Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilsonby Francis Hartigan
When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for… See more details below
When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for millions, he was no saint. After cofounding Alcoholics Anonymous, he stayed sober for over thirty-five years, helping countless thousands rebuild their lives. But at the same time, Wilson suffered form debilitating bouts of clinical depression, was a womanizer, and experimented with LSD.
Francis Hartigan, the former secretary and confidant to Wilson's wife, Lois, has exhaustively researched his subject, writing with a complete insider's knowledge. Drawing on extensive interviews with Lois Wilson and scores of early members of AA, he fully explores Wilson's organizational genius, his devotion to the cause, and almost martyr-like selflessness. That Wilson, like all of us, had to struggle with his own personal demons makes this biography all the more moving and inspirational. Hartigan reveals the story of Wilson's life to be as humorous, horrific, and powerful as any of the AA vignettes told daily around the world.
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IN THIS CORNER
The thing people who knew Bill Wilson seem to admire the most about him was his mind. Bill was a highly intelligent and talented individual with an eclectic approach to problem solving. He was unhesitant about taking what already existed and adapting it to suit his purpose. He was also capable of engaging in an extended process of profound, original thinking. When something interested him, he was a prodigiously hard worker, but he had a seemingly constitutional inability to behave like other people. If you needed someone who could show up every day and do what needed to be done, Bill Wilson was not your man. Whenever this was required of him, he failed.
Lois was in many ways Bill's opposite. He was well over six feet tall, while she barely topped five. Bill was all length and lean, while Lois, always more filled out than he was, in her middle years tended to be stout. Both had brilliant, iconoclastic minds and a quick and original sense of humor. Both were very good people. Bill was born November 26, 1895, Lois March 4, 1891, and in some ways they were products more of the nineteenth century than of the twentieth. They were fiercely ambitious, but for them, doing well had little to do with material success. For Bill Wilson and for Lois Burnham Wilson, the doing well that truly mattered was the result of good works.
Bill was compulsive, given to emotional extremes. Even after he stopped drinking, he was still a heavy consumer of cigarettes and coffee. He had a sweet tooth, a large appetite for sex, a major enthusiasm for LSD, and, later, for niacin, a B-complex vitamin. Lois was, by nature, abstentious. Although no one would accuse her of being plodding, she was nothing if not steady. She never smoked, had virtually no interest in sweets, drank two cups of coffee a day, never slept with any man except Bill, and gave up sex altogether with menopause.
When Bill joined with Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, and others in their early experiments with LSD, Lois didn't have the slightest curiosity about it. When at Bill's urging she finally took LSD herself, she claimed not to have felt a thing. Of those who witnessed her one attempt at tripping, only Bill, who desperately wanted her to experience what he was, ever contradicted her version of the event.
Lois drank, but her idea of drinking was to have a scotch and water, orin the summer months a gin and tonic, before dinner. The only time she or anyone else could recall her ever getting drunk was when she did so deliberately, in an attempt to show Bill how ridiculous he looked when he was. When, at the age of ninety-five, her doctor told her that she would be better off if she did not drink at all, she stopped completely and never looked back. Lois's steadiness did not keep her from being an interesting and engaging woman, with a willingness to flout convention that was every bit a match for her husband's. She had her enthusiasms, but they were as unvarying as her devotion to Bill.
Perhaps the biggest way in which Bill and Lois differed had to do with their backgrounds. Anyone who cared to could justifiably accuse Lois of marrying below her class. Bill was always very much aware of this, but he was neither as lowborn nor as uncultured as he felt himself to be. Lois's family never regarded him as their inferior. On the contrary, they welcomed him into the fold and treated him like one of their own.
Bill came from a long line of "real" Vermonters, Vermont born and bred. His father's family had for generations worked in the marble quarries of Mount Aeolus as foremen and managers. His father's father, William Wilson, Bill's namesake, had married into another old Vermont family, the Barrows. Several generations earlier, a Barrows had built the largest house in East Dorset, a small town halfway between Rutland and Bennington in southwestern Vermont. Bill's great-grandfather Barrows converted the house to an inn that functioned as the community's social center.
The Wilson family was known to produce great "public" people. Wilsons were pleasant and sociable, great storytellers, and widely admired, but they were not good at more intimate relationships. The same alcohol that made them outgoing with strangers or casual acquaintances seemed to leave them incapable of admitting the need for, let alone sustaining, deeper human contacts. Bill's paternal grandfather renamed the Barrows House the Wilson House, now famous in AA circles as the birthplace of Bill W. Bill saw a lot of his paternal grandfather, William Wilson, and his paternal grandmother, Helen Wilson. In time, Bill would have more in common with his grandfather Wilson than his name.
As the highest point visible from East Dorset, Mount Aeolus had great symbolic value. Bill said one of his early recollections was of looking up from his crib, seeing the "vast and mysterious" mountain, and wondering whether he would ever climb that high. Many years later, in attempting to describe the spiritual conversion he had experienced in December 1934, Bill said he "felt lifted up, as though the great clean wind of a mountain top blew through and through."
Bill's grandfather Wilson also linked Mount Aeolus to a profound spiritualexperience. William Wilson may have preferred inn keeping to quarrying, but inn keeping is seldom the right occupation for a hard-drinking man. His attempts to control his drinking led him to try Temperance pledges and the services of revival-tent preachers. Then, in a desperate state one Sunday morning, he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus. There, after beseeching God to help him, he saw a blinding light and felt the wind of the Spirit. It was a conversion experience that left him feeling so transformed that he practically ran down the mountain and into town.
When he reached the East Dorset Congregational Church, which is across the street from the Wilson House, the Sunday service was in progress. Bill's grandfather stormed into the church and demanded that the minister get down from the pulpit. Then, taking his place, he proceeded to relate his experience to the shocked congregation. Wilson's grandfather never drank again. He was to live another eight years, sober.
Bill's mother's family included doctors, lawyers, teachers, and storekeepers. At the turn of the century, about three hundred people lived in East Dorset, many of them in houses owned by Gardiner Fayette Griffith, Bill's maternal grandfather, who was known as Fayette. Fayette's cousin, Silas Griffith, made his fortune in lumbering and was Vermont's first millionaire. Fayette himself had gone into lumbering, importing lumberjacks from Canada to harvest hardwoods in the mountains near East Dorset. His other interests included farming and real estate. He even owned East Dorset's water supply. Bill's grandmother Ella Griffith was a much less forceful personality than her husband, but she was kind and loving toward Bill. Clarence Griffith, Bill's uncle, had died the year before Bill was born, and Bill seems to have played a surrogate role for the senior Griffiths. Fayette doted on Bill's every accomplishment and saw to it that he had everything a boy could possibly desire, including his own horse and, unusual for the time, a motorcycle. Fayette also provided Bill with a kit from which he built one of the first crystal radio sets in Vermont.
Fayette was a great reader, and he encouraged his grandson's interest in reading. Bill would later recall going on "reading jags" at an early age, during which he would go to bed more to read than to sleep. Fayette also tried to impart to Bill his own strong work ethic. Bill worked on his grandfather's dairy farm, made maple syrup every spring, and became skilled enough in woodworking to make his own bows and arrows, skis, and sleds. He also tried unsuccessfully to build a glider, in imitation of the Wright Brothers.
Bill's father, Gilman Wilson, and his mother, Emily Griffith, were widely liked and admired. They had known each other all their lives, and they had a lot in common, including exceptional intelligence and ambition. Giventhe limited extent of their acquaintance with the world beyond Dorset Township, their marriage seemed inevitable. But as uncommon as divorce was in that time and place, they found it as inevitable when their differences began to grate.
Some people can truthfully say of one of their parents that he or she was not the sort of person who should have had children. In Bill's case, this seems to have been true of both his parents, for they seem always to have been more interested in their own lives than they were in Bill's or his sister's.
Their marriage was a stormy one. After their divorce when Bill was eleven, his father took a job in western Canada, and Bill did not see or hear from his father for nine years. His mother, who had been absent for extended periods, moved to Boston to study and practice medicine, leaving Bill and his sister, Dorothy, an intelligent and pretty girl several years his junior, with her parents. Bill saw very little of his mother after that. Understandably, both his parents' behavior toward him marked him in ways that would affect him the rest of his life.
Bill's family did not have the educational background Lois's did, but his father had been to college, and his mother was a teacher before she married. The Griffiths lived next door to the town library, and Bill had free run of it. Bill was exposed to music at an early age, and his family encouraged his aptitude for science and invention. While he began his education in the two-room schoolhouse in East Dorset, from age eight to age eleven, he also attended school in the nearby Vermont city of Rutland when his family lived there. He spent his high school years at Burr and Burton Seminary in Manchester, an old and well-established private school.
Fayette Griffith, Bill's grandfather, clearly loved his grandson, and he and Bill were close. Both of Bill's grandparents seem to have done their best to meet his emotional needs, and Bill was also close to his sister, Dorothy. He saw a lot of both the Griffith and the Wilson sides of his large and, by Vermont standards, rather prosperous extended family. His mother returned to East Dorset several times a year, and they exchanged letters when she was in Boston.
Bill claimed always to have felt self-conscious about his small-town background, but given his parents' lack of interest in him, it may have been an advantage. In addition to Bill's maternal grandparents, other people also played a parental role. These included Bill and Rose Landon, the couple next door to the Griffiths who ran the town library out of their home, and Mark Whalon, a man ten years Bill's senior who was in college when he and Bill met.
Whalon made an important contribution to Bill's knowledge of theworld of ideas and of the world itself beyond rural Vermont. In doing so, he was continuing an effort begun by Bill's father who, when drunk, had a penchant for waxing philosophical. Like his grandfather Wilson, Bill's father was a hard-drinking man. Whalon also did something else Bill's father surely would have done: he took the young Bill Wilson to one of the local taverns. Bill drank unfermented cider on this occasion, but he found the male camaraderie and egalitarian ease he encountered there as seductive as alcohol would be later, even when he was drinking alone.
Bill could not compete with Lois's social experience, but neither was he the rube he felt himself to be. He was very popular at Burr and Burton, where he was president of his senior class. Many of the "summer people" were in his circle of friends, including the Burnham boys from Brooklyn, with Lois's brother Rogers and Bill particularly close.
If Bill Wilson's background was not as modest as he liked to claim, neither was Lois Burnham's as high as she sometimes made it out to be. Her father, Clark, was a prominent physician in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and her father's father had been a physician, a lawyer, and a minister of the Swedenborgian Church. One of her father's cousins was Daniel Burnham, the famous Chicago architect. Her mother, Matilda Hoyt Spelman, was from an old aristocratic American family. A cousin of her maternal grandfather's was married to John D. Rockefeller, Sr., whom Lois would later recall meeting at a family gathering.
Lois's family lived in a row house in Brooklyn Heights, only blocks away from both sets of grandparents. The Burnhams had a cook, a maid, and a man to tend the fires, make the repairs, and take care of the horses and carriage. In the spring, the whole household would follow her father's patients to Manchester, Vermont, where her mother's family had a smaller version of the grand Victorian houses that line Manchester's Main Street. Lois's father was a champion amateur golfer and a founder of the exclusive Ekwanok Country Club. Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's son, lived in Manchester and donated the land for the club. The Lincolns were social acquaintances of the Burnhams, and Lois played with their children. Lois went to Packer Collegiate, an exclusive girls school in Brooklyn, and her brothers and sisters also went to private schools. Her brothers went on to become physicians like her father.
It was all quite grand, but their life had a marginal quality, as well. The Brooklyn Heights house was on Clinton Street, which marked the easternmostboundary of the exclusive heights neighborhood, and barely a block from Atlantic Avenue, which is its southernmost boundary. The house was also a brick front rather than the more fashionable brownstone. Throughout Lois's childhood, it was rented, not owned. Some of the family furnishings were other people's discards that Lois's father had literally picked up off the curb. While her father eventually bought the house, he later defaulted on the mortgage.
Lois's childhood was marked by steadily diminishing expectations. She was the first of five children, three girls and two boys. As the family expanded, its fortunes contracted, for while her father's practice included many of his fellow Brooklyn-Manchester Victorians, there weren't enough of them. He also accepted patients so poor that he never bothered to send them a bill.
There was another aspect to the family's growing impoverishment. In spite of the many differences, Lois's family background may have been much more like Bill's than either of them ever acknowledged. Lois always characterized her family's annual migration to Manchester as something of a forced march, since staying in Brooklyn would have largely left her father without an income. The truth is that it was more a matter of keeping up appearances. They went to Vermont every spring because her mother's family had always done so.
Clark Burnham may have occasionally prescribed for some of his Brooklyn patients when they were in Vermont, but he was never accepted as a practicing member of the Manchester medical community. The reason for this had more to do with his personal reputation than his medical skills. Burnham was known as someone who liked a good time above all else. He could be loud and boisterous. He was also known as a hard drinker, a cardplayer, and a womanizer who was not very particular as to whether the object of his attentions was single or married. This lifestyle may have affected his medical career in Brooklyn, as well, for he was rumored to have been denied privileges at a New York hospital. It was certainly too much for the medical establishment in Manchester. Clark Burnham never had an office in Vermont, and he was never admitted to the local medical society.
During the six months a year the family spent in Vermont, her father's income seems to have been meager, at best. As the family expanded, what began as difficulty in keeping up appearances became a struggle to make ends meet. The family began to rent out the large Manchester house and a few years later, they sold it. Beginning when Lois was still a young child, her family did not live in Manchester at all but in a camp on Emerald Lake, near East Dorset. The carriage was maintained until cars camealong, because it would not do for a doctor of his social class to make house calls on horseback. The size of the household staff diminished, with some servants kept on primarily out of loyalty. Silas, the last of their coachmen, stayed on to tend the fires, and he was still there long after the Wilsons could offer him nothing but a roof over his head. Lois has written that parting from him was one of the saddest things about having to leave the house on Clinton Street in 1939, six years after her father defaulted on the mortgage.
Lois's childhood may have been the envy of many, but it was also increasingly threadbare and anxiety filled. The gentility she knew was characterized by mending and fixing, by making do and going without. It was good preparation for the life she would lead as the wife of the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is true that, whatever the financial strains, Lois's family was accepted in social circles a family like Bill's could only dream about. But as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, the old order was collapsing. Bill's mother, former wife of a quarry foreman, became an osteopath, married an M.D., and made a new life for herself. Bill's sister, Dorothy, who wanted to be an actor, instead trained as a nurse. She married an osteopath and moved to New York City, where her husband's patients, many of whom were also their social friends, included trustees of the Rockefeller Foundation and the rector of Riverside Church, whose parishioners included the Rockefeller family itself.
Unlike Bill, Dorothy seems to have made the transition to a better life without difficulty. But Dorothy saw more of their mother than Bill did. Their father, whom Bill needed more than she, was the colder and more distant of their parents even before he disappeared from their lives.
Bill's memories of his father were of a happy man who was a good storyteller and immensely well liked. Before the divorce, Gilman spent time with his son and encouraged Bill's interest in science. Bill recalled that when he developed a passion for baseball during the family's time in Rutland, his father would play catch with him in the evenings after work. Apparently, however, none of this pierced his father's essential remoteness. When Gilman died in 1954, Bill would say that he had hardly known him.
Bill remembered his mother as a disciplinarian. Emily was a strong-willed woman with little capacity for warmth and understanding, particularly when it came to her son. Bill never criticized his mother, but his childhood letters to her are characterized by a plaintive longing for her attention and approval. In recollections of his childhood recorded in 1954, Bill recalled his mother giving him his first "good" spanking, administeredwith the back of a hairbrush, and he recalled the "agony of hostility and fear" with which he received it. Bill also said that he could never forget the experience.
The Burnhams were more like "real" Vermonters than many of the summer people the Wilsons and the Griffiths knew. They had left the social life of Manchester behind for the more rugged existence of the camp on Emerald Lake. Photographs of Lois's mother reveal her to be robust, strong, and vital, a woman who bore no resemblance to a cosseted Victorian matron. Lois's father prided himself on his physical daring-do, and he could easily have lain claim to being as rugged as any native-born man in the Green Mountain State.
Bill might have felt inferior to Lois, but he was a good and genuine young man of intelligence, physical stature, and looks. He had a winning personality, and he showed promise. Lois's family had known him most of his life, and they had known his family even longer. Given the kind of people Lois's parents were and their knowledge of Bill, it is not surprising that they would welcome their daughter's choice into the family and treat him as one of their own.
BILL W.: A BIOGRAPHY OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS COFOUNDER BILL WILSON. Copyright © 2000 by Francis Hartigan. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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