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Clean and Sober
Bill W. Founded
it tasted so good, the booze that Bill Wilson swallowed
at a party in Massachusetts in 1917. He was 21 years old,
this was his first adult drink, and the fiery liquid instantly
changed his life for the better, or so he thought. His shoulders
relaxed, his shyness dissolved, and he felt warmth and light
spread to every part of his body.
Seventeen years later, in 1934, Wilson’s drinking
had ruined his career, damaged his health, and caused agonizing
pain and worry to his family and friends.
But Wilson found a way out. He cofounded Alcoholics Anonymous,
one of history’s most important social movements.
William Griffith Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in
the small town of East Dorset, Vermont, the older of two
children of Gilman Wilson, a foreman at a marble quarry,
and Emily Griffith Wilson. Gilman was a heavy drinker, and
this, Bill speculated in later years, led to his parents’
divorce when he was still a boy. Watching his father’s
battle with liquor, Bill grew up scared of the stuff and
never touched it, according to several sources.
Young Bill was in many ways a high achiever, driven to succeed.
One of the most famous stories about his youth involves
his passionate effort to create a homemade boomerang. He
spent months experimenting with different designs and woods;
finally he succeeded, feeling an expansion of his ego at
the praise he received. But this project seems to have been
motivated in part by a certain psychological emptiness:
“I had to be first in everything,” he latter
recalled, “Because of my perverse heart I felt myself
the least of God’s creatures.”
AS he grew up he became prone to depression, physical tension,
intense social awkwardness, and a fear that he was merely
passing through life. At the same time, however, he was
smart, ambitious, and seemed headed for worldly success.
In 1917, as America prepared to enter World War I, he volunteered
for the Army as an officer candidate. One night, Second
Lieutenant Wilson attended a party in New Bedford, Massachusetts,
and took what several biographers say was his first serious
adult drink. Suddenly, magically, he felt release from the
tensions that had plagued him for so long. Recalling the
moment years later, he made it sound like a religious experience:
“Lo, the miracle!..I belonged to the universe; I was
a part of things at last.”
Bill Wilson got plastered that night and soon began indulging
in drinking bouts that ended with vomiting and passing out.
However, Wilson’s Army buddies didn’t worry
much about his boozefests. Nor did his fiancée Lois
Burnham who felt confident that after their marriage she
could transform him into a teetotaler once again. They wed
in early 1918, but Bill kept drinking. In July, he sailed
for Europe, where he performed well as an Army officer in
World War I while discovering the joys of French wine. After
the war, back in the States, he earned good money in several
Wall Street investment jobs and, after work each day, made
the rounds of speakeasies, searching for that elusive feeling
He knew he had a drinking problem. He tried to quit many
times. In those days, alcoholism was seen as a weakness
and a disgrace rather than a disease, and the accepted wisdom
was that the people could stop drinking if they summoned
adequate willpower. ON Christmas Day in 1923, Bill promised
Lois “no liquor will pass my lips for one year,”
but this pledge, like many others he made, was quickly broken.
Wilson’s troubles deepened in autumn 1929 when the
stock market crashed and the nation entered a depression.
As his income shrank, his ego took a beating and his drinking
increased. As a result, he lost his job, spent days in booze-induced
blackouts, got into fights, and hid at home in frightened
seclusion with a bottle of gin. By late 1934 he was scraping
the bottom of the emotional barrel.
A complex series of events would follow-and gradually help
him find a way out of his misery.
The first came in November 1934, when a man named Ebby Thatcher
visited Bill at the Wilson residence in Brooklyn, New York.
Ebby and Bill were old drinking buddies; Bill offered his
visitor a snort, and was stunned at Ebby’s reply:
“No, thanks, I don’t want any.” Ebby,
it turned out, had found religion, was sober, and was interested
in helping Bill get sober too. Wilson was leery, but Ebby’s
visit showed him the value of one alcoholic talking to another
about recovery and gave him a sliver of solace and hope.
In December, hospitalized after a bender, Wilson prayed.
To his amazement, an intense spiritual experience followed:
A “great white light” spread through his room
and a feeling of peace came upon him. Some observers dismiss
this as the result of toxic psychosis, but regardless of
the medical explanation, something important happened.
A short while later, still hospitalized, Wilson read The
Varieties of Religious Experience, a 1902 book by philosopher
and psychologist William James. Wilson concluded that a
spiritual experience did not necessarily have to come from
traditional religious channels; one could still embrace
it and use it to generate robust change in one’s life.
Another influence in the evolution of Wilson’s thinking
was the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical body to which
Ebby Thatcher belonged. The group practiced such ideas as
surrender to a higher power, confession before fellow members,
absolute honesty, and unselfish service to others.
Wilson was released from hospital on December 18, 1934.
He was 39 years old. He never took another drink. He had
found his life’s purpose: helping people get and stay
sober by using the tools he’d recently discovered.
He went to work with the tremendous unlocked energy of a
man who had set aside his ego and his dreams of personal
One more step was key to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In May of 1935, Wilson traveled to Akron, Ohio, to do some
business with a machinery company, and there, through a
chain of coincidences, he met an alcoholic physician named
Bob Smith. Their six-hour meeting confirmed to Wilson the
extraordinary value of one alcoholic telling his story to
another honestly, without preachiness or condescension.
Wilson not only helped Smith; Wilson helped Wilson. Smith
stopped drinking and the two men became brothers in spirit.
Working together, they pooled their knowledge about liquor
and healing and formed what would become Alcoholics Anonymous.
At first, A.A. was a tiny fellowship of spiritual explorers
“groping in the dark,” as one member put it,
for a simple, effective way to create a satisfying life
Slowly the organization caught on. Press coverage helped,
as did Bill Wilson’s 1939 book Alcoholics Anonymous,
which presented the famous Twelve Steps – a cornerstone
of A.A. and one of the most significant spiritual/therapeutic
concepts ever created. Wilson wrote the first draft of the
Twelve Steps one night in bed; A.A. 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 Twelve-Steps concept is used by a variety of
The book became A.A.’s primary text, and eventually
it gave Bill and Lois a comfortable income. They lived the
rest of their lives in Bedford Hills, New York, just 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. (Their home later became the
Stepping Stones Foundation, which holds Wilson’s personal
papers and archives). The Wilson marriage lasted 53 years
(they had no children) until Bill’s death. Lois was
loyal to Bill through thick and thin. And the thin moments
were legion – not only Wilson’s drinking in
the early days, but his probable womanizing in later years.
By the 1950s Wilson was “the messiah of sobriety,”
in the words of biographer Matthew J. Raphael, traveling
widely for A.A., speaking to thousands, and writing hundreds
of articles. He was famous yet unknown – many people
knew him only as “Bill W.,” in keeping with
A.A.’s commitment to anonymity.
As A.A. grew, he continued to seek deeper truths about human
existence. He read voraciously, saw a therapist, and studied
Roman Catholicism (though he never joined any church). He
shocked the A.A. board of trustees by experimenting with
LSD and by conducing seances in his home. And he developed
a strong interest in vitamin therapy for alcoholism and
Bill Wilson survived tremendous hard-ship and emerged a
better man. As is the case in many remarkable lives, his
suffering put him on the path to greatness. He could reasonably
have felt a sense of satisfaction with his accomplishments
in his later years, although-restless soul that he was-he
surely knew how much work still needed to be done, how many
people still needed help through A.A.’s basic formula:
“Don’t drink, a day at a time. Go to meetings.”
A long term smoker, Wilson developed emphysema, eventually
complicated by pneumonia. He died in Miami on January 24,
1971, at age 75. Lois lived until 1988.
Membership in A,.A. has grown and grown; today, it stands
at 1.1 million people in the U.S. and 2.2 million in more
than 150 countries around the world.
A Look Inside Alcoholics Anonymous
who have not been personally touched by alcoholism (either
their own or a loved one's) may have heard of the “12
Steps” approach devised by Bill Wilson, but know little
else about the philosophy of the Alcoholics Anonymous “fellowship.”
Here are some facts from the official Web site,
- A.A. does not recruit or solicit members-the only requirement
to join is a desire to stop drinking. There is no application
form, no age or education minimums, or any set dues or fees.
A group might “ass the hat" at a meeting for
members to contribute what they wish toward the cost of
the rental space or food served, or for A.A.’s national
The core of A.A. is the local group meeting, which can be
open or closed. The general public may attend an open meeting:
typically a leader will introduce A.A. members (by first
names only), who will talk about their personal experiences
with alcohol, how they came to A.A., and how their lives
have changed as a result. Closed meetings are restricted
to current members or people who think they may have a drinking
AA has a single purpose: alcoholics helping each other to
stay sober. People addicted to cocaine or other drugs may
attend a closed A.A. meeting only if they also have a drinking
The A.A. program is based on total abstinence from alcohol.
But members never pledge to swear off alcohol for life,
or even tomorrow – the current 24 hours is their only
focus. Members say, “I will not take a drink today.”
A.A. does not keep members’ case histories or meeting
attendance records. There are no requirements that a member
attend a certain number of meetings in any given period,
and no one “checks up” on members to see if
they are drinking. As a nonprofessional support group, there
is no medical or psychological treatment offered, and A.A.
does not sponsor or conduct research on alcoholism.
Though the 12 steps make reference to God or a higher power,
A.A. is not affiliated with any religious denomination.
The group also does not endorse or oppose any political
or social causes.
There are different ideas about what alcoholism truly is,
but most A.A. members believe it is an illness that cannot
be cured, only arrested. They believe the illness is a combination
of a physical sensitivity to alcohol and a mental obsession
with drinking that willpower alone cannot break.
Biography, January 2003)