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1-Page Summary 1-Page Book Summary of Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book

The Big Book is Alcoholics Anonymous’s primary text. It originated the Twelve-Step program now used widely among addictions outside alcohol. It was one of the first to suggest that alcoholism was an illness, not a character defect.

In this 1-page summary, we’ll discuss the major ideas underlying Alcoholics Anonymous and give an overview of the Twelve Steps.

Major Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

Alcoholics Feel An Uncontrollable Craving Others Don’t Understand

Think of alcoholism as an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. This craving is beyond the mental control of alcoholics. As a result, alcoholics can never safely use alcohol in any form at all. They cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving, and it becomes virtually impossible to stop.

This craving is not a matter of willpower. Most alcoholics have lost the power of choice in drink. Willpower is basically nonexistent as it relates to alcohol.

This craving is hard to understand for people who don’t feel it. Moderate drinkers often think of alcoholics, “these people are weak. I can take or leave alcohol—why can’t he?” Moderate drinkers don’t have this problem of an uncontrollable craving.

Abstinence Must Be Absolute

To recover, an alcoholic must be sober for the rest of his life. A single drink can kick off a vicious cycle of drinking.

It’s tempting for an alcoholic who has been sober for some period of time to believe that he can drink in moderation. This is a delusion. The book cites an alcoholic who had stayed sober for 25 years, and that he might give alcohol another try. Within two months, he was in a hospital, puzzled and humiliated. Within 4 years, he was dead.

The only way to escape the clutches of alcohol is to never drink again.

Alcoholics Anonymous Is Not Religious

AA is not a religious organization. It demands belief in a higher power, but you can choose your own conception of what that means, whether that’s a religious god or not. You need only believe in some power that is greater than yourself, because, as a mere individual, you have no effective mental defense against drinking.

The Twelve Steps

The Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step program consists of these major actions:

  • Recognize that total abstinence is the only way to get over alcoholism. When alcoholics start drinking, they develop an insatiable craving for more alcohol. The only way is to stop completely; moderation doesn’t work.
  • Believe in a higher power than yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean a religious god. You simply need to recognize that you’re too weak to solve the problem yourself, and that something larger than yourself will give you additional strength.
  • Conduct a moral inventory of yourself. Recognize your flaws and emotions that cause you to fail around alcohol. This will...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Shortform Introduction

The Big Book is Alcoholics Anonymous’s primary text. (Its long title: Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism). The Big Book is one of the best-selling books of all times (30 million copies sold). It originated the “twelve-step program” now used widely among addictions outside alcohol. During a time when alcoholism was seen primarily as a character defect (and not, say, genetically determined), the Big Book showed alcoholism as an illness, rather than a character defect.

However, Alcoholics Anonymous is controversial for its unclear (and sometimes embellished) efficacy, as well as outsiders’ perception of its practices. We’ll address those concerns upfront.

How Effective Is Alcoholics Anonymous?

The evidence that Alcoholics Anonymous works any better than other treatments (like psychotherapy or interventions with medical staff) is mixed. It’s clear that AA works better than nothing, but it’s unclear that it works significantly better than other interventions. Here’s a useful writeup of the research literature.

Part of the problem with studying AA is tied to how it’s run. AA is anonymous, so tracking patients is harder. Also, AA is run by independent groups, so there’s less standardization of how the groups are run. Furthermore, many studies study a “twelve-step program” run by therapists, but these are different from formal AA meetings that are run by AA members.

Here’s a reasonable, if vague, interpretation:

  • AA works very well for some alcoholics, and not at all for others. It’s not a magical slam dunk for everyone (or else the alcoholism rate would be far lower than it is).
  • AA is popular by member count, and the model is scalable and free (to both patients and the medical system).

The problem of addiction is hard enough that it’s good to have a variety of treatment options, and for patients to try a bunch out and choose the one that works for them.

Is Alcoholics...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous

In sum, the Alcoholics Anonymous intervention consists of these major actions:

  • Recognize that total abstinence is the only way to get over alcoholism. When alcoholics start drinking, they develop an insatiable craving for more alcohol. The only way is to stop completely; moderation doesn’t work.
  • Believe in a higher power than yourself. This doesn’t necessarily mean a religious god. You simply need to recognize that you’re too weak to solve the problem yourself, and that something larger than yourself will give you additional strength.
  • Conduct a moral inventory of yourself. Recognize your flaws and emotions that cause you to fail around alcohol. This will help you find what makes you drink; removing these flaws will free yourself from drinking. Confess these personality defects.
  • Make amends with people you’ve hurt in the past. Be sincere about righting your past wrongs.
  • Be helpful to others. Help other alcoholics recover.

We’ll cover these actions in more detail throughout this summary. First, we’ll discuss the context in which Alcoholics Anonymous treatment occurs.

(Shortform note: throughout this summary, we’ll refer to “you” as a recovering alcoholic. Quotes referring to “we” or “us” come from the Big Book and refer to alcoholics as a whole.)

Alcoholics Feel An Uncontrollable Craving Others Don’t Understand

Think of alcoholism as an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. This craving is beyond the mental control of alcoholics. As a result, alcoholics can never safely use alcohol in any form at all. They cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving, and it becomes virtually impossible to stop.

The craving is felt by alcoholics and never occurs in the typical temperate drinker. If you have a drink, then try to stop abruptly but can’t stop, you’re an alcoholic. If you can stop, you’re not an alcoholic.

This craving can be baffling to alcoholics. They are utterly unable to leave alcohol alone, no matter how strongly they consciously want to quit.

  • This craving is not a matter of willpower. **Most...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary The Twelve Steps

Alcoholics Anonymous originated the famous Twelve-Step program, which is now broadly used in addiction recovery outside of alcohol.

We’ll cover the Twelve Steps in their original phrasing, then discuss each in more detail.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. We 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....

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Steps 1-5: Acceptance and Soul-Searching

In Steps 1-5, you accept the principles of the program, you make a complete list of your shortcomings, and you confess them to another person.

Step 1

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Admitting that you’re too weak to solve your alcoholism is the first step. As discussed in the previous chapter, self-will is not sufficient for overcoming alcoholism. Alcoholics feel an overwhelming craving that they cannot overcome through force of will or as individuals.

Step 1 forces you to avoid denial that you have a problem. This will make you much more willing to engage in the rest of the steps on the path to recovery.

Step 2

“We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

An individual alcoholic cannot become sober, but an alcoholic with the power of a greater force behind him can recover.

Once again, the conception of a higher power is flexible doesn’t necessarily mean a religious God. Even a group of friends and family, something larger than yourself, can be enough—because, after all, a group working together is stronger than an individual. You must give this a chance to make progress in the Twelve Steps.

Why does this belief in a higher power help? The Big Book explains: “Being all powerful, He provided what we needed, if we kept close to Him and performed His work well. Established on such a footing we became less and less interested in ourselves, our little plans and designs. More and more we became interested in seeing what we could contribute to life.” Accepting this higher power reduced self-centeredness.

This belief is a rebirth. “God had done for him what he could not do for himself. His human will had failed. He had admitted complete defeat. Then he had in effect been raised from the dead.”

Step 3

“We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”

Step 3 is the step of surrender. You turn your individual will over to a higher power. You have faith that the higher power will help you...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Steps 6-9: Righting Past Wrongs

In Steps 6-9, you seek to remove your shortcomings, and you make amends with people you’ve hurt in the past. This will relieve yourself of the burden that causes you to drink.

Step 6

“We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

In Steps 4 and 5, you investigated your shortcomings and confessed them to someone else. Step 6 is about being willing to let them go.

Why is this important? Your shortcomings have driven you to drink in the past. For instance, your tendency to resent other people may worsen situations that cause you to seek alcohol. If you try to become sober with these shortcomings still in your inventory, you’ll be much less likely to succeed.

Appeal to your higher power to rid yourself of every defect of character.

Don’t cling to something you don’t want to let go. Ask God to help you be willing.

Step 7

“We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 7 is about humility. You are not, and have never been, able to remove your shortcomings by yourself, no matter how high your willpower of determination. You need your higher power to do this for you.

The Big Book has this prayer for your higher power: “I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad. I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows. Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding. Amen.”

Step 8

“We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

Steps 8 and 9 are about repairing your misdoings from the past. Where you had previously harmed others, you must now be willing to apologize for that harm and relieve your guilt.

(Shortform note: practically, the effect of these steps is to reduce guilt over your past misdoings. Guilt fuels a vicious cycle for alcoholics—feeling guilt over past actions, they drink; after drinking, they commit more mistakes, which causes them to feel guilty later; they now feel more guilt, and are more likely to drink. Relieving this guilt,...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Steps 10-12: An Ongoing Process

Having overcome your past, in steps 10-12 you continue into the future, seeking to continue improving yourself and becoming an agent of good by helping others.

Step 10

“We continued to take personal inventory and, when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.”

Recovery is an ongoing process, not a one-time step. Old habits die hard, and at times you’ll slip into your old behavior. If you allow resentment to build up, they’ll balloon into major problems, and you’ll experience a setback.

From now on, if you make a mistake, promptly admit it and make amends.

Continue to watch yourself for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear. If they come up, ask your higher power at once to remove them. Discuss them with someone immediately, and make amends quickly. Then turn your thoughts to someone you can help.

If you get agitated or doubtful during the day, ask for the right thought or action.

On Your Relationship With Alcohol

Over time, you’ll realize you’re seldom interested in liquor. You haven’t been fighting temptation. Instead, the problem has been removed. You feel safe and protected.

Don’t get complacent about your recovery. “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

Do you have to avoid every place that has liquor? No, not if you have a good reason for going to the place, other than stealing pleasure from the atmosphere.

As a recovering alcoholic, don’t proselytize to others and adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. Don’t show intolerance of drinking as an institution—this attitude isn’t helpful to anyone.

Step 11

“We 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.”

In Step 11, you discover the plan that your higher power has for you, and you gain the will to carry it out.

For spiritual people, this step often involves prayer and meditation. For secular people, this involves stopping and reflecting on your...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary The Twelve Traditions

In addition to the Twelve Steps, which are conducted by individuals, the Big Book discusses the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous as an organization and as separate groups.

How can AA best function? How can AA survive? The Twelve Traditions provide guidance:

  1. “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon AA unity.”
    • “AA must continue to live or most of us will surely die. Hence our common welfare comes first.”
  2. “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority–a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”
  3. “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
    • Refuse none who wish to recover. Never charge money or require conformity.
  4. “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or AA as a whole.”
    • If an action may affect AA as a whole, confer with the trustees of the General Service Board.
  5. “Each group has but one primary purpose–to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.”
  6. “An AA group ought never endorse, finance or lend the AA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.”
    • An AA group should never go into business.
    • An AA group should never bind itself to an organization—it should be able to freely discard other groups like clubs or hospitals.
  7. “Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.” 8....

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Shortform Exclusive: Persuasive Tactics

The success of Alcoholics Anonymous is not accidental. Its principles and its Big Book are deliberately constructed in a way to appeal to new prospects and convince them that the Twelve Steps are worth trying.

Here is a collection of persuasive techniques that the Big Book uses, along with quotes to demonstrate it.

Recognizing the Problem

Don’t be accusatory and don’t blame the reader. The book deliberately avoids the use of the noun “you” and prefers to use “we.”

  • The basic argument in the Big Book is phrased gently as: “We have undergone these problems. We thought (this common flawed belief). If you are one of us, you will also think this.”
  • When the noun “you” is used, it’s usually phrased gently as these variants: “you may,” “if you,” “some of you are thinking,” or “suppose you do something like this.”
  • The book conveys strong opinions in the form of confessions by people telling stories: “I knew from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind. I saw that willpower and self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots.”
    • The book takes care not to say something too direct like: “Your will power and self-knowledge are not enough. You need to realize that you’re an alcoholic.”
  • The exception to this rule is when giving commands on how to work with other alcoholics and to spouses on how to handle situations.

Don’t press the beliefs and classify the reader as an alcoholic. Lay your beliefs out there, then let people come to you once they identify and realize their situation matches the books’.

  • “But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly any exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge. This is a point we wish to emphasize and re-emphasize, to smash home upon our alcoholic readers as it has been revealed to us out of bitter experience.”

Give analogies to highlight the foolishness of alcoholic behavior.

  • On thinking you can overcome alcoholism, despite many failed attempts: “Our behavior is as absurd and incomprehensible with respect to the...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Principles of Alcoholics Anonymous
  • The Twelve Steps
  • Steps 1-5: Acceptance and Soul-Searching
  • Steps 6-9: Righting Past Wrongs
  • Steps 10-12: An Ongoing Process
  • The Twelve Traditions
  • Shortform Exclusive: Persuasive Tactics