Gresham's Law and Alcoholics Anonymous
Editor's Introduction:
Gresham's Law and Alcoholics Anonymous by Tom P., Jr.,©1993, is reprinted with permission. Due to the length of the article, it is being presented in four parts. To continue to parts two , three and four , follow the last-sentence-link provided at the end of each page.

Gresham's Law and Alcoholics Anonymous
by Tom P., Jr.

There are three ways to work the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.
1. The strong original way - proved powerfully and reliably effective over fifty-eight years.
2. A medium way - not so strong, not so safe, not so sure, not so good, but still effective.
3. a weak way, which turns out to be really no way at all but literally a heresy, a false teaching, a twisting and corruption of what the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous clearly stated the program to be.

As a twenty-nine year member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am still awed by the combination of simplicity, practicality, and profundity built into the Twelve Steps, the AA recovery plan.

An AA friend of mine recently summarized the Steps in a way that gives a good quick overview of the spiritual principles embodied in them:

1. Admission of powerlessness. 2. Reliance on a Higher Power. 3. Total surrender to God.4. Moral inventory. 5. Admission of the exact nature of our wrongs. 6. Commitment to total change. 7. Prayer for wholeness. 8. Total willingness to amend. 9. Making amends where possible. 10. Continuing inventory. 11. Prayer meditation, leading to improved conscious contact with God. 12. Spiritual awakening, carrying the message and practicing the principles in all our affairs.

When the Steps are epitomized like this, you can clearly see that they aim, not at normalcy, but at full spiritual regeneration - at a life lived one day at a time in conscious contact with God.

Yet the Twelve Steps, even though they are clearly aiming at the mountain top, are so plainly worded, and so well-explained in chapter five of the AA Big Book, that they can be done by anyone. And therein lies their great genius. There is no prior requirement of purity of life or advancement of learning. Just a willingness to admit personal defeat and a sincere desire to change.

The Twelve Steps contradict the secular psychological axiom that where the level of performance is low, you must set a low level of aspiration in order to gain a positive result in life.

According to the secular psychological view, the only practical approach for the early AA's to have taken would have been as follows: to put together a program which aimed certainly no higher than alcohol abstinence and a return to life as it had been in pre-alcoholic days, to life as ordinary men and women of the world.

However, these wild and woolly early AA's, these psychologically illiterate off-scouring and rubbish of the world, these newly-sobered-up drunks, set out to become totally committed men and women of God.

The authors of the Big Book knew that their God-centered, psychological heretical, radical plan was liable to jar many of the newcomers they were trying to reach with their message. Therefore, they made two moves to sugarcoat the pill. First, they put the following disclaimer immediately after listing the Twelve Steps in chapter five:

Many of us exclaimed, "What an order! I can't go through with it". Do not be discouraged. No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

That short paragraph was a stroke of inspiration, especially the phrase, "we are not saints". It has eased thousands of new, half-convinced AA members (myself included) past the fact that we are headed, under the guidance of the Steps, in the completely unfamiliar direction of spiritual perfection.

Most of us began practicing the Steps without realizing their full implications. Experience quickly taught us that they worked. They got us sober and enabled us to stay sober. From our deadly-serious pragmatic standpoint, that was what mattered; we were content to enjoy our sobriety, and leave all debates as to why the Steps worked to non-alcoholic theorizers - whose lives did not hang in the balance if they got themselves confused and came to the wrong conclusions.

Bill and Dr. Bob did one thing more to keep the spiritual rigor and power of the Twelve Steps from frightening new prospects (sugar-coated pill number two). They put the Steps forth as suggestions rather than as directives. The sentence which introduces the Steps in chapter five of the Big Book says: "Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery". This idea was greatly appreciated throughout the AA movement from the time the Big Book was first published. We drunks hate to be told to do anything. The second sugarcoated pill gave us the freedom to take the Steps at our own pace and in our own way. This freedom quickly grew to be deeply cherished among AA members.

Before we explore the results of this sugarcoated approach to the Steps, there is one oddity worth noting. AA existed for four full years before the Steps were put in their final written form. During that time there was a program and it was sobering up alcoholics. It consisted of two parts: a six-step word-of-mouth program, and the Four Absolutes - absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness and absolute love - taken over from the Oxford group, the evangelical Christian movement out of which AA was born. The six-steps of the word-of-mouth program from the early pioneering years of Alcoholics Anonymous as given in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age are: 

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol. 

2. We made a moral inventory of our defects or sins. 

3. We confessed or shared our shortcomings with another person in confidence. 

4. We made restitution to all those we had harmed by our drinking. 

5. We tried to help other alcoholics with no thought of reward in money or prestige. 

6. We prayed to whatever God we thought there was for power to practice these precepts.

In those early days of AA (1935-1939) there was no talk of suggestions. The basic points of the program, especially the word-of-mouth program, were regarded by all the older members as directives, as indispensable essentials, and were passed on to the newcomers as such.

When the Twelve Steps were first being formulated by Bill and Dr. Bob and an editorial committee from Akron and New York - Bill, Dr. Bob and the entire committee conceived of the Steps as instructions, not as suggestions. When the idea of presenting the Steps as suggestions came up, Bill for a long time flatly opposed it. Finally - and reluctantly -Bill agreed to the "suggestions" approach. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age he related how this concession on his part enabled countless AA's to approach the Fellowship who would otherwise have been turned off AA - and back to active alcoholism.

Nevertheless, Bill was a man whose watchword was prudence and who went out of his way to steer clear of destructive controversy. One cannot help wondering if his feelings on the decision to present the Twelve Steps in the form of suggestions were not a bit more ambiguous than he was willing to discuss in public, once the compromise had been reached and certified. Certainly the paragraphs of chapter five of the Big Book which introduce the Twelve Steps are full of language that would be utterly appropriate as a preamble to a set of action directions, but is not as nearly as fitting as an introduction to a group of suggestions. Following is the beginning of chapter five, with the no-compromise key words and phrases in (our) italics:

Rarely have we seen a person fall who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it - then you are ready to take certain steps.
At some of these we balked. We thought we could find an easier, softer way. But we could not. With all the earnestness at our command, we beg of you to be fearless and thorough from the very start. Some of us have tried to hold on to our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.
Remember that we deal with alcohol - cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power - that One is God. May you find Him now!
Half-measures availed us nothing.
We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon. Here are the steps we took...

Even though Bill did end up fully reconciled to the compromise approach, his initial misgivings, in the long run, may turn out to be prophetic. At that time, however, there were no indications that the permissive, suggestions-only approach was anything but a boon to the Movement. In 1938 and 1939,when the Big Book was being written, there were 100 sober members in the Fellowship. By 1945 active AA membership was up to 13,000. The primary reason for this explosive increase was that the program - the Steps - were a winning formula: they worked, and there was a big need for them, out there in the population.

America was boozy and was spawning a great many alcoholics.