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— The New York Times Book Review
"Susan Cheever...decants the ups and downs of a remarkable man [and] does so in her distinctive style: succinct chapters, pithy profiles and telling detail...even more important are the insights and empathy so credibly her own as a reformed drinker who attended meetings of AA with her father, novelist John Cheever."
— The New York Times Book Review
"As the biography of one of the most humane and beneficial Americans who ever lived, it is a national treasure."
— Kurt Vonnegut
"[A] wise, well-reported life story of the man who changed the way the world deals with addiction."
— Chicago Sun-Times
Chapter One: The Wilson House
The evening before Thanksgiving on November 25, 1895, Mrs. Emily Griffith Wilson, twenty-five years old, very confused and very pregnant, might have been found in the Wilson House hotel kitchen as the afternoon cold settled in outside and the steam formed on the windowpanes. She was preparing to bake an apple pie, cutting the apples and then rolling out the crust, and keeping an eye on the popcorn just warming up in a cast-iron pan over the woodstove. The big north-facing room where she worked smelled of cooking: of flour and the sweetness of apples, of a batch of sugar cookies and the sausage frying for the stuffing. Usually, she found these smells delicious, but this afternoon they were nauseating. Pregnancy ruined everything, she thought.
Emily could hear the others thumping around upstairs, Grandma Wilson and Gilly, and the rhythmic thunk, thunk of someone splitting wood in the big shed where the sheep and goats were penned in for the winter. Up the hill a dog barked. Out the back windows the kitchen garden, where a few pumpkins still lazed against the cold earth, was framed by the white columns of the porch, the big pine tree, and the road that followed Mad Tom Brook down to the peaked roof of the railroad station. She could hear the trains going through three times each day — the Green Mountain Flyer and the midnight sleeper when she was up late. The track came down from Montreal, past Dorset Pond just a few miles north, then right past the general store and the cheese factory, and then down the valley toward Manchester Depot and Manchester Village on the way to Albany, where you could change for Boston or New York City. Grover Cleveland was president, New York City police had just cracked down on an illicit distillery, and Oscar Hammerstein was packing them in at his Olympia Theater.
Across the green, as night fell and the pains made it harder for her to stay and work at the kitchen table, Emily could just see the parsonage where she and Gilly were planning to live once the baby was born. Then the lights went on in her parents' little white house with the cheerful red door and the green shutters. They would be over for dinner tomorrow, but the thought of them at prayer in the cozy little parlor where she had grown up made the pains subside for a moment. Not that their life had been perfect — life was always hard — but right now, alone for a moment, she remembered the innocent girl she had once been. Things had seemed so simple then. Slow-moving oxen pulled the great blocks of marble out of the mountains and loaded them onto railroad cars. There was maple sugaring in the spring and apple picking and cider in the fall. There was the General Store, where Mr. Barrows always smiled at her; the town meetings over in Dorset Village; the Grange Hall, where men argued about politics; the blacksmith shop where the family horses got new shoes; and the cobbler where she went for her own new shoes.
On the other side of the tracks were the marble mills where the blocks were cut into the slabs that were as common as grass all over town. East Dorset marble was the best marble in the world. There was her family's church and another church for the Irish who had come when the Freedleyville Quarry opened. There was school and playing and wonderful books. Emily had always imagined herself as Becky Thatcher in Mark Twain's book Tom Sawyer — adventurous, daring, and a little too smart for her own good. Her family, the Griffiths, were local nobility. They were the wealthiest family in town although they would never say so. Her father, Gardner Fayette Griffith, had fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. He had been at Gettysburg with the Vermont 14th Regiment and helped repel Pickett's charge and win the war for the righteous. He owned the town's waterworks. He and his cousin Silas had the idea of selling wood cut from the forests that blanketed the surrounding mountains, and it had been a very good idea.
For what seemed like a long time the Griffiths had lived happily in their house on the green with their children, their beloved son Clarence and their daughters Millie and Emily. Everyone knew how smart Emily was. After grade school she had gone off to train at the Normal School over in Castleton, and she had become a teacher in the local one-room schoolhouse. Emily had her heart set on more than teaching, though. "Success, success, success, let that be your watchword!" she exhorted her son years later. Now she exhorted herself. Even then, as she carried that first child through the summer and fall of 1895, she imagined being something greater, something a man might be, perhaps a doctor or a lawyer.
Emily loved her parents — her father often seemed to be the only person who really understood her. He understood that she was too big for life in their little village. She was aiming for larger things. Her mother was always reminding her that she was a woman and that she should act like a woman, but her father didn't seem to feel that way. She was like him, she told herself. She had high ambitions for everyone around her, ambitions that transcended gender. What her mother called stubbornness she saw as determination; determination like her father's. Even though her father was her best friend, the events of the last few years just seemed to have overwhelmed their friendship.
First Emily's little brother, Clarence, was sick. There was something wrong with his lungs. He couldn't breathe. Dr. Liddle came over from Dorset and said Clarence had to be sent to Colorado. Of course her parents followed instructions, but it was awful to see the little boy off on the train. Then they got word that the Colorado air hadn't worked. Clarence was dead. Ever since that boy died so far away, and no one knew who was there to comfort him in his last hours, Fayette had been different. Losing his ten-year-old son broke his heart. Even now, she knew her father didn't like complaining. Pregnancy wasn't something she would talk about with him; she had to concentrate on putting her fears aside.
Fayette Griffith expected that even children would adjust their feelings to life's little practicalities. She remembered the way he had reacted the one time she allowed herself to get sentimental about a farm animal. "Thanksgiving dinner with rousing fires in all the stoves to keep out the zero cold, and plenty of good cheer all around," she remembered forty years later. "The dinners were mostly always turkey. Occasionally we had chicken," she continued, "and once a little young barbecued pig — and that little pig was my pet — and the unusual sight of him made me feel kind of sick and faint." She wasn't allowed to leave the table.
A handsome Yankee woman with long chestnut hair, Emily couldn't believe how quickly she lay her ambitions aside and did what seemed to be expected of her, embracing marriage and motherhood. She was feeling angry at her husband Gilman, who was already not quite shaping up to be the man she had imagined he could be when they married a year before.
It was almost an arranged marriage. She and Gilly had known each other all their lives. Her family was no-nonsense and well off and lived on the north side of the green; his family was social and gregarious and owned the Wilson House on the south side of the green. Maybe that was the problem. She had grown up in a house; Gilly had grown up running an inn with his widowed mother, drinking with the guests and entertaining them even when he was a boy. Gilly was a charming man, a personable bachelor who had gone to Albany College in New York State. He had already been made manager of the North Quarry, and Emily had hoped that marriage would turn him into a responsible man.
Their family history seemed to affect Gilly in a different way than it affected her. At twilight on the night of November 25, as preparations for Thanksgiving dinner animated the big kitchen, she began to double over with the contractions — a kind of pain which dwarfed everything in her previous twenty-five years of life, even the bouts of anxiety that sometimes made her see blackness and feel that nothing was worthwhile.
The village of East Dorset is still a storybook sort of place. Picturesque but workaday, it's a town that has always been about industry — even if the product was as lovely as marble or as sweet as maple sugar. Its red and white frame houses huddle around a central green in front of a white clapboard Congregational church with a square, eight-pointed spire, in the narrow valley where Mad Tom Brook meets the Batten Kill. Called the Valley of Vermont, this verdant, limestone path in the land lies between the Green Mountains to the east and the Taconic Mountains to the west. A few miles north of East Dorset, at Dorset Pond in North Dorset, the valley narrows until only a few hundred yards separate the two mountain ranges. Mount Aeolus in the Taconic Range, named for its windy summit by a party of nineteenth-century climbers from Haverford College, slopes above East Dorset on the west side, while Bromley Mountain in the Green Mountain Range rises above the town to the east.
Sugar maples and oaks, pine and spruce trees, line the two village streets. The woods are still filled with birdsong and wildlife, owls hoot at night, and at the end of summer, flocks of geese honk their way across the sky. The sidewalks are paved with the snowy white marble veined in pale gray that comes from the local quarries. These underground shafts crisscross the surrounding mountains hundreds of feet under the rocky soil but occasionally erupt in a white burst against the green surface of the hills.
At the corner of Village Street and Mad Tom Road stands the Wilson House, still a rambling old dark red three-story building with white trim. Its rooms have been redone with flowered wallpaper and filled with sturdy oak furniture. Facing the rounded shape of Mount Aeolus, the long porch is the baseline for a jumble of clapboard dormers, shutters, and gables above it. Except for the church, it's the largest building in the small town, and it has been an inn since settlers first moved to this narrow valley back before Vermont was even a state, in the eighteenth century.
By the end of November the brilliant red and yellow of the New England fall is almost over and the trees throw skeleton shadows in the thin winter light. "No pen can describe the turning of the leaves," wrote Rudyard Kipling, who was living nearby in Brattleboro, Vermont, in his beloved house Naulahka and working on The Jungle Book. "The hillsides as far as the eye could range were afire, and the roads paved with crimson and gold....Then a wet wind blew...till nothing remained but pencil-shading of bare boughs, and one could see into the private heart of the woods." In those days between the brilliance of fall and the great snows of the Vermont winter, the air is sharp and cold. The sun disappears behind the mountain and the dark comes filtering down early. Nights are long. By the end of November, the huge piles of stacked firewood are already beginning to shrink, and the smell of snow and woodsmoke and the occasional baking apple pie swirls around the churchyard, past the old schoolhouse and across the brook toward Mount Aeolus and the world beyond.
Copyright © 2004 by Susan Cheever
1. The Wilson House
2. East Dorset
3. The Wilson Family and the Griffith Family
4. Dorset Pond
5. The Griffith House
6. The State of Vermont
7. Mark Whalon
8. Mount Aeolus
9. Burr and Burton
10. Bertha Bamford
11. Lois Burnham
12. New York City
13. New Bedford and the First Drink
Part Two: Drinking
15. The Edison Test
17. Motorcycle Hobos
18. Manchester Airport
20. Towns Hospital
Part Three: Alcoholics Anonymous
21. The Oxford Group
22. Akron, Ohio
23. 182 Clinton Street
24. Not Maximum
25. John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
26. Stepping Stones
27. 334 1/2 West 24th Street
28. Trabuco College
30. Our Common Welfare Should Come First
31. Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith
Part Four: Life After A.A.
32. The Spook Room
33. St. Louis, Missouri
34. Marty Mann
35. 526 Bedford Road
36. The Family Afterward
37. Carl Jung
Appendix: The Twelve Steps and The Twelve Traditions
Offering a fascinating look at Bill Wilson, one of Time Magazine's 100 List of The Most Important People of the 20th Century, My Name is Bill is a must read for anyone attempting to understand the broader context of Alcoholics Anonymous. Susan Cheever does a marvelous job of capturing the essence of what made this man a pioneer in treating alcoholism and, long after his death, other forms of addiction.
A larger than life figure, Wilson almost singlehandedly changed the prognosis for those suffering from alcoholism. But he was certainly no saint, and Cheever's portrayal is nicely balanced. We learn a great deal about what drove this uncommon individual and even a bit about some of his other struggles.
Wilson's 'Twelve Steps' approach is comparable to Dr. Albert Ellis's Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as a vehicle for assisting those struggling with personal demons find relief. Many (including this reader) believe Wilson's early recognition that this age-old problem requires a spiritual solution was divinely inspired.
Bill's insights into the disease of alcoholism based on his own experience stirred in him an uncanny prescience. He predicted that many alcoholics would find deliverance from their debilitating condition if they could only follow a few simple steps. Included among those, and perhaps most crucial, is finding the wherewithal to get through the next 24 hours without a drink.
Truly remarkable is how the man known simply as Bill W. transformed what can only be described as a life in precipitous decline - intractable alcoholism, unemployment, financial ruin, and a disintegrating marriage - into a beacon of hope for countless human beings. Ironically, while he struggled with his own implacable inner demons, most notably chronic depression, millions of alcoholics were clawing their way back from the brink of self-destruction. And those are just the ones who were alive during his lifetime!
Cheever writes, "Bill Wilson never held himself up as a model: he only hoped to help other people by sharing his own experience, strength and hope. He insisted again and again that he was just an ordinary man."
Wilson was anything but an "ordinary man."
His elegantly simple prescription for battling one's way back from booze-abetted disaster reflects pure genius. Although Bill was a reluctant model of a recovering alcoholic, his presence still looms large over the many thousands of AA groups that now meet across the globe. It is difficult to imagine many enduring contributions to mankind that exceed that of Bill Wilson's. Truly an epic 20th century figure!
Kudos to Susan Cheever for a well-researched, well-written biography.
This book should be required reading for anyone who suffers from alcoholism or who seeks a path to spiritual growth.
Posted August 21, 2006
I really enjoyed reading Cheever's book about Bill Wilson. This book is more than a tribute to Wilson's contribution to establishing AA. It has recorded the multiple issues that Wilson struggled through to find his personal way in life. I was left thinking that if ever a man needed an ounce of brain rest, it was Bill Wilson.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 18, 2004
Susan Cheever takes the story of a man who had a significant impact on the treatment of substance abuse - and deals with his life in an objective and fair manner. She paints a portrait of a man who had a lot of challenges - both external and of his own making - which was very refreshing. I learned a lot about the history of AA - including some very fascinating accounts of the early 'disagreements' of the founders in the early years. What I really enjoyed was Susan's insights into Bill's wife, Lois. So much emphasis has been placed on the founding of AA in other books - it was great reading about 'the other half'!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2009
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Posted December 9, 2009
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Posted April 26, 2010
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