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Behavior: Anonymous Ally
more money he made in the 1920s bull market, the more Wall
Street Analyst William Griffith Wilson hit the bottle. “Men
of genius,” he assured his worried wife, “conceive
their best projects when drunk.” He was right, though
hardly in the sense he meant. When Wilson died last week
at 75, he left one of the finest projects that a drunk has
ever conceived. He was the famous “Bill W.,”
who sobered up and in 1935 co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
gawky Vermonter, Wilson grew up with a crushing sense of
inferiority. Alcoholism ran in his family; he was physically
weak and a target for bullies. By sheer persistence, he
became captain of his school baseball team, played the violin
well, and led the school orchestra. But his feelings of
inadequacy remained until as a World War I artillery officer,
he gulped his first drink.
Teachings. As Wilson used to relate, “Down
went that strange barrier that had always stood between
me and the people around me. Here was the missing link.”
After the 1929 crash, Wilson tried to forget his losses
with numbing doses of bathtub gin and bootleg whisky. His
wife went to work to support him, and, as Wilson recalled,
his mental disintegration “proceeded rapidly and implacably.”
Injured after an Armistice Day bender in 1934, he tried
to heed the inspirational teachings of the First Century
Christian Fellowship (precursor of Moral Re-Armament), but
soon went on a three-day drunk that left him shattered.
a Manhattan hospital, Wilson grimly prayed for help. “Suddenly,”
he related, “the room lit up with a great white light.
I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words
to describe.” After leaving the hospital, Wilson tried
to help other drunks achieve similar religious experiences,
but found that he also needed medical facts to crack their
tough egos. In 1935 he got the help he needed when he met
“Dr. Bob,” Akron Surgeon Robert H. Smith, a
fellow Vermonter who had vainly tried to control his own
compulsive drinking. Together they founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
a time, Wilson had grandiose visions: “Chains of A.A.
hospitals and tons of free literature for suffering alkies."
But when he sought millions from John D. Rockefeller Jr.,
the philanthropist astutely replied: “I think money
will spoil this.” As a result, A.A. was financed by
its own members. In dealing with each other or the public,
they use only their first names and initials. “Identification
leads to power drives,” Wilson explained. “The
thought of power is one reason we were drunks in the first
shunned moralizing in favor of viewing alcoholism as an
emotional crutch combined with a physical allergy to liquor.
Thus, A.A.'s methods leaned more heavily on psychology than
physiology. Recognizing that alcoholics must not merely
control their consumption but curb it entirely, A.A. members
listened to each other’s stories and helped one another
resist the temptation to drink. But they never forgot that
the major effort to abstain must be made by the drinker
himself. ‘The only requirement for A.A. membership,”
according to an organization tradition, “is a sincere
desire to stop drinking.”
was A.A.'s most active member. Even after his retirement
in 1962 he remained in touch, addressing the organization’s
banquet each fall and, despite illness, struggling from
a wheelchair to speak to its convention in Miami last July.
He took immense pride in his accomplishment, and with good
reason. A.A. now has 475,000 members in 16,000 groups in
the U.S. as well as 90 foreign countries. A.A. strategy
has been copied by organizations like Synanon and others
working on group therapy for all kinds of troubled people,
including ex-convicts. It obviously works. Today 60% of
A.A. members get on the wagon and stay on it.
Time, February 8, 1971)