Clean and Sober
How Bill W. Founded
Alcoholics Anonymous and
by Bob Frost
Lord, 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 of exhilaration.
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 glory.
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 without alcohol.
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 recovery groups.)
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 mental/emotional problems.
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.
Sidebar: A Look Inside Alcoholics Anonymous
People 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 services.
- 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 problem.
- 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 problem.
- 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.
(Source: Biography, January 2003)