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AA Big Book: What It Is And Its Effectiveness In AA Meetings

Last Updated: March 14, 2022

Authored by Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The Big Book, written by Bill Wilson, is mainly about helping alcoholics find a power higher than themselves to stay sober on their own. It has served as a successful means through which alcoholics followed its advice and became sober. When it was published in 1939, it became the main inexpensive thing through which people would find sobriety. It became the basis of the 12-steps used in AA meetings and drug addiction treatment programs throughout the world.

Find out the information about what exactly constitutes the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, its history, its main points, how it is used in Alcoholic Anonymous meetings, and whether it is effective.

Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book

This book was published under the name “Alcoholics Anonymous,” but it started getting referred to by the Alcoholics Anonymous members as “the Big Book.” It was first published in 1939, where it was received well by the critics and termed as “the greatest redemptive force of the twentieth century.” But, of course, some medical reviewers did not find merit in it and criticized it for not having any basis on scientific methods and research. Its second edition was published in 1955, the third one in 1976, and the 4th one in 2001.

The Big Book AA discusses the 12 steps of recovery, showing people how to reflect and apply those principles in their daily lives. Its main purpose is to show alcoholics how they can recover too by applying the author’s experiences and suggestions in their lives.

The Foreword of the Big Book AA States: 

We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.

The History Of AA Big Book

The author of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, Bill Wilson, was a successful businessman who became a chronic alcoholic. In 1934, his drinking buddy Ebby T. invited him to join a spiritual group based on the four absolutes: honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love. This served as his first step towards recovery. In 1935, Bill met Dr. Bob, and they shared stories of each other of their journey of alcoholism and eventual recovery. Then, they started to work together in helping alcoholics recover from the dreadful disease. When they could help more than 40 individuals stay sober for two years, they thought of writing a journal or a handbook through which their message could be passed on far and wide. With the financial support of Charles B. Towns, an expert on alcoholism and drug addiction, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob were able to publish the first edition of the manuscript in 1939.

The Most Important Events in the Timeline of the Alcoholics Anonymous Book Are:

  • 1935 – Bill Wilson meets Dr. Bob, and they begin to help alcoholics to stay sober
  • 1938 – Wilson starts writing its text
  • 1939 – the first edition is published
  • 1955 – the 2nd edition is published
  • 1976 – the 3rd edition is published
  • 2001 – the 4th edition gets published
  • 2010 – the 30th million copy of the AA book is presented to the American Medical Association
Senior male reads Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.

Important Parts Of The Big Book

The first part of the contents of the AA book is:

  • Preface – (pp. xi-xii)
  • Foreword to First Edition – (pp. xiii-xiv)
  • Foreword to Second Edition – (pp. xiii-xiv)
  • Foreword to Third Edition – (pp. xiii-xiv)
  • Foreword to Fourth Edition – (pp. xiii-xiv)
  • The Doctor’s Opinion – (pp. xiii-xiv)

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous preface describes it as a textbook that needs to be studied and understood if the person wants to start their journey towards sobriety.

The Preface States: 

Because this book has become the basic text of our Society and has helped such large numbers of alcoholic men and women to recovery, there exists strong sentiment against any radical changes being made in it. Therefore the first portion of this volume, describing the AA recovery program, has been left largely untouched.

The Doctor’s opinion describes how alcoholics lose the ability of choice in drink, and they constantly crave alcohol when they have started drinking. To satisfy that craving, they take the drink, which robs them of their knowledge of how to differentiate right and wrong.

Chapters

After the initial pages of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book come to the chapters, which are its main parts. First, they address the problem alcoholics face while discussing the different types of drinkers. These chapters also address people’s concerns regarding a higher power or God. Once these problems have been discussed, the solution is offered in the 12 steps. Together, this text shows alcoholics how they can start their recovery journey and then maintain sobriety.

The Chapters Include the Following:

  • Bill’s Story – (pp. 1-16)
  • There is a Solution – (pp. 17-29)
  • More About Alcoholism – (pp. 30-43)
  • We Agnostics – (pp. 44-57)
  • How It Works – (pp. 58-71)
  • Into Action – (pp. 72-88)
  • Working With Others – (pp. 89-103)
  • To Wives – (pp. 104-121)
  • The Family Afterward – (pp. 122-135)
  • To Employers – (pp. 136-150)
  • A Vision For You – (pp. 151-164)

Personal Stories

This part discusses the personal stories of the author and some other individuals who were able to benefit from the 12 steps to achieve sobriety and maintain it. These include the following chapters:

  • How Forty-Two Alcoholics Recovered From Their Malady – (pp. 165-166)
  • PART I – Pioneers of AA – (pp. 169-276)
  • PART II – They Stopped in Time – (pp. 277-431)
  • PART III – They Lost Nearly All – (pp. 435-559)

Appendices

In the end, the appendices are added that serves as a concise reminder for the alcoholics and others of how helpful this Alcoholics Anonymous book can be in achieving sobriety.

  • The AA Tradition – (pp. 561-566)
  • Spiritual Experience – (pp. 567-568)
  • The Medical View On AA – (pp. 569-570)
  • The Lasker Award – (pp. 571)
  • The Religious View on AA – (pp. 572)
  • How to Get in Touch With AA – (pp. 573)
  • Twelve Concepts (Short Form) – (pp. 574-575)

The Use Of The Big Book In AA Meetings

Alcoholics Anonymous offers a safe and supportive environment where anyone who wishes to stop drinking can come and attend the meetings. There are several locations throughout the country where one can find AA meetings. The backbone of these meetings is the AA Big Book which enables members to recognize a higher power that will help them through the recovery process.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous is studied and read out loud in these meetings, which sets the path for recovery for the majority of the members. In fact, the fifth chapter, “How It Works” is read out loud by the speaker in almost every meeting of AA across the world, followed by other members of the meeting sharing their experiences. Studies show that this sharing and read-outs at AA meetings help improve addiction outcomes for formal and informal treatment.

Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book study meeting.

Effectiveness Of The Big Book

The effectiveness of AA Big Book has been proved through the vast majority of devoted members and followers who attest that the principles and guidelines outlined in the BB of Alcoholics Anonymous have helped them recover from their addictions and assisted them in maintaining sobriety. However, since Alcoholics Anonymous focuses on protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of its members and what goes on in each meeting, there is little empirical evidence that could prove the effectiveness of the Big Book AA and its meetings.

Nevertheless, some studies suggest and prove the effectiveness of AA meetings and their steps in keeping members sober and preventing relapse. Also, the teachings of AA Big Book have been implemented in other substance abuse-related twelve-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA). So, again, research has shown them to be effective for members in maintaining sobriety.

Several cases of criticisms have been made against AA, calling it some sort of a cult because of its continuing references to God and its Judeo-Christian basis. However, findings from 25 years of mechanisms of behavior change research suggest that the beneficial effects of Alcoholics Anonymous seem to be carried predominantly by social, cognitive, and affective mechanisms instead of any religious or faith-based methods. Critics also claim that the AA Big Book relies on subjective beliefs and personal experiences that are not based on or proved by research findings.

Since AA does not allow itself to be the subject of empirical research because of confidentiality issues, it gives critics another reason to label AA as having no scientific proof to prove its effectiveness.

Getting The Best From The Big Book

The Alcoholics Anonymous BB has been helping thousands of alcoholics stop taking drugs and alcohol and remain sober since 1939. Whether information and help are taken from the Alcoholics Anonymous book as part of a formal outpatient or residential drug addiction treatment or at a personal level when someone just wants to quit drinking and drugs, its effectiveness cannot be undermined.

Many individuals who are caught up in the legal system because of substance abuse are ordered by the judges and courts to attend 12-step meetings, which they think are beneficial for recovery.

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Page Sources

  1. Gross, M. (2010). Alcoholics Anonymous: Still sober after 75 years. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2361-2363. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2978172/
  2. Kelly, J. F., Humphreys, K., & Ferri, M. (2020). Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12‐step programs for alcohol use disorder. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7065341/
  3. Kaskutas, L. A. (2009). Alcoholics Anonymous effectiveness: Faith meets science. Journal of addictive diseases, 28(2), 145-157. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2746426/
  4. Laudet, A. B. (2008). The impact of Alcoholics Anonymous on other substance abuse-related twelve-step programs. Recent developments in alcoholism, 71-89. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2613294/
  5. Kelly, J. F. (2017). Is Alcoholics Anonymous religious, spiritual, neither? Findings from 25 years of mechanisms of behavior change research. Addiction, 112(6), 929-936. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27718303/

Published on: February 3rd, 2022

Updated on: March 14th, 2022

About Author

Nena Messina, Ph.D.

Nena Messina is a specialist in drug-related domestic violence. She devoted her life to the study of the connection between crime, mental health, and substance abuse. Apart from her work as management at addiction center, Nena regularly takes part in the educational program as a lecturer.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.