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

Part Three of Four

Aiming for mere sobriety would have been the commonsense approach, the way of worldly wisdom, the reasonable-level-of-aspiration level.

However, the founders of AA were men moved by uncommon sense, by inspiration, by spiritual guidance. They knew that the commonsense approach had already been tried in the world for 150 years, and it was failing everywhere, utterly, in their time. They knew that when a drunk’s level of aspiration was set at mere abstinence - “Why don’t you be a good fellow, use your will power, and give the stuff up” - it simply did not work. The poor candidate for recovery was back drinking in short order.

The great discovery that launched AA in the first place was this: the alcoholic must somehow be rocketed into a state way beyond abstinence - he must achieve an utterly new relationship with God - then permanent abstinence will automatically occur as a blessed and life-saving-by-product. That was how it happened with Bill. That was how it happened with Dr. Bob. That was how it happened with the first hundred members. That was how the authors of the Big Book saw it would have to happen with everyone.

Originally, the Twelfth Step read: “Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and practice these principles in all our affairs.” Two key phrases were “spiritual experience” and “as a result of these Steps”. The assumption was: no spiritual experience - no recovery. It was also assumed that there were not a number of different results from working the Steps; there was one result - the result - and that was spiritual experience. To the first members, spiritual experience meant that God had touched your life - directly, tangibly - and turned it around.

Sometime between 1939, when the Plain Dealer articles were published, and 1941, when the Alexander piece ran in the Post, a major shift in philosophy occurred. No one in AA was much aware that it was taking place at the time, and to this day the process that went on remains almost totally unacknowledged throughout the Fellowship. What changed was the importance of the roles assigned respectively to the recovery principles and the recovery Fellowship in AA.

Up until 1939, AA was a small, unknown organization whose success record, though excellent, applied only over a tiny group of cases, and had not yet stood the test of time. Recovering alcoholics in the young Movement relied upon each other and worked closely with one another. But the principles were the primary life transformers. The Movement as such was not large enough or well enough established that it could be depended upon primarily instead of faithful work with the Steps.

However, after AA became a big operation, after it gained national recognition as a success, a new relationship became possible with it, one which had not previously been an option, and which the founders could not have foreseen. It now became possible for an alcoholic to come to meetings and get sober without undergoing a real spiritual conversion, simply by the process of monkey-see-monkey-does, by mimesis, by imitation - by the mere practice of the principle of when-in-Rome-do-as-the-Romans do.

Here is how recovery-by-mimesis worked: In joining AA the newcomer joined himself to a big, successful organization, like the Elks or the Kiwanis. One of the customs of this particular club was that you did not drink; so if the newcomer liked the people he had met in AA and wanted to stay associated with them, he gave up drinking. He came to the AA meetings. AA people and AA events became the focus of his social life and his leisure-time- activities, and he stayed sober, largely off the power of the pack.

The true nature of this quite other, and quite non-spiritual, recovery option was never fully recognized throughout the Movement. The founders of the Fellowship, however, were sensitive to it, and, in response, they made an attempt to broaden the meaning of the term “spiritual” to include the two kinds of recovered alcoholics. One, the sober-by-conversion alcoholics - those who, as the result of working the Steps, had had a spiritual experience and become transformed human beings, seriously involved with regenerative life and ideas, as contrasted with the two, sober-by-imitation alcoholics - those who had remained essentially the same type of people they had been before coming into AA, except that they had joined a new organization, made a new set of friends, and given up drinking in conformity to their new social setup.

There is only one term in the Twelve Steps that has been changed since the Big Book was first published in 1939.