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

Part Two of Four

Highly favorable press coverage of the AA story was also a major factor in the spectacular growth pattern. A series of enthusiastic articles on AA appeared in the fall of 1939 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. These pieces produced a flood of new AA members in the Cleveland area. This sudden expansion was the first tangible evidence that AA had the potential to grow into a Movement of major proportions.

The sequence of events during this period is significant. The Big Book was published in April of 1939, and in it the suggestions-only approach to the Steps was disseminated for the first time. A few months later the Plain Dealer articles ran, and Cleveland AAs found themselves relating to new prospects on an unprecedented level. It suddenly became attractive, in a way it had not been before when the fellowship was smaller and more intimate, to ease up a bit on the idea that all the principles should be practiced all the time by all the members. More and more emphasis began to be placed on the fact that the Steps were to be considered as suggestions only. At this time, and through this set of circumstances, the "cafeteria-style" - take-what-you-like- and-leave-the-rest-out - approach to the Twelve Steps came into practice.

And it seemed to work. It turned out that many newcomers could get sober and stay sober without anything like the full and intensive practice of the whole program that had been considered a life-or-death necessity in the early years. In fact alcoholics in significant numbers began to demonstrate that they could stay off booze on no more than an admission of powerlessness, some work with other alcoholics and regular attendance at AA meetings.

This is not to say that all AAs began to take this very permissive approach to the Twelve Steps. A great many continued to opt for the original, full-program approach. But now for the first time the workability of other, less rigorous approaches was established, and a tendency had emerged which was to become more pronounced as time went on.

At first this seemed like an unmixed blessing. After all, those who chose actively to practice all of the Twelve Steps were as free as ever to do so. Those who preferred working with some, or just a couple, of the Steps were staying sober too. And AA was attracting more and more new members and more and more favorable recognition. In 1941, Jack Alexander's article on Alcoholics Anonymous was published in the Saturday Evening Post. AA membership at the time stood at 2,000. In the next nine months it jumped 400% !

By 1941 (which was the year my father, Tom P. Sr., came into the Fellowship) it was possible to distinguish three variant practices of the AA program, which we have labeled the strong-cup-of-tea, medium-cup-of-tea and weak-cup-of-tea approaches. Strong AA was the original, undiluted dosage of the spiritual principles. Strong AAs took all twelve of the Steps- and kept on taking them. They did not stop at the admission of powerlessness over alcohol, but went on right away to turn their wills and lives over to God's care. They began to practice rigorous honesty in all their affairs. In short order they proceeded to take a moral inventory; admit all their wrongs to at least one other person; take positive and forceful action in making such restitution as was possible for those wrongs; continue taking inventory; admitting their faults and making restitution on a regular basis; pray and meditate every day; go to two or more AA meetings weekly; and actively work the Twelfth Step, carrying the AA message to others in trouble.

The medium AAs started off with a bang, pretty much like the strong AAs, except they hedged or procrastinated a bit on parts of the program that they feared or did not like - maybe the God Steps, maybe the inventory Steps, depending on their particular nervousness or dislikes. But after they had stayed sober for awhile, the medium AAs eased up and settled into a practice of the program that went something like this: an AA meeting a week; occasional Twelfth Step work (leaving more and more of that to the "newer fellows" as time went on) some work with the Steps (but not like before) ; less and less inventory (as they became more and more "respectable"); some prayer and meditation still, but not on a daily basis any more ("not enough time" due to encroachment of business engagements, social activities and other baggage that went along with the return to normal life in the workaday world).

The weak AAs were a varied lot. Common to the weak approach everywhere is that it left out big chunks of the program totally and permanently. Sometimes it was the God Steps, sometimes the inventory Steps, often both. Weak AAs tended to talk like this: "All you need to do to stay sober is go to meetings and stay away from the first drink". Most of the weak AAs who were successful in staying sober were pretty faithful meeting-goers. Since they were doing so little with the principles, their sobriety and their survival depended more exclusively than did those of the strong and medium AAs on constant exposure to the people of AA.

The fact is that only the strong-cup-of-tea members were practicing the program as it had been laid out in the Big Book. Granting that the medium and weak AAs had every right as AA members to practice the principles any way they wanted to (including hardly any at all), since the Steps were "suggestions-only" - still, the way the first members had done it, and the way the Big Book had recorded it, was the strong-cup-of-tea way.

The medium approach had - and still has - a real, constructive place in the AA recovery scheme, in that it can be used as a temporary platform for reluctant beginners. The medium-cup-of-tea option enables many who initially are not up to the strong approach, to gain a foothold in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But medium AA can - and often does - become a trap. Medium AA is no place for an AA member to try to settle out permanently. People who remain too long in medium AA easily pass the point where they might be encouraged to step up to strong AA, and they end up sliding back into weak AA.

Weak AA has none of the redeeming features of medium AA. Weak AA is clearly at odds with the program as outlined in the Big Book. Weak AAs bases itself on a flat and un-negotiable refusal to work with vital recovery principles. Weak AA cops out and stays copped out on most of the Twelve Steps. Weak AA waters down the program to the point where there really is no program. A more accurate term than "weak AA" would be "copped-out and watered-down AA" - COWD AA for short.

With the passage of time, a development has taken place in AA - in the respective popularity and acceptability of the strong approach versus the weak, COWD approach.

In their early years, the weak, COWD AAs tended to feel obliged to defend and sing the praises of their heterodox approach, and even to chide the strong AAs a bit for being rigid and holier-than-thou. The strong AAs, for their part, tended to be more relaxed and tolerant, less strident, less defensive. After all, their method was obviously safer, since it involved taking more of the medicine. And it was obviously the original and genuine article - as the Big Book attested.

However, the juxtaposition of attitudes came to have a peculiar effect in a Movement which prided itself on its good-natured inclination to let all kinds of maverick opinions and practices have their say and their way. The loudest voices in the Movement came to be the voices of weak AAs, and these voices, in time, came to have the greatest impact on newcomers. Copped-out and watered-down AA came to be the “in” thing, the wave of the future; strong AA came to be regarded - not universally, but widely - as a bit stodgy and a bit passé.

The weak, COWD AAs had, in a sense, proven Bill and the first hundred AAs wrong. In the introduction to the Twelve Steps, the statement, “we thought we could find an easier, softer way, but could not” was an unequivocal assertion that it was necessary to practice all the Steps. But the COWD AAs did not practice all the steps, and they were staying sober. They had found an easier, softer way. Human nature being was it is, it was inevitable that the less demanding, weak approach would grow in popularity while the older, more rigorous approach would decline. Who wants to drive a car with standard shift when the model with automatic is a hundred dollars cheaper?

The year 1993 marks the fifty- eighth year of AA’s existence. There is still some lip service in the Movement to the importance of working all the Steps and practicing rigorous honesty in all one’s affairs. But as a matter of fact, precious few AAs continue to attempt seriously and consistently to do these things on a daily basis - not after their first months of sobriety in the Fellowship.

Reversion to a lower, more ‘normal’ level of aspiration is the order of the day. Those who do continue to practice strong AA have to be careful how they talk about what they are doing in AA meetings. In many places, too much or too serious talk about God is considered bad form. The same is true about talk on subjects of confession, restitution and rigorous honesty - especially where they affect such difficult and sensitive life areas as job applications, tax returns, business dealings and sex relations.

But if weak AA works - if it produces recovery - what fault is there to find with it? Maybe this is a case where heterodoxy turns out to be superior to orthodoxy. Why should anyone go to the trouble of practicing strong AA? For one good reason: weak AA, in very many cases, really doesn’t work. Weak AA brings about a far less profound life alteration than strong AA does. In many cases, the change which weak AA produces is not enough to crack the alcoholic pattern, and results in an apparent recovery which does not last but sooner or later eventuates in a relapse into drinking. And in many cases where weak AA does succeed in producing lasting sobriety, these weakly sober AAs peter out into lives of depression, anxiety, bitter resentment and real despair, just like nearly all the other merely dried-out drunks in history.

What weak AA really amounts to is merely a form of cheating on AA. I am reminded of an old song which they used to sing in the White Plains (NY) Group back in the early 40’s (sung to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”)

I’ve been staying away from the meetings,
I’ve been staying away from the crowd,
A pint and three newbies, then call the hack,
Here’s one wack that is flat on his back,
Take me out to Bellevue, so I can remember my name,
I must be nuts to think I could cheat on the AA game.

Well, be that as it may. Back to the question: what were the original AAs really shooting for?

What they were shooting for, and what they aimed their program at,was not mere sobriety...