Episode 76: AA Ends Lawsuit Over Big Book Manuscript

This podcast was recorded before AA World Services dropped its lawsuit to gain possession of the original 1939 working draft manuscript” of the Big Book.  On November 27, 2017, Gregory Tobin, the General Manager of the General Service Office of Alcoholics Anonymous filed an affidavit with the Supreme Court of the State of New York that officially ended the lawsuit that was first filed on May 22, 2017.

I asked Michael R. from the Bleeding Deacon’s Group in Brooklyn, New York to join me for this podcast because he is active with his District and Area, and he was interested in the lawsuit and efforts within the Fellowship to pressure GSO to drop the action. Our conversation touches on AA history, the Traditions, and the experience of getting involved with General Service. 

The manuscript’s provenance begins with Bill Wilson, the principal author of Alcoholics Anonymous, who maintained possession until his death in 1971, when it became the property of his widow, Lois. She owned the manuscript until January 1, 1978, when she gifted it to her good friend Barry Leach. Barry was the author of  Living Sober and also helped Lois with writing her autobiography, Lois Remembers.

On April 10, 1979, Barry gave AA World Services a signed and notarized letter in which he states that he is gifting the manuscript to AA World Services, but that he will retain physical possession of it until his death. The letter also noted that the gift of the manuscript to AA World Services could not be made public until after his death. A copy of the letter was also provided to the Executor of Barry’s estate.

Barry died in 1985, but the Big Book manuscript wasn’t transferred to AA World Services as was promised in Barry’s letter, and there isn’t any evidence that AA World Services presented the Leach Estate with Barry’s notarized letter. In fact, AA World Services didn’t realize they had the letter until it surfaced sometime in 2007.

For twenty years, nothing was heard of the manuscript until it was sold at auction to William Shenk for $1.576 million. The seller was known only as Joseph B. an anonymous AA member who said he received it from an aunt who knew Bill Wilson. William Shenk sold the manuscript at auction for $992,000 to the current owner, Ken Roberts.

Roberts did well with his investment. In 2010, he entered into an agreement with Hazelden to publish a facsimile of the manuscript titled, The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous. Earlier this year, Roberts contacted AAWS to inform them that he intended to sell the manuscript at auction, and in May 2017, AAWS filed suit to block the sale. 

In this podcast, Michael R. told me about a group of people in New York who were unhappy about AAWS filing this lawsuit without providing the necessary transparency to the Fellowship. There were concerns about this action on the part of AAWS. One concern was that the legal fees for the lawsuit could very well go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the General Service Board never disclosed exactly how much money was spent or was expected to be paid for legal fees. Another problem was that the lawsuit seemed to run against AA’s tradition of staying out of public controversy.

We don’t know why AAWS decided to drop the lawsuit. It may have been due to the pressure they were feeling from the Fellowship, or they may have taken a cost/benefit analysis and found that the risk just wasn’t worth the cost. Whatever the case, the lawsuit won’t go forward, and the manuscript once again will be sold to the highest bidder.

I hope you enjoy the podcast. It was a lot of fun to speak with Michael. He’s new to working in General Service, and he really enjoys it. He has been very active with his District and Area in lobbying for a new pamphlet to address the needs of nonbelievers in AA.


Alcoholics Anonymous Sues for Return of the Big Book Manuscript, by Jeanne Schinto

Supreme Court of the State of New York