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Story of Irma Livoni
As related by Matt M., a sponsee of Sybil
(I heard a shorter version from Sybil about December 1976)
Here is the story
about Irma Livoni. Each year around this time I try to tell
this true story about what happened not just on Dec. 7th,
1941 (Pearl Harbor Day), but what happened to one of the
few women who was in AA at that time, and about a letter
she received in the mail, on Monday, December 8th, which
virtually kicked her out of AA......
Dec of 1984, I had been sober for 2-1/2 years, and working
with my sponsors Bob and Sybil Corwin since January of 84.
Sybil had gotten sober in March of 1941, so at the time
she was 43 yrs sober. We were driving home from a meeting
and she asked me the date (to her it was just Sunday). I
told her it was Dec. 8th, and that yesterday (Dec. 7th)
was the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day.
said "Matt, have I ever told you about Irma Livoni?"
who is she?"
said, "Well, when we get back to the house, come in for
coffee and I'll tell you a story about AA history and some
of the reasons we have tradition 3. Oh, and by the way Matt,
did you know that the literature specifically protects 'queers,
plain crackpots, and fallen women, and since you and I are
at least two out of those three, we should be especially
grateful for tradition 3? I'll show you it when we get home."
out loud, as Sybil had a great sense of humor, and she had
been a taxi dancer, back before she got sober, you know
one of those "10 cents a dance" ladies, and she was divorced
twice, and was a single mom, as well as an alcoholic back
then, so the term "fallen woman" was something that hit
close to home. She had told me that it was very different
back in the 30's and 40's for a woman to be an alcoholic.
Sybil said It was a time when women wore hats and gloves,
and "respectable women" were not usually found in a bar,
or at "whoopie parties."
Thursday night step study had voted to not cover the traditions
after we got to step 12, so I figured they must not be very
important and thought I'd probably be bored with the conversation,
but she got my attention telling me that "queers, crackpots
and fallen women" were mentioned, so I agreed to come in
for coffee. Besides Sybil had been sober longer than I had
been alive. I didn't argue with her very much.
got down her copy of the big book. She said, I want you
to find the traditions in there, and read me tradition 3.
It was a 1st. Edition Big Book. Thicker than mine. I said,
"Is this why they call it the Big Book?" She said, "Exactly,
Bill had it printed on big paper, with big margins around
the type, so that people would think they were really getting
something for their money." I looked in the back of the
book, where I thought the traditions were, but couldn't
find them. "I can't find them, Sybil." "Exactly. That's
because we didn't have any traditions back in 1941 when
I came in. And Matt, AA was in mortal danger of destroying
itself, which is why we have traditions now." Then she had
me find them in my 3rd. Edition B.B. and in my 12 &12. I
didn't read it all, just the caption heading, and then she
started telling me the story of IRMA LIVONI....
was a sponsee of Sybil's. She also became a member in 1941,
just after Sybil. Sybil took her into her home. (Sybil told
me that many people's bottoms were very low then, no home,
no job, no watch, no car, nothing). Sybil said it was different
then for a woman to be an alcoholic. That most of them had
burned all their bridges with their families, and were looked
down upon, even more so than male alcoholics. Sybil said
she watched AA help Irma get sober, watched AA help Irma
get cleaned up, watched AA help Irma get her first job in
sobriety, and watched AA help Irma get her first apartment
in sobriety. Then she said that on Dec. 5th, 1941, a self-appointed
group of the members signed a letter to Irma and mailed
it on that Friday, Dec 5th, 2 days before Pearl Harbor.
is a copy of the letter:
Office Box 607
939 S. Gramercy Place
Los Angeles, California
Dear Mrs. Livoni:
a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Los
Angeles Group of Alcoholics Anonymous, held Dec.
4th, 1941, it was decided that your attendance at
group meetings was no longer desired until certain
explanations and plans for the future were made
to the satisfaction of this committee. This action
has been taken for reasons which should be most
apparent to yourself.
It was decided that, should you so desire, you may
appear before members of this committee and state
your attitude. This opportunity will be afforded
you between now and December 15th, 1941. You may
communicate with us at the above address by that
date. In case you do not wish to appear, we shall
consider the matter closed and that your membership
Edmund Jussen Jr
Fay D. Loomis
I was stunned. "How could they do this, Sybil?"
we didn't have any guidelines, any traditions to protect
us from good intentions. AA was very new, and people did
all sorts of things, thinking they were protecting the fellowship."
Sybil then said to close my eyes and imagine my being in
the following setting. Sybil explained that Dec. 7th, 1941
was Pearl Harbor Day (a Sunday). She said that that Sunday
night everyone in LA was afraid that Los Angeles would also
be attacked and bombed. There was a citywide blackout, people
were so terrified. She said that on Monday Dec. 8th., President
Roosevelt gave the speech that talked about "the date that
will live in infamy" and that we were now at war with Japan
She said, that was the day that Irma received her letter.
There was only one meeting in the entire state of California
when Sybil came in, in 1941. By December there may have
been two or three, but Irma had nowhere else to go, no one
else to turn to. No other group in California that she could
ask for help. Sybil said, "Imagine only one or two meetings
in your entire state, and being shunned by your family,
and by society, and by the only group of people who were
on your side, your AA group. Imagine them shutting the door
on you and sending you such a letter, Matt." I shivered
at the thought of it. It was Christmas time, the stores
were decorated and now poor Irma was all alone. I thought
about how it was in 1984 with 2000 meetings a week to choose
from in Southern California. and then I imagined having
no other help for a hopeless alcoholic.
Sybil told me that Irma never came back to another meeting,
left AA and died of alcoholism. She wrote to Bill about
the incident, and I cannot tell you that this is the reason
that the following is a part of the 3rd. Tradition, but
it certainly seems to apply.
From Tradition 3, page 141: ... that we would neither punish
nor deprive any AA of membership, that we must never compel
anyone to pay anything, believe anything, or conform to
anything? The answer, now seen in Tradition Three, was simplicity
itself. At last experience taught us that to take away any
alcoholic's full chance was sometimes to pronounce his death
sentence, and often to condem him to endless misery. Who
dared to be judge, jury and executioner of his own sick
JUDGE JURY AND EXECUTIONER... I remember looking at those
words again and again, and they seemed to get larger and
hadn't really noticed EXECUTIONER when I had read it the
first time at my 12 &12 study group. Again I felt so bad
for this poor lady.
Wow, those words really had a different meaning than when
I had read the traditions before. So here it is, 23 years
later, and each December 7th and 8th I always think about
Irma Livoni, and how lucky I am, that we have traditions
now. I also think of how lucky I was to have met Sybil and
so lucky that she appointed herself my sponsor.
Years later I realized how everything she ever taught me
was like gold. But in 1984 I had no idea who Sybil really
was or how lucky I was to have her as my sponsor. She was
like a piece of living history, but I really didn't realize
how valuable that was in explaining WHY we do some of the
things we do (like the story she told me about how they
never said "Hi Sybil" and no one said "Hi my name is Matt
and I'm an alcoholic" back then). Besides being one of the
first women in AA, Sybil was the first woman west of the
Mississippi. She also became the head of LA's central office
for 12 years, and she became close friends with Bill and
Lois. She and Bob even used to go on vacation with them.
She used to tell me all sorts of stories about Bill Wilson
and things he said to her. He was very interested in how
AA would work for women, as there were very few women worldwide
in AA back in 1941. Marty Mann came in before Sybil did,
but very few stayed sober....
I learned that night that no one can get kicked out of AA.
We can ask a disturbing wet drunk that he needs to settle
down or we might have to ask him to step outside for that
day, but we don't vote to kick anyone out forever. And we
don't shun people because our guidelines, our traditions
tell us that no one has to believe in anything (they don't
have to be like me) and they don't have to conform to anything(they
don't have to dress a certain way, or have no facial hair,
or pay anything). Even if I get drunk again, I am still
welcome at any AA meeting.....
So that's the story about Irma Livoni. Feel free to pass
this along to anyone you know who might be interested in
knowing a bit about how and why the traditions got started.
I think it sort of puts a face on tradition 3: the face
of a woman I never knew, who got kicked out of AA. Who got
drunk and died.....
Thank God for Tradition 3, and thank God for all of you.
I truly appreciate and cherish all the people in this group.
Best AA love to you all,
and Matt on her porch.