Susan Cheever on the Real Bill W.
On the anniversary of his 1971 death, the AA founder's complicated life is more instructive than ever in an increasingly tumultuous world.
Bill Wilson was no saint. He smoked like a chimney and acted like a pig—cheating on his loyal wife and demanding a glass of whisky on his deathbed. Working with him was sometimes so difficult that decades after his death, many colleagues were still angry at his behavior. The January 1971 nurse's logs for his last days at Stepping Stones, the house in Bedford Hills he shared with his wife, Lois, show an unhappy man struggling for breath—he was dying of emphysema—who repeatedly asked for a drink and was irritated when he didn’t get one.
And yet. If there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who permanently change the world for the better, Bill W. is certainly there.
As a young man, searching for help for the serious alcoholism ruining his career as a traveling stock speculator, he somehow—seemingly almost in spite of himself—helped found an organization of miraculous benevolence and revelatory spirituality. Alcoholics Anonymous, now a worldwide network with some 2 million members, is a movement based on a set of beliefs (including, but not limited to, the then-novel theory that alcoholism is a medical condition rather than a moral failing) that has not only transformed the way we alcoholics understand each other but created a compassionate, connected view of all addictions, which before had been so stigmatized that they were a sure ticket to incarceration or death.
AA is one of the few great success stories of the war-torn 20th century, and it is also a story of good heartedness and humility on the part of the thoroughly conventional men who founded it.
Wilson was born behind a bar in East Dorset, Vermont, in 1895—a time before automobiles and indoor plumbing, when New England village life was based on town meetings and temperance education was taught in the schools. His father was a marble quarryman whose family owned the local hotel and saloon—the Wilson House—while his mother’s family lived across the green. But the bare facts of Bill Wilson’s life don’t tell the real story—that of an unprepossessing, lanky Yankee boy whose practical-mindedness, inheritance of small-town democracy and even lifelong struggle with depression made him the ideal inventor of a mass movement of recovering alcoholics. Bill W. was not a perfect man—but when it came to starting Alcoholics Anonymous, he was the perfect man for the job.
Like many drunks, Wilson spent his early years just hanging on. His parents divorced and took off when he was ten, leaving his grandparents to raise him. He was engaged to a wealthy older woman when he was still a teenager, and after they married he bankrupted her and her family. He had a great deal of success doing market research for investors in the New York Stock Exchange, but he inevitably lost whatever he gained—and then some. He made hundreds of promises to himself to stop drinking, and broke every one of them. When Bill Wilson encountered alcohol and tried to resist the cravings, he was overtaken by a seemingly alien force.
Bill W. was not a perfect man—but when it came to starting Alcoholics Anonymous, he was the perfect man for the job.
Slowly, through many painful relapses and humiliating hospitalizations, Wilson cobbled together some scraps of information that seemed, against all odds, to save his life by turning him in the direction of recovery. His old drinking buddy Ebby Thatcher introduced Wilson to the Oxford Group, where Thatcher had gotten sober. An evangelical Christian organization, the Oxford Group, with its confessional meetings and strict adherence to certain spiritual principles, would serve as the prototype for AA and its 12 steps. Another friend took Wilson to Calvary Church, where he found himself on his knees at the altar asking to be saved. Dr. William Silkworth at Towns Hospital, during one of Bill’s four stints in that drunk tank, told Bill that he likely had a physical allergy to alcohol that, together with a mental obsession, led to his inability to stop drinking once he had started.
After a few months' being dry, Bill Wilson landed in Akron, Ohio, on an unsuccessful sales trip; faced with the familiar torment of an unquenchable craving for booze, he had the unfamiliar reaction not to help himself but to help another poor soul doing battle with the bottle. A local clergyman introduced Bill to Akron doctor Robert Smith, who became his lifelong friend and mentor and AA’s cofounder. At first it was all they could do to stay sober themselves, but eventually Bill and Dr. Bob realized they had hit on a program, adapted from their experience with the Oxford Group, that worked.
Slowly they spread the word, from Akron to Brooklyn, where Bill and Lois lived. In 1939, Bill wrote and published the revolutionary book informed by everything the two men had discovered: Alcoholics Anonymous. Although edited by many members of the new movement (in typically democratic spirit, Bill sent it out to some 400 friends for comment), the writing embodies Bill’s practical, nonjudgmental voice and style. After Bob Smith’s death in 1950, Bill and his colleagues set down the complementary Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which was published in 1954. In spite of Bill’s all-too-human failings, he was a leader of native genius—a Yankee keenly attuned to the temptations and dangers of power—and made the inspired decision in 1955 to turn the organization of Alcoholics Anonymous over to its members (and the board they elected). Because of the brilliant system of decentralized self-government he laid down in the Traditions, his movement has not merely survived but thrived, exceeding anything Bill or Bob ever imagined—encircling the globe and finding a home in the most unlikely of places, such as Iran and China.
Alcoholics Anonymous marked its 75th anniversary last year. Every institution that experiences three new generations of membership meets criticisms, controversies and demands for change, and AA has been no exception. Whatever the tradition or issue—from anonymity to abstinence, powerlessness to a Higher Power, even the quaint if sexist vernacular of the Big Book—we seem to have reached a tipping point, where public debate can no longer be denied.
For many faithful members who stake their lives by the AA fellowship and Bill W.'s teachings, this situation looms as a crisis—an attack by ignorant infidels to be defended against at all cost. That, however, does not seem to me to be the view that the real Bill Wilson, were he alive today, would take. With his instinctive mistrust of dogma and his openness to experiment (the LSD trips with Aldous Huxley, the seances with good, old Lois), Wilson is likely to have welcomed sensible innovations and reforms—not as an end in themselves but as a means to a more effective, inclusive and relevant organization.
So in celebration of this great spirit's life, let’s mark the day of his death by honoring William Griffin Wilson for both his saintliness and his humanity. His many accomplishments in cofounding Alcoholics Anonymous and transforming the global face of addiction were astonishing, but one of his greatest accomplishments was his willingness to be just like us—flawed, wavering human beings who fall far, far short of sainthood.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.