SPIRITUAL LIFE, Vol. 38(3), 142-149, Fall, 1992
Bill W. and Dr. Bob: An American Story
By James R. Folliard
At the heart of every culture is storytelling. From tales of Horatio Alger to celebrity portraits in People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, the “American success story” powerfully conveys our culture’s and dreams.
Our “spiritual culture” is rooted in stories as well. Churches and religious orders search the personal stories of founders and saints in order to rediscover their authentic strength or charism. Christianity’s very core lies in the Jesus story – “what he was like, what happened, what he is like now.” One often hears this expression when members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step groups share their stories. Storytelling is the essence of this thoroughly American, authentically universal spiritual program. The steps themselves can be likened to its “spiritual theology,” the product of analyzing and reflecting on the stories themselves.
That analytical impulse is a necessary one, but often overindulged. Except for some closing reflections, this essay resists the impulse; it simply retells the story of A.A.’s founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, and how the Twelve Steps came to be.
“. . . for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10)
Robert Holbrook Smith was born August 8, 1879 into the stern New England atmosphere of Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. He grew into a tall, lean young man, a blend of quiet reserve and laconic humor – a very “Yankee” recipe.
Bob graduated from Dartmouth in 1902, ending a college career of fraternity revels and heavy drinking. He had also begun his seventeen-year courtship of Anne Ripley: they would finally marry in 1915.
After three years of traveling New England and Canada as a salesman, Bob decided on a medical career and enrolled at the University of Michigan. Two years later he was asked to leave. He managed to pass his examinations, but his pattern of late assignments, missed classes and other shortcomings had soured the faculty. As at Dartmouth, Bob had gravitated to Michigan’s freewheeling, hard-drinking fraternity life. Most mornings he woke hung over, on many of them too sick to make it to class. Time back home in Vermont seemed to set Bob right again. In 1907 he arranged admission to Rush University in Chicago. He resumed heavy drinking, but managed to complete the medical curriculum and secure an internship in Akron, Ohio, where he eventually opened his own practice. Marriage to Anne and the birth of their two children quickly followed. By 1918, the Smiths had settled into a life of Middle American respectability.
And Bob was desperate. Locked onto a daily merry-go-round of beer and whiskey, he woke up shaking, with severe stomach pain, needing sedatives so he could work during the day to earn enough money for another night’s binge.
It was a vicious circle, and Bob knew it. There seemed no way out – until the enactment of Prohibition in 1919; Bob hoped the ban on booze would end his torture. But he quickly learned about bootleggers, as well as the government license allowing doctors almost unlimited quantities of alcohol for medical use. How he needed it for that very purpose ! Soon nothing else could still those awful shakes or quiet the stabbing pains in his abdomen.
For seventeen more years Bob and his increasingly distraught wife and children lived this nightmare. Professional practice and family finances tumbled downhill regularly. Bob would pull himself together enough to beat off the wolves at the door and repair his shaky reputation, only to be set off on yet another binge, each one worse than the last.
By May of 1935, Bob’s drinking was virtually round-the-clock, and it was a rare day when he could practice medicine at all. When he worked, his skill and compassion drew admiration from medical colleagues and patients; but now he could no longer hide his problem. His reputation had taken another nosedive and financial disaster threatened like a spring tornado. This time the pleasant Ardmore Avenue home was up for foreclosure. Bob didn’t care anymore; all he wanted was another drink.
Anne best of all knew the loveable, competent man Bob could be when he was dry.” She knew that Bob the drunk was not the real Bob, and she tried every remedy she could think of to help him. One of these was the Oxford movement, an organization focused on spiritual growth through a regimen of surrendering one’ life to God, a thorough interior “housecleaning” and the making of amends, and daily living hinged on service to others and the practice of prayer. A friend told Anne that this was something that might work for Bob, and they began to attend local Oxford meetings together. Bob improved for a while, but “controlled drinking” just would not work for him, and even the spiritual impetus provided by the Oxford people didn’t last. Certainly God seemed mysterious and unfair!
That dismal spring in 1935 followed. It was mid afternoon, the day before Mother’s Day. Bob already sported a hefty hangover from his morning binge. The phone rang; it was Anne’s friend from the Oxford group.
A man from New York had been asking around, she said, looking for someone to talk with, someone with a drinking problem like his own. Yes, this seemed awfully strange, yet the man was quite sincere. And urgent. Maybe he could help.
Bob hated his life. Worse, he had begun to hate himself. If there was any way to stop the relentless merry-go-round-and keep it stopped-Lord knows he would rush to embrace it! But there was no solution, it seemed, short of a last, permanent blackout. Why would some New York city slicker want to talk to him anyhow? Probably a con man with more spiritual patent medicine to peddle; Bob was in no mood for any more holier-than-thou lectures about his drinking.
But Anne was persistent. And after all, it was Mother’s Day. The least he could do for her was hear the guy out – but only for fifteen minutes.
A Friend in Need
“It is a wonderful thing when a sick person finds another wounded with that same sickness: how great a consolation to find you are not alone. The two become a powerful help to each other in suffering and meriting. (Teresa of Avila, Book of Her Life 34, 16)
Fifteen minutes became five hours as the stranger spun out his story. Bob listened as intently as his alcoholic haze allowed, and then with growing excitement. For Bill Wilson was a drunk, just like him. He knew the lonely horror Bob was going through because he had lived it. He didn’t preach or moralize or sell; he just sat and quietly talked about himself. Soon Bob was laughing along with him as they shared tales of their woeful escapades.
What really got Bob’s attention was that Bill had found a way out of the vicious circle, and that he needed help staying out. That was what brought him to Bob. In an amazing twist on the usual order of things, Bill needed Bob in order to stay sober himself. The ironies grew: Stockbroker Bill explained to Doctor Bob how alcoholism is an illness – a mental obsession and a bodily allergy, he called it, powerful enough to defeat the strongest exertions of the will and dooming its sufferers to insanity, jail or death. Yet he had escaped the sentence.
The pair discovered that they had more in common than their addiction to drink. As the evening wore on Bob found that Bill was also a Vermont Yankee. He had been born in Dorset in 1895, when Bob was sixteen.
Bill talked of the nagging feeling of not belonging, not measuring up, that he experienced even as a small boy, of how he tried to overcome those feelings with dogged persistence and a compulsive drive to win acceptance through success, to be “Number One Man.” He recalled the months of trial and error until he perfected a working boomerang, the years of lonely practice on a family niolin.
Like Bob, Bill was tall and lanky, and enjoyed fair success as a high school athlete. Crushed by the death of a teenage sweetheart, he plunged into a depression, forerunner to several he would suffer over the years.
This one eased in 1913: Bill met Lois Burnham, beginning one of the greatest stories of unconditional love one is likely to find – much like that of Annie and Bob. He then enrolled at Norwich University, the Vermont military school, only to be called to active war duty before completing his degree. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, awaiting transport to Europe, Bill fell in love again – this time with alcohol. He was powerless from the start.
Lois and Bill were married in January, 1918, and Bill immediately shipped out for France and World War I. After the Armistice the couple moved into the Burnham home in Brooklyn. Bill found that he fit right in with the brash, boisterous atmosphere of New York in the Roaring Twenties. He toured the country investigating companies for brokerage houses and stock exchanges, virtually inventing the profession of stock analyst. His reports proved incisive and accurate, his clients prospered and Bill turned some tidy profits trading on his own.
Yet the drinking progressed. Shrewd competence turned into power-driven arrogance at work and at home. The 1929 Stock Market Crash left the Wilsons broke, and broken. Bill tried to get back on his feet in Canada, only to be fired because of his drinking.
Bill’s misery in the early 1930s mirrored the nation. Brokerage firms didn’t want him around anymore; the few jobs he was able to beg ended in drunken failure. Like Bob, he became a daily, round-the-clock drinker, stealing scarce cash from Lois’s department store earnings to buy more alcohol. Their home life was chaotic, and Bill fell into ever deeper bouts of depression, his life a whirling, sickening roller coaster of frenzied binges and degrading morning-after.
Like Bob, Bill wanted the ride to stop. As early as 1927 he had written to his boss at the brokerage, sincerely pledging to quit drinking. Almost annually he would pen anguished letters to Lois in the family bible, swearing that this time he would quit, this time would be different. “He continually asks for my help,” she wrote, “and we have been trying together almost daily for five years to find an answer to his drinking problem, but it is worse now than ever.”
A stay at Towns Hospital offered a glimmer of hope, Dr. William Silkworth told Bill that his problem was not lack of will power or moral depravity, but an illness. Bill went home with renewed self-esteem, only to get drunk again within weeks. This time the prognosis was complete insanity or death – within the year. Bill was thirty-nine.
In November of 1934, Ebby, an old drinking pal, dropped by to visit. Bill was glad to see him, hoping for a break in his lonely routine of solitary drinking and suffering. But his friend wanted only to talk – no drink.
Ebby told Bill he had been dry for some time, that he had experienced a spiritual rejuvenation through an Oxford group, the movement Annie and Bob were trying in Akron.
Ebby had been recruited by another Oxford member, a man who had literally roamed the earth seeking a medical or psychiatric cure for his drinking. He finally turned to Carl Jung in Zurich, who told him there was nothing he could do for a case as desperate as his. But Jung added that some had been relieved of alcoholism and similar torments by experiencing a spiritual transformation. He urged his patients to affiliate with some group that stressed inner, spiritual change. The man found the Oxford group, and then Ebby, Ebby found Bill.
Bill couldn’t help but see the change in Ebby; everything about him was different, especially his attitude. Ebby stressed that working with others was ,a keystone in Oxford’s philosophy, the “helper” deriving the greatest benefit. Bill listened, but took no action. Within a month he was back at Towns. Severe psychosis was setting in, and Dr. Silkworth told Lois that “wet brain” was around the corner.
“Something happened” to Bill one night in that hospital. In his blackest moment of despair and self-pity he begged whatever God there was to help – and meant it.
At once he knew his plea was answered. He felt enfolded in light and a deep peace flooded through him, routing his anguish, guilt and despair. The change in Bill was immediate and startling. A few days later, an amazed but cautious Dr. Silkworth released him from the hospital. Bill Wilson lived another thirty-six years without desiring a drink.
Bill and Lois attended Oxford meetings together, and Bill spent most of his waking hours carrying Ebby’s message to other alcoholics. None got sober; success-driven Bill became progressively discouraged and frustrated. Weeks later he suddenly realized how stunningly successful his effort really was: he wasn’t drinking!
This was no white-knuckle, tough-it-out, II dry II sobriety. Bill’s craving had gone, the mental obsession had vanished. The key was to live day by day according to spiritual principles: surrender to God, continual interior housecleaning, prayer, and service to other sufferers.
By spring Bill was well enough to look for work again. Wall Street had shunned him for years; no one wanted to risk another Wilson fiasco. Bill patiently made daily rounds at the brokerages and exchanges, sober now, not drunk, hung over, or looking for a handout or a place to crash. Old colleagues noticed, and became willing to take a chance on Bill Wilson again.
Through such a connection, Bill had traveled to Akron to carry out a complex transaction. The negotiations went badly and by that May Saturday morning Bill felt defeat and failure. Tomorrow was Mother’s Day, and he missed Lois. There was plenty of time to kill, to get depressed – maybe in the hotel lounge, maybe with a ginger ale . ..or maybe “just one” would do no harm.
Such mental clamor could mean only one thing: Bill needed help. He needed to share with another alcoholic. But how to find one? He immediately spotted a church directory by the hotel desk. Clergymen always know of problem drinkers; Bill headed for the directory instead of the lounge. A few phone calls later, and the connection with Annie Smith’s Oxford friend was made.
“I have taken off my robe; must I put it on again? I have washed my feet; must I dirty them again?” (Song of Songs 5:3)
Bill remained in Akron trying to salvage what he could of his business project, and visiting with Bob and Annie everyday. Dr Bob stayed sober, and at the end of May headed for a medical convention in Atlantic City.
And a relapse: a silent telephone meant only one thing to Bill and Annie, and they dreaded meeting Bob at the Akron depot. A very drunk, very sick man tottered off the train, one who admitted right on the station platform that he was licked. Half measures ended for Bob Smith that day, and he immediately picked up the simple tools of Bill’s program. It was June 10, 1935, and Bob stayed sober until his death in 1950. The spiritual movement that later became Alcoholics Anonymous began that day with two “members,” one a stranger on a futile business trip and the other barely able to stand.
Within days Bill and Bob found member #3. Bill soon returned to New York, but traveled frequently to Akron to share experiences and ideas with Bob, Annie, and a growing band of recovering alcoholics.
Annie? Yes, for she and other spouses attended the meetings right along with the alcoholics. Lois did the same in New York. By 1937, the Wilsons and Smiths could count forty sober people between the two cities, forty people who had stayed away from drink for significant periods of time – by any past measurement, an astounding result.
Ever the promoter, Bill persuaded both groups to publish their message: if 40 could be helped, why not 400, or even 400,000? A book was soon in the works. Draft chapters went back and forth between Akron and New York, sparking a year-long debate; the members couldn’t agree on how their program worked. Variety and individuality flourished in typical American style, giving rise to the A.A. aphorism, ‘My sobriety could get you drunk.”
The haggling ended by December of 1938. Everyone – even the atheists – finally agreed on that formulation of spiritual principles now known as the Twelve Steps. Alcoholics Anonymous, A.A.’s “Big Book” (which incidentally provided a name for the movement) went to press.
Of course there’s much more to tell, but that’s another story.
The short quotations introducing each section of our story reveal the heart of twelve-step spirituality. They also symbolize the timeless, universal character of spiritual principles, as reinterpreted in all their vigor in the specific time, place and circumstances of twentieth-century America, and as incarnated in the very common life stories of everyday American people. Like Saint Paul, Bill and Bob discovered the transforming power of admitting our own powerlessness and vulnerability, of owning and accepting the messy facts of our existence, and letting a “Power greater than ourselves” put sense and order into our story. This is humility, the essence Of A.A.’s first three steps, and a homegrown counterweight to American preoccupation with power, invulnerability, and the trappings of prestige and success. Like Saint Teresa, Bill and Bob found that a story untold does not unfold. Honest sharing in healthy relationships is as necessary for growth as rain for a garden. Spiritual friendship is the energy that makes the steps work, and a training ground for authentic intimacy and loving detachment.
Like the Beloved in the Song of Songs, Bill and Bob learned that the best stories are love stories. And the very best are not romantic fantasies but everyday stories of people putting on their robes and dirtying their feet, of troubles faced, obligations met, and service gladly rendered, again and again.
In sum, the Twelve Steps are a simple prescription for cultivating the ageless qualities of humility, detachment, and unconditional love. They emerged from the otherwise tragic and even sordid circumstances of twentieth-century America. But from such sorry materials, Bill, Bob, Lois, Annie – and millions like them – continue to tell us a true “American success story.”