A rumor has persisted for years in the fellowship of AA that Bill wished he could have changed “rarely” to “never.” This is a myth.
In a letter to Les V., dated May 25, 1961 Bill W. stated: “Concerning your comment about the use of the word ‘rarely’ in Chapter Five of the Big Book. My recollection is that we did give a considerable thought at the time of writing. I think the main reason for the use of ‘rarely’ was to avoid anything that would look like a claim for a 100% result. Assuming of course that an alcoholic is willing enough and sane enough, there can be a perfect score on such character. But since willingness and sanity are such illusive and fluctuating values, we simply didn’t like to be too positive. The medical profession could jump right down our throats…I do remember thinking about it a lot.”
In addition, the following question and response were made at the 1970 General Service Conference, as part of the “Ask-It” Basket questions. Bill was, of course, still living at this time and was able to respond:
Q. Has Bill ever said, “If there was any change he would make in the Big Book, it would be to change the world ‘rarely’ to ‘never’ at the start of Chapter Five”? A. “No, Bill said he had never considered this” (1970 General Service Conference Report, p. 31).
10 thoughts on “AA Myths: The Myth that Bill wished he could have changed “rarely” to “never.””
Thank you. I have heard this story many times. I believe I even heard it at a Joe and Charlie Seminar. And, if Bill said it, that would at least have settled Bill’s view. But did he say it, or even tell the truth when he did.
Added to the material you set forth are these ideas:
1.We now have the Hazelden heavily annotated and so-called printer’s manuscript. So one starting place today would be to see if there are annotations there. I have not done so.
2. I have reviewed many of Bill’s manuscripts, his autobiography, the Lois memoirs, and the biographies of the many who have dug up snippets here and there
3. As to successes and failures about the time the Big Book went to press, we have these additional items:
a. There is now a handwritten roster on Dr. Bob’s own stationary. It was appended, I believe, to an Amos report. It is on file at the Rockefeller Archives. I have a photo copy. This memo of 1939 (If that is the date) certainly shows Dr. Bob’s view of who succeeded and who failed. And there were failures.
b. Bill himself many times said there were “failures galore.” So did Bob in less dramatic language.
c. Hence it gets down to whether there was ever a claim that if someone “thoroughly followed our path,” he could not and did not fail. In that respect, there are a lot of disputed thoughts about the “first forty” and a few good researchers who have looked into their names and records. One view is that in the “counting of noses” in November of 1937,
20 of the first forty had maintained continuous sobriety. For how long? What path did they follow? Frank Amos summarized it, and we have published that summary as well as the 16 practices of the early pioneers. Is one confining his thinking to Akronites and how they followed their Christian program? Is one accepting Bill’s contention that there were an alleged “six” “word-of-mouth” ideas (some called them steps) prior to the Big Book. Which of the any of the extant, examined rosters tells whether all the named folks were following the Akron program or Bill’s supposed six word of mouth ideas? We have published the varied versions in Bill’s own varied words re these ideas. And Bill himself said there was no general agreement on what they were and also that they were applied variously at the whim of the particular person’s approach.
d. All in all, there is little actual evidence to indicate that any of the pioneers claimed 100% for their programs, whatever they were. Myth and speculation don’t mean anything.
e. And there certainly are no later credible surveys other than Dr. Bob’s memo and the survey taken by Clarence Snyder in Cleveland showing a 90% success rate there.
4. As you no doubt know, our research, publication and dissemination has been and is focused on the role that God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Bible played in the early A.A. Akron Christian Fellowship. And I have published several books exploring the roots from many angles. http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml <http://www.dickb.com/goodbook.shtml> , http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.sthml <http://www.dickb.com/Oxford.sthml> ,www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml <http://www.dickb.com/newlight.shtml> . And By the Power of God. And once a person moves into speculation, you have to ask: Where is the evidence? Where is there more than one type of evidence? Is the reporter an advocate or a student? Who did and didn’t believe in God, accept Jesus Christ, and study the Bible? And whatever Hank Parkhurst was, we certainly know he got drunk shortly after the Big Book was published. Ebby perhaps before, and certainly for years after. So did others. And we know their names.
5. Again, our focus is on the results which an alcoholic with free will can, could, and did achieve. Also on the beliefs he had. Also on the program he was following. Also on the validity of the records. As a former attorney with many many years of research and search for evidence under his belt, I also have to ask if the evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt or merely by a preponderance the point being made. The picture is best viewed as one where focusing on helping the alcoholic who still suffers is primary for A.A., for the reporters, and for the individual. And if the answers were all that clear, we wouldn’t have thousands of treatment centers that have failed by the score in recent years.
Thank you for clearing this up. I can see Bill’s and the one hundred’s reason in not using the word never. The book might have been perceived to be to good to be true; as there is one of those on the market today. I do not see "rarely" as nothing more than spiritual progress.
This is nothing more than semantics. Accepting that Bill never regretted using the word “rarely” have we seen a person fail … instead of “never” doesn’t mean that “never” was in fact accurate and the fact that Bill at least believed “never” to be accurate is reflected in the author’s words.
“Rarely have we seen a person fail that has thoroughly followed our path”. Then it goes on to say “none of us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles”. I would assert that no one has ever thoroughly followed our path. We are not saints. Bill was a salesman and he was trying to sell the steps. For good reason. They’ve saved millions including myself. But sometimes Bill’s flowery language is just that.
This has got to be the biggest rat turd vaulting article ever. The point of the myth is that if he used ‘never’ instead of rarely some drunk would work the program and drink to prove him wrong. It’s just a funny story people tell to shed light on the insane mind of an alcoholic.
I just got back from a meeting its 2018 and people are still trying to work the steps using the 12 & 12. Yes the book without the directions on how to work the steps. Then we have large confrences here in my city were they are teaching 4th step classes with a column labeled ‘What’s my part’ instead of defect of character. Thats right even though the book says our part is always that we got angry “anger and the brainstorm were not for us..” no one is having white light spiritual experiences because they are asking God to remove what they actually did in the past, which can’t be removed fyi, instead of asking for the defect that cause the reaction to be removed. Lets get our priorities straight
Break it down,
“Thoroughly followed our path”
If he died sober and then you did what he did and also died sober, are you not than 100% following his path? Is it not 100% possible to get sober following AA’s path and stay sober until you die? I think so.
Well, when I got sober in AA, almost 18 years ago, I was told that the success is – getting sober and staying sober until you die. I was told that using this guide that the success rate is extremely low. If I was told on day one, that “NEVER have we seen a person fail” I would of believed you 100%.
Having personally attended numerous funerals of the fellowship’s members who did not die sober and after witnessing thousands of members relapse and never return to the best of my knowledge, I would have to agree with the tiny success rate.
Until today, I was under the impression that the original draft of the Big Book stated “Never” instead of “Rarely” have we seen a person fail. Then because of a question posed to Bill that made him think about what success really is, he then changed the word to “Rarely.” A question that- at the time, took him by surprise and by the way he was not able to answer, that the switch was made to Rarely.
Because I did not believe I could ever change, why would I ever entertain any idea that success was 100% possible for me? Maybe that’s why this conspiracy lives on? Old habits are hard to kill or as it’s stated in the book, “Smashed.” The self sabotaging side of me loves to hear “Never” and then I trump it. (No Pun intended.) But if you are saying that there is a chance, a rare chance, then it becomes a challenge that I can not refuse. In my opinion, Bill got it right and when asked if he could go back and change anything in the Big Book, he should of said “Wait until you read the Big Book Part 2 the Journey Continues.”
I appreciate this article, and it makes sense. I think it was Joe and Charlie’s big book study where I heard them say that Bill originally wanted to use the word “never” in the first sentence of chapter five. This paragraph never sat right with me. This doesn’t happen today when we have more medicine and research, so how could this have been the case back then? I thought maybe the people they spoke of had the “medical procedures” mentioned in the doctor’s opinion. Where I live, a relapse is a “fail”, and my own personal experience as well as observations have shown that most people “fail” multiple times despite their best and most “thorough”, “honest” efforts. Initially, I thought it was because people just don’t get through the steps quickly enough nowadays, and there is much jargon out there that contradicts the book. I actually referred to this site often because I was one of those hopeless cases who needed that power now. I love this site btw =).
What I’ve noticed is not surprising, and that’s that the high-bottom drunks (or moderate or hard drinkers pg 20-21) can get that one chip and never drink again for years. The low-bottom drunks (real alcoholics) have multiple relapses. This isn’t the case all the time, but frequent enough to generalize. If we stop considering a relapse a fail, but rather part of the process, then we see AA can be successful because ultimately, most people do keep getting more sober days than drunk days until they’re stopped for good. I’ve heard multiple people say that the “keep coming back” aa’ism became the most important for them. The BB points out that the required spiritual experience happens “sometimes slowly”. Some of us don’t have a lot of time, and we should use every tool available. Psychedelic research has been the latest thing in addiction recovery, which is something Bill used in his own program. Therapy and psychiatrists are immensely helpful.
Side note, I’ve also noticed though that the people who got that one chip and stopped for years are more likely to not come back after a relapse or have worse relapses, and my guess is because of ego inflation over the years, maybe in part because of that paragraph. They were sure they were ones who thoroughly followed the path, unlike others who “failed”. It’s just unrealistic to call a relapse a “fail”. People say this in meetings, but our actions reflected in the chip system and sobriety time hierarchy suggest otherwise.
This is all confusing to me. I would get a few years sober, then crack when life got hard and relapse, rinse and repeat. I now have 55 days back in AA after being out for 14 years, drinking only periodically but still, drinking until drunk. I am 69 and I don’t know if I have another recovery in me if I relapse. The frantic fear of relapse is constantly weighing on my mind.
I thought I had worked the steps as honestly as I could but I guess not. I’m just baffled. I have a sponsor and am starting the steps again. I hope that will be enough this time.
Your story resonated w/ me. I had a few years of sobriety, life brought changes and I looked for a solution in a bottle. Yikes, drinking periodically, but when I drank, (alone most times), I drank excessively sometimes into a blackout.
A couple of friends and a cousin died last year….what did I do? Sank deeper into “misery and depression”, stayed home, in the dark, (I work from home), and drank.
I’ll be 68 in September. My health needs my attention, and I don’t know if I can withstand another ‘research trip’. I have 6 days. I have to stay in the ‘here and now’. I’ve been ‘zooming’ a lot meetings this week, to remind me that I am not alone.
I agree, but it’s the ability to recognize and pull ourselves back. We are not Saints. But we can try to be. I’ve read in grapevine where it says something like everyone, every alcoholic can stay sober if they follow these steps and don’t deviate from the path.
It’s the deviation that people “forget” about and/or “forget” to be honest about. We might zig zag on the path and have to pull ourselves straight, but when we hit the weeds, we’re entering dangerous territory.
Secondly, in the post it talks about 2 different points about the topic. Bill didn’t lie about it. the first one was about the consideration of never vs. rarely in the book. The second in 1971 was asking about did he ever consider “changing” rarely to never. 2 clearly different things. Beginning and later on consideration on changing it.