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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, June 27th, 2004


My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous


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 A 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 donors.

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.

John Sutherland's 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.

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