make it," or that you have to go to "90 meetings in 90 days." After many decades of shared experiences, however, our collective wisdom has shown that going to lots of meetings at the beginning is a powerful tool in establishing and maintaining ongoing sobriety. During those first several years in Akron there were only a few meetings — the original Oxford Group’s Drunk Squad meetings. If attending 90 meetings in 90 days meetings is essential to ongoing recovery — if it’s impossible to get sober without them — then our program’s founders should have been drunk instead of recovered.

Rather than attending meetings, Dr. Bob, Bill W., Annie Smith, Sister Ignatia, Bill Dodson and the other early A.A.’s spent their days in constant search for and work with real wet alcoholics. They engaged in a daily, nearly desperate search to find a new man to whom they could give this new spiritual rearrangement of his life. Annie would brew the coffee, pray and make sure the men read the book of James in the Bible before beginning their day. Sister Ignatia would make sure that the five-day detox ward at St. Thomas Hospital was filled with newly recovered alcoholics to work with the new alcoholic admissions, thus establishing the tradition of sponsorship. Dr. Bob and Bill W. would spend their days praying, working with the new men and trying to form their experiences in doing so into a program focused on getting drunks to become God Conscious. All knew they were doing God’s work and they wanted to do it well.

Likewise, it is our responsibility to give newcomers the true program of A.A., not our own version of it. If you’re not studying and using Alcoholics Anonymous, then by all means do so. None of us wants to mislead any new man or woman who needs to recover from "a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body," but we may be doing just that if we get too far away from our literature.

No matter what unwritten traditions we establish, let’s not forget the real program is unchanging and is always to be found in Alcoholics Anonymous — the "Big Book."

Don't forget to read "A History of Sponsorship" by Deb H.