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100 Heroes and Icons of the 20th Century
HEALER BILL W.
the rubble of a wasted life, he overcame
alcoholism and founded the 12-step program
that has helped millions of others do the same
Lieut. Bill Wilson 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 fiancé Lois
Burnham or his emerging talent for leadership. He didn’t
think about anything at all. “I had found the elixir
of life,” he wrote. Wilson’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, Wilson had a spiritual awakening-a flash of white
light, a liberating awareness of God-that led to the founding
of Alcoholics Anonymous and Wilson’s revolutionary
12-step program, the successful remedy for alcoholism. The
12 steps have also generated successful programs for eating
disorders, gambling, narcotics, debting, sex addiction and
people affected by other’s addictions. Aldous Huxley
called him “the greatest social architect of our century.”
had to be first in everything because in my perverse heart
I felt myself the least of God’s creatures."
Bill Wilson, describing his alcoholism.
Griffith 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, Wilson
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 parent’s house on Clinton Street
in Brooklyn, N.Y. Wilson had become an unemployable drunk
who disdained religion and even panhandled for cash.
by a friend who had stopped drinking, Wilson went to meetings
of the Oxford Group, an evangelical society founded in Britain
by Pennsylvania Frank Buchman. And as Wilson 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, Wilson went to Akron, Ohio, on business.
The deal fell through, and he wanted a drink. He stood in
the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, entrance by the sounds
of the bar across the hall. Suddenly he became convinced
that by helping another alcoholic, he could change himself.
Through a series of desperate phone calls, he found Dr.
Robert Smith, a skeptical drunk whose family persuaded him
to give Wilson 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 date of A.A., which is based
on the idea that only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic.
of our kinship in suffering,” Bill wrote, “our
channels of contact have always been charged with the language
of the heart.”
The Burnham house on Clinton Street became a haven for drunks.
“My name is Bill W., and I’m an alcoholic,”
he told assorted houseguests and visitors at meetings. To
spread the word, he began writing down his principles for
sobriety. Each chapter was read by the Clinton Street group
and sent to Smith in Akron for more editing. The book had
a dozen provisional titles, among them The Way Out and The
Empty Glass. Edited to 400 pages, it was finally called
Alcoholics Anonymous, and this became the group’s
But the book, although well reviewed, wasn’t selling.
Wilson tried unsuccessfully to make a living as a wire-rope
salesman. A.A. had about a hundred members, but many were
still drinking. Meanwhile, in 1939, the bank foreclosed
on the Clinton Street house, and the couple began years
of homelessness, living as guests in borrowed rooms and
at one point staying in temporary quarters above the A.A.
clubhouse on 24th Street in Manhattan. In 1940 John D. Rockefeller
Jr. held an A.A. dinner and was impressed enough to create
a trust to provide Wilson with $30 a week-but no more. The
tycoon felt that money would corrupt the group’s spirit.
the wake of my spiritual experience there came a vision
of a society of alcoholics.”
Bill Wilson, writing to Carl Jung
in March 1941, the Saturday Evening Post published an article
on A.A., and suddenly thousands of letters and requests
poured in. Attendance at meetings doubled and tripled. Wilson
had reached his audience. In Twelve Traditions, Wilson set
down the suggested bylaws of Alcoholics Anonymous. In them,
he created an enduring blueprint for an organization with
a maximum of individual freedom and no accumulation of power
or money. Public anonymity ensured humility. No contributions
were required; no member could contribute more than $1,000.
more than 2 million A.A. members in 150 countries hold meetings
in church basements, hospital conference rooms and school
gyms, following Wilson’s informal structure. Members
identify themselves as alcoholics and share their stories;
there are no rules or entry requirements, and many members
use only first names.
Wilson believed the key to sobriety was a change of heart.
The suggested 12 steps include an admission of powerlessness,
a moral inventory, a restitution for harm done, a call to
service and a surrender to some personal God. In A.A., God
can be anything from a radiator to a patriarch. Influenced
by A.A. the American Medical Association has redefined alcoholism
as a chronic disease, not a failure of willpower.
As Alcoholics Anonymous grew, Wilson became its principal
symbol. He helped create a governing structure for the program,
the General Service Board, and turned over his power. ”I
have become a pupil of the A.A. movement rather than the
teacher,” he wrote. A smoker in his 70s, he died of
pneumonia and emphysema in Miami, where he went for treatment
in 1971. To the end, he clung to the principles and power
of anonymity. He was always Bill E., refusing to take money
for counseling and leadership. He turned down many honors,
including a degree from Yale. And he declined this magazine’s
put him on the cover – even with his back turned.
Cheever, a novelist and memoirist, is the author of Note Found
in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker.
Time, June 14, 1999)