By Susan Cheever
From the rubble of a wasted life, he overcame alcoholism and founded the 12-step program that has helped millions of others do the same.
Second Lieut. Bill W. didn’t think twice when the first butler he had ever seen offered him a drink. The 22-year-old soldier didn’t think about how alcohol had destroyed his family. He didn’t think about the Yankee temperance movement of his childhood or his loving fiance Lois B. or his emerging talent for leadership. He didn’t think about anything at all. “I had found the elixir of life,” he wrote. Bill’s last drink, 17 years later, when alcohol had destroyed his health and his career, precipitated an epiphany that would change his life and the lives of millions of other alcoholics. Incarcerated for the fourth time at Manhattan’s Towns Hospital in 1934, Bill had a spiritual awakening–a flash of white light, a liberating awareness of God–that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and Bill’s revolutionary 12-step program, the successful remedy for alcoholism. The 12 steps have also generated successful programs for eating disorders, gambling, narcotics, spending, sex addiction and people affected by others’ addictions. Aldous Huxley called him “the greatest social architect of our century.”
William (Bill) G. Wilson grew up in a quarry town in Vermont. When he was 10, his hard-drinking father headed for Canada, and his mother moved to Boston, leaving the sickly child with her parents. As a soldier, and then as a businessman, Bill W. drank to alleviate his depressions and to celebrate his Wall Street success. Married in 1918, he and Lois toured the country on a motorcycle and appeared to be a prosperous, promising young couple. By 1933, however, they were living on charity in her parents’ house on Clinton Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. Bill had become an unemployable drunk who disdained religion and even panhandled for cash.
Inspired by a friend who had stopped drinking, Bill went to meetings of the Oxford Group, an evangelical society founded in Britain by Pennsylvania Frank Buchman. And as Bill underwent a barbiturate-and-belladonna cure called “purge and puke,” which was state-of-the-art alcoholism treatment at the time, his brain spun with phrases from Oxford Group meetings, Carl Jung and William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience,” which he read in the hospital. Five sober months later, Bill W. went to Akron, Ohio, on business. The deal fell through, and he wanted a drink. He stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, entranced by the sounds of the bar across the hall. Suddenly he became convinced that by helping another alcoholic, he could save himself.
Through a series of desperate telephone calls, he found Dr. Robert S., a skeptical drunk whose family persuaded him to give Bill W. 15 minutes. Their meeting lasted for hours. A month later, Dr. Bob had his last drink, and that date, June 10, 1935, is the official birth date of A.A., which is based on the idea that only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic. “Because of our kinship in suffering,” Bill wrote, “our channels of contact have always been charged with the language of the heart.”