Who Says There are Twelve Metaphors?

No one thinks of there being "Twelve Metaphors" in the Big Book of AA besides me

This is your fair warning. If you ever mention the "Twelve Metaphors" to anyone in a Twelve Step meeting, they will not know what you are talking about. The idea that there are twelve metaphors is based on my own observations. Please do NOT regard this idea as an official or traditional interpretation of the Big Book of AA. It is not. Period.

The Big Book is littered with descriptions of people and situations. While many of those mentioned in the text are known to be based on people who Bill Wilson personally knew, others appear to have been invented simply to make a point. A good example is the quirky Jay-walker who dashed around in busy street traffic (BB p.37). Another is a man sinking hopelessly into quicksand (BB p.8). Another is an actor who insists on directing the play he is starring in (BB p. 60). I doubt that these descriptions are based on real events in Bill's life. I suspect he created them to help make a point. These vivid scenarios served that purpose, teaching me important lessons about recovery. I asked an English major what to call fictional ideas that illustrate an important truth. She thought for a moment, then said that the proper word was "metaphor".

Once I started looking, I found numerous metaphors in the Big Book. Some were familiar facts or phrases that I had heard elsewhere, like "In the prize ring, this would be called leading with the chin." (BB p.77). He writes that a certain alcoholic "is like a boy whistling in the dark to keep up his spirits." Bill wrote about Christopher Columbus proving that the world is round (BB p.51).

However, I chose to focus on those unique scenarios that Bill probably invented for his own use. For example, Bill described a drowning man grasping for a slender reed (BB p.28). I doubt he ever experienced that. He talked about the plight of men who have lost their legs (BB p.30). Bill still had both of his legs. He spoke in detail about people who survived the sinking of an ocean liner. I doubt that Bill or anyone he knew had ever been rescued after a shipwreck—though the sinking of the Titanic was well known (BB p.17). Bill made use of metaphors that everyday people could relate to during the  late 1930s. Happily for us, most remain remarkably understandable today*.

I do not claim that Bill W. deliberately included Twelve Metaphors—that is not supported by any facts. But I once heard a long-recovered person say "I have to re-read the Big Book often to discover those new parts that seem to appear in it overnight." Bill's use of various metaphors have often helped me expand my understanding of his Message as I go back over the literature. I try to bring those insights to life through my illustrations. Renewing and deepending my connection to the Big Book remains a vital part of my own daily recovery.


* "The nip of the wringer" (BB p.43) is Bill's way of describing a near miss with trouble. An example would be getting stopped by the police for DUI, but before reaching your car window, the policeman gets called away to stop a bank robbery. You deserved the punishment that was coming, but somehow you were spared. "Nip of the wringer" was probably a very common figure of speech in the 1930s. The wringer being mentioned was a hazardous mechanical roller on clothes washing machines at that time. However, such wringers are  outdated today. In the Artist's Comments for my "The Wringer" drawing, I explain why I included it among the Twelve Metaphors.

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