Alcoholics Anonymous goes to court (and its members are livid)

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA’s basic text, says, “We have ceased fighting anything or anyone.”

Fighting is bad for alkies, because outrage often leads to alcohol.

Maybe the people running Alcoholics Anonymous should be reading the Big Book instead of suing over it.

The original typewritten manuscript of the Big Book, the actual pages that passed through the typewriter of AA co-founder Bill Wilson, will be sold at auction on June 8.

The manuscript is expected to fetch $2 million to $3 million.

Yet the entity nominally in charge of AA, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc. (AAWS), went to court in New York last week to stop the auction.

The lawsuit has triggered outrage in much of the AA community, whose members don’t want their parent organization, AAWS, engaged in lawsuits.

What’s worse, this lawsuit will be awfully hard for AAWS to win.

AAWS believes that it owns the manuscript, even though, well, it doesn’t.

Here’s the backstory:

In the 1970s, Lois Wilson, the widow of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, gave the manuscript to a friend, who signed and notarized a letter giving the draft to AAWS upon his death.

Somehow, AAWS never got the manuscript, which has since gone under the hammer twice at Sotheby’s, which is where Roberts bought it.

Roberts intends to sell it in a June 8 auction, but AAWS says it’s not his to sell, blaming “either extreme negligence or potentially wrongful actions” for their failure to receive the manuscript decades ago.

Say what?

The owner’s wishes were somehow ignored – no doubt about that.  But does that mean that AAWS “owns” the manuscript and can keep it off the market?

“The legal case is dubious at best,” suggests Daniel D. Polsby, Professor of Law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “A gift equals donative intent plus delivery, so on the black letter law it’s no-go.”

In other words, just because someone says, “I’m going to give you something,” unless you take actual possession, it’s not yours.

So how exactly is AAWS funding this lawsuit, which is causing so much consternation among individual members?

Most AA members put a dollar or two in the collection basket at each meeting.

That money typically finds three uses—to pay for rent, coffee, and literature for that meeting; to pay the expenses of the local Central Office which maintains a database of local meetings and provides other services; and then some gets kicked up to AA World Services in New York.

AA, practically since its inception, has taken a vow of “corporate poverty,” rightly recognizing that squabbling over money could take the organization down.

“No one is going to send us contributions if we are perceived as wasting money or spending it in marginally effective ways,” wrote AA trustee Gary A. Glynn in the AA Grapevine, the official publication for AA members, back in March, 1997.

What could be more wasteful or marginally effective than hiring lawyers to get something that was never really yours in the first place?

The chase for money, property, and prestige that alcoholics so often pursued, in order to make up for low self-esteem and poor self-image, must stop if one is to remain sober.

And yet, here is the governing body of AA, practicing the opposite of what 12-step programs preach.

If it’s so important to AA World Services to own that manuscript, let it not waste members’ hard-earned dollars on baseless lawsuits that violate the essential spirit of the Fellowship.

Instead, let it take some of the cash it’s got in the bank and go to the auction house and win the manuscript, fair and square.

Ironically, only co-founder Bill Wilson actually wanted a service structure like the one A.A. has now.

Even Bill would never have imagined that AAWS would be sitting on a huge pile of cash and now spending some of that money on lawyers.

AAWS counts on the ignorance of rank-and-file AA members when it files lawsuits like these.

The real cost of suing to get the manuscript isn’t the legal fees.  It’s the potential breakdown of trust when members see that the dollars they toss in the basket end up in the coffers of law firms.