Archive for Sunday, May 9, 2004

Book provides chilling glimpse of AA’s founder

May 9, 2004


During her research for a biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, author Susan Cheever dug through the just-opened archives at Stepping Stones, Wilson's longtime home outside New York City. Alongside an archivist, she sifted reams of material that had not been looked at in decades.

One day, the archivist handed her a sheaf of wide, green-lined pages -- hourly logs kept by the nurses who tended Wilson on his deathbed.

Cheever glanced at them. They seemed mundane.

"Keep reading," the archivist urged her.

Cheever came to the pages covering Christmas 1970. On the eve of the holiday, Bill Wilson passed a fitful night. A lifelong smoker, he had been fighting emphysema for years, and now he was losing the battle. Nurse James Dannenberg was on duty in the last hour before dawn. At 6:10 a.m. on Christmas morning, according to Dannenberg's notes, the man who sobered up millions "asked for three shots of whiskey."

He was quite upset when he didn't get them, Cheever writes.

Wilson asked for booze again about a week later, on Jan. 2, 1971.

And on Jan. 8.

And on Jan. 14.

"My blood ran cold," Cheever said recently of the discovery. "I was shocked and horrified." With time to ponder, though, she found herself thinking, "Of course he wanted a drink. He was the one who talked about sobriety being 'a daily remission.' I realized that this was a story about the power of alcohol: that even Bill Wilson, the man who invented sobriety, who had 30-plus years sober, still wanted a drink."

In the Big Book, as AA's foundation text is known, Wilson recalled the time in 1934 when doctors concluded he was a hopeless drunk and told his wife that there was no cure, apart from the asylum or the grave. "They did not need to tell me," he added. "I knew, and almost welcomed the idea."

On Jan. 24, 1971, the man known modestly to legions of alcoholics as "Bill W." was finally cured.

New view of miracles

Cheever's discovery, reported in her book "My Name Is Bill," doesn't really change what little we know about alcoholism, a cruel, confounding and mysterious disease. It doesn't really change what we know about Wilson, a rough-hewn and unorthodox American saint sketched by Cheever in all his chain-smoking, womanizing, Ouija-board-reading, acid-tripping holiness.

But it might change the way some of us think about miracles -- the limited warranty they carry, and how high-maintenance they are.

The miracle of Bill Wilson's sobriety -- and the birth of AA -- arrived like something out of the Old Testament. It was 1934 when the doctors had given up on Bill.

So for the third time, Wilson checked himself into a private hospital in New York that specialized in drying out "rum hounds," as he called himself. He knew what to expect: doses of barbiturates, bitter herbs, castor oil and other purgatives, vomiting, tremors and depression. He also knew that just about every hard case like him went back to drinking.

The prospect was so dismal that Wilson picked up beer for the cab ride.

Wilson had a friend named Ebby Thatcher, another alcoholic, who had a friend named Roland Hazard, yet another drunk, who was wealthy enough to seek help from the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung. When Jung realized how serious Hazard's drinking problem was, he told his patient the only hope was a religious conversion. The American psychologist William James had arrived at a similar conclusion, declaring in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" that "the only cure for dipsomania is religiomania."

Hazard got religion and sobered up, for a while. He preached this approach to Thatcher, and Thatcher proselytized Wilson.

"I was in favor of practically everything he had to say except one thing," Wilson later recalled of those conversations. "I was not in favor of God."

After a couple of days at Towns Hospital, Bill Wilson was past the D.T.'s and feeling really low. He couldn't kick the booze by himself. Yet he was unable to believe in the only power experts knew of to save a drunk.


"Like a child crying out in the dark, I said, 'If there is a Father, if there is a God, will he show himself?' And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind's eyes, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, 'I am a free man! So this is the God of the preachers!' And little by little the ecstasy subsided and I found myself in a new world of consciousness."

Wilson never had another drink.

One day at a time

The striking thing about Wilson's story is how hard his life was even after he sobered up.

He and Lois remained penniless, even homeless, for years. He had a chance to cash in by allying his message with a particular hospital, but his fledgling flock forbade him to do it. Alcoholics Anonymous struggled for six years before its crucial break: a glowing article in the Saturday Evening Post.

Then, as the group flourished, Wilson was attacked by jealous colleagues and abandoned by old friends. He sank into a crushing depression, and "often just sat for hours with his head on the desk or with his head in his hands," Cheever writes. "When he raised his head, he was sometimes weeping." Wilson liked children but was childless. Cigarettes were killing him, but he couldn't stop smoking.

He wrote of "being swamped with guilt and self-loathing ... often getting a misshapen and painful pleasure out of it."

It was enough to drive a man to drink.

Yet for 36-plus years he resisted that next drink. Perhaps the most efficacious miracles are the small ones. And because "his mind was the right lens" and his will was "the right machine," in Cheever's words, for mass-producing that limited but crucial victory, Bill Wilson's miracle keeps working, one person and one day at a time.

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