Episode 123: Joe C. at the KC Secular AA Anniversary Celebration

This episode features a recording Joe C. speaking in Kansas City, Missouri at the anniversary celebration for the We Agnostics and Freethinkers groups. Joe is from Toronto’s Beyond Belief group. He is the host of the podcast Rebellion Dogs Radio, and author of “Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life. “


00:00 John S: This is episode 123 of AA Beyond Belief.


00:23 John S: Today’s episode features a recording of the anniversary celebration for the We Agnostics and Freethinkers groups in Kansas City, Missouri. We Agnostics was celebrating their fifth anniversary, and Freethinkers their fourth. The evening started with Kevin P speaking for a few minutes about the Freethinkers group and Cana C spoke on behalf of the We Agnostics group. This was followed by the featured speaker, Joe C from Toronto’s Beyond Belief group. It was a fun evening, and we’re grateful to Joe for taking the time to do this. Everyone enjoyed meeting him and his talk was excellent.


01:06 Kevin P: Good evening. My name is Kevin Patterson. I’m an alcoholic.

01:09 Audience: Hi Kevin.

01:10 Kevin P: I use both my names because I’m officially out. [laughter] My fellow’s in AA but my last name is… I always use it. Not at the level of press but do otherwise. But Freethinkers was a rip-off of We Agnostics. [laughter] There were two other gentlemen with me that the three of us… Richard Wright had found a group… Had been told by a group of agnostics meeting over at the UU Church and I wasn’t sure that he was telling the truth until they confirmed that. [laughter] And it came at a time when I was disappointed with my home group. I was tired of being harassed with the crosstalk about being an atheist. And we walked in and it was everything that I was looking for in a group. It was secular and it was very intellectual, and it was very warm and friendly and inviting. So, since they were on… The only nights they had were Tuesdays and Thursdays and then they did have a Sunday meeting. They were having that and then one other one… Friday hadn’t started yet. So, I thought, “Well, why not start a group where we have a thing Monday and Wednesday?” So, we found a church, which is hard to do to… Is to pitch a church for an atheist meeting in their basement.


02:50 Kevin P: This particular church… The other churches would either not get back with me or they would tell me, “No, no thank you.” So, I had several churches turn us down. And this church was just the opposite. They were one of the last ones I called, and they were very, very welcoming and I told them that we’d be agnostics and atheists and all sorts of in-betweens, and they were cool with that and very, very receptive to that. So, we ended up in the undercroft… Not the undercroft, it’s called something else, old English, of their… What it is, it’s their basement but it’s a nice space. [laughter] There’s usually room in the basement, and a believer always points it out, “You meet in a church? Ha ha ha.” “Yes, we do!” But it’s a very comfortable space and it’s right across the street. So, come visit some night and see what people are up to and I’m amazed to see this many people out here and recognize most of you, and that is great that we’ve all come out and as the two groups intersect, our community in Kansas City, obviously, is growing. So, thank you much.

04:07 Audience: Thank you.


04:13 John S: And for the We Agnostics group, I have asked Cana to say a few words.


04:24 Cana C: Hello? Can you hear me? My name is Cana and I’m an alcoholic.

04:28 Audience: Hi Cana.

04:30 Cana C: I only started going to meetings about a year and a half ago. Officially a year and a half ago yesterday and…


04:41 Cana C: What… I decided to Google AA to figure out, just to do that and they had locations and the first one that showed up was We Agnostics. And I didn’t really think about what it would be like to go to a regular AA meeting, because I had never been, and I didn’t know what it was like and I didn’t realize how religious a lot of that… I’ve read the traditional steps and I was really surprised by how much God talk there was in it. And so, I was fortunate enough to just happen upon this. And I’ve been to a few other meetings at traditional places but other than that, I’ve really just been to these meetings. And it’s been… I know almost everyone in this room. And so, I really don’t need to tell you much about our group. But it’s been great, and it’s been everything that I’ve looked for and more, and everything I’ve wanted and more in a group and it’s just been really great. And I have been fortunate enough to be leading a meeting for about a year and three months now. And it’s… If anybody wants to start leading meetings just let me know. I will warn you, though. It’s been a great experience, but it can be a bit much sometimes.


06:02 Cana C: Yeah, continuous service. But I am just so pleased that we have all these wonderful people and that we’ve pulled off this party, and that all of you come to celebrate it, and I will leave it at that. Thank you.


06:28 John S: Thank you, Cana. Okay, so Joe C. I first got to know Joe through his podcast, Rebellion Dogs Radio. And I don’t know if anybody that I’ve met in the secular AA community had more of an impact on my journey as an atheist in Alcoholics Anonymous than did Joe. I remember in some of Joe’s podcasts, he would talk about the importance of service in AA, and I didn’t know anything about that. I’ve been in AA for 25 years, I didn’t know anything about their service structure or anything, but he would talk about it. And one thing in particular I remember him saying, he would talk about the importance of being good stewards of Alcoholics Anonymous and I had never heard of that before, but it kind of hit me that, “This is a fellowship that means a lot to me and yeah, I have some responsibility to be a good steward for it.”

07:22 John S: So, yeah… And I’m not the only one he’s influenced. There’s been many, many, many people who have benefited from the things that Joe has written and said and it’s just really great to have you here, Joe. So, Joe is also the author of “Beyond Belief: Agnostic Musings for 12 Step Life”, which I know a lot of you have read, that’s a great book, by the way.


07:49 John S: You can tell the person who wrote that book is pretty smart, there’s a lot of fancy quotes in there.


07:57 John S: Anyway, I don’t think I’m going to take up any more of Joe’s time. Please help me introduce Joe C and I’m going to go ahead and start the timer. Joe!


08:13 Joe C: I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic.

08:15 Audience: Hi, Joe.

08:16 Joe C: Or an addict or if you’re one of the new cool kids, I suffer from substance use disorder. [chuckle] But, none of those things I feel a stigma about. You can call me a dipsomaniac, inebriate, a drunkard, because I’ve come to, being in AA, know who I am, and that’s a wonderful thing. But I know other people feel certain stigmas to certain labels and some people like to identify themselves as being in recovery, not from where they came from, but where they are now or where they’re going to and all that sort of thing. You said something about a writing and writers, and I’ll share with you something, and my book honestly, was just 365 plagiarized ideas.


09:15 Joe C: And in a course I took on writing, the instructor said, “There has never been a great writer in the history of the English language but there have been a few, a handful maybe, of good re-writers and all of those good re-writers have editors and influencers and people that review their stuff.” Lisa, who traveled with me, her name doesn’t appear in the book in any way, and I don’t mean to embarrass her at all, but I had two editors, one was, few people know was a Sunday school teacher, and the other was such a materialist atheist that, “What is this spirituality? What are you talking about?” “The non-material.” “Well, what is the non-material?” So, one is there, and one is Noah’s Ark, right? Okay.


10:20 Joe C: So, each daily reflection… If the book had been what I started my journey on, it would have been a chip on the shoulder, oh yeah, to heck with you and your God and the cloud he rolled in on, type of a book. It would have been my therapy. And, but it grew to something else. And so, it had to meet both of those editor’s approval to make it into the book and if I couldn’t fix it to meet both of those standards, it didn’t go in. But Lisa lives with me. She’s no cheerleader, she’s a lawyer, and so she has a very analytical mind and she would review these things and she was very good at going… Here is one of her… The lines I remember the most. “Joe, you wrote this, blah, blah, blah, blah… ” “Pretty poetic, eh?” [chuckle] “Well, Joe, you write it as if it’s a fact.” “Yeah?”


11:28 Joe C: “Is it?”


11:32 Joe C: “I don’t know.” It was a truth to me, but some of the things I know to be true aren’t correct and then there’s the rest of them, right? And so, it was punishing and helpful. And sometimes, she’d go, “This just doesn’t work.” I go, “Okay, well, how do I fix it?” “That’s your job.” [chuckle] And I remember one time, she was busy, she’s got a life, but she said, “I’ve got some time. Do you want me to review a couple of your daily reflections?” I said, “Not tonight, honey. I’m not feeling strong enough.”


12:13 Joe C: But nothing happens in a vacuum, nobody starts a meeting by themselves because it’s not a meeting until somebody else shows up, and everybody had helpers and every meeting, every book, every podcast had… There was a path and the on button goes on in the middle of that story and so there’s sort of the story of the story. But that wasn’t what I was going to talk about. I wanted to tell you that I got sober, what feels like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Because there were times in my journey that I felt like the AA I knew wasn’t here anymore, it didn’t exist. I felt like a stranger in my hometown and…

13:19 Joe C: Like it wasn’t a galaxy far, far away, it was Montreal and that isn’t that far from Toronto where I live now, it’s like a five-hour drive. Culturally, it’s quite different. It’s more of a European kind of city than Toronto is. I describe Toronto as a, “Thank God, it’s Monday town.” People love what they do for a living and it makes them very important. And if you ask them what they do, they will tell you what their profession is, where, if you’re in Vancouver or in Montreal and you ask someone what they do, they’ll tell you what they love. “I’m a gardener. I’m a sailor. I’m a skier.” They don’t even think about what they do to make a living and feed the kids and all that sort of thing.

14:13 Joe C: So culturally, Montreal and Toronto are different places for sure. And so, the meetings of course, are going to have a different flavor, just regionally. And also, the time I got sober, it was… Well, disco, so… [chuckle] Don’t hold me responsible for that, but… [chuckle] That’s what was going on, that was the scene in mid ’70s AA, where I came here. And I didn’t think I had a problem and quietly researched Alcoholics Anonymous and killed myself. And that’s again, people’s first day of sobriety is maybe where you press play and the story begins, but there’s a whole story behind that story, too, right? And you all come from families, you shake any family tree, one or two drunks fall out of the tree, the family tree. And I wasn’t the first AA member in my family tree, so I’m a second-generation AA.

15:31 Joe C: And I’ve got cousins and siblings and others that are in AA. We weren’t great drinkers in terms of drinking like gentlemen and ladies, but many of us have found the room. So, I knew of AA before I considered AA for myself. I wasn’t living with my mother at the time, I was still a teenager when I was hitting bottom, but when she joined AA it was… She was really annoying.


16:15 Joe C: She came to it from Al-Anon, her second husband, she was going to get him sober and that was her thing. But they seemed to cry a lot in the Al-Anon meetings and laugh a lot in the AA meetings. I don’t know what’s going on in there. And then she started identifying with those stories more and not that she didn’t have an Al-Anon side to her, but she came to understand that she too was an alcoholic. And so, she came to AA trying to sober up somebody else and so she figured she was pretty much an expert on getting people sober and we’re a notorious family of two steppers. Admitting I’m an alcoholic and so are you, and let’s play 20 Questions again, denial isn’t a river in Egypt.

17:13 Joe C: Can we just talk about those 20 questions, please? Those John Hopkins 20 questions. I was in high school at the time, and she’s telling me that, “Joe, if you get three out of 20 of these rights, you go on to the next phase.” That would have been but that’s not how the world works, right? Like, “Who believes this stuff?” Like any self-respecting drinker who got 15 out of 20 would say, “Give me two weeks, I’ll get the other five.”


17:43 Joe C: They seemed like badges of honor. Yes, shame and that sort of thing, but the going up was always worth the coming down, until a point, right? So I was introduced to AA, I knew about AA after jails, institutions, and death, I was very quickly in the Lakeshore General Hospital in the west island of Montreal three times between the ages of 14 and 16. After a high school dance, I was found the next morning by the… You’ll love this Canadian reference, the Zamboni driver… [laughter] for our arena. He found me in the boys’ washroom face up in my own vomit, thought for dead, called an ambulance, and I lived through that. They pumped my stomach and sent me home. The next time I was in the hospital, I had been… It’s hard as a teenage alcoholic to make ends meet, so I was selling drugs just to friends and people on the street and trying to be a good neighbor in school. And it was explained to me… You see, I was new to this business and I wasn’t like a union guy, I was just an independent contractor and the Hell’s Angels explained to me, two motorcycle guys came… They followed me out of the tavern, and I was going to hitchhike home and they explained to me in stereo that I wasn’t going to be selling in their territory. So, I was there having my nose reconstructed and other injuries, that was my second trip to the hospital.

19:31 Joe C: And the third time, my girlfriend had left me and to show her how romantic I was, I was going to kill myself and that can lead to death is very… I’m not recommending it. But what it lead to was it’s… I’m waiting in an emergency, it’s now 2:00 in the morning, I sobered up, I don’t feel romantic, I feel embarrassed, I feel humiliated. It’s August. I’m going to get my wrist stitched up. I’m going to have to wear long-sleeved shirts for the rest of summer and I just wanted a do over, right? Can’t I just have one more try at this particular day? And yeah, those were my three trips to the hospital. So sometimes, the alcoholic, maybe a sober alcoholic, in the family would hear about these things and “Joe, don’t you think you have a problem?”. I would go to a meeting just so she would shut up. It seemed to be the path of least resistance, “I’ll go to your meeting.” I don’t know if anyone’s ever gone to a meeting for that reason, but that’s how I found AA. And so, I would go, and I would compare myself with these people who were older than me, these people who were different than me. And the other thing was with your solution. This sobriety, it sounds like a quitter’s solution to me. I was of the Thomas Edison approach. He invented the incandescent light bulb of course, and after ten thousand times of failing to create the incandescent light bulb. So, it hadn’t been done. No one was sure it could ever be done. He was interviewed by a journalist.

21:27 Joe C: History would show it would take him four thousand more attempts to create the incandescent light bulb. But he was interviewed by this journalist who said, “How does it feel, Mr. Edison, to fail ten thousand times at one single experiment?” And his attitude was “Young man, you’re young. You’re a skeptic. I haven’t failed ten thousand times. I successfully found ten thousand times it will never work”. And so that was my attitude about finding a way to get the benefits of drinking without suffering the consequences.

22:05 Joe C: It was just, you guys all quit at ten thousand bad experiences, and I was going to punch through and find it, right? And it didn’t work out that way. So, I didn’t want what you had, if you want what we have, no thank you. Nothing personal. But just sobriety seemed like a provisional life. Right? Like an Asterix. It didn’t seem like a James Bond kind of adventure.

22:37 Joe C: I was going to try to find a way to, for someone like me who was really a heavy social drinker with bad luck, to just sort of win at the casino, right? So, hanging around my mother’s place, not a lot of fun. “Joe are you still drinking?” Yes, just a little. “What’s a little blah-blah-blah?” Right. Ruins a whole day, just there for dinner. So, I remember I went over and she said, “So Joe, you still drinking?”

23:12 Joe C: I said, “No, I quit.” And she knew I was lying. I knew I was lying. But I could see no one taught her the rebuttal for no, I quit. So, she gritted her teeth and we had dinner. And [laughter] so that worked for two or three times in a row and then the next time, “So, Joe are you still drinking?” No, quit. Thanks for checking in, it’s been going great. Hope you’re doing well, too. And she said, “Fantastic”. Fantastic? Oh, why? “Well, remember your cousin Elaine?” Yeah, I love Elaine. Elaine was a day and a month older than me, you never let me forget it. Now, when you’re on the other side of 50, of course, that’s not wonderful, but when you’re a teenager, that’s everything, right? It’s that sort of unbeatable thing.

24:15 Joe C: And so, how’s Elaine? “Not good. She lives in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto, and she’s been in and out of group homes, the psych ward, she’s a teenage prostitute, she’s on drugs. She has a drinking problem. She wants to come to Montreal and quit drinking.” That’s how my mom explained it anyway. “And Joe, you’ve been to AA.” Yeah. “Could you take her to a few meetings and be a power of example?”

24:54 Joe C: Yeah, totally. Yeah, sign me up. How complicated could that be? Live and let live. Sure, easy does it. I’m ready. One day at a time. Let’s go. And so, I was bringing her to meetings, and I joined a group to be a power of example. We went to a meeting a day and she drank every day. And I was making coffee at this group. I was saying, I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic, but teenage alcoholics and lying just go hand in hand. It’s a survival technique. You don’t walk into a bar and say, I’m 15, but I’m really thirsty, can we work something out? You act like you own the place, and you’re going to fire this guy if he doesn’t get you a drink right away. And you just sort of fake your way through it. So, in AA, I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic.

25:54 Joe C: Look you right in the eye. Easy-peasy. Just another day at the office for me. I didn’t mean it, I wasn’t admitting anything, I was just fitting in. I was hiding out in plain view. because I saw what happened to the people who put up a bit of a fight. You surrounded them in the corner. And so, I was just sort of going to sort of float through here with telling everybody what they wanted to hear. And so, this was me being a power of example, of sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made. It’s all I had. And what happened? You see, I wasn’t going there… I tried getting sober for myself, didn’t work.

26:43 Joe C: I tried for people I loved, didn’t work, tried for goals I wanted to achieve, didn’t work. But the core of it was step one was not drinking for the rest of my life, that seemed a little harsh, but is the rest a lot easier? No, the rest takes a lot of integrity. Didn’t have any integrity, there was no way I could do this. And the difference between helping my cousin get sober, and me getting sober was I identified her as a life worth saving.

27:22 Joe C: And I didn’t feel that way about me. Dying a tragic alcoholic death seemed more fitting for me than living sober. So, but Elaine I don’t know what my exit strategy was exactly, but it was something about, you know, she gets over it, she tells someone, they tell someone, they tell… And then this wave of sobriety would happen, and I’d sneak out the back door and die my tragic alcoholic death and my life would have had purpose. How artistic. [chuckle] And that’s what I was signed up for. But I got invited to a young people’s conference and people talked my language there, it was like they just talked about addiction and recovery in a different language.

28:15 Joe C: And it spoke to me, they were starting bands or getting back in their bands or going on trips and doing things that all of a sudden maybe this wasn’t a provisional life they were living, maybe they were actually getting more out of camping trips than I was just being hunched over at the campfire. Only caring about how much beer there is left, right? They’re doing all sorts of adventure, hiking and camping, and things like that.

28:42 Joe C: I go, “Oh that could be kind of cool,” And so I kind of got sober that way. So, what I’m saying about that is that was the AA I came into. And no one said “Joe, you can’t help her until you’ve done the 12 steps.” They just said, “How are you doing? How’s Elaine doing? Great! Are you going to the meeting tomorrow? You want a ride? We’ll pick you up”. And so, it was… Montreal is kind of… They would… The Big Book was there, at every meeting. And we knew someone read that book, and it was probably pretty good, didn’t know who, but there was no reason to think it wasn’t a perfectly good book. [laughter] No one quoted it, there weren’t big book meetings in the AA that I got into.

29:47 Joe C: We had speaker meetings, we had discussion meetings. There would be meetings where people would read something, it’d be Living Sober, which had just come out. And why would reading a book about dead alcoholics, be more inspirational than people who were still alive today? And Living Sober was 40 years of AA’s collective experience and the other one was the first four years. Probably a great historical document, but we would choose Living Sober. And we would read from Grapevine, we would read from Came to Believe, these were just newer things. And it wasn’t anti big book, it just wasn’t part of the AA culture that I grew up in.

30:30 Joe C: And when I… I went from there to getting a summer job that kept me in Calgary for five years. My friends of the Islamic faith will say,” Man makes plans, and Allah laughs.” And I planned on going to Calgary for the summer and going back to university, I got offered a management position, and ended up staying out there for five years. So, I got involved in young people’s and the general AA population out in Alberta. And I traveled a lot, so I got to see AA in a lot of different communities: Small towns, rural AA, urban AA. And then I moved to Toronto. And Toronto was a different… I told you about the cultural difference between Montreal and Toronto.

31:24 Joe C: But in the young people’s community, it was still pretty sort of rebellious, pretty non-conformist. We would have young people’s conferences called “Stark raving sober”. It wasn’t like a quote out of The Big Book or any book it was just something we thought up. “Do it sober, eh!” Eh, you know. [laughter]

31:53 Joe C: And we’d hand out those flyers at the area and they knew there was something nefarious about what we meant by “Do it sober”. But they didn’t know what it was, so they took the poster to their meetings in case somehow wanted to go. And so, doing it our way was kind of the thing. And then I outgrew that and I’m getting into mainstream AA and people in Toronto today, or maybe anywhere in AA today would be shocked that I was sober 10 or 11 years before I ever owned or read the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. And well… Weren’t you in AA?

32:44 Joe C: Like, “Is AA the book?” Is AA the steps? Is AA the meetings?” I don’t know. It isn’t a skill testing question, but it’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? And why did I ever read the Big Book? because they had Big Book meetings in Toronto and when I was sober 10 years, someone gave me Pass It On as a present for my 10 year anniversary, which is a history of Alcoholics Anonymous which I read because there was something very different about me at 10 years sober from when I was like 10 days or 10 months sober. I had, what do you call it? An attention spans.


33:36 Joe C: I could read a book. When I was new, I couldn’t get through a pamphlet in one sitting, it was, “Oh, I should put another record on. Oh, I wonder if Sally likes me. Oh, where am I going to go this weekend?” I couldn’t get through a whole paragraph without going off somewhere else. If my sobriety was reliant on reading 164 pages of anything, maybe I would have made it, I don’t know I wasn’t put to the test.

34:12 Joe C: But I became sufficiently interested in the book Alcoholics Anonymous from the history of Alcoholics Anonymous so I got one and read one and said, “Hey, this is a cool idea here in this… ” I had done the steps, but the idea of doing resentments first in step five, I go, “That’s great, that’s like doing someone else’s inventory. Here’s all the people that piss me off, man.” Like, “Let me… Give me another page, I’m… Let’s go.” Right? Like, “Give me a couple more days, I don’t want to leave anyone off this list.”


34:47 Joe C: And I thought that was crafty and brilliant. So, I saw a lot of good in it. And about the language, I would read how it works if I was asked at a meeting, but remember, I’m the guy who’s just trying to win your approval. I would read it like it was a script to a play, I was playing a role. “God could and would if he were sought.” [chuckle] How was that?”

35:19 Joe C: It didn’t matter what the words meant, just how was the delivery? And that’s where I was at in AA. When we were in Hamilton and John and Greg joined us in the Secular Ontario AA Round Up, something we do every two years, it was our second year, thanks for coming. It was just great.

35:44 Joe C: But you were in a panel about the steps with Jeffrey M who wrote a book called Getting Sober Without God. Now he has an interesting take because he has a millennial mentality but he’s not immersed in our community, he’s not trying to placate to all of the different raging atheists and the something-ists who, “There’s something, I just don’t want to call it… ” So he just wrote it in his own language, that made sense for someone his age in a liberal society, what getting into addiction is like and getting recovery is like, and it’s a great book. And you told the story of being brought into these 12 steps, Big Book AA, and it was like you had two choices, put up a fight or save your life and fit in.

36:42 Joe C: And would I have done that? I bet I would have. Take other people through the steps, tell them, “You got to get on your knees like the original author did.” Did they? We’ll get to that, but there was a lot of mythology about that, about there was something now called watered down AA, never heard of that when I got sober. Every sobriety was good sobriety. There wasn’t a wrong way to get sober in the AA I came into. And now all of the sudden there’s the winners and the losers and… So, I kind of want to fit in and so, “If you’re going to quote the Big Book, I’m going to quote the whole goddamned chapter.” And I would memorize it and I would have… We would have these debates because it’s full of contradictions and so you can easily… Anything that you study religiously, whether it is or is not religious is not the point, but taking it as a literal text… And you see, in Montreal that would never happen because it’s American.

38:07 Joe C: And just, the Montreal attitude would be… They wouldn’t disrespect it, but they would… It’s not that they wouldn’t take it seriously, but they sure weren’t going to take it literally. That’s just how they are and it’s a great program and they add a little je ne sais quoi to it. And then you have Quebecois AA, right? And so, it was… There was never any insistence on exactly as it’s laid out in the Big Book, blah, blah, blah, right. And so I felt like I didn’t belong in AA anymore, because all these people that are talking about their sponsor’s, sponsor’s, sponsor, and how these four generations of AA members walked each other through the Big Book and that’s how they got sober and, “Okay, Joe tell your story… “

39:01 Joe C: Well, not my story. I only got one story and I’m not going to go that far to try and… By this time in my sobriety, how was I doing? Well, when I got here, I needed your approval and I was willing to do anything to get it. Now, I wanted your approval, but I wasn’t willing to do anything to get it. I found my value somewhere along the way in working through the steps, and I knew what I was willing to take a bullet for and there was a line that I wouldn’t cross most of the time, right? So, I really…

39:40 Joe C: I got involved in service because they don’t read the Big Book over and over at the district table and in hospitals and institutions and the further you go in service the more secular it gets, right. They only mentioned God once in the traditions, never in the concepts. And so, no one’s turning it over at PI everyone is… Who’s going to go to this meeting and who’s going to go there, right? It’s roll up your sleeves. It was a more interesting conversation and it was helping keep me sober. And then when I studied the history of AA, I found that I wasn’t such an outsider. because what’s the classic story of how AA started? It wasn’t because Bill got sober, that isn’t the beginning of AA. Whose sobriety date is the founding of the AA?

40:41 Joe C: Dr. Bob, the second one. And Ebby before him but we write out of history, the ones who didn’t make it to the finish line, which is unfortunate. And what was the story of Bill even meeting Bob? Bill had this white light experience, but he’s in Akron now. He’s thirsty. His white light experience is not helping him. He needs another alcoholic to talk to and he went to talk to Bob, not for Bob’s salvation, for his own. And, who was the only one of those two men who never had a drink after those two men met? Bill, not Bob. Bob would get sober and sober up more AAs than any of the early AA members. But this was AA’s story. And I thought, well, that’s kind of how I got sober. I didn’t have 12 steps to share with Elaine, my cousin. I just, it was just eyeball to eyeball, alcoholic to alcoholic. Our currency was experience, that happened to me, too. That happened to me too. What do we do about that? I don’t know, let’s go ask so-and-so. So, that was what AA was, it was the language of the heart, it was an oral tradition, it wasn’t codified in any way.

42:13 Joe C: This is something you don’t see that often, is me picking up the Big Book to read from it when I’m speaking, but I’m reading a copy of the manuscript of the book called Writing the Big Book, The Birth of AA by an AA historian by the name of Bill S, and it’s a historical document about the years of creating this book, and it sort of demystifies some of the sort of folk tales about what really happened. He corroborates what has been said against things that are in the Rockefeller archives or in Lois’ diary or letters from AA member to AA member. So, it took less than seven years to write this book, but it took his seven years to do the research on this and I assure you it’s going to… It’s quite scholarly, it’s like 800 pages, it’s a nerds Mecca. I’m going through this. And things, like people assume the book was written in chronological order and the chapters weren’t written in chronological order.

43:47 Joe C: Here’s something that was… You’ve probably heard before, in “A Vision For You.” Let’s see. So, he’s talking about this poor suffering alcoholic. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Someday, he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then, he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end. Pretty cherry, isn’t it? Like, A Vision For You?


44:22 Joe C: Okay. We have shown how we got out under from under. And, ah, blah, blah, blah. “Have you a sufficient substitute?”the man asked. The man, and I apologetically read it as it was written. “Yes, there is a substitute, and it is vastly more than that. It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus, we find the fellowship and so will you.” The fellowship.

45:19 Joe C: Not the program, the fellowship. In this chapter, the last two chapters that were written were how it works and into action, the steps hadn’t even been created. There were no 12 steps being worked by the stories in the back of the first book, because the person who invented them hadn’t invented them yet. Now, they were sort of… I sort of characterized… It wasn’t like total fiction, but no one worked them exactly as written because they hadn’t been written yet. That’s the point I’m making.

45:57 Joe C: There were variations of six-step programs. They were different in Akron than they were in New York. They were different from New York member to New York member. We know very little about the New York meetings, we know a lot more, because of Dr. Bob and the old-timers about the Akron meetings. In fact, I read in recent history that Hank was talking about the first three AA meetings, one in Brooklyn, one in Manhattan, one in Akron and he said that one of them has prayer.


46:29 Joe C: One of them, one of them, right? Like we knew that there were many religious people in the New York meetings but according to Hank P, it was only… The get on your knees, you know seven steps… You know that was kind of an Akron thing. And we think, “Oh we’re starting this brave new world with secular AA.” Maybe it kind of started that way. I don’t know for sure. We were talking about trying to find the real origins of secular AA, right? You know it’s largely thought that the first atheists and agnostics AA meetings or AA for atheists and agnostics started in Chicago, in 1975. And you were hearing about people in Saint Louis who were having secular meetings before then. It’s not to say that a non-secular meeting is explicitly religious and I’m sure just like the Montreal meetings were different than the Toronto meetings you know.

47:33 Joe C: That fifth tradition, when people talk… Like I go in these Facebook groups. What is the primary purpose of AA? Which AA? There’s 120,000 meetings.

47:47 Joe C: Which primary purpose are you talking about? because tradition of five is a… Each group defines its primary purpose. There is no, “The,” there, there is no, “The primary purpose for Alcoholics Anonymous.” Each group is autonomous, one requirement for membership. A group decides everything by its group conscience, each group decides its own purpose, its own raison d’etre. But there are a lot of people who think there’s, “The AA,” and it’s keeping them sober for sure.

48:24 Joe C: This book was given to me when I was in San Francisco at the AA history symposium, because this is a guy from San Francisco. In the second edition of the Big Book, Earl M story, it’s called Physician, Heal Thyself, and that was him at 18 months of sobriety. This book, his 35 years in AA with a little bit more experience and he started a group in San Francisco, it was called The Forum Group, it still exists today and at the time they had…

49:07 Joe C: Not a 12-step program, but their AA meeting had a 10-step program. And I’ll just read the first three steps for you. “We realize deeply that we cannot handle mind-altering drugs safely. Our attempts to do so court disaster.” That’s step one. Two, “As we commit ourselves to abstinence, we welcome nature’s healing process into our lives.” Three, “In the Forum Group, we discuss our common problems in recovery, to do so hastens healing.” Now are they like empirically different processes than what are described in AA’s original step one, two, three? I don’t think so, I think the principles in one can be found in the other, but the descriptions are different. This was 1965 that this meeting started and it’s still going now.

50:10 Joe C: So, you know, what is AA, right? Like I felt like an imposter in my own community for a while. Until I… And I was forced to study AA history really because of the skirmish in Toronto between the agnostic groups and intergroup. But Indianapolis was going through the same things and other places have gone through the same thing. I mean we’re nothing special. All under-represented populations in AA have been badly treated by the tyranny of the majority in AA. The first woman, the first African Americans, the first gays and lesbians, they didn’t welcome the LGBTQ plus community with open arms, you know, they were worried about what respectable alcoholics would think.


51:07 Joe C: If we allow sexual deviance into our midst. That’s us, that’s our history, right? And it’s not an AA peculiar problem. But you know AA doesn’t transcend the community we come from, does it? I don’t think so anyway. And so, you know my AA journey has been like an individual journey, everybody’s AA journey is a friggin individual journey, and someone was asking about all these secular groups. How are they doing, are they the new AA? Well, they are a new AA. They are a sample of AA. Not the ultimate example of what AA should be, because every time one starts, a back to basics meeting starts [laughter] right across the road or across town, and they sober up people their way, and we sober up people our way and people pick and choose. And honestly, if there was a meeting that got everybody sober our group would do what they do. I’m sure of it.

52:15 Joe C: Your group would do what they do. I’m sure of that. You know, what do we care about drunks, right. It’s not a pride thing, right. We’re trying to do what we think is best. We were at a meeting in St. Louis yesterday, it was wonderful and there was a new guy there, young 20s, right, and he was being persuaded by someone who felt this to his core that all he needed to do was to buy the Big Book, read the Big Book and his salvation would be found. And what the guy is probably saying is, “My experience is I bought the Big Book. I read the Big Book and my salvation was found.” Right? And that is as sincere as can be. And, but whenever you talk about, you were talking about don’t include me in that we. Right? [laughter]

53:09 Joe C: And especially when people say you need to this or you have to that, I’m… My open mind is something different [laughter] and it is finding my rebuttal. [laughter] And, but when people share their experience, I don’t care what their core belief is. I don’t care what their worldview is. I identify that happened to me. I went through that. I felt that way. Right? And it’s only when we start explaining to each other how the world works, we go, “I don’t agree with that. I don’t think I’m powerless or I don’t think alcoholism is an allergy or… ” You know, we’re going to fight over the details of what we use to explain all of this, but we never seem to fight over the experience. That seems to be shared, alcoholic or alcoholic. I can tell you, it was true in Toronto, it was true in Indianapolis when we got there, it was true in St. Louis when we got there and it’s going to be true on our little road, on the way back, enjoying AA meetings on our way back. Thanks for having me come down and spend some time with you. It’s been an honor to be here and thank you very much.


54:41 John S: Alright, well, thank you very much Joe. I appreciated that.


54:47 John S: So, we have the place till 10 O’clock. There’s more food. Joe’s here. Chat with him. So… The party continues.


54:55 Audience: Thanks, John.

[background conversation]

55:14 Ginny V: Hey everybody. Before we break up, I just wanted to thank some very important people who made this whole night possible. John…



5:25 Ginny V: And Emily!



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