Reply to Jackie B., “Stretching the Boundaries of History”

Editor’s Note: In this, his last response to our roundtable on his work, Glenn C. responds to Jackie B. and her thoughts on how performance can extend the nature– and enhance the effects– of AA History.

“Glenn has insisted from the moment we first met in San Antonio that I am a historian. In the foreword to my second play, a history of the Twelve Traditions called Our Experience Has Taught Us, Glenn described me as a historian of ‘the new generation.’ [Nevertheless] for many years during our correspondence, I would counter that I was just a storyteller.”– Jackie B.

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Herodotus, ca. 484-425 BCE

Modern western history writing was begun by a classical Greek historian named Herodotus (c. 484–c. 425 B.C.) who coined the word “history” when he wrote his great work on the battle of Thermopylae, and the first Marathon runner, and the other famous events of the Persian wars. The Greek word he used to describe what he had written was the term historia. This originally meant inquiry or research; it came from the Greek word histôr, which meant a wise person, a person of knowledge, a good judge who understood moral right and wrong. So a historia was a research work which told exactly what had happened, with an implicit internal value system which made wise judgments as to who the praiseworthy people were, and who had fallen short. [1]

The English word “history” came from that Greek word, but so did the word “story,” which was originally just a shorter form of the word history. In modern English, a history is a collection of stories put together in a continuous narrative, with logical causal connections tying everything together.  Now I would like to make an observation here — one that is a bit over-generalized, I am sure, but nevertheless one with an underlying truth to it.

When Jews get together to talk about spirituality, they tend to be much less interested in philosophical theology than Christians. What they do love to debate and argue about is the Law, the Torah, the difference between good behavior and bad behavior down to the minute details.  Christians on the other hand will literally torture, imprison, and even kill one another over fine points of philosophical theology. Was Jesus Christ homousios (of the same essence) as God the Father? Or only homoiousios with an i (of a similar essence) to the Father? Or merely homoios (similar) to the Father? When we recite the Nicene Creed, do we say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified” (as in the Roman Catholic Church), or do we say (with the Eastern Orthodox Church) that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” leaving out the words “and the Son”? We had Catholics and Orthodox Christians killing one another other theological issues like that in the Balkans not that many years ago.

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Taking it too seriously.

On the other hand, it has long struck me that AA people do not act like either Jews or Christians. First, they do not go around imposing hundreds of elaborate moral rules on one another; in the fourth step, I am asked to “invent my own morality” as it were, figuring out some way that I can act and behave, where I will be able to live with my own thoughts afterwards, no longer eaten up by endless unbearable resentments and fears. And second, at the level of philosophical theology, individual members have been allowed to pray to “God as we understood Him,” up to and including total skepticism or outright atheism. Theology is not something AA people enjoy arguing about either.

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Hank Parkhurst, 1895-1954

What AA people do instead, as I particularly found out during the years when I was moderating the AA History Lovers website from 2005 to 2017 (when I was continually trying to keep them from going too savagely at one another’s throats in this matter) is to argue furiously about fine points of AA history. Did Dr. Bob have his last drink on June 10, 1935 or on June 17, 1935? Who wrote the chapter “To Employers” in the Big Book, Bill Wilson or Hank Parkhurst? History (and storytelling) plays the same foundational role in AA spirituality, that theology does in Christianity, and the Law (the foundation of all morality) in Judaism.

In AA, we tell stories about ourselves (and those who came before us). These stories carry the teachings which bring the sparkling new insights which in turn convey saving grace. There have been countless things written about the philosophy of story-telling, but in terms of my own reading, there seems to have been very little written about the role of storytelling in AA: how it functions, what it does, how it compares to other theories about the nature of storytelling, and so on.

But it does seem to me that one thing that is true of all storytelling is that the narrative will not hold together unless it contains an implicit internal value system, because there have to be winners and losers, heroes and villains — otherwise there will be no well-developed plot, nor will we even have any way of deciding which facts to include and which facts to leave out. This means there will always be an implicit moral message (or grossly immoral message, as the case may be), even in stories which are not openly preachy. A good person will tell a story in which good people are praised and approved, while those who do great harm to others and to themselves are presented negatively. An evil person will tell a story in which bullies, liars, con artists, and wanton killers are regarded as the winners, while their innocent victims are sneered at as fools, cowards, and undeserving losers, fit only to be sneered at and laughed at. A racist “joke” is not genuinely funny, because the racist laughter is simply an attempt to camouflage the kind of put-down which is in actuality a nasty, angry attack.

My other observation is that AA people recognize that too much arguing about moral laws and principles, and too much arguing about theoretical theological issues, quickly turns into the kind of rationalization and intellectualization which is simply a way of running away from and denying our real spiritual responsibilities.  Good storytelling and history writing, on the other hand, puts us in contact with the real experiential level of what is being taught. Over the many years that I taught college history, I tried to include (in each course) a piece of required reading for each major part of the course that was either something written by someone who had actually lived back at that period, or if I could not find anything that worked well that way, a really accurately researched modern historical novel dealing with that time. Once students had been confronted with real human beings from that era, all the essays on their exams became two or three times as good, even when asked to write on abstract theoretical issues. In the books I have written on AA history and spirituality, I have also tried to include as many stories and personal materials as I could — I believe that this is what makes the issues become real to the reader. story

At any rate, Jackie B. tells tales which grab at our hearts, confront us with the actual immediate human issues her characters had to deal with, and turn them into real living human beings. In the process, she becomes a powerful teacher of the true spirit of the Law and the Prophets, and the underlying message of the Mishnah and the Talmud: when we were slaves in Egypt, we were brought out of our bondage by the hand of the Holy One, blessed be He. It is our sacred duty now to honor and help all who are being abused and treated with contempt like we used to be. In today’s era, that means people like women, African Americans, gays and lesbians and transgender people, poor people, sick people, alcoholics and narcotics addicts. The skillful way Jackie does this shows the power of true storytelling.

When I saw her first play in San Antonio, it was a standing-room-only crowd. And they laughed heartily at the humorous parts, wept over the tragic parts, and called lines back to the actors. She had her audience in the palm of her hand. But what a powerful message she gave them, of compassion and tolerance and admiration for the truly courageous. The part that most amazes me, is that she not only has to write her plays, and act as producer, she also has to inspire large groups of AA members to follow her all over California, and to Texas and Georgia, and many other distant places, for performance after performance. And when I arrived in the San Francisco area where she lives, I quickly found that her actors and actresses almost worship her — and rightly so, because she is one of the great AA teachers of the third generation. [2]

Her plays are historically accurate presentations of their time. Even the minor details are drawn from reading documents from the period and talking to oldtimers who were actually present during those events. In one of her plays, a young woman drops a lit cigarette on the ground and then crushes it out with her bare foot. Jackie did not make that up — the young woman would actually do that at times, to try to impress people with her bravery and contempt for pain.  Her knowledge of the details of AA history are up there with just a handful of living people: Prof. Trysh Travis is in that league, along with Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino (the producers and directors of the full-length feature film Bill W.) [3], but we are not talking about many researchers around who are as good as her.

Let us not forget, that at the same time the classical Greek author Herodotus was writing the first western history, we also find four great playwrights creating the first western drama: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Writing plays, we must remember, is one of the higher forms of storytelling. So it does not matter whether you call Jackie B. (and Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino) historians, playwrights, or film makers — what does matter is that Jackie and both of the others are master storytellers in the best and finest ancient western tradition.

I am no longer as young as I used to be — I needed to use a little portable oxygen generator part of the time at the Sedona AA History Symposium in April 2017. But Jackie (along with Jay Stinnett) helped take loving care of me. [4]  On the final day of the conference, I got to give a talk on Richmond Walker (the second-most-published early AA author, who wrote Twenty-Four Hours a Day and began publishing it in 1948 down in Daytona Beach, Florida).  And after giving my talk, I was sitting in a chair by the aisle on the way out of the room, and to my surprise, some of the women present bent down and kissed me on their way out. It was — all of it — one of the most moving experiences of my entire life.

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Outside the Sedona Conference Center

In closing, I want to say to all of my friends, thank you for being my friends as we (all of us together) trudged the road of happy destiny. Bless you all — it’s been a wonderful adventure.

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[1] See the sections on the great pagan Greek and Roman historians at the beginning of Glenn F. Chesnut, The First Christian Histories: Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and Evagrius (1st edition, Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1977), 2nd edition, revised and enlarged (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1986).

[2] On the Recovery Plays of Jackie B., see http://unmeasureddistances.ftml.net/jackieb.html, http://www.recoveryplaysofjackieb.org/,

[3] Kevin Hanlon and Dan Carracino, Page 124 Productions: http://www.page124.com/?doing_wp_cron=1517767442.0173819065093994140625 and http://unmeasureddistances.ftml.net/morepix03.html.

[4] For photos of one of the Sedona Mago AA History Symposiums, see http://unmeasureddistances.ftml.net/sedona2014.html.

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2 Comments

  1. In my decades of studies of primary material from throughout U.S. history, I have discovered the simple and quick pledge of permanent abstinence is the prominent current of recovery upon which vessels of “treatment” and “groupism” have bobbed for two centuries. This current surfaces in the massive quantity of story telling within the huge trove of temperance biographies, novels, dramas, songs, archived postal correspondence, and even visual arts; all this emphasizing an alcohol dependent drinker’s tragic struggle before and responsible dignity after separated by the short event of finally taking the pledge. Outside of storytelling, it also seems to appear in related statistics. Abstainers have generally been 1/3 of the adult U.S. population with a significant percentage of them having been former drinkers.

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