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Unforgettable Bill W.
has been called the greatest social architect of the 20th
century He called himself Bill W. As a securities analyst
he made fortunes for himself and his clients. But he lost
everything when he became a hopeless drunk. Then, through
the gift of a higher power, he found a road to recovery
and helped create a unique fellowship that has brought
hope and new life to millions around the world. I am part
of that fellowship, and I was given the amazing grace
to know this extraordinary man.
years ago, doctors told me I was going to die - soon - if
I didn't stop drinking. But I couldn't face reality without
copious quantities of vodka, followed by beer chasers.
As a young man, I had come to New York City from Kansas,
carved out a career in public relations, married, had three
children, and established a home in a fashionable Connecticut
On the outside I looked prosperous, but inside I was tormented
by feelings of inadequacy. When I was 40, an enormous swelling
was diagnosed as advanced cirrhosis of the liver. I had
been getting purplish bruises all over my body and suffered
nose- bleeds - all typical of this kind of liver damage.
Once, on a business trip, I couldn't stop vomiting blood
and lost half of all I had. My life was saved with transfusions.
But I couldn't stop drinking, even after I had another hemorrhage.
Finally, my physician gave up on me and sent me to Dr. Harry
M. Tiebout, one of the few psychiatrists then practicing
who were sympathetic toward Alcoholics Anonymous and who
recognized alcoholism as a disease, not a character flaw.
Tiebout suggested I go to A.A., but I was too far gone to
quit drinking at that point, and so was committed to High
Watch Farm in Kent, Conn. There I took the first of A.A.'s
12 steps: I admitted I was powerless over alcohol, that
my life had become unmanageable. On July 4, 1961, I joined
the fellowship of A.A. and started a sober life.
years later when I volunteered to help A.A. with public
relations, I met Bill W. He was a legend, and I was nervous
as I entered his Manhattan office.
Bill was slouched in a chair, his feet up on a battered
oak desk that was scarred with dozens of burn marks from
cigarette stubs. When he stood he was about six feet, two
inches - slender and loose-limbed. He had a long face and
sparkling blue eyes. He acted as if meeting me was the nicest
thing that had happened to him in years. "I'm Bill,"
he said, stretching out his hand. "I'm a drunk."
I started mumbling how I owed him my life, and Bill, embarrassed,
looked at the floor and said, "Just pass it on."
In time, I became a voluntary trustee of A.A. and came into
regular contact with Bill W. At conferences and board meetings,
I often watched him seek out newcomers off in a corner.
He knew the loneliness, the shyness and the insecurity of
the alcoholic. "I'm Bill," he'd greet them, just
as he had me. "I'm a drunk." I never heard him
use the word "alcoholic" when referring to himself.
Bill acted and seemed like an ordinary man. But he was an
extraordinary ordinary man. It didn't take me long to realize
that everybody who knew him had wonderful stories to tell
about Bill and his wife, Lois, who co- founded Al-Anon for
the families of alcoholics. But nobody had a better story
to tell than Bill himself.
He called it the "bedtime story." I heard it first
in 1966 at the office Christmas party, but he had been telling
it for years. We had gathered for fruit punch, cookies and
carol singing. Then, as people sat on desks and chairs,
there was an expectant silence. Bill W. had been standing
by the punch bowl. Now, with a slithering, corkscrew motion,
he settled on the floor and started to talk.
Dorset, Vt., boasted fewer than 500 inhabitants when Bill
W. was born there on November 26, 1895. He grew up in a
home torn by arguments, which often led to Papa's going
away for a few days. Bill felt that sense of some disaster
lurking around the corner which many children of broken
homes experience. It tormented him as he got older. When
he was ten, his parents divorced and went their separate
ways - something almost unheard of in 1906. Bill was left
with his maternal grandparents.
make up for his loneliness and feelings of inadequacy, Bill
became an over compensator. At age 12, he began to show
drive, ambition, competitiveness. When his grandfather read
a book about Australia and told Bill that only a native
of that country could make a boomerang, Bill spent six months
whittling until he carved one that worked. Later, he saw
that boomerang as a curse - because it proved to his ego
that he had the tenacity and will to be "number one"
at anything - music, sports, science. For example he fixed
a broken fiddle and practiced until he played first violin
in the school orchestra. He was not a jock by nature, but
he drove himself and became captain of the baseball team.
nearby Manchester, a popular summer resort, Bill got to
know Ebby Thatcher, from Albany. The Two young men became
lifelong friends. In 1913, two years after meeting Ebby,
Bill met and fell in love with another summer visitor, a
slim, dark-haired girl from a well-to-do Brooklyn, N.Y.,
family. Lois's love for Bill was as burning and constant
as his for her, a love that was to survive the vicissitudes
of all his years of alcoholism. But alcoholism was still
far down the road.
W. did not take a single drink of alcohol until he was a
22- year-old army officer stationed near New Bedford, Mass.,
during World War I. The shy young man from Vermont felt
clumsy and out of place at social gatherings - until someone
gave him a Bronx cocktail, a mix of gin, sweet and dry vermouth,
and orange juice.
barrier," he said, sighing, "that had always stood
between me and other people came down. I felt I belonged
that I was part of life. What magic there was in those drinks!
I could talk and be clever."
some alcoholics who go through a slow process of increasing
dependency, Bill became a blackout drinker from the start.
He was one of those persons in whom alcohol powerfully alters
mind and emotion. The first drink sets up a craving for
a second and the drinker has absolutely no control if he
takes the first.
was careful to restrain his drinking when he was with Lois
and her family. He and Lois were married before he was shipped
to France as a second lieutenant in the Coast Artillery.
There, he discovered fine burgundy and cognac. By the time
the war was over in 1918, he had proved to himself again
that he was a "number one" man, a leader of men,
When Bill returned to the States, he and Lois lived with
her parents. By day he worked as a fraud investigator for
an insurance firm. At night he attended Brooklyn Law School.
Soon he was fascinated by the stock market and became a
successful analyst, speculator, and wheeler-dealer, with
clients at several brokerage houses on Wall Street.
Bill's drinking was taking over. He was too drunk to pass
his final exam at Brooklyn Law. Any disappointment - or
success-now became an excuse for getting drunk. And when
Bill drank, he often became abusive and violent. He got
into fight with waiters, cabdrivers, bartenders, strangers.
In the morning, after moods of guilt and remorse‘
he would swear to Lois that he would never drink again.
By evening, he was drunk.
a long time, Bill and Lois were able to delude themselves.
They lived in a luxurious apartment, joined country clubs.
As late as 1928, Bill was making thousands of dollars and
drinking much of it away. Some mornings Lois found him dead
drunk, asleep, outside the apartment house.
stock-market crash in October 1929 wrecked whatever Bill's
drinking had not. Deeply in debt, he and Lois again moved
in with her parents. Lois got a job at Macy's. Bill now
lived to drink, because he had to drink to live. "Like
other alcoholics," Bill told us, "I hid liquor
like a squirrel stores nuts - in the attic, underneath flooring,
in the flush box of toilets. When Lois was out working,
I'd replenish my secret supply. I was now drinking for oblivion
- two, even three bottles of gin a day."
1932, Bill had begun to fear for his sanity, "Once,
in a drunken fit," he said, "I threw a sewing
machine at Lois - my dear Lois. Another time I got mad at
her and stormed through the house kicking out door panels,
smashing walls with my fists. I remember a night when I
was in such hell that I was afraid the demons inside me
would propel me through the window. I dragged my mattress
downstairs so I
couldn't suddenly leap out."
midsummer of 1934, Bill entered New York City's Charles
B. Towns Hospital, which specialized in the treatment of
alcoholism. Most people regarded alcoholics as persons who
lacked willpower, character and moral discipline. But Bill's
doctor at Towns, William Duncan Silkworth, was one of the
few medical men to conclude that alcoholism is a sickness.
He told Lois that not many alcoholics as far down the slope
as Bill was ever recovered. He was already showing signs
of brain damage. Bill would have to be confined for the
rest of his life.
Bill looked so robust after the treatment that he went home.
This time he stayed sober for several months. However the
morning following Armistice Day, Lois found him in a stupor,
hanging on the fence outside the house. They looked at each
other and Bill saw the last gleam of hope dying in her eyes.
He knew he was doomed. Well, so be it, he thought. He resigned
himself. As long as I have my gin.
long afterward, Ebby Thatcher, Bill's old friend and fellow
drinker, phoned. What a strange coincidence! (We in A.A.
say that a coincidence is a miracle in which God chooses
to remain anonymous.) Bill invited him over. How good it
would be to share a few with his former drinking buddy.
the doorbell rang. There stood Ebby - clear of eye and clean
gotten into you, Ebby?" Bill asked.
grinned and replied, "I've got religion."
Ebby had become a starry-eyed crackpot. " I figured
he'd start preaching at me," Bill recalled. "he
didn't. He just told me how his drinking had gotten out
of hand, how he'd been in trouble with the law, and how
a couple of friends had given him a place to live."
One of them, Roland Hazard, a hopeless drunk, had been in
and out of sanitariums for years. He finally went to Carl
Jung, the Swiss Psychoanalyst. Was there no hope? Rowland
" Jung had said. In rare instances alcoholics had powerful
spiritual experiences, "emotional displacements and
rearrangements," which suddenly turned them around.
Jung had tried for such a change in Rowland and failed.
But one day Rowland attended a meeting of an organization
called the Oxford Group - where people gathered to talk
about their shortcomings and to follow certain precepts.
There Rowland experienced a profound change of emotions
and found a direct contact with God. He stopped drinking.
When Rowland told his story to Ebby in Vermont, the first
link in the chain of what would become Alcoholics Anonymous
was forged. And now Ebby was carrying the message to Bill.
told me he had to admit he was licked," Bill said.
"He had to openly admit his sins, make restitution
to people he had harmed, and give love without a price tag.
He had to pray to whatever God he believed in - and if he
didn't believe in a God, to act as if he did. Ebby told
me he hadn't had a drink for six months.
couple of weeks later, after another bender, I went back
to Towns Hospital and checked myself in. Ebby came to see
me. Get honest with yourself, he said. Talk it out with
somebody else. But I didn't want any part of this God foolishness.
Pray to whatever God you think is out there, Ebby said.
That's all there was to it."
one more sleepless night, Bill fell to the "very bottom,"
and "my stubborn pride was wiped out." He called
out, " if there is a God, let him show himself! I am
ready to do anything!”
the hospital room "Lit up with a great white light."
A strange ecstasy flooded through him. "A wind not
of air but of spirit was blowing," was how he described
it. "I felt at peace... and I thought, No matter how
wrong things seem to be, things are all right with God and
his world. "
was discharged on December 18, 1934. He never took another
drink of alcohol. But he was always at pains to reassure
us that most alcoholics did not have sudden blinding experiences
like his. Most of us found a God, a higher power of our
own, very slowly.
the beginning months of his own sobriety, Bill pulled drunks
out of bars and took them to Oxford Group meetings. He preached
at them. Nobody stayed sober. He tried helping patients
at Towns Hospital. He failed. Dr. Silkworth told Bill to
talk with drunks, not at them, and to stress the hopelessness
of the disease.
Bill was getting a foothold in Wall Street again, but on
a business trip to Akron, Ohio, he felt a strong urge to
drink. In his hotel lobby, he looked at the directory of
churches, selected one at random, and made a call. Was there
any hopeless drunk he could talk to, he asked the minister.
That led to a surgeon, Dr. Robert Smith - Dr. Bob, as he
is known to us - a desperate alcoholic who had tried to
stop drinking and couldn't.
two men talked for hours. Bill didn't preach or exhort.
He quietly told his story, and the urge to drink passed.
And, after one final binge, something happened to Dr. Bob.
On June 10, 1935, he took his last drink. Alcoholics Anonymous
- although it did not have a name - began that day.
Before long, Bill was holding meetings at his home and eventually
at a place on West 23rd Street. In 1938 he wrote a 164-page
manuscript entitled "Alcoholics Anonymous." And
that's how our fellowship got it's name. That year the book
sold few copies. But the fellowship now began to grow slowly.
first national publicity A.A. received came from an article
in the magazine Liberty, which brought 800 letters and several
hundred orders for Bill W's book.
article led to a piece in The Saturday Evening Post, published
in March 1941 and entitled "Alcoholics Anonymous."
It created a sensation, and groups sprang up from Maine
to California - many just based on some desperate person's
reading the book and trying to put its principles into practice.
Now translated into 13 languages, the book sold over 700,000
copies in 1985, more than five million in all. And that
group Bill started in Brooklyn in 1935 has now grown to
approximately 35,000 groups in the United States, and 70,000
was the story that Bill W. told to us each year at A.A.
headquarters. On January 24, 1971, at the age of 75, Bill
died of emphysema. Two days later, the New York Times published
his obituary and put it on page one - and the world learned
his full name: William Griffith Wilson.
Last July, I stood on a podium at Montreal's Olympic Stadium
and looked out on about 50,000 faces from 54 of our 114
member countries, including four members from Poland, our
first representatives from an Iron Curtain country. "My
name is Bob P. " I said. "I'm an alcoholic. Welcome
to the fiftieth anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous."
A roar came up from all sides, an exuberant cheering sound
that went on and on. As I listened to that roar, and to
the speakers that followed, I realized that each of us was
paying tribute to the most unforgettable character in our
changed lives: Bill W.
Reader’s Digest, April 1986)