From the rubble of a wasted life, he overcame alcoholism and founded the 12-step program that has helped millions of others do the same
Second Lieut. Bill W. didn’t think twice when the first butler he
had ever seen offered him a drink. The 22-year-old soldier didn’t
think about how alcohol had destroyed his family. He didn’t think
about the Yankee temperance movement of his childhood or his loving
fiance Lois B. or his emerging talent for leadership. He didn’t
think about anything at all. “I had found the elixir of life,” he
wrote. Bill’s last drink, 17 years later, when alcohol had destroyed
his health and his career, precipitated an epiphany that would change
his life and the lives of millions of other alcoholics. Incarcerated
for the fourth time at Manhattan’s Towns Hospital in 1934, Bill
had a spiritual awakening–a flash of white light, a liberating
awareness of God–that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous
and Bill’s revolutionary 12-step program, the successful remedy
for alcoholism. The 12 steps have also generated successful programs
for eating disorders, gambling, narcotics, debting, sex addiction
and people affected by others’ addictions. Aldous Huxley called
him “the greatest social architect of our century.”
William (Bill) G. W. grew up in a quarry town in Vermont. When he
was 10, his hard-drinking father headed for Canada, and his mother
moved to Boston, leaving the sickly child with her parents. As a
soldier, and then as a businessman, Bill W. drank to alleviate his
depressions and to celebrate his Wall Street success. Married in
1918, he and Lois toured the country on a motorcycle and appeared
to be a prosperous, promising young couple. By 1933, however, they
were living on charity in her parents’ house on Clinton Street in
Brooklyn, N.Y. Bill had become an unemployable drunk who disdained
religion and even panhandled for cash.
Inspired by a friend who had stopped drinking, Bill went to meetings
of the Oxford Group, an evangelical society founded in Britain by
Pennsylvania Frank Buchman. And as Bill underwent a barbiturate-and-belladonna
cure called “purge and puke,” which was state-of-the-art alcoholism
treatment at the time, his brain spun with phrases from Oxford Group
meetings, Carl Jung and William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,”
which he read in the hospital. Five sober months later, Bill W.
went to Akron, Ohio, on business. The deal fell through, and he
wanted a drink. He stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, entranced
by the sounds of the bar across the hall. Suddenly he became convinced
that by helping another alcoholic, he could save himself.
a series of desperate telephone calls, he found Dr. Robert S., a
skeptical drunk whose family persuaded him to give Bill W. 15 minutes.
Their meeting lasted for hours. A month later, Dr. Bob had his last
drink, and that date, June 10, 1935, is the official birth date
of A.A., which is based on the idea that only an alcoholic can help
another alcoholic. “Because of our kinship in suffering,” Bill wrote,
“our channels of contact have always been charged with the language
of the heart.”
Burnham house on Clinton Street became a haven for drunks. “My name
is Bill W., and I’m an alcoholic,” he told assorted houseguests
and visitors at meetings. To spread the word, he began writing down
his principles for sobriety. Each chapter was read by the Clinton
Street group and sent to Smith in Akron for more editing. The book
had a dozen provisional titles, among them “The Way Out” and “The
Empty Glass.” Edited to 400 pages, it was finally called “Alcoholics
Anonymous,” and this became the group’s name.
the book, although well reviewed, wasn’t selling. Bill W. tried
unsuccessfully to make a living as a wire-rope salesman. A.A. had
about a hundred members, but many were still drinking. Meanwhile,
in 1939, the bank foreclosed on the Clinton Street house, and the
couple began years of homelessness, living as guests in borrowed
rooms and at one point staying in temporary quarters above the A.A.
clubhouse on 24th Street in Manhattan. In 1940 John D. Rockefeller
Jr. held an A.A. dinner and was impressed enough to create a trust
to provide Bill W. with $30 a week–but no more. The tycoon felt
that money would corrupt the group’s spirit.
in March 1941, The Saturday Evening Post published an article on
A.A., and suddenly thousands of letters and requests poured in.
Attendance at meetings doubled and tripled. Bill W. had reached
his audience. In “Twelve Traditions,” Bill set down the suggested
bylaws of Alcoholics Anonymous. In them, he created an enduring
blueprint for an organization with a maximum of individual freedom
and no accumulation of power or money. Public anonymity ensured
humility. No contributions were required; no member could contribute
more than $1,000.
more than 2 million A.A. members in 150 countries hold meetings
in church basements, hospital conference rooms and school gyms,
following Bill’s informal structure. Members identify themselves
as alcoholics and share their stories; there are no rules or entry
requirements, and many members use only first names.
W. believed the key to sobriety was a change of heart. The suggested
12 steps include an admission of powerlessness, a moral inventory,
a restitution for harm done, a call to service and a surrender to
some personal God. In A.A., God can be anything from a radiator
to a patriarch. Influenced by A.A., the American Medical Association
has redefined alcoholism as a chronic disease, not a failure of
Alcoholics Anonymous grew, Bill W. became its principal symbol.
He helped create a governing structure for the program, the General
Service Board, and turned over his power. “I have become a pupil
of the A.A. movement rather than the teacher,” he wrote. A smoker
into his 70s, he died of pneumonia and emphysema in Miami, where
he went for treatment in 1971. To the end, he clung to the principles
and the power of anonymity. He was always Bill W., refusing to take
money for counseling and leadership. He turned down many honors,
including a degree from Yale. And he declined this magazine’s offer
to put him on the cover–even with his back turned.
Susan Cheever, a novelist and memoirist, is the author of “Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker”