The Steps: Inventory



Step Four consists of a short sentence, but it sounded like a big deal to me when I first read it:

Made a searching and moral inventory of ourselves.

I did not know exactly what this meant, but as a still-suffering addict, I did not like the sound of it. I was in the habit of hiding my true nature. Step Four sounded like a step I could not hide from. But remaining an addict was, for me, a death sentence. So even though the inventory sounded interesting, scary, mysterious, and impossible to do, I sensed that something powerful might happen if I tried it.

A GOOD START, UNFORTUNATELY FOLLOWED BY HALF-MEASURES - My sponsor gave me simple instructions for doing my inventory. I went home that night and did what he suggested. It felt good to be taking real action. I wrote a few pages of my inventory that first night. But then I skipped the exercise the next night and, before long had quit working on it entirely. My inventory was still incomplete nine months later. (By comparison, an extremely willing person might be able to work their entire Fourth Step within days or weeks.)

My sponsor was a live-and-let-live person. He never hurried me. He knew my willingness HAD to come from me and NOT from him. I occasionally worked my inventory, but I only halfway followed my sponsor's instructions. When I finally finished and I was ready to do my Fifth Step with my sponsor, my sponsor had moved away. At a crucial moment in my step work, I became derailed.

I kept coming back to meetings, but there was little sobriety for me or others. Lacking any other resource, I started listening to recordings of “The Big Book Comes Alive” series by AA members Joe and Charlie. They described the Twelve Step recovery as they believe it was originally practiced in the 1930s. Joe and Charlie's description of the Fourth Step inventory was fascinating, and I had to admit that it very closely matched what I had read in the Big Book of AA.

STARTING OVER AGAIN - Armed with this new insight into "old school" Twelve Step work, I proceeded to work steps Four through Twelve exactly as described in the Big Book. As the result of working these steps, I was astonished to find myself staying sober one day at a time.

When I decided to illustrate Step Four, my attention was drawn to the word “Inventory”. It is a fairly common word and I predicted that its definition would be unremarkable, even in my 1934 Webster’s Dictionary. As usual, that old book surprised me.

Inventory - n. An account catalog or schedule made by the executor of all the goods and chattels and sometimes the real estate, of a deceased person.

The phrase “deceased person” shook me. Was my Fourth Step inventory really the account of a DECEASED person? Certainly not literally! Still, the words gnawed at me. I had to admit that when I walked into my first recovery meeting, I felt dead. Every joyful part of my life was gone: my livelihood, my home, my marriage, my children. I know I was near death because the idea of suicide seemed totally acceptable. Fortunately, I was taught to work the inventory as it was described in the Big Book of AA. I used the tone of an objective third party, briefly recording the relevant facts of my life without adding any unnecessary commentary.

HOW WOULD BILL KNOW ABOUT THIS LEGAL MEANING? - Not everone realizes that Bill W. completed nearly three years of classes at Brooklyn Law School. Law students were taught how to take the "personal inventory" of a deceased person's property. Such inventories describe absolutely EVERYTHING... from real estate to farm animals (called "chattels" back then) to shovels, to buckets, to bars of soap. Any county courthousein America contain thousands of these detailed inventories. When I examined some historically accurate inventory forms, the rows and columns looked very similar to what the AA Big Book shows on page 65.

My Twelve Step drawings are intended to call attention to the definitions of key recovery words. But no drawing I could think of could improve on the precise definition found in the dictionary. So for my drawing, I did the only thing I could; I produced an sample of what a typical legal personal inventory would have looked like in the 1930s.

MY DRAWING IS NOT SOMEONE'S REAL INVENTORY: I copied a real inventory form, but I changed it to obscure the real name and details. I note with some amusement that whoever filled out the original form followed the written categories correctly—but only for the first several lines. After that, they ignored the column headings and began writing a numbered list of belongings. If you ever help someone else work their Fourth Step Inventory, don't be surprised if they, too, veer away from the written instructions. It is my experience that addicts always try to complicate simple things. That's why year after year, signs are posted in Twelve Step meeting rooms that say: "Keep It Simple".

My old 1934 Webster’s Dictionary hints at how grave my condition was before I got into recovery. And it reminds me that my Higher Power, the Twelve Steps, and my fellow addicts are all that stand between me and my real, legal personal inventory....taken by someone else after my death.



TRIVIA: If Personal Inventories were so common in the 1930s, why don't we still commonly hear about them today? I asked an attorney, who informed me that many states only require these forms only if the deceased owned a particularly valuable collection of something, such as guns, coins, jewlery, etc. In those cases, the executor creates a detailed inventory so family members cannot dispute which belongings were in the home at the time of death. Any incidents of relatives "helping themselves" to valuables would be quickly detected and thoroughly documented. In short, a lawyer took a thorough inventory to reduce anyone's temptation to fudge the facts. If you wish, you may ask a lawyer you know whether they have ever used a legal personal inventory. Please share what you discover at

ADDENDUM: When someone in my family passed away in 2012, I was surprised to learn that their executor was required to file a written personal inventory for all of their personal assets and possessions. What had been true in 1934 remained true many decades later.

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