My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
by Susan Cheever
Spirit against spirits
A review by John Sutherland
Alcoholics Anonymous proclaims itself the largest self-help movement in the world.
With the fall of Communism, its integration into hospital rehabilitation therapy
and court sentencing, and the adoption of its twelve-step programme for addictions
ranging from chocolate, through cocaine, to sex, AA can only get bigger.
Once associated with sad old men in church basements, the fellowship has become
chic. Two critically admired confessional best-sellers ("drunkalogs",
in AA speak) currently testify to the fellowship's power to save: James Frey's
Million Little Pieces and Augusten Burroughs's Dry.
Both authors loyally bear witness that "It Works!" the slogan that
is ritually chanted, after the Serenity Prayer, at the end of meetings. Given
AA's twelfth tradition ("Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our
traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities"),
it is impossible to know how well it actually does work. You cannot do market
research in AA because no questions are asked and groups keep no register. Since
its inception in the mid-1930s the fellowship has boasted a success rate as
high as 75 per cent. Hospitals which have incorporated AA as patient treatment
claim much lower figures. In the meetings I have attended over the past twenty
years, I would guess around 15 per cent of those who come through the (always
open) door eventually "make it".
In one sense it clearly does work in that, unlike innumerable other temperance
movements, AA is still with us, seventy years after its foundation. Paradoxically,
it is what AA does not do which explains its survival. It eschews the accumulation
of money or power, prohibits individual leadership and, as its sixth tradition
enjoins, never "endorses, finances, or lends the AA name to any related
facility or outside enterprise". AA has no treasury, no L. Ron Hubbard,
no skyscraper in Manhattan, no lobbyists in Washington.
Susan Cheever is firmly of the "It Works!" party. She too has written
her "drunkalog" (Note
Found in a Bottle). Cheever encountered resistance from AA purists on the
grounds that a biography of Bill Wilson would be putting "personalities
before principle". But her justification for plucking AA's co-founder from
anonymity is that he matters too much to be left there. "Bill Wilson's
ideas", she asserts, "have entered the common consciousness and changed
how we define being human in a way certainly as powerful as the ideas of Sigmund
Freud or Thomas Jefferson."
Wilson's life is well known and Cheever adds relatively little to the large
outline. He was born in rural Vermont in 1895 to parents who promptly divorced.
Having flunked out of college and married early, he became a Wall Street broker
and drank his way through Prohibition, by the end of which he was a constantly
relapsing alcoholic. In 1935, in Akron, Ohio, he met Robert Smith ("Dr
Bob"), another alcoholic. The two men concluded that "only drunks
can help drunks", and experimented with the group techniques that eventually
congealed as AA. The movement had difficulty getting off the ground until a
1941 Saturday Evening Post article attracted a great deal of attention. Throughout
life, Wilson resolutely declined any personal credit or fame and, in 1955, transferred
what leadership function he had to a governing council claiming only to be
"just another recovering drunk". He died in 1971.
In Cheever's analysis, AA is a synthesis of "five or six philosophical
streams". One derives from the Vermont small community "town meeting".
Horatio Alger is also in there somewhere. Much of AA's apparatus comes from
Frank Buchman's Oxford Movement. The twelve steps derive from that movement's
six tenets. The emphasis on publicly confessed "surrender" (see AA's
first step, "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol") is a clear
OM borrowing. Where AA deviates from the Oxford Movement is that it does not
cosy up to politicians (notoriously Hitler), or publicly woo celebrities and
Cheever lays formative stress on AA's discovery of the "disease concept"
of alcoholism. It exculpates alcoholics, enabling them to see themselves as
sick rather than sinful (something that George W. Bush's favoured "faith-based"
centres are currently seeking to reverse). Is AA therapy or (as its critics
persistently allege) a cult? Carl Jung (another founding influence) wrote in
a letter to Wilson in 1961 that: "alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you
use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most
depraving poison. The helpful formula, therefore, is spiritus contra spiritum".
It is the religion in AA that saves you, Jung believed, rather than the treatment
that cures you.
Personally, Wilson had a lifelong attraction towards mysticism and junk religion.
He was drawn by its ritualism not its theology to Catholicism, and contemplated
conversion. In later life, he flirted with Gerald Heard's and Aldous Huxley's
West Coast Vedanta and took LSD with the two expatriate gurus. He was an ardent
spiritualist, going through life with AA's Big Book in one hand, and a Ouija
board in the other. In his house he had a basement "Spook Room" where
he would communicate with the dead.
Cheever's portrait of Wilson is generally reverent, although she parts company
with those messianists who, as she says, see him as a man "chosen by God
to carry a message". In the second half of her book she goes further and
pastes some disfiguring warts on the patriarch. Despite his victory over drink,
Wilson remained incurably addictive. He chain-smoked himself into terminal emphysema.
Even on his deathbed, he puffed incorrigibly as he suffocated. Although he drank
nothing for the last thirty-seven years of his life, he always craved the stuff.
As he lay dying, and semidelirious, he repeatedly demanded whisky. The request
was prudently denied by his faithfully attentive disciples.
"Anyway you look at it", Wilson wrote in 1951, "it's a problem
world." His most troublesome problem was sex . He was serially unfaithful
to his long-suffering wife, Lois a woman whose complaisance, as Cheever says,
"seemed to constitute a disease of its own". Despite his programme's
insistence on "rigorous honesty", Bill W. lived a lie. He had innumerable
affairs and a long-term mistress with whom he contemplated eloping to Ireland
(the scandal would probably have destroyed Alcoholics Anonymous). Susan Cheever's
final judgement is unblinking but forgiving: "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". An ordinary man who nonetheless did one extraordinary thing.
authorized biography of Stephen
Spender was published last month. He is Emeritus Professor of English at
University College London, and the author of Last to Drink LA, 2001.