Bill W. is the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, an international organisation with over two million members seeking to help individuals escape from alcoholism. Bill W. was an alcoholic himself who was able to quit drinking after a profound spiritual experience gave him a new outlook on life. To help him stay free from alcoholism he spent the remainder of his life working with other recovering alcoholics.
Bill Wilson was born on 26 November 1896 in East Dorset, Vermont. Shortly after his birth, his parents abandoned him and his sister, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandparents. Interestingly his paternal grandfather William C. Wilson was also an alcoholic but gave up drinking after a ‘spiritual experience’ hiking on Mount Aelous.
His upbringing in Vermont was troubled. At school, he was rebellious and often got into trouble, though he was skilled at football and became the school’s principal violinist. He experienced periods of depression and anxiety, especially after his first girlfriend Bertha Bamford died from surgery. Later, he recalled memories of his childhood days.
“I was tall and gawky and I felt pretty bad about it because the smaller kids could push me around. I remember being very depressed for a year or more, then I developed a fierce resolve to win—to be a No. 1 man.” (NY Times)
In 1916, he was drafted into the Vermont National Guard after border tensions with Mexico escalated due to the activities of revolutionary general Franciso Pancho Villa. In the company of the military, Bill developed a taste for drinking copious amounts of alcohol. It was part of the social scene, but he found alcohol helped deal with his anxiety and social tension, and he soon found that he began drinking very heavily.
On 24 January 1918, he married Lois Burnham. For the remainder of the year, he served in the US Army which was now involved in the First World War. After the war, he moved with Lois to New York, where he gained employment as a stock speculator. Bob travelled around the country investigating companies which were worth investing in. He made substantial amounts of money buying shares in under-valued companies. However, his business success was combined with heavy drinking. He was unaware of the damage it was doing but saw it as a necessity of life. He remembered:
“In those Roaring Twenties, I was drinking to dream great dreams of greater power.”
Unfortunately, by this time, he was losing control of his drinking and was meeting all the criteria of being an alcoholic. His heavy drinking throughout the day meant that he was unable to do his job properly.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929, saw stocks plummet and he struggled even more in the new climate of bankruptcy and despair. He wanted to ‘build this up once more’, but his only recourse was to hit the bottle. He was consuming two quarts of ‘rotgut’ (bootleg) whiskey daily. Eventually, in 1933, he was committed to Towns hospital in New York for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. His doctor William D. Silkworm viewed alcoholism as a combination of lack of mental control and a physical inability to stop drinking once started. His doctor warned Bill that if he could not stop drinking, he would die early or face being permanently locked up. He made some partial efforts to stop drinking but suffered early relapses on release. His body also experienced withdrawal symptoms when he stopped.
In November 1934, he met an old drinking friend Ebby Thacher who himself had successfully made a break from heavy drinking. Thacher had joined a group under the guidance of an evangelical Christian Oxford Group church. The Oxford Group was a Christian movement which emphasised that the root of all problems were personal fear and selfishness. This church group for alcoholics emphasised the need to invoke the grace of God to overcome their personal weaknesses.
At the time, Bill was depressed and despairing of being able to turn his life around. He became receptive to Ebby’s story to accept God’s help. Lying in a hospital bed Bill remember Ebby T, saying to him:
“You admit you are licked; you get honest with yourself … you pray to whatever God you think there is, even as an experiment.”
Bill said in reply:
“I’ll do anything! Anything at all! If there be a God, let Him show Himself!
Bill reported that after uttering this prayer/exclamation, he saw a powerful spiritual light, a feeling of inner ecstasy and a calm inner peace that had eluded him all his life.
“Suddenly,” he related, “the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed …. that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.”
After sharing his experience and wondering whether he was crazy, his doctor Dr Silkworth said to Bill that:
“No, Bill, you aren’t crazy, something has happened to you I don’t understand. But you had better hang on to it. Anything is better than the way you were.”
After that experience, Bill joined a local Oxford group himself. But after a while, he felt the temptation to drink was coming back. He decided the best way to permanently stay off the alcohol was to help other alcoholics overcome their problems. On a work trip in Akron, Ohio, Bill came into contact with Dr Bob Smith. Smith himself was an alcoholic who was aware of the Oxford group and wanted to pursue a similar path to Bill in exploring the potential of spiritual experience to help him give up alcohol. Dr Bob was impressed with the down to earth language and practical advice Bill used. He said:
“Bill was the first living human with whom I had ever talked who intelligently discussed my problem from actual experience,”
Dr Bob Smith was able to successfully give up alcohol until his death in 1950.
Bill W. returned to New York, where he was active in a local Oxford group committed to overcoming alcoholism. He felt the group was a real success and helped to make a difference to those wishing to give up alcohol. At this point, the group decided they should try to publicise their practises and principles to help a much wider audience. His new group split from the Oxford Movement, but on good terms, with Bill W repeatedly praising the good work and spirit they offered.
Impatient to spread his ideas and suffering from the poverty of the Great Depression, Bill W. and Dr Bob approached businessman and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller to seek financial support for an extension of the programme. However, Rockefeller turned them down saying ‘I think money will spoil this.’ They took his advice and AA doesn’t accept outside donations but is self-funding from members. Instead, Bill W. was chosen to write the precepts of the book, which came to be called “Alcoholics Anonymous.” Bill W was known for his economy of words and conciseness.
The book was a great success and soon Alcoholics Anonymous groups became formed across the country. This led to more questions and controversies which were directed towards Bill W in New York. By April 1946, he refined the principles of the movement into “Twelve Points to Assure Our Future.”
In 1939, Bill and his wife also set up in Kent, CT an alcohol and addiction recovery centre founded on his principles of alcoholics anonymous.
Bill W. felt the over-riding goal of the movement should be to aid and offer assistance to those individuals wishing to give up drinking. He felt the most important factor was the openness to a higher power who would give inner strength. He also wished the group to be democratic and maintain anonymity – this stemmed from a desire to reduce ego, personalities and give people the confidence they could come to the group without being judged. He insisted the group focus only on the issue of welfare of members and avoid any political issue or political comment – even on issues like alcohol reform.
He explained the importance of anonymity
“anonymity isn’t just something to save us from alco holic shame and stigma; its deeper purpose is to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and fame at A.A.’s expense.” (NY Times)
In 1953, after the organisation’s first international convention had approved the principles. He published the book. “Twelve Precepts of AA” During his lifetime, he never used his full name, but only Bill W.
After 1950, he retreated somewhat in visibility from the organisation. He didn’t want to interfere with meetings by presenting himself as the ‘important’ co-founder. However, he continued to share his own story as “just another guy named Bill who can’t handle booze” He said his story was based on “experience, strength and hope.” He didn’t take a salary for speaking or counselling but supported himself from royalties on the four A.A books.
In the late 1950s, he experimented with LSD and spoke favourably about his impact. His use of LSD was heavily criticised by other members in the AA organisation who argued it only would lead to another form of drug dependency and a new set of problems related to psychosis.
Throughout his life, he retained an interest in spiritualism and would conduct seances in the house. He kept these practises and beliefs separate from AA.
Bill was a lifelong smoker, and towards the end of his life, he suffered from emphysema. In the last years of his life, he needed an oxygen tank to help breathing. He avoided alcohol until his very last days when he began to request whiskey. On 24 January 1971, he died from complications resulting from emphysema and pneumonia whilst travelling to Miami, Florida. He was buried in East Dorset, Vermont. After his death, his wife agreed to end his anonymity and Bill W. became published as Bill Wilson.
There are an estimated 100,000 A.A. groups in 150 countries, with more than two million members. The Big Book, the program’s bible, has sold nearly 25 million copies. The principles of AA have been adapted for numerous other self-help and addiction programmes. In 1999, Time Magazine listed him as one of the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Bill W. | Biography”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 7 August 2019.
Bill W. – The Absorbing and Deeply Moving Life Story of Bill Wilson at Amazon
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