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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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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....

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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....

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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...

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Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Summary Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book Guide 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....

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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