A Man With Friends:
Bill Wilson (‘Bill W.’)
By Henry Frost
Biography magazine, 2002
Over the course of the next 17 years, Wilson’s drinking ruined his career, damaged his health, and caused agonizing worry to his family and friends.
Wilson found a way out of hell. He co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, one of history’s most important therapeutic movements.
William Griffith Wilson, born on November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont, was the eldest of two children of Gilman Wilson, a foreman at a marble quarry, and Emily Griffith Wilson. His father was a heavy drinker. Many years later, Bill would speculate that booze led his parents to divorce. Young Bill steered clear of the stuff.
One of the stories about Wilson’s youth involves his effort to build a boomerang – an actual working boomerang that would arc through the air, bank, and return. He labored on the device for months, experimenting with different woods, and with changes in the curvature, seeking perfection. Finally one day, in a field near his home, the boomerang obeyed his command. Watching the stick fly and double back – the gorgeous swoop, the clean line – and listening to the praise that came his way from his friends and family – Wilson felt a billowy expansion of ego.
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But there was a dark aspect to this accomplishment. Wilson had to succeed at the boomerang project, had to achieve first place among the nation’s young boomerang makers, because “in my perverse heart I felt myself the least of God’s creatures.” He needed to win to be accepted by God and humanity.
Wilson gave the impression of being a winner – he was bright, energetic, and committed to excellence. But deep down he felt like a loser – physically tense, often depressed, socially awkward, and possessed of the odd and scary feeling that he was merely skimming along the surface of life, watching events unfold as if he were attending a play or a movie. He flunked out of college (here, his need to win collapsed in a heap) and wondered if he would ever grasp the good things in life that some people seemed to know about.
In 1917, when Wilson was 21, America mobilized to enter the Great War, and the U.S. Army sought officer candidates among college boys, including kids who had bounced out of school. Wilson was accepted for officer training. One night, at a party in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the young lieutenant took his first serious drink. Recalling the moment years later, he made it sound like a religious experience, and in some sense, it was: “Lo, the miracle!” he wrote. “I belonged to the universe; I was a part of things at last.”
Bill got bombed that night. In subsequent drinking bouts he began puking and passing out. He was a problem drinker from the start. Alcoholism sometimes announces itself with this dramatic immediacy, but the disease follows no set pattern. Journalist Nan Robertson notes that some drinkers fall quickly into abuse, while others can drink socially for years or decades with no sign of a problem, until they cross a hard-to-see line, with booze moving toward the center of their lives, occupying more and more space in their souls – drinking it and looking forward to drinking it. (And, of course, many or most people can drink alcohol moderately for a lifetime with no serious difficulties.)
Wilson’s Army buddies didn’t worry about his boozefests, nor did Lois Burnham, his fiancée, who felt confident that after their marriage she could “fix” him. They wed in early 1918. Bill kept drinking. In May of ’18 he sailed for the war in Europe. He performed well as an officer and discovered the joys of French wine.
Back in the U.S. after the war, he made good money on Wall Street in the boisterous 1920s economy. At the end of working days he made the rounds of Manhattan speakeasies, searching for that elusive feeling of exaltation. He got drunk many, many times. He tried to quit drinking but couldn’t.
He knew full well that he had a problem, that he was, in the parlance of the day, a rum hound, an alkie, a dipsomaniac. In those days, alcoholism was seen as a moral weakness, a disgrace, rather than a disease affecting body and brain chemistry that requires focused physical and psychological treatment. According to the pious wisdom of the era, preached in Sunday sermons and endorsed on newspaper editorial pages, people could stop drinking if they summoned adequate faith and/or willpower. If they couldn’t call forth those things, they were not only sinners, they were pitiful losers, barely worthy of citizenship in a nation committed to winners.
Wilson believed he could heal himself through sheer gritty jaw-clenching resolve. On Christmas Day in 1923 he promised Lois that “no liquor will pass my lips for one year” (a not uncommon statement in the annals of drinking). This pledge, like others, soon shattered.
Wilson’s troubles deepened in the autumn of 1929 when the stock market crashed, setting the stage for the Great Depression. As his income shrank, Wilson’s ego took a beating, and he drank more, which led to his getting fired from his Wall Street job. He lost days to booze-induced blackouts. He got into fights. He hid at home in seclusion in the company of a bottle of gin. By 1934 Bill Wilson was scraping the bottom of the emotional barrel.
There now commenced a series of events that helped him find his way out.
The first of these occurrences came in November, 1934, at the Wilson home in Brooklyn, when a man named Ebby Thacher paid a call on Bill. Thacher and Wilson had been drinking buddies in Manhattan. Bill offered his visitor a snort. Thacher replied “No thanks” and explained that he was sober, that he’d found religion, and that he hoped Bill could get sober too, by the grace of the Lord and through the precepts of an organization Ebby belonged to, the Oxford Group.
Wilson was not inclined to believe in God and did not cotton to that particular aspect of his friend’s visit, but he saw the value of one alcoholic talking to another about recovery, in the kinship of suffering and aspiration. This was a sliver of hope.
The hope was promptly dashed. A few weeks later Wilson went on a major binge, one of his biggest ever, and wound up in the hospital. Maybe this bender connected in some way to Thacher’s visit – perhaps the emergence of a shard of hope in Wilson’s heart caused his self-loathing mechanism to lash out.
He lay in his hospital bed alone at night, the city lights dancing on the ceiling, and he prayed. He dozed. He prayed some more, prayed as if his life depended on it, which it did. And then – the thing happened. A “great white light” spread through the room. A feeling of peace came upon him.
Some observers have speculated that this event was a weird juggling of Wilson’s nervous system stemming from toxic psychosis. Or maybe a bit of psychic material, visual in nature, got dislodged from his frozen soul, emerged from those distant, forgotten corners of his being. Or maybe God sent a message. Whatever the cause, a beautiful light definitely appeared, Wilson said, and it gave him pause.
Shortly thereafter, still hospitalized, he read “The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature” by the philosopher and psychologist William James, published in 1902, a deep analysis of some 200 personal narratives of encounters with things spiritual. James was a pragmatist. He was drawn to a certain set of questions about religion as noted by journalist and historian Garry Wills: “Not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Does it work? Does it benefit? Does it do good?’” (See here for more on James and pragmatism. “The Varieties of Religious Experience” shows up on one list as the second great work of nonfiction ever written.)
James concludes that religion is, on balance, beneficial, increasing a sense of humility, opening up new possibilities for the soul. Bill Wilson, reading James, became convinced that a spiritual experience need not necessarily come from traditional religious channels, nor indeed from God – maybe it comes from God, but maybe it comes from unseen aspects of human consciousness (“extra-marginal” consciousness, in James’ phrase). Maybe intense experiences like the white light – whatever the source – are real, valid, and important. Maybe they can be starting points for diligent lifelong explorations of the soul.
Perhaps illness itself, writes James, can generate useful insight (and here, Wilson conceivably sat up in bed in excitement): “For aught we know to the contrary, 103 or 104 degrees Fahrenheit might be a much more favorable temperature for truths to germinate and sprout in than the more ordinary blood-heat of 97 or 98 degrees.”
(By the way, William James fully grasps the siren call of drugs. He writes, “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkeness expands, unites, and says yes.”)
Wilson pondered the ideas of James, pondered too the therapeutic precepts of the Oxford Group, such as surrender to a “higher power,” confession before other members, absolute honesty, and the unselfish giving of oneself in service to others.
He decided he could change his life and help others do the same. He was released from the hospital on December 18, 1934. He was 39 years old and had been drinking liquor pretty steadily since that night when he was 21. He apparently never drank another drop. He had found his life’s purpose: to help people get sober and stay that way. He attacked his task with the energy of a man who had set aside his ego (or, more precisely, refined it), consigned his dreams of personal glory to the back row of the theater, along with his self-centeredness, and connected to his deepest self and to the best impulses of his community and the universe.
One more step was necessary to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the spring of 1935 Wilson met and counseled an alcoholic physician named Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio. This six-hour meeting confirmed to Wilson the value of one alcoholic talking with another: Wilson helped Smith by talking with him; Wilson also helped Wilson. The two men became brothers-in-spirit, pooled their knowledge, and formed what would become known in 1939 as Alcoholics Anonymous. (Wilson is regarded as the central guiding light for the organization.) M. Scott Peck, author and psychiatrist, comments, “Perhaps the greatest event of the 20th Century occurred in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when A.A. was established.” (See sidebar.)
At first, A.A. was a tiny fellowship of spiritual explorers, “groping in the dark,” said one member, for the best way to create a satisfying life without alcohol, guided by the ideas of William James and the Oxford Group but unsure of its footing.
Gradually the organization streamlined its message and caught on. Wilson’s 1939 book “Alcoholics Anonymous” showed readers “precisely how we have recovered” and presented the “12 Steps.” This was a brilliant new concept: specific, concrete, tangible steps; by moving throught them, adherents could gain the important feeling that progress was being made. Wilson wrote the first draft of the 12 Steps one night in bed. Fellow members helped refine the approach. Among the steps: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable” and “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care and direction of God as we understood Him.” Today the 12-Step concept stands at the heart of many recovery groups.
Wilson’s book became the organization’s essential text and gave a steady income to Bill and Lois. They lived the rest of their lives in Bedford Hills, New York, outside New York City, with Bill working full-time as leader of A.A., and Lois helping to found Al-Anon, an organization for families of alcoholics. They were married for 53 years. Lois stayed loyal to Bill through thick and thin. The thin moments were legion – not only Wilson’s drinking in the early days, but his relentless womanizing later on, when he was famous.
By the 1950s Wilson was “the messiah of sobriety,” in the phrase of biographer Matthew J. Raphael, writing articles and speaking to thousands of people. He was famous yet unknown – many people knew him only as “Bill W.” in keeping with A.A.’s commitment to public anonymity. Newspapers ran items such as, “Friends of Bill W. will meet Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Lutheran Church Parish Hall.”
Wilson continued to examine the distant, forgotten, essential corners of human existence, probing how to reach them without liquor. He saw a therapist, read voraciously, and took instruction in Roman Catholicism. (He never joined any church.) He experimented with LSD and conducted seances in a special room in his home. (Thus shocking the A.A. board of trustees.) And he developed a strong interest in vitamin therapy for alcoholism and mental/emotional problems – an approach that, to this day, intrigues a handful of researchers and therapists. (LSD also interests a few experts, as does MDMA.)
Wilson couldn’t give up smoking. He developed emphysema that was eventually complicated by pneumonia. He became gravely ill in Miami in late 1970. On his deathbed, semi-conscious, he demanded whiskey. Oddly, no one gave him so much as a drop. He died on January 24, 1971, at age 75. Lois lived until 1988.
Bill Wilson went through the wringer in his life and emerged a better man. In keeping with a pattern seen in many remarkable lives, his glimpse of the abyss, his understanding of just how wretched a supposed “winner” can be, was the thing that put him on the path to examining his “winner’s” ego and reorienting it in the direction of service. And service – definable in many ways – is the key to happiness, according to wise folks over the centuries. (For example, Albert Schweitzer.)
Wilson changed the world for the better but it’s unlikely he spent much time patting himself on the back about it. If he were tempted to self-congratulation, he probably reminded himself how many people still needed help through A.A.’s sturdy and demanding formula: “Don’t drink, a day at a time. Go to meetings.”
Membership in A.A. today stands at about 1.3 million people in the U.S. and a total globally of around 2.1 million in more than 150 countries. “Bill Wilson’s ideas,” writes author Susan Cheever, “have entered the common consciousness and changed how we define being human in a way certainly as powerful as the ideas of Sigmund Freud or Thomas Jefferson.” ●
A 10-question confidential test about alcohol use can be found here. Go here for an article about naltrexone, a promising therapy for alcoholism (scroll down to “The Cure for Alcoholism?”). Among the many powerful memoirs of booze and its costs are “A Drinking Life” by Pete Hamill (1994), “Drinking: A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp (1997), “Lit: A Memoir” by Mary Karr (2009), and “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” by Koren Zailckas (2006).
Here’s a commentary on Alcoholics Anonymous by psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck, author of “The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth” (1978). Peck was interviewed by Playboy in March, 1991.
Playboy: You’ve said that the success of “The Road Less Traveled” is connected to the proliferation of groups such as A.A. Why are A.A. and its offshoots so popular?
Peck: I believe, along with many other people, that perhaps the greatest event of the 20th Century occurred in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when A.A. was established. A.A. was the beginning of the self-help movement, and also the beginning of the integration of science and religion on a grass-roots level.
Playboy: Why does A.A. work?
Peck: When I was studying psychiatry, it was assumed that A.A. worked with alcoholics – better than psychiatry did – because alcoholics were what we called oral personalities who got together at A.A. meetings and yapped a lot, smoked a lot and drank a lot of coffee and in that way satisfied their oral needs. Most psychiatrists still think A.A. is a substitute addiction. But that’s a bunch of shit. A.A. works because it’s a program of religious or spiritual conversion. I suspect that many people who do not profess to be religious have a sense of a higher power, even when they’re not yet on friendly terms with it, and A.A. helps them discover that. It works because it’s a psychological program that helps uncover the motivations behind unhealthy symptoms. It teaches people not only why they should go forward through the desert toward God but also how they should go forward through the desert. It teaches people how to support one another. Joining A.A. is obviously not an easy decision. When you have made the decision, there is some sadness in being in this minority who have transcended the culture. (People in A.A., therapy, etc.) make up four or five percent of the population now, which is significant. (As more people heal) we take control of our own lives and become intolerant of irresponsible governments. People become more compassionate and at the same time more competent. Being awake involves an appreciation of life, of the environment, of our fellow man. And an intolerance of waste, of incompetent bureaucracy, of prejudice.
Playboy: And you believe A.A. has significance beyond the treatment of addiction?
Peck: Yes, because it teaches people about community. ●