Episode 180: About those Steps – A Conversation with John C.

This episode features a conversation about the 12 Steps with John C. from Berkeley, California. We talk about how there is often exaggerated importance placed on them. The Steps, which are primarily experiential become an academic exercise for many. Some AA members will talk about finishing Steps, but some don’t have a defined beginning and end. How do you finish Step One for example? It’s an interesting conversation that I think you will enjoy. The audio quality is strained in spots, but it worth working through that to hear the entire conversation.


0:00:00 John S: AA Beyond Belief is a podcast by for and about people who have found a secular path to sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous.


0:00:25 John S: You may or may not know, but AA Beyond Belief has a private Facebook group with about 1,600 people, and over the last few months, since COVID, the number of people who have been joining skyrocketed. What’s interesting is that we’re finding many of the people who are joining the group are new to this idea of a secular AA meeting, or AA meetings that don’t have prayer and so forth. We’re finding that there are a lot of atheists and agnostics in Alcoholics Anonymous who have a traditional view of the program, though not all of them. Well, one day I was reading a post and one young woman wrote that she wished she could hear from somebody who doesn’t have anything to do with the Steps, because she would rather not, [chuckle]. Actually there are a lot of us who don’t, and one person who spoke up was John C, who is my guest today. John will be talking about how he stays sober as a secular person in Alcoholics Anonymous, and what he has or does not have to do with the Steps. How are you doing, John?

0:01:41 John C: All right, I could come in with a litany of suffering, but in reality I’m doing reasonably well so far today, and definitely under no compulsion to drink.

0:01:52 John S: Good, good. Well, thank you for doing this, I really appreciate it. This is one of my great pleasures in life, to sit here on a Saturday afternoon and talk with somebody about AA. So, tell me a little about yourself. When did you get started with AA, and how long have you been taking a secular approach? 

0:02:19 John C: Well, I drifted into Berkley, drifted, came crawling into, however you want to put it, AA in Berkeley, very early in 1988. I had a rather unpleasant introduction to the idea of powerlessness when I found out that I couldn’t stop drinking, so after coming to multiple meetings every day and getting drunk every night, for about 181 days in a row, I managed to stay sober, seriously, for about four or five days on some kind of effort of will, and drank one more time over resentment at loud neighbors. I took my last drink on the morning of July 17th, 1988.

0:03:09 John S: Oh, wow! Man, we are right there. I was July 20th or somewhere around there, of 1988.

0:03:13 John C: Class of ’88 seems to have some significance, it may be the baby boomers hitting the wall at the same time or something, I don’t know.


0:03:19 John S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

0:03:24 John C: I was 32 when I came into AA, rather I became 32 in the process and I was certainly… How to put it, I was emotionally atheist always pretty much. I know certainly from early teens, if I was thinking about it at all, I had a mixed religious background, my mother had been raised with a big half-hearted church-going atmosphere and never really did much with that, my father was, but my grandfather was an Episcopal priest of actually some repute. I never met him, but I think he was a man of considerable virtues or something. And my father was sort of a rigid, clenched hair… He was a born again Episcopalian, if such things are possible, and also a very rigid and censorious teetotaler for mysterious reasons. So, that’s sort of in the background. Coming into AA, interestingly, I had read the Big Book a couple of years before I came to my first meeting. I had found a copy abandoned in front of a book store and read it, I don’t actually…

0:04:42 John S: Were you looking for it or did you just run across it?

0:04:48 John C: I ran across it, mysteriously. I had seen references to it, to AA a little bit, I’ve seen sort of misrepresentation to AA being some kind of self-determination sort of thing, which seemed vaguely appealing to me at the time. So, I read it and I was actually extremely impressed. That may be because I was so addled with alcohol, but I think I was taken by the parts of the Big Book that I’m still taken by, essentially “More About Alcoholism”  and the “Doctor’s Opinino” a little more feeble, but some. And I don’t recall the disgust and horror, I feel when thinking about “We Agnostics,” which I get now.

But it took about two years to actually walk into my first meeting after going around the block, I don’t know how many times, but I did manage to show up before the meeting started and was immediately met by a family friend who had known me since I was a child. He had known that I was an alcoholic before he knew he was. He operated a winery north of the Bay Area. And actually my family, some of my family members had helped him plant his vineyard, and we had gone there to visit a number of times, and he remembered me sitting at his dining room table with all these guests around and washing his dinner down with bourbon and seeing me at the end of the table as a 10 or 12-year-old and knowing that I was on my way.

0:06:29 John S: Isn’t that interesting? Wow!

0:06:32 John C: Yeah, he said it when he looked up and saw me coming in the door at that meeting, he said, “Oh, John made it.”

0:06:37 John S: Wow!

0:06:39 John C: I think it says something to me about the power of this thing, of us. Of telling each other the truth and showing up for each other. I think we forget the significance of that, and one of my big objections to people going on and on about the Steps is they miss the significance that comes with the processes that we call 1, 2 and 3, and 12. And the stuff in between, so much of the stuff in between is transitory. It’s not long-term stuff, it’s homework, it’s there. So anyway, I’m not sure quite where I’m going at this point.

0:07:22 John S: Well, you make a good point. I think many people who are newly sober, might be looking for direction. They want to have a certain way of doing something, and then suddenly, their recovery becomes academic. It’s about reading a book, studying a book, trying to understand the principles of a Step and so forth. What I’ve learned, is the Steps were written to describe an experience, and what we’re having in recovery, in my opinion, is an experience. How you express that is going to be up to you and the experience that you’re having. Like you say, about the first three Steps, .. I don’t even know if there’s anything you can actually do. They’re just experiences you have. There’s as you say,  homework that you can do in between. I agree with that. I think this has happened over the last  20 years or so. There’s been more of a yearning to try to stick close to a particular dogma. 

0:08:41 John C: And which, in turn, is almost all retroactive. Again, you think about it. Here are the Steps we took, that nobody had taken.

0:08:51 John S: Nobody had.

0:08:54 John C: They haven’t been written yet, and indeed, many of the people whose experience was being drawn on, never agreed with them. You can read those in the Dr. Bob’s biography and then the Bill one, I’m talking about the official AA one. There are people who wrote the book who never read it. One of them even rather adamantly said so, the Australian, the Newstalk, in the first edition. The family was the one who sort of forced people in Akron to produce stories for the book and he himself said afterwards that he never bothered to read it. He didn’t think it was necessary. On the other hand, there’s this legend that’s being more aggressively debunked now, that there were some pure Steps that were somehow inherited from the Oxford group that we’re doing, which turns out not to be true.

0:09:50 John S: No, no, no.

0:09:52 John C: The new book about the Big Book writing says it wasn’t until the late ’40s that anyone said anything about there being six Steps, and even the Dr. Bob’s Biography says, they even asked people who had been involved with the Oxford group for 30 years, and they all said, “No, there was no such thing as six Steps.”

0:10:14 John S: No. I don’t think anybody ever stopped and said, “I’m going to do step one or two.” I think what was going on, is, it was almost, maybe a mistake of history that they even decided to put them in the form of Steps, but they were just trying to describe what they experienced and what they did, and they decided to put it in a numbered list, and so ever since… [chuckle]

0:10:38 John C: And then, everyone’s been obsessed with the number 12, ever since.

0:10:40 John S: Exactly.

0:10:41 John C: So, yeah, it is odd, and I think it shows up as a problem, I think, especially with 1, 2 and 3, and with 10, 11 and 12. I think, putting forth through 9, in order, is probably a rather good idea, so that I think, what people were doing, the Oxford group types, and some of the early AAs was much more reckless and unconsidered and impulsive. There’s the story about Dr. Bob being dropped off at the hospital to perform surgery, with a bottle of beer to stop the shakes and going out immediately afterwards, and his family waiting up because he didn’t come home because he was rushing around to try to make amends or to confess his drunken history to people all over Akron. And luckily, he got away with that.

0:11:32 John C: But a lot of people who’ve tried that sort of thing have stepped into, who knows what kind of trouble, and haven’t made it. So, I don’t particularly object to the Steps existing but I certainly object to them being fetishized, and above all of them, being turned into a set of magic rituals, rather than things that really… I think for a lot of people, I almost want to stop them and say, “You know, this is all about not drinking, that all of this struggle for spiritual advancement and wonderfulness is really about… It’s only really, not much more than an extension of taking care of not being hungry, angry, lonely type.”

0:12:24 John S: I find myself sometimes, if I ever talk about the Steps, and we typically don’t.  I don’t think most AA groups always talk about the Steps unless it was a particular step meeting. But if I ever do mention them and we have a discussion about them, I always try to put a little caution in there that these aren’t a cure-all, don’t get carried away with this. Don’t think that you can do these things in a certain way and you’re going to be fixed because it’s not going to happen. And I think that people can set themselves up for disappointment, or they beat themselves up unnecessarily because they drank or because they’re depressed, or because their relationships aren’t going right. They start to think that there’s something wrong with them and the way that they’re working their program. I think that’s dangerous, and I’ve seen that at meetings. I’ve seen people beat themselves up because they think their mental problem they’re having is the result of not doing a particular step the right way or whatever.

0:13:37 John C: Yeah, they missed the stitch in the ritual.

0:13:40 John S: Yeah, yeah. And that’s dangerous in my opinion. Work the Steps, I think it’s fine, the Steps are great, but don’t beat yourself up over them if things aren’t perfect in your life.

0:13:56 John C: I’ve heard people come back who talk about their current sobriety as if their previous terms of sobriety were somehow not right. As if their having relapsed invalidated their previous experience, and I think that is untrue. Of course, there are probably some people who sober up and remain utterly dominated by resentments and what have you and so forth, or who try to live exactly the way they did with alcohol magically subtracted. But yeah, I don’t think the, “I’m doing it the right way this time,” or the one I really dread is “Then I was ready to do what I was told.” I hear that over and over again from people and it’s like, where on earth… It doesn’t even say that in the book. We acquire traditions in AA with incredible recklessness.

0:14:56 John C: Somebody starts to do something, and it suddenly becomes, “Oh, we’ve always done this.” Just a little story, a story on that front. The Zoom meetings I go to are mostly with a recently started fellowship, and it happens to be within that fellowship we normally close meetings with the Responsibility Declaration. Its’ become more and more common around where I’m living now and it is almost the complete standard, as well as people who are occasionally surprised by it. Now, at a Zoom meeting of course, one of the frustrations with Zoom, is that when people try to say something together, whether it’s the serenity prayer at the beginning of a regular meeting or the Responsibility Declaration, everybody slops around and you get a complete cacophony of noise…

0:15:48 John S: It just doesn’t work. [chuckle]

0:15:49 John C: So, I found I was making gestures into the camera to try to conduct people so that it’d match. [chuckle] Which would include when anyone reaches out for help, I would take my hands towards my camera so it could be seen that there are lots of hands at the AA. And when I said hand, I would wave my hands back and forth always to be there. And for that, I am responsible. I would point at myself. And by golly, people are doing that in unison. [chuckle] It’s become a tradition. There are three or four people who do that every time, and it’s not a bad tradition, I suppose. It’s one of those things that we just assume that somehow or other that was carved in stone someplace. I remember somebody locally who, she used to run the… Actually work at the Intergroup office, one of two people in the whole Bay area who actually is on salary from AA, and she remembered sometime back, sometime in the ’70s, when suddenly people wanted to hold hands at the end of the meeting. [chuckle]

0:17:01 John C: But that was a completely unknown thing. It seemed to have spread from people who went to one of the big conferences, one of those five-year conference things. They came back with this. And people were cringing. They would stand at the end of the meeting and either just have a moment of silence, I think sometimes they would say the Lord’s Prayer or something. But at any rate, suddenly they were getting their hands grabbed by people next to them. And it’s one of those things you just assume was always done. I’m told there are meetings in Seattle where when you come in, they greet you. The first thing they greet you with is saying, “We don’t say hi, we don’t hold hands.” Just sort of trying to, 30 years, 40 years later, trying to counter that unwanted innovation. But it does…

0:17:56 John S: That’s funny. I’ve seen things like that happen even at my old home group. Somebody would start something… Well, I’ll tell you, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the Steps or anything, this is just kind of a weird thing with a particular group. Somebody died, right? because people die. And so the group loved this person and they decided to put his picture on the wall. And then someone else died and everybody loved this guy, so they decided to put his picture on the wall. And over the years, man, that wall just got full of pictures. People that were just coming around for a couple of weeks, they’d die and their picture would be on the wall. The place was really getting kind of weird. But it was like, that was just the norm all of a sudden. It’s like one person decides that they’re going to put a picture on the wall of a deceased former member, and next thing you know, it’s… I thought it was kind ofweird.

0:18:52 John C: You have to get a bigger wall. We had a controversy around that here, where after someone died, we’d had a memorial meeting stuck in between regular meetings, just scheduled in. We’d done that for decades and decades. Nobody had ever fussed about it. And then, somebody’s non-alcoholic relatives came in and sort of almost took over such an event, and one of them was a minister, who started holy rolling and stuff, and people were horrified, and yet, instead of… So they ended up voting not to have them anymore and then turned around and voted back, because people were offended with that kind of control, and had sort of introduced rules to make sure we didn’t call it a service since AA doesn’t hold services, and that it would be run of, by, and for the people in the fellowship and not family members, although they were invited to it.

0:19:51 John C: It was a strange thing to see, we’re suddenly confronted by something that we had done without thinking, and it still never got to be okay, because it wasn’t like the wall, there wasn’t room for everybody. So you would hear that somebody had died and they hadn’t been around for a while or didn’t have a big body of friends, and so people would mention it and they would go, “Oh, yeah.” And somebody else would die, “Oh, no, we have to have a big… ” It became one more place where you can have a problem where nobody thought there was one.

0:20:21 John S: Yeah, so getting back to those Steps and how you see the program, how do you see your recovery? Is it more experiential than academic?

0:20:40 John C: I think it really centers more around… I think the processes that we describe, that we ascribe to the first three Steps, do not have clear beginnings or endings, in terms… I hear people talk about finishing step one, which is something that can’t be done because I think my understanding of what it means to be an alcoholic is subject to revision on the basis of new evidence, and also just always hearing from other people, the question of, “What is the common experience that we have that makes us alcoholics and not those guys over there, or just me?” I’m at a point now where, again, another one of those cliches that got graven in stone is don’t compare or look, look for… Of course what they mean is, do compare, compare, don’t contrast.

0:21:41 John S: Right. Look for the similarities?

0:21:43 John C: Well, but I think with enough experience, actually, the similarities, I have great confidence in the similarities. So I actually like hearing from other people’s experience that’s different from mine, I like hearing from people who were periodics, because for someone like me who drank every day, the idea that I could stop and start again would have been a horrible temptation. If I could have worked that out, I might be dead by now, or still drinking, I don’t know. And I think my experience as somebody who couldn’t stop at all, at the end, for the last what, eight to 10 years of my drinking, I think it’s… I don’t want to suppress that experience in thinking that I have to massage it to be on party line for somebody else, because I don’t think that makes sense. Same thing with stuff like mentioning drugs. I am my ex-wife’s sponsor, and I used to joke about being the last of the thoroughbreds, because we essentially didn’t have any predictive history with other substances. I smoked marijuana about 10 times between the age of 15 and 25, and I was exposed to cocaine twice at parties, when I was too drunk to notice the difference, and that’s my drug history. I never… I grew up in Berkeley in the 1960s, and I’ve never done a hallucinogen, I’ve never done an opiate, I’ve never done a benzo, I’ve never done a barbiturate, so…

0:23:17 John S: Yeah, I wasn’t a drug user either. I did smoke pot a couple of times when I was in my 20s, but I didn’t really like it because it always made me intensely paranoid. It just really was a bad experience.

0:23:33 John C: I found it pleasant, but not worthwhile. I mean, it wasn’t pleasant enough to overcome the aggravation of smoking. So, I like to observe when people are talking about that, that Bill and Bob did more drugs than I did.

0:23:45 John S: Yeah, they did. [chuckle]

0:23:47 John C: Which is true.

0:23:49 John S: Really, it is.

0:23:50 John C: And they said so in the damn book.

0:23:52 John S: Yes.

0:23:53 John C: So the idea that you’re somehow not supposed to say that or that it’s an AA rule that you don’t mention them, is another one of those deranged pseudo traditional things that just doesn’t.

0:24:04 John S: That’s weird too, right? I’ve seen that come and go over the years. In the late ’80s, early ’90s, I remember old timers getting upset if someone mentioned their drug use, and they’d always say, “NA is down the street.” And they’d shut these people up. Well, after a while, that settled down, and it was pretty common. I’m thinking now like the… Most of the 1990s, it seemed like people would often introduce themselves as an alcoholic, an addict, and there was a lot more acceptance, I guess, in having a dual diagnosis, I did hear that a lot, and a lot of talk about drugs as part of their history and no one ever thought anything of it. And then all of a sudden, I think it was like sometime within the last 10 years, they came out with this this card that a lot of groups started reading before meetings.

0:25:02 John C: The blue card.

0:25:03 John S: Mm-hmm, and it tries to control the conversation so that it’s only pertaining to alcoholism. And basically I always thought, well, almost anything that I want to talk about is pertaining to my…

0:25:17 John C: Yeah. What are you going to say? You don’t talk about your work, don’t talk about your marriage, don’t talk about about your jail time. Of course… Yeah, the blue thing, the little blue card, I don’t even know where that was written from. I saw that come into play here, and actually, my fellowship, my home fellowship at that point, El Cerrito, we rewrote our meeting format to make sure we did not include that, because there were people who were putting their foot down. I have been at meetings where, clearly, the center of gravity of experience was such that someone who was an alcoholic might not feel fellowship. And I’m sure I’ve been at meetings where somebody who had an addiction history and not much experience with alcohol might have felt alienated. So, yeah, I have no idea where the line can be drawn on that sort of stuff.

0:26:15 John C: I remember once hearing someone who was talking… They were talking about their… I think it was heroin use, it was a fairly big league drug, and they mentioned part of that experience. And I remember feeling about half the people in the room had one of those, “Ah!”, aha moments like you get when you’re first in AA and you realize you’re not unique. And I realized, “Shit, that’s an experience I have no sense of.” They were talking about the aggravation and anxiety of having to wait for the connection, of waiting for somebody to show up with the drug. And, as I say, half the room just did this big sigh of identification and sympathy. So it struck me that that kind of thing is… It isn’t… I’m obviously not… Again, as a “pure” alcoholic, I have the moral authority to say it’s bullshit that you can’t mention drugs. But there’s a center… At a different meeting even within AA, let alone an NA meeting, the center of gravity is going to be shifted to include so that that kind of revelation, that kind of connection, is going to be more profound for more people where it’s certainly possible. But again, people’s experiences are different. We’re not going to have periodics only meetings or maintenance meetings because that would be a little ridiculous.

0:27:40 John S: And I stick to the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. So, to me, that means that if I have a desire to stop drinking, I’m welcome in AA, but that could also mean that I could have a desire to stop drinking but I could also have a desire to stop shooting heroin. I could bring other problems with me to AA, and all of those problems will impact my sobriety and my desire to not drink.

0:28:11 John C: It’s interesting that the NA Big Book is quite specific about alcohol. So if you’re a member of NA, if you’ve ever tasted alcohol, you’re qualified for AA because you have a desire not to do it. That doesn’t mean AA is going to necessarily be your best place to be because maybe you will feel it to be not enough shared experience but… It’s funny about the idea of shared experience, and going back to the Big Book, is you read early stories and there are these assumptions that everybody has experienced X or Y, or Z. Of course, I’ve never experienced trying to drink during prohibition but there’s this assumption that everyone knows what paraldehyde smells like, which is this very nasty potion they used to give people to prevent delirium tremens, and it was so nasty you had to chug-a-lug a glass of milk afterwards so it wouldn’t burn your mouth. Now, I have no idea what this stuff smells like or tasted like. I don’t think anybody ever did it recreationally, but I bet somebody did.

0:29:25 John C: There other things too. People talk about drinking smoke, which turns out to be smoke which turns… It turns out that there are certain industrial alcohols that were not supposed to be poisonous that were so, so high in proof that you couldn’t drink them out of the bottle, you had to pour them into water. And when you poured the clear liquid into clear water, it would form a dark mass like smoke in the glass, it looked like cigarette smoke only upside down, and so people talked about drinking smoke.

0:30:00 John S: I’ve never heard of that.

0:30:01 John C: And again, it was just assumed that everyone knew what that meant, and I had to go and look around and find out. I’ve never heard of this.

0:30:10 John S: I’ve never heard of that. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of that.

0:30:14 John C: Well, it’s one more thing we don’t have to try.

0:30:18 John S: Yeah, that must’ve been pretty bad stuff. I did have, and this is awful enough, grain alcohol. We drank that when I was in high school and that stuff is really bad. I don’t know why we did that [chuckle] but…

0:30:32 John C: You could get it.

0:30:35 John S: Yeah. I guess because it was just so damn powerful.

0:30:37 John C: There’s something about Russian speaking something they call spirit, which is contrasted to Vodka. They say it’s 96% alcohol and 4% regret. But anyway, I’m thinking about Steps stuff again and about, again, that nobody had done them before 1939 and in some ways, the first edition Big Book stories are refreshing that way because nobody talks about working step X or step Y. But if you go into those stories and some of the second edition ones that are from people who in very early AA, again, you can hear people talking about stuff that shows up in the Steps. There’s one… I think it’s “He Sold Himself Short,” which is a second edition story and it’s one of the places where the bogus six-step story comes from, and the guy talks about working six Steps in Dr. Bob’s office kneeling and praying, and how wonderful it all was. And he probably went home and got drunk again but…

0:31:46 John C: But he talked about his drinking as being initiated by getting resentful towards his spouse, and right there he says, “Oh, that… ” I don’t have my Big Book stories with me at the moment, so I can’t grab that. But he talks about realizing that inventory isn’t something you finish… You have to be able to do it. It’s like the 10 step is invented there out of somebody’s experience, it isn’t sitting on the page as some abstract rule, so a lot of those experiences come there a lot…

0:32:22 John S: I know, there’s a… Oh, I was going to say there’s something funny that happens every once a while in our group, here in KC. Every once in a while, somebody mentions that they’re kind of upset because our group never talks about the Steps, right? We have topic meetings and so forth, but I always think to myself whenever I’m at a meeting, it’s just automatic for me because unlike you, the Steps they drilled them in my brain. So almost any time I hear something from a person’s story, any sort of a topic that we’re discussing, I could always see something from the Steps in that. And some might start thinking that, “Hell, we’re in an AA meeting, you’re talking about whatever, your recovery, your problems, and your challenges, and your successes, and everything like that.” That’s all in the Steps anyway. 

0:33:17 John C: Well, our stories disclose in a general way. It isn’t… We don’t have to be scripted to match although sometimes, I think sometimes it’s worth mentioning that because I think it helps people from getting trapped into some kind of ritualistic step thing. I have two favorite drunk stories at present, my favorites change from time to time, and I think they are worth mentioning if people can find them. One is from the second edition of the Big Book, it’s called New Vision For a Filter, it’s about a guy, interestingly he’s a very religious man, he’s practicing Jewish whatever. And twice he has the experience of in absolute out of the depths, crying out to God, and getting sort of a result.

0:34:13 John C: Once when he’s trying to do a good deed out in the world and he gets drunk along the way, and he ends up in terror he’s going to bring disaster with him, and he stands on the landing outside of an apartment where he’s bringing art materials to a crippled child, and he asks God to get him through it, and he does. He’s able to finish his errand, even though people have been crossing the street to avoid him on the way. And then later he has the same experience lying in bed, with his hand around the bottle’s neck drinking and finally… Realizing in that moment that that’s his last drink.

0:34:51 John C: Now, the story goes on, he spends 10 years being an absolute ass-hole, emotionally blackmailing his family with his sobriety. It’s like, “Do what I tell you or I’ll drink again.” At the end of the story, he is planning to try a drink because he hasn’t had a drink for 10 years. It’s 1947, and he happens to mention this to somebody who’s an AA member, and they beg him to come to a meeting. The description of the meeting is as powerful a description of a spiritual experience they’ve ever had because… And again, I’ll just roughly close this, he says that the man secretary meeting explains that alcoholism is permanent, that it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been sober, you’re one drink away from a drunk. Which, again, I gather used to be a very popular cliche in AA, has been forgotten, and the man describes the experience, he says, “The floor fell out from underneath him” and then came up again because he realized as he said, “I would hear the truth and make the right decision.”

0:35:54 John C: And he talks about it realizing that because of what he’s experienced as an alcoholic he had the opportunity, not the duty, to bring this to somebody else, that he could carry this to someone else where no one else could. And the funny part for me in that, is that he’s describing this extraordinary thing and he doesn’t have, there isn’t anything supernatural or religiously related in it, he’s done a religious part sort of. And what he got out of this at that moment, and then literally 10 years later, he has a spiritual awakening when he comes into contact with other alcoholics and shares that. And begins to share his problem, becomes part of this project of sharing our experience that we do.

0:36:43 John C: Now, another story, if you can forgive me taking to lecturing here for a bit, is called the Reclaimed, and you can find this online. It’s from the book, and again, the story is larded with heavy duty religious stuff. The guys’ progress as a drunk, the turning point is when he stops going to church and his poor saintly life fades away and eventually dies, all of this stuff, and he ends up living on the streets of Baltimore. And he is shaken awake, sleeping on a cellar door by someone who tells him, he expects to be rousted, and the man tells him that it is possible for him to be sober, that he knows of hundreds of men who are now sober, and the guy doesn’t believe him. And he takes him home and feeds him and drives him out, and the man says that he had been found sleeping one morning on a cellar door, “As I found you. I was persuaded by him to go to the meeting, his kindness and concern moved me. Since then, everything has gone well with me, and now I get up early every morning, and look out for the drunkards on the cellar doors and in the market house. I have already induced 19, if you go with me tonight to the meeting, as you promised you will make the 20th.”

0:38:13 John C: This is a man with six months sobriety in that story, and the man talks afterwards about getting sober, he talks about getting his life together, becoming employable, getting his orphaned children back in his life again, after being refused because of his terrible reputation, and he talks about making amends. And that story is from 1842. And I think that’s a Washingtonian story, and I actually skipped over some of the Washingtonian references.

0:38:45 John S: Where did you find that? Where was that at, that story?

0:38:49 John C: It has been reprinted in a book called The Drunkard’s Progress, and it is originally from a book called Six Nights with the Washingtonians by Timothy Shay Arthur. He’s an awful writer, he’s a temperance crackpot and devious hack. So if you can find… And you can find that online, full text, in any number of places, if you search for it. The author is Timothy Shea Arthur. And it’s bizarre because the story starts with all sorts of hearts and flowers, Victorian religiosity. But again, it ends with a powerful “spiritual awakening” story, which is entirely secular. And it’s funny, one of the things, the man who awakens the narrator on the cellar door tells him, when the man… When he says to him, “There is no hope for me, I’m going to a drunkard’s grave.” The man says, “No, there is a new power in the world.” And the word “power” is used several times, and when the man describes… The narrator describes going to the meeting and finding the pledge, about the feeling of power surging through his whole body, which I think… Obviously it’s subjective and individual, but I think in those… Nowadays, of course, we laugh at the idea of pledges, just swearing off with the solemn oath to us now sounds silly.

0:40:30 John C: But I think in 1842, it was so significant to say, “Not the problem is the demon rum, or the servants getting into the sherry or any of those things, the problem with alcohol is me drinking it.” And to actually say that and make the gesture of signing a pledge saying, “Oh, I’m not going to drink because that’s the thing I can do.” That seems to have actually been an immensely powerful and important gesture for those guys, I think it lost its significance after a while because it became things that they would line up school children, and have them sign pledges if that was their answer.

0:41:09 John S: You know what’s interesting, though, is when you think about what we do, and back to the Steps again, step three is a decision, so we do have to make a decision, we have to make a commitment to our sobriety. And a pledge is a commitment, it’s a decision, just like what we do, it’s just we’re not signing anything or calling it a pledge, but that’s what was… That was what was going on back then when they did that. But yeah, Bill Wilson, in the Big Book, he dismisses pledges as not being very helpful.

0:41:42 John C: He apparently made several, supposedly his family Bible has three or four times before he was never going to drink again. And the idea of never, rather than a day at a time, is a problem, too. But I think the pledge lost its power in some of the ways that’s trying to do Steps can lose its power, it becomes a ritual rather than an actual significant, powerful experience.

0:42:09 John S: How about that? That’s a good point. Wow, very clever. That’s very good.

0:42:14 John C: I think turning the corner of going to a Washingtonian meeting, and all they did was tell each other their stories.

0:42:21 John S: That’s right.

0:42:23 John C: And to come up at the end and say, “Yes, I am one of you, I am part of this group, I will join this errand.” And one of the powerful things about them was that from their very first meeting, they went home saying, “Let each one bring one.” I think that business there, too, that the 12-step stuff, the stuff about carrying a message is not… One of those things I dislike most in AA is this sense of bogus hierarchy. The idea that you finish your homework and then you get your merit badge to be a sponsor.

0:43:03 John S: Oh, yeah, yeah.

0:43:04 John C: And I think that is absolutely toxic and hazardous. I’m afraid to suggest sponsorship to people who are new, because the people who are pushing these sponsors, who want to have a show of hands for who’s willing to be a sponsor, you want to see the craziest people?

0:43:20 John S: Oh, I know. The people that raised their hands. Exactly.

0:43:23 John C: Right. Because they think they’ve got a song and a dance and a set of rules that they’re going to magically cure people with, and they don’t. And that’s really disturbing, the proliferation of mega sponsors is… I once heard a guy, who actually I used to meet for years without any rotation, did a “Big Book study” at one of our central offices. And this guy, what he was doing, he was just… He was recycling the Joe and Charlie script. I heard him chair a meeting once, and I think he was actually sober, such as it was, but he boasted of having 150 sponsees, as if that was something to boast of.

0:44:15 John S: Yeah, I have long been suspicious and wary of sponsorship. I’m not crazy about it. Now, I know it helps a lot of people, and I know that if it’s done in a healthy way, it can be just fine. But I don’t know, the whole formal… The formal making… Formalizing it as a part of what we do is where it becomes dangerous because then it’s where people are pushing you to get a sponsor and people are pushing themselves on you to be your sponsor, and that’s when things get really messed up. And if you just let things happen naturally, where you meet a friend, you have a friend that you trust, that you can talk to, that’s fine. But the whole sponsorship thing, I do… I don’t… There’s not a problem with looking at… Respect, having respect for somebody who may have had some experiences, though it might be a little further down the road than you are, and maybe checking in with that person or whatever, but yeah, some of the sponsorship practices that I see going on now really do concern me deeply, and I’ve seen some weird stuff happen over the last several years.

0:45:24 John S: What you’re talking about, those mega sponsors. And also people who think it’s so important not only that they have a sponsor, but they let everybody know they have a sponsor, and that their sponsor also has a sponsor.

0:45:37 John C: I have read that that goes back to Cleveland, that it was in the 1940s. It was a way of people to establish their place in the Amway pyramid of sobriety, with Clarence Snyder at the top. And that’s… And one of the problems with sponsorship, is because it’s individual and face to face. It’s a place where traditions can be absolutely trampled in the dust without any group conscience to observe what’s going on.

0:46:07 John S: You know, I’m not a AA historian. That Clarence Snyder, he lived a long time. And he probably had more of an impact on what AA is like today, that we’re living, than probably Bill and Bob maybe, because it made all that sponsorship and so forth, because he lived up until the 1980s, I believe.

0:46:31 John C: I have seen his web page. It was still up before he died, and it says, “Higher Power by Jesus,” across the top, and apparently somewhere along in the ’50s or ’60s, he married a fundamentalist woman and he became, at that point, a born again evangelical, and his whole story retroactively changed to match it. Because in some of the letters and stuff he wrote earlier on, he was actually quite critical of people coming into AA with too much religion.

0:47:05 John C: I have had a sponsor for a while. I was five years sober when I asked for Ed to sponsor me, and he had been sober for nearly 20 years at that point, was also pretty much God-freak. And he and I, we met before doing an H&I meeting on Mondays, or actually afterwards, and we talked Steps a bit, and then our schedules changed, and that was that. I did a real full-tilt, out of the Big Book Fourth Step in one sitting, as is suggested, not enormously. And I’ve, pretty much all of my Fifth Step material was out at the meeting level. I haven’t really done that on any kind of face-to-face thing.

0:47:49 John C: But my positive experience with sponsorship, closely has been seeing my ex-wife do it and her sponsor, who was the other thoroughbred I mentioned earlier. This one, and her name is Ellen, had many… A substantial body of sponsees, not 150 by any stretch, but one of the things about them was if you heard them at meetings, you would never know they were her sponsees because they were all completely different. They all spoke differently, they all had different ideas, they all had different things. And that was true of my ex-wife’s sponsees as well, but she, yeah, I don’t think she ever cracked whips over people to try to make them do stuff.

0:48:37 John C: She was very fond of pointing out that the actual Fourth Step as described, is not anything like the kind of torture people put themselves through. You look at resentments, you look at fears, you you look at your sex condcut. What was affected? Blah, blah, blah. And then, your part. It’s not about making everything your fault. It’s not about telling everyone your… It’s not about your deepest, darkest secrets. That deepest, darkest secrets lines is one of those cliches. I don’t know where it comes from, but it sure to hell doesn’t come out of the Big Book.

0:49:08 John S: You’re right, it doesn’t. And basically, it says you share your story, you share your story with another person, leaving nothing out, it does say that, but it doesn’t say your deepest darkest secrets.

0:49:21 John C: No, it doesn’t. And it’s funny, there’s another one of those true AA-type things, is the old Little Red Book from the ’40s, which was a guide to the 12 Steps, and it’s still in print. Hazelden has it out. AA never accepted it, although the authors tried to donate it to them. And it specifically says that you’re not supposed to share your Fifth Step with anyone in AA. It’s like they’re emphasizing the level of, cushion of secrecy, of protection, of anonymity actually, extending so far that you should go to a doctor or a clergyman or something, which I don’t get either. But what I tell newcomers who ask about sponsorship is to get phone numbers and see who you end up calling.

0:50:15 John S: Yeah, yeah.

0:50:16 John C: I think one of the unpopular notions that’s in both Living Sober and the sponsorship pamphlet is that sponsorship is not a permanent condition. The idea that you’re starting out with some assumption of equality, and that by the time… That at some point you may be done, at some point you may have done enough that you feel your… If you can feel yourself to be a full-tilt member of AA and not under command to behave in any particular way, I think that’s a powerful idea that the sponsorship isn’t… People are afraid to ask some of the sponsoring, often with good reason, because they feel they’re stuck with them, that it’s a permanent relationship, that it’s as if they’ve joined the Foreign Legion or something.

0:51:04 John S: Yeah. That’s the problem of having it formalized like that, where you have to go ask somebody to be your sponsor and blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s just that formal thing. It makes it kind of uncomfortable and weird, I think. For me it does anyway.

0:51:21 John C: We had a thumper around here, he was actually named… Nicknamed Big Book Bill. He was very fond of quoting Big Book, often inventing the quotes, and in some cases, often, and he talked endlessly about being sober through the Steps. One of the things he would mention when he gave an actual share, was that he had never had a sponsor. He’d gotten sober in a small town in Canada, and the old codgers who were sober before him pretty much all were his sources of advice and information about what to do, and that he had never been beholden to a single person as his…

0:52:04 John C: I guess the scary part about sponsorship is when it becomes somehow distinct or a distinct class or a distinct rank from fellowship where people are afraid to share because they think they’ll say something that’s contradicting what the newcomer’s sponsor is telling them, or I even heard people say, “Oh, they should ask their sponsor.” Why shouldn’t they ask you? Aren’t you a member of AA? It’s a disturbing thing out there.

0:52:34 John C: Anyway, other stuff, I’m thinking, just stuff about what old time AA is like. There is a weird and extremely bad novel called September the Member, which came out in, I think 1944 or ’45, and it’s anonymously written, and what the novel is it’s describing a man’s first year in AA from being driven drunk to his first meeting and to his first birthday. It is, as I say it is a very bad novel, it’s got awkward chapters. But it describes New York AA as of perhaps 1942 or ’43. And again it’s not old time AA as people describe it now. Interestingly there are women as functioning fulfilled members. Again, it’s a little early for most people’s standards. He does talk about doing a fourth and fifth step, but I’m not sure he does the fifth step with his sponsor.

0:53:39 John C: It’s a hard book to read. I probably should extract some greatest hits from it because it does have a lot there, but again, there’s the feeling of the importance of fellowship with other alcoholics, it just cannot be over-emphasized, and that’s there in there. There’s this feeling that at one point the protagonist’s sponsor relapses and disappears, and there’s always concern about looking for him, wondering where he is, wondering if he’s going to make it, and finally even actually sharing with, “Oh, yes, you know him, he is one who’s going to make it back.”

0:54:19 John S: So how did you find that book? Did you just have an interest in researching this kind of history?

0:54:26 John C: I had an interest. I think I saw a reference to it somewhere, and of course I’m not organized, I don’t have an archive, and of course, right now I’m in a sort of temporary living situation. I don’t even have access to my physical books, they’re in boxes. So I came across it and found it, and I think I actually got a hard copy originally, but you can find an online copy if you search, I think the online copy if you searc the Hathi Trust. Actually I’ve even got it as a Word document. I can even email it to you if you like. But it’s one of those odd little things that turns up. And one of the gifts of the internet when it’s not promoting cultish side show AA, is that it does provide you with access to unexpected and surprising things in a lot of fields, a lot of, of course we’ve lost it now, but when Google was digitizing everything, you could search a gigantic swath of published material for all sorts of things that you wouldn’t have thought were searchable.

0:55:40 John C: And again, with AA stuff you find either people promoting Snyder-esque AA or Clancy-esque AA, but you can also find at least some material out there that’s much, much more expansive and helpful and honest. But it’s hard to find, or you can end up reading Orange Papers where the guy can’t say anything about AA for two sentences without calling everyone a fascist, which is sad because the guy has obviously done a lot of digging.

0:56:15 John S: Yeah that’s a really weird website though. It’s not really organized in a really good way I guess, but, man, he’s got millions and millions of pieces of information out there that you can dig through. But…

0:56:31 John C: Yeah, he’s got an enormous amount of stuff, but the way he’s got it is all, it’s non-stop rabid rage. Another one that I would recommend perhaps is aacultwatch.blogspot.com

0:56:49 John S: Yes, that’s the real cult watch, yes. There’s a couple of cult watches sites but I’ve been told that British one is the one you should go to.

0:56:56 John C: Yeah, and there are some fake knock-offs of people who are trying to undermine them. It’s a bit chaotic. They set it up finally as a blog, but they got a topic column on the right and you can search things, like recovery rates or the names of sub-groups. You can look up very good stuff about Back to Basics, about the Primary Purpose groups, about Joe and Charlie, and you can really get some revelations about these things that aren’t being handed.

0:57:31 John S: Well, you mentioned Joe and Charlie a couple times they’ve made quite a comeback. I guess they must be deceased now because I actually saw them in person back in, probably the early ’90s I guess and they were fairly old then, so I imagine they gotta be passed on by now. But I thought it was kind of… They gave a really interesting presentation. I sat through their presentation on the fourth step and I thought it was good, but I had no idea that they would ever become such a phenomena that they have become now.

0:58:04 John C: Yeah, posthumously too. You can download their tapes.

0:58:09 John S: There are groups that have their meetings formatted upon listening to their tapes.

0:58:15 John C: Right. Which is kind of bizarre since they’re not AA. There’s all this stuff about using non-AA literature, that includes them because they’re certainly not. When the AA Cult Watch people noticed the Joe and Charles presentation almost completely skips the Working With Others chapter. That’s the chapter which… The chapter Working With Others is the one that’s full of stuff about enjoying freedom from alcoholism, and about not being afraid, and not having to hide, and not having to control or be afraid. And that’s very on topic because of Joe and Charlie’s pitch is you’re supposed to be a slavish obedient sponsee slave to AA under the constant threat that you’ll be struck drunk if you don’t obey. And that’s just not what we’re about. Certainly not what I signed up for, not that I ever signed… I haven’t signed any pledges either.

0:59:21 John C: So, we’ve been talking more than an hour and I had a… Oops, sorry I just dropped my last year’s chip on the floor for background swap props. I do have some vocal difficulties. I had a biopsy in February, and I’m still being supervised for that and I’m not entirely recovered. So my voice doesn’t do… Give out and it’s starting to do so. I’m a little surprised I got this far.

0:59:57 John S: Well, I’m glad that you did. You did a great job, I think, taking care of the person on Facebook’s concern that, yeah. I think that what I got from your conversation is just relax with this, you know? Just go to your meetings… [chuckle]

1:00:16 John C: Don’t be driven… I would say, do read them. I think the Big Book should be read for all of its ugliness, self-contradiction and wrongness, along with everything else. And I think, I don’t think there’s any reason not to read the Big Book. I think there are reasons not to pretend to think it’s swell, or sweller than it is. There are parts of the Big Book that are just striking to me. I think more about alcoholism can be beneficially read by just about anybody. And there’s stuff that’s just not worth it, it’s not worth the ink. And rewriting the Steps, it’s a little bit awkward to me too, because I don’t… I think you will just do some other kind of wrongness with them.

1:00:57 John S: Yeah, I’m with you on that now, too. I was in the camp of writing the Steps, rewriting the Steps at one time, and I’ve written them in my language a couple of times, but now I don’t really need to have anything written down, quite frankly, anymore.

1:01:13 John C: Yeah, but so I think maybe it having alternate versions around…

1:01:18 John S: Yeah, it gives you something to think about.

1:01:21 John C: Yeah. I think, and having them on the wall with all the he’s and the gods is probably not a good idea for a lot of meetings. But if they are on the wall, you know better. I mean, I think one thing is that if you approach them… I have extremely high confidence that gods are make-believe. There aren’t any. So I’m not looking at the Steps struggling to deal with God, it’s not my problem. I was talking to a newcomer before a Zoom meeting yesterday, and he was absolutely in a terrible state because he thought he couldn’t get sober unless he believed in a god and he couldn’t. And he had nobody to talk to him about that. So, I was maybe… Of course I don’t know if he even remembers, because I don’t think he was quite sober, but I was in a position to just say, “I’ve been sober 33 years and I haven’t had to worry about that.”

1:02:17 John C: Whether there’s a deity or not isn’t my business and it isn’t my problem, shall we say. If you’re drinking because you think an angry God doesn’t like you, of course, I’m perhaps in a better position to be of help than somebody else. But yeah, I mean back to the topic again, if you don’t like working the Steps with a God in AA, don’t work the Steps or don’t work, don’t do the God stuff. And I think a lot of people are already working the Steps, without knowing it. You’re working your first step all the years you’re struggling with alcohol. All of those bargainings and beggings and so on, that’s sort of really what’s been happening.

1:03:07 John S: Yeah, I agree. That’s how I see it now. So, yeah. So thank you, this was really helpful. It was great talking to you. I enjoyed this very much. And thank you for speaking for an entire hour after your throat issue with the biopsy. Boy, that’s…

1:03:26 John C: And then some. All right.


1:03:26 John S: Yeah. Well, that’s it. That’s another episode of AA Beyond Belief, the podcast. Thank you so much for listening. Hey, if you’d like to help out our site and podcast, there’s a couple of ways you can do that. You can become a patron by visiting our Patreon page at patreon.com/aabeyondbelief. And for a monthly recurring donation of $1, $5 or $10 a month, it would help us tremendously. You could also donate through PayPal by visiting paypal.me/aabeyondbelief or just head on over to our website, aabeyondbelief.org and click on the donate button. We’ll be back again real soon for another episode. Until then, you all take care and be well.