Monday, July 27, 2009

Why the Big Book isn't used in Al-Anon Meetings

Lou posted about her experience of chairing a workshop on sponsorship at an Al-Anon convention and was using the Big Book as an example of working Step Four. A couple of people in the audience spoke up that it wasn't conference approved. So I thought that I'd offer some information that I have found useful as to why it isn't used in Al-Anon meetings (Note: the BB and other literature may be used in step meeting and sponsor meetings that aren't approved by WSO).

  • Why can’t the A.A. “big book,” Alcoholics Anonymous, be studied at Al-Anon meetings?
  • For what Traditions is use of the “big book” inconsistent with and why?
  • Why is the actual source material that Al-Anon was developed from being put aside?
  • The “big book” is the authority on alcoholism; why would we keep it from our membership?
Answer: Although Al-Anon’s roots are based in A.A., the A.A. “big book” is not and never has been Al-Anon Conference Approved Literature (CAL). In the very early days of Al-Anon, A.A. materials were used at meetings because we had very little material of our own. When our cofounder Lois W. wrote The Al-Anon Family Groups (B-5) in 1955 with the help of other pioneers and the support of her husband Bill, she intended it as our big book. Bill had not allowed her to write any part of the A.A. big book—even the chapters to the wife or the family—because his book was from the perspective and experience of alcoholics.

“Conference Approved Literature” came about from discussions held at Al-Anon’s very first World Service Conference in 1961. The first few Conferences developed a process to give conceptual approval for the development of Al-Anon literature, and it was the will of the Conference to recommend exclusive use of CAL in Al-Anon meetings. Although the Conference grandfathered in several existing Al-Anon pieces, in keeping with Traditions One, Three, Five, and Six, the A.A. big book was not among them.

The exclusive use of CAL in Al-Anon meetings supports Al-Anon’s First Tradition: that personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity. Al-Anon’s Third Tradition states that as a group we have no other affiliation. According to our Fifth Tradition, our one purpose is to help families of alcoholics. Our Sixth Tradition states we are a separate entity that should always cooperate with A.A.

As it states on page 94 of the 2006-2009 Al-Anon/Alateen Service Manual, “It is well to remember that all A.A. literature is written for and from the viewpoint of alcoholics and is not Al-Anon/Alateen Conference Approved Literature. Reliance on opinions expressed in A.A. and other outside publications can distort the Al-Anon approach, particularly for the newcomer.”
The big book is the authority on alcoholism from the perspective and experience of the alcoholic. It does not reflect the perspective or experience of the families and friends of alcoholics. It was not the original source for the Al-Anon program. The original source of the Al-Anon program was the shared experiences of families and friends of alcoholics and their application of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Of course, as part of their personal recovery, Al-Anon members are always free to read any materials they choose outside of an Al-Anon meeting. Many find reading A.A. materials helpful in understanding the disease of alcoholism, but since time is so limited it is important to stick with Al-Anon materials in Al-Anon meetings. Those wishing to receive help in understanding the A.A. focus can usually find an open A.A. meeting.
In sponsoring, I use the BB and the AA 12 x 12, just as my sponsor had me do. I also use Al-Anon books and pamphlets. The best explanation that I have for not using the BB or AA literature in regular Al-Anon meetings is that these are separate programs. The newcomer who comes to Al-Anon is generally in a lot of pain from living with alcoholism. It could be off putting and confusing for someone coming to Al-Anon to hear information about the "other" program.

I believe in singleness of purpose for AA and the same for Al-Anon. When I go to an open AA meeting, I don't share even when called upon. I am not an alcoholic. But I get a great deal from reading and studying and going to AA meetings. Hopefully this clarifies that we always cooperate with AA but we aren't AA.

I think that Lou's willingness to do service work and step up to do a workshop is a great thing. Each of us learns how the program works. I have learned much from the traditions and why they are important in guiding our relationships with others and in keeping each program "pure".


  1. My hubby has the big book on CD, I have often wondered if it would help my perspective of things to listen to it?

    1. yes, the big book of aa is a miraculous and healing text.

  2. thanks for post. i love learning about our sister program and actually had always assumed when reading "To Wives" that Lois wrote or co-wrote that chapter.

  3. I love reading from the BB. Especially the part "To Wives". It strikes me as such a beautiful thing that he included us spouses in his book. I understand why it is not "approved", but personally it truly made me understand the mind of the alcoholic.

  4. There are many parts of the BB that have stuck with me and become part of my small directory of things that are true.

    That said, I had an interesting experience a few weeks back when I went to a 'hybrid' new BB Study Mtg, both Alanon/AA attendees. We went around the table reading aloud and commenting. It is the first time that I have ever been at a 12 step mtg of any kind that felt wrong for me. I'm not an alcoholic. We truly do have a separateness of purpose and I felt a new respect for that.

  5. My recovery in Alanon has included many different resources, some CAL and some not. I need the structure and unity of Alanon as well as the freedom to grow spiritually. Good good topic, Syd.


  6. Syd, thanks for taking the time to transcribe that. It wasn't until I read your comment on my blog that I fully understood the reasons. I have learned more from you about AlAnon than any of my groups. You have a gift for teaching without being judgemental.
    Though our journeys are not identical, I often feel that we are all in this together, and that is a great comfort to me.

  7. That was interesting, Syd. I was angry they treated Lou that way, but this helps explain it some.

  8. As Lou said you have a talent, a gift, for teaching without being judgmental. You are a gentle man Syd.

    Analogy: I went to my first AA-OA (Overeaters Anonymous) joint meeting several years ago. My thinking was to get, like "two-for-the-price-of-one". I'd guess it was a good meeting. Did I say it was my first? It was also my last (joint meeting!)!

  9. Great information, Syd.

    Blessings and aloha...

  10. I thought the Al-Anon "BB" was How it Works ... ?

    Thanks for posting. Love your blog.

  11. As usual great post and so true, it's why we use the BB in our AA meetings and NA has their own literature, and Al-Anon has theirs, the foundation is there which is good, but the symptoms and treatments are different, thank you fo rthe clarification.


  12. I had a similar experience to Lou's at a Convention. I was the Convention Chairman and was approached by what I call 'lightly' - the Al-Anon Watchdog Service - in that one of the Workshops presented was entitled, 'Don't Worry, Be Happy!' Well, I was the one who provided the music to this for singing after the workshop was done. The title was not challenged; but the music was. I was told that the song/words/music were not Conference Approved Literature (CAL). Well, now, I want you to know that got my mettle up. I reminded them that another workshop given at a previous convention - and chaired by the same individual (who challenged this one) presented "The Lord's Prayer" as a title to her workshop, and that the workshop was using non-Conference-Approved-Literature, as well as smacking of an Al-Anon Obstacle, religion, and was brushed off as being critical and too judgmental. There are many things that are 'accepted' in the fellowship that are not conference approved; however, it was not my job to police the affairs, unless I found something offensive. I chose then, and still do, to try to keep Al-Anon as pure as possible.

    When I first came into the fellowship of Al-Anon, I heard so many things about the alcoholic that my natural co-dependent defensive mechanism kicked in, and I became a self-appointed guardian of the rights of the Alcoholic as Human Being. I have since made amends to myself, and to the groups I attend, of my two shortcomings: enabling, and my self-righteousness. It was then that I began to 'hear' things, that helped me to learn that there really are differences, and that Al-Anon is required to COOPERATE with the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, but to maintain my own individuality, and not take on the guilt of NOT qualifying to be a member due to lack of a chemical/mental/physical disorder - another 12-step issue, I think.

    I am very grateful to the fellowship of Al-Anon particularly for its purity of purpose in assisting the families and friends of alcoholics who suffer and desire recovery from the isms of alcoholism. It was here that I learned to value the alcoholic's experience, and courage to face the problem with humility and honesty. I heard so much miraculous stuff in the AA meetings, and was met only once with the rejection of 'she does not belong here if she is not alcoholic.'

    To end this long, wordy dissertation, I would like for Lou to know how very brave she is, that she did not QUIT because a negative experience happened to her. By sharing her experience, it has hopefully provided her with some invaluable experience in being a proper Al-Anon member, but more importantly, that she does not need to feel shame for something she did out of her trusted-servant status in providing unselfish service to the very best of her knowledge and ability. God bless you, Lou! Your lesson is a wonderful one, and I have also gleaned wisdom from your response, which was delightfully NON-REACTIVE! You are special.

    Oops! Almost forgot - - - I use the entire Al-Anon library of books and pamphlets, also the Alateen literature, as well as the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous with several other AA books, as well as all the mental-health stuff I've accumulated over the years - in passing on to my sponsees MY experience, strength, and hope. This, of course, is done OUTSIDE the meeting rooms of Al-Anon.

    Thank you so much, Syd, for allowing me to vent here, and air my 2 cents ???? (price negotiable) worth. As has been pointed out to me many times, I tend to forget details of situations; however, I never forget the individual and the hard work that is put into the program of Al-Anon!

    Love and hugs,
    Anonymous #1

  13. Syd,
    Fantastically helpful -- thank you so much for this information, both what you say and how you say it.
    Mr. SponsorPants

  14. This post brings up a point that can cause dissension if we aren't clear on what CAL is for each program.
    Thanks for writing this, you clarify it beautifully.

  15. Thanks so much Syd. Ever since Lou posted what happened at the convention, I have been meaning to ask my Al-Anon sponsor about it, but too many more pressing issues are in my life so I keep forgetting.

    You cleared this up for me and I appreciate it.


  16. I just wonder how many different meetings you'd have to go to if you were as screwed up as my family. We have a lot of crossovers. Addicts who became alcholics, addicts related to alcholics, alcoholics who became addicts, sober folks surrounded by lunacy. Sometimes I'm not sure which door to walk through.

  17. Syd, thanks for clearing this up. I was a bit surprised to see her post on this but this sheds light on it. You have a wealth of helpful info!

  18. Syd, you have a rare talent. Thank you so very much for explaining this without an axe to grind.

  19. you're right. i originally thought aa material would be helpful, so why not? yet, al-anon is not about alcoholism, but the person who needs to heal from the results of living with a person who is an alcoholic, thus the focus HAS to be different... you are a wise one, dear syd...

  20. You outdid yourself with this post, Syd (and that's saying alot considering you consistly give good blog).

    I think rules are generally a good thing, and I tend to be a rule follower for lots of good reasons and for a few codie reasons. I think it makes sense for AlAnon to have certain approved literature and have conference materials restricted to that literature.

    However, the women who made a big ado over a small infraction were behaving in a non-exemplary (and dare I say fearful and somewhat paranoid) manner that was severely overblown given the circumstance and likely did more damage to the AlAnon cause that anything else. That I have an objection to, not the rules. There should be a rule for thinking before acting like a jerk. Isn't that in one of the recovery books? I swear it is, even if I am paraphrasing.

    I'd also like to chime in "here, here" to anonymous #1, who commended Lou's bravery for sticking it out as well as bringing this issue to light for us all. In addition, I would like to say how cool I think it is that she apologized for her gaff. That was the classy and appropriate thing to do. She is a leader.

  21. I recovered in al-anon by using the big book of AA. I look for recovery, and as a member of alanon, I have picked up behaviours (body disease) and thinking (mind disease) that fueled my character defects. So I share the two fold illness as the alcoholic. By working through the twelve steps as outlined in the BB I recovered in 3 months, steps done, armed with the tools, I attend meetings to find sponsees and pass on the steps. I stay sober by working with others. I no longer grasp fro thoughts and behaviours of the past, I use my tools the way Lois did and weed out the weeds so that my garden(life) can flourish and grow.

    1. This is my experience as well. Thank God after 22 years in traditional al anon I finally found a non sanctioned Big book al anon meeting and found a recovered sponsor there who took me through the steps and I got more in mental and spiritual health than in all the 22 years combined!

      Grateful recovered Al anon,


  22. I thought I had commented to this post some time ago, but looks like not. My story is a good example of why use of the Big Book represents a shift of focus that may not be beneficial to all. My sponsor used the BB and the AA 12x12 in sponsorship when I was brand new in recovery. Try as I might, as I studied through "How it Works" and the following couple of chapters, all I could think of was, "Oh yeah that's why my alcoholic is simply impossible! He's not doing these steps right!" My focus was completely on the alcoholics in my life. I tried to concentrate on how I might apply them to myself, but I was still too sick to avoid applying them to others. I highly recommend BB study, but I wouldn't suggest doing it before going through all 12 steps with an exclusively Al-Anon focus first.

  23. Al-Anon states that the program of the twelve steps and traditions in the AA Big Book was written by alcoholics for alcoholics for the purpose of helping individuals to stop drinking: it was not written for family and friends of alcoholics. Yet, inexplicably, on one hand, Al-Anon deemed AA literature non-conferenced approved and on the other, Al-Anon took the AA twelve steps, twelve traditions, and related principles as a program of recovery for its own members.

    This statement from Al-Anon is outrageous and contradictory: The AA Big Book . . . “was not the original source for the Al-Anon program. The original source of the Al-Anon program was the shared experiences of family and friends of alcoholics and their application of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” For their “application” of the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” where the heck did Al-Anon think it got those steps and traditions?

    The AA Big Book presents a unique circumstance as “outside” literature. To be honest – after all we are a program of honesty – Al-Anon took the AA steps, traditions, and principles and stated them nearly word for word or otherwise paraphrased them throughout all of Al-Anon literature. The AA Big Book, as initiator of the steps and traditions and related principles such as powerlessness, faith in a power greater than ourselves, and anonymity, warrants special consideration and a category of literature by itself. Just as Al-Anon abundantly paraphrases in its own literature much of the AA Big Book’s recovery program, Al-Anon should approve paraphrasing the AA Big Book in WSO approved Al-Anon meetings and events.

    1. I went to traditional Al anon for most of my adult life! I spent so much time, effort, energy trying to recover through the fellowship, meetings, tools and although I got relief it was fleeing and required still more work. As the Big Book says, I was burning up energy foolishly trying to help myself get well. I am very much like the alcoholic, if you take away the alcohol! Alcohol was but a symptom! It was not the problem itself. The real problem begins when they are not drinking, they have a living and relating problem which is what I have! The main purpose of the Big Book is not to help the alcoholic stop drinking, the main purpose of this book is to help you find a power greater than yourself that will help you solve your problem. It does not say alcoholic problem. Alcoholic was their strategy for living. My strategy for living being raised by a sick alcoholic dad and 7 alcoholic siblings, I developed strategies for living...obsessing, compulsive, excessive, fix, managing and controlling, just to name some, and I was powerless over these! I did not realize that what I had was a spiritual sickness and that once I straighten out spiritually, I would mentally and physically as well. I had not idea. Once I started attending an unsanctioned Big Book Al anon meeting 4 years ago and got a recovered sponsor to take me through the Big Book's exact, precise, specific 12 step directions which are done quickly, not slow as I observed and experienced in the traditional rooms, I can not believe the difference in such a short period of time. If I can help others to not waste precious time doing busy work and burning up energy foolishly, I am all in. The daily work I do today is living in steps 10, 11 & 12! And, if I want to keep and grow what I have, which I do, I am promised if I intensively carry this message to other sick and suffering al anon I am insured immunity from regressing back to my sick way of being. So from my experience, I think it is doing the al anon family a great disservice to not allow or approve the Big Book in the al anon rooms. It should be a group conscious decision and not dictated by WSO.

      From a very grateful recovered Big Book Al anon member,


  24. I recently attended a gathering of Al-Anon members who study the Big Book. I heard about it from my sponsor, it was not listed anywhere online as a 'meeting' and it was made clear at the start of the session that this was not an Al-Anon meeting but was a gathering of Al-Anon members who study the 12 Steps using the BB of AA.

    On the wall a sort of legend was taped, that identified the substitutions/translations (Alcohol = Obssesive Thinking, Drink = Control, etc) I found the experience terrific and it caused no conflict for me at all. Can somebody who has been to a similar meeting refresh my memory as to all the substitutions so that I can write them in the front of my copy of the Big Book? Many thanks for your service, T.

  25. I know nothing about Al-Anon and if is a God-based program, and helps the wives of alcoholics, it is no doubt a great program.

    I have the following saved on my flash drive. It seems appropriate to paste it here.

    It is not my intent to discourage anyone who is not a Christian from joining AA or Al-Anon.

    I drank for 50 years. In July 2010, I had a brain aneurysm that the doctors said came from drinking too much for too long because alcohol weakens the blood vessels in the brain. I was in a VA hospital for 7 days and I was scared to death. I was not very religious, but I prayed continually asking God to spare me. I never slept longer than 15 minutes because I was so afraid. And God spared me, obviously, and the brain aneurysm slowly healed without surgery. I then started in the AA program and attended 3 meetings a day for about 6 months. I also started reading the Bible. I read it from page one of Genesis through the last page of the Bible’s final chapter, Revelation. It took me a year. I went to churches, Sunday schools and watched preachers on TV and listened to them on the radio. The Bible is hard to understand, but I desperately wanted to learn what it said and meant. You might be surprised to know that my efforts to learn didn’t take that much time. There are a lot of 24 hours in a day, a week, a month and a year.

    AA is a God centered program. The word God is in its 2 textbooks titled "Alcoholics Anonymous" and "The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions" 477 times. I counted them. Higher Power is used only75 times. The preamble read at every meeting repeats the word God 7 times. The Lord’s Prayer is said at every meeting. The posters on the walls emphasize God.

    There is a 476 page book that tells the history of AA titled "Not-God. A History of Alcoholics Anonymous" by Dr. Ernest Kurtz. The words "Not God" were used because the founder of AA knew that alcoholics had a tendency to be hypercritical and think they were god-like.

    The founder of AA was named Bill Wilson and his story reveals he was the absolute most addicted and hopeless alcoholic imaginable. But he became a Christian.

    In "Not-God. A History of Alcoholics Anonymous" , Dr. Kurtz explains that Bill Wilson joined a devout, non-denominational Christian organization known as the Oxford Group founded by Lutheran minister Frank Buchman. Bill soon realized that their dogmatic, legalistic and pious approach would not set well with the rebellious personalities of alcoholics. Bill Wilson than dropped out of the Oxford Group, though he took some of its practices into AA. Christianity is about grace--unmerited favor and forgiveness-- and not about legalism such as in the 10 commandments. Studying the Bible reveals that.

    According to Dr. Kurst, the men who most influenced Bill Wilson’s development of AA were Episcopalian Reverend Dr. Sam Shoemaker, Lutheran Minister Frank Buchman, Dr. William Silkworth, MD, Psychiatrist Carl Jung, Psychologist William James, Father Edward Dowling, a Catholic Jesuit priest and the Oxford Group, which was a non-denominational theological organization.

    AA’s mission is to stop an alcoholic from drinking. The mission of the church is to bring the sinner to Christ.

    I am now 74. I had leukemia in 2012. My faith brought me through with the help of doctors, chemo and radiation. The leukemia is in remission. In 2014 I had a sore the size of a 50 cent piece on my ankle that would not heal. With prayer and antibiotics it finally healed. I was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma if 2015. My faith brought me through with the help of doctors and medication. They began chemo, but stopped it. No radiation was administered. The lymphoma is in remission. I also had a rare form lymphatic colitis in 20i5 and nearly died from that. My faith brought me through with the help of doctors and medication.

    I am 6’2”, 190 pounds and I feel fine. I owe my life to God and AA was a great help.


Let me know what you think. I like reading what you have to say.