Before the Book

In the early years of AA (1935–39), before the Big Book was written, the fellowship practiced a handful of simple ideas that were handed down orally from one member to another. Essentially, they learned the program from one another, and guided one another in its implementation. However, as the effectiveness of the program became established and the fellowship prepared to expand its horizons, it was deemed necessary to put the basic principles in writing, so that even those who did not have the advantage of one-on-one contact with the original members would be able to grasp the program.

Toward this end, a book was written.

It was cofounder Bill Wilson who was assigned the task of being the primary author—although, as it should already be clear, he was acting more as a scribe than as an innovator. The program was already in practice; it just needed to be put into the right words.

When Bill got to the chapter called “How It Works,” he wanted to set out the basics of the program in a very simple format. Until then, there had never been any official concept of “Steps,” let alone twelve of them. However, as mentioned in an earlier chapter, Bill had received from his friend Ebby some basic ideas about spirituality that Ebby in turn had taken from the Oxford Group. There were six main tenets, although they weren’t officially numbered or even written down anywhere. We’ll repeat them again now:

We admitted we were licked.

We got honest with ourselves.

We talked it over with another person.

We made amends to those we had harmed.

We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward.

We prayed to whatever God we thought there was.

It is interesting to note that according to one early AA member’s autobiographical account, Dr. Bob Smith also conveyed six basic principles to newcomers. As the author remembers, these ideas were like a prototype for the Twelve Steps. They were:

  1. Complete deflation
  2. Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power
  3. Moral inventory
  4. Confession
  5. Restitution
  6. Continued work with other alcoholics. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 263)

We see many of the same themes in both the list of points that Ebby transmitted to Bill and the version taught by Dr. Bob. (See table on p. 46.) “We admitted we were licked” is pretty much the same as “complete deflation,” which leads to “dependence and guidance from a Higher Power.”

These ideas were to form the basis for the first three Steps.

“We got honest with ourselves” may be a part of the initial surrender, and thus related to Steps 1–3, but it may also be a part of taking an unflinching look at one’s own character, in which case it’s the same as “moral inventory,” the basis for Step Four.

“We talked it over with another person” is the same as “confession,” which is the same as what would become Steps 5–7.

“We made amends to those we had harmed” is the same as “restitution.” This is the main idea of what we know today to be Steps 8 and 9.

“We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward” is the same as “continued work with other alcoholics,” which is part of Step 12.

“We prayed to whatever God we thought there was,” which is Step 11, isn’t mentioned clearly in the second list, but we can see from the author’s description (ibid.) of how Dr. Bob actually took him through the process that prayer was not only mentioned but also was a major emphasis.

We see that early AA was not about the precise words, but the actions they took. And that worked just fine, as long as newcomers could learn from those who had themselves already begun working the program successfully. However, if the program was to be able to transcend the limits of geographical proximity as well as stand the test of time, then there would have to be some form of codification of its most basic principles.

Bill would later recall that he had at first had a very difficult time with this task:

I was in this anything-but-spiritual mood on the night when the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were written. I was sore and tired clear through. I lay in bed at 182 Clinton Street with pencil in hand and with a tablet of scratch paper on my knee. I could not get my mind on the job, much less put my heart in it. But here was one of those things that had to be done. . . .

Finally I started to write. I set out to draft more than six steps; how many more I did not know. I relaxed and asked for guidance. With a speed that was astonishing, considering my jangling emotions, I completed the first draft. It took perhaps half an hour. The words kept right on coming. When I reached a stopping point, I numbered the new steps. They added up to twelve. (AA Comes of Age, pp. 160–161)

Bill submitted his manuscript for review by the other members, who suggested certain changes. After incorporating their edits, the Steps took on the form by which they are recognized today:

“Here are the steps we took, which are suggested as a program of recovery:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 59)

Ebby’s Points to Bill Corresponding Steps Dr. Bob’s Version Corresponding Steps
We admitted we were licked. 1, 2 and 3 Complete deflation 1
We got honest with ourselves. 1 or 4 Dependence and guidance from a Higher Power 2, 3
We talked it over with another person. 5 Moral inventory 4
We made amends to those we had harmed. 8, 9 Confession 5, 6, 7
We tried to carry this message to others with no thought of reward. 12 Restitution 8, 9
We prayed to whatever God we thought there was. 11 Continued work with other alcoholics 12

Alternative Renditions

A while ago, someone sent me an e-mail that was being forwarded around called “The Twelve Steps Made Simple.” No doubt, some addict or addicts put it together and decided to share it with others.

I think it is especially enlightening for those who are unfamiliar with the program, because it is written in a style that reveals what the Steps mean to someone who has actually worked them. Here they are:

The Twelve Steps Made Simple

  1. There’s a power that will kill me.
  2. There’s a power that wants me to live.
  3. Which do I want? (If you want to die, stop here. If you want to live, go on.)
  4. Using examples from your own life, understand that selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear control your actions.
  5. Tell all your private, embarrassing secrets to another person.
  6. Decide whether or not you want to live that way anymore.
  7. If you want your life to change, ask a Power greater than yourself to change it for you. (If you could have changed it yourself, you would have long ago.)
  8. Figure out how to make right all the things you did wrong.
  9. Fix what you can without causing more trouble in the process.
  10. Understand that making mistakes is part of being human. (When you make a mistake, fix it, immediately if you can.)
  11. Ask for help to treat yourself and others like you the way you want your Higher Power to treat you.
  12. Don’t stop doing 1 through 11, and pass it on.

Equally edifying, and even more entertaining, is this little stroke of brilliance someone devised, entitled “The Twelve Steps of Insanity.” Here, the anonymous author reveals the essence of each Step—and, indeed, the essence of the program, I think—by turning the entire program on its head. Notice how this parody makes it clear that the central and defining conflict in recovery is between God and ego, the selfless and the selfish. By getting away from ego, one gets better; by becoming wrapped up in ego, one does the exact opposite:

The Twelve Steps Of Insanity

  1. We admitted we were powerless over nothing—that we could manage our lives perfectly and those of anyone who would let us.
  2. Came to believe that there was no power greater than ourselves, and the rest of the world was insane.
  3. Made a decision to have our loved ones turn their wills and their lives over to our care, even though they could not understand us at all.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of everyone we knew.
  5. Admitted to the world the exact nature of everyone else’s wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to make others give us the respect we so rightfully deserved.
  7. Demanded that others do our will, because we were always right.
  8. Made a list of all persons who had harmed us, and became willing to go to any lengths to get even with them.
  9. Got direct revenge on such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cost us our lives or, at the very least, a jail sentence.
  10. Continued to take inventory of others, and when they were wrong, promptly and repeatedly told them about it.
  11. Sought, through complaining and medication, to improve our relations with others, as we would not understand them at all, asking only that they do things our way.
  12. Having had a complete physical, emotional and spiritual breakdown as a result of these steps, we blamed it on others and tried to get sympathy and pity in all our affairs.

Finally, I’d like to share with you this little jewel of insight and brevity.

Somebody from the program went and distilled each Step down to one word. This list, like the two above, is certainly not definitive, just one person’s take. But again, it’s very helpful in understanding the true spirit of the program.

Each Step in a Word

  1. Honesty
  2. Hope
  3. Faith
  4. Courage
  5. Truth
  6. Willingness
  7. Humility
  8. Accountability
  9. Justice
  10. Integrity
  11. God-consciousness
  12. Service

The Program in Six Words

Of course, if we are really looking to sum up the Steps, we shouldn’t fail to mention the “Twelve Steps in Six Words” formula that is often attributed to AA cofounder Dr. Bob Smith:

Trust God.

Clean House.

Help Others.

Corresponding to the Steps as they are numbered, it looks something like this:

Two-Word Action Step(s)
Trust God 1–3
Clean House 4–11
Help Others 12

In Jewish tradition, trust in God is called bitachon, which literally means “confidence” or “security.” It means that one trusts in God to the extent that one feels certain that everything will be taken care of in the best possible way.

Housecleaning is known as cheshbon ha-nefesh—literally, “spiritual stocktaking.” This includes the process of honestly appraising one’s character and becoming willing to rectify one’s faults.

Helping others is the concept of tzedakah—often mistranslated as “charity,” but really meaning “justice.” Acting charitably means doing something you really don’t have to do, whereas justice means fulfilling a duty.

Fulfilling commandments such as “You shall surely open your hand to your brother” (Deuteronomy 15:11) or “Do not stand idly by your neighbor’s blood” (Leviticus 19:16) is not simply a nice thing to do. It’s an obligation.

These three ideas are the program in a nutshell. In the section that now follows, we will take a closer look at the Steps with a specific eye toward gleaning any information that may indicate more about the underlying theological beliefs of the program.

Excerpted from God of Our Understanding—Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction, by Rabbi Shais Taub.