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LIFE, Vol. 38(3), 142-149, Fall, 1992
W. and Dr. Bob: An American Story
James R. Folliard
the heart of every culture is storytelling. From tales of
Horatio Alger to celebrity portraits in People, Fortune,
and Sports Illustrated, the "American success story"
powerfully conveys our culture's and dreams.
"spiritual culture" is rooted in stories as well.
Churches and religious orders search the personal stories
of founders and saints in order to rediscover their authentic
strength or charism. Christianity's very core lies in the
Jesus story - "what he was like, what happened, what
he is like now." One often hears this expression when
members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step groups
share their stories. Storytelling is the essence of this
thoroughly American, authentically universal spiritual program.
The steps themselves can be likened to its "spiritual
theology," the product of analyzing and reflecting
on the stories themselves.
analytical impulse is a necessary one, but often overindulged.
Except for some closing reflections, this essay resists
the impulse; it simply retells the story of A.A.'s founders,
Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, and how the Twelve Steps came
. . for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong"
(2 Cor. 12:10)
Holbrook Smith was born August 8, 1879 into the stern New
England atmosphere of Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. He grew
into a tall, lean young man, a blend of quiet reserve and
laconic humor - a very "Yankee" recipe.
graduated from Dartmouth in 1902, ending a college career
of fraternity revels and heavy drinking. He had also begun
his seventeen-year courtship of Anne Ripley: they would
finally marry in 1915.
three years of traveling New England and Canada as a salesman,
Bob decided on a medical career and enrolled at the University
of Michigan. Two years later he was asked to leave. He managed
to pass his examinations, but his pattern of late assignments,
missed classes and other shortcomings had soured the faculty.
As at Dartmouth, Bob had gravitated to Michigan's freewheeling,
hard-drinking fraternity life. Most mornings he woke hung
over, on many of them too sick to make it to class. Time
back home in Vermont seemed to set Bob right again. In 1907
he arranged admission to Rush University in Chicago. He
resumed heavy drinking, but managed to complete the medical
curriculum and secure an internship in Akron, Ohio, where
he eventually opened his own practice. Marriage to Anne
and the birth of their two children quickly followed. By
1918, the Smiths had settled into a life of Middle American
Bob was desperate. Locked onto a daily merry-go-round of
beer and whiskey, he woke up shaking, with severe stomach
pain, needing sedatives so he could work during the day
to earn enough money for another night's binge.
was a vicious circle, and Bob knew it. There seemed no way
out - until the enactment of Prohibition in 1919; Bob hoped
the ban on booze would end his torture. But he quickly learned
about bootleggers, as well as the government license allowing
doctors almost unlimited quantities of alcohol for medical
use. How he needed it for that very purpose ! Soon nothing
else could still those awful shakes or quiet the stabbing
pains in his abdomen.
seventeen more years Bob and his increasingly distraught
wife and children lived this nightmare. Professional practice
and family finances tumbled downhill regularly. Bob would
pull himself together enough to beat off the wolves at the
door and repair his shaky reputation, only to be set off
on yet another binge, each one worse than the last.
May of 1935, Bob's drinking was virtually round-the-clock,
and it was a rare day when he could practice medicine at
all. When he worked, his skill and compassion drew admiration
from medical colleagues and patients; but now he could no
longer hide his problem. His reputation had taken another
nosedive and financial disaster threatened like a spring
tornado. This time the pleasant Ardmore Avenue home was
up for foreclosure. Bob didn't care anymore; all he wanted
was another drink.
best of all knew the loveable, competent man Bob could be
when he was dry." She knew that Bob the drunk was not
the real Bob, and she tried every remedy she could think
of to help him. One of these was the Oxford movement, an
organization focused on spiritual growth through a regimen
of surrendering one' life to God, a thorough interior "housecleaning"
and the making of amends, and daily living hinged on service
to others and the practice of prayer. A friend told Anne
that this was something that might work for Bob, and they
began to attend local Oxford meetings together. Bob improved
for a while, but "controlled drinking" just would
not work for him, and even the spiritual impetus provided
by the Oxford people didn't last. Certainly God seemed mysterious
dismal spring in 1935 followed. It was mid afternoon, the
day before Mother's Day. Bob already sported a hefty hangover
from his morning binge. The phone rang; it was Anne's friend
from the Oxford group.
man from New York had been asking around, she said, looking
for someone to talk with, someone with a drinking problem
like his own. Yes, this seemed awfully strange, yet the
man was quite sincere. And urgent. Maybe he could help.
hated his life. Worse, he had begun to hate himself. If
there was any way to stop the relentless merry-go-round-and
keep it stopped-Lord knows he would rush to embrace it!
But there was no solution, it seemed, short of a last, permanent
blackout. Why would some New York city slicker want to talk
to him anyhow? Probably a con man with more spiritual patent
medicine to peddle; Bob was in no mood for any more holier-than-thou
lectures about his drinking.
Anne was persistent. And after all, it was Mother's Day.
The least he could do for her was hear the guy out - but
only for fifteen minutes.
Friend in Need
is a wonderful thing when a sick person finds another wounded
with that same sickness: how great a consolation to find
you are not alone. The two become a powerful help to each
other in suffering and meriting. (Teresa of Avila, Book
of Her Life 34, 16)
minutes became five hours as the stranger spun out his story.
Bob listened as intently as his alcoholic haze allowed,
and then with growing excitement. For Bill Wilson was a
drunk, just like him. He knew the lonely horror Bob was
going through because he had lived it. He didn't preach
or moralize or sell; he just sat and quietly talked about
himself. Soon Bob was laughing along with him as they shared
tales of their woeful escapades.
really got Bob's attention was that Bill had found a way
out of the vicious circle, and that he needed help staying
out. That was what brought him to Bob. In an amazing twist
on the usual order of things, Bill needed Bob in order to
stay sober himself. The ironies grew: Stockbroker Bill explained
to Doctor Bob how alcoholism is an illness - a mental obsession
and a bodily allergy, he called it, powerful enough to defeat
the strongest exertions of the will and dooming its sufferers
to insanity, jail or death. Yet he had escaped the sentence.
pair discovered that they had more in common than their
addiction to drink. As the evening wore on Bob found that
Bill was also a Vermont Yankee. He had been born in Dorset
in 1895, when Bob was sixteen.
talked of the nagging feeling of not belonging, not measuring
up, that he experienced even as a small boy, of how he tried
to overcome those feelings with dogged persistence and a
compulsive drive to win acceptance through success, to be
"Number One Man." He recalled the months of trial
and error until he perfected a working boomerang, the years
of lonely practice on a family niolin.
Bob, Bill was tall and lanky, and enjoyed fair success as
a high school athlete. Crushed by the death of a teenage
sweetheart, he plunged into a depression, forerunner to
several he would suffer over the years.
one eased in 1913: Bill met Lois Burnham, beginning one
of the greatest stories of unconditional love one is likely
to find - much like that of Annie and Bob. He then enrolled
at Norwich University, the Vermont military school, only
to be called to active war duty before completing his degree.
In New Bedford, Massachusetts, awaiting transport to Europe,
Bill fell in love again - this time with alcohol. He was
powerless from the start.
and Bill were married in January, 1918, and Bill immediately
shipped out for France and World War I. After the Armistice
the couple moved into the Burnham home in Brooklyn. Bill
found that he fit right in with the brash, boisterous atmosphere
of New York in the Roaring Twenties. He toured the country
investigating companies for brokerage houses and stock exchanges,
virtually inventing the profession of stock analyst. His
reports proved incisive and accurate, his clients prospered
and Bill turned some tidy profits trading on his own.
the drinking progressed. Shrewd competence turned into power-driven
arrogance at work and at home. The 1929 Stock Market Crash
left the Wilsons broke, and broken. Bill tried to get back
on his feet in Canada, only to be fired because of his drinking.
misery in the early 1930s mirrored the nation. Brokerage
firms didn't want him around anymore; the few jobs he was
able to beg ended in drunken failure. Like Bob, he became
a daily, round-the-clock drinker, stealing scarce cash from
Lois's department store earnings to buy more alcohol. Their
home life was chaotic, and Bill fell into ever deeper bouts
of depression, his life a whirling, sickening roller coaster
of frenzied binges and degrading morning-after.
Bob, Bill wanted the ride to stop. As early as 1927 he had
written to his boss at the brokerage, sincerely pledging
to quit drinking. Almost annually he would pen anguished
letters to Lois in the family bible, swearing that this
time he would quit, this time would be different. "He
continually asks for my help," she wrote, "and
we have been trying together almost daily for five years
to find an answer to his drinking problem, but it is worse
now than ever."
stay at Towns Hospital offered a glimmer of hope, Dr. William
Silkworth told Bill that his problem was not lack of will
power or moral depravity, but an illness. Bill went home
with renewed self-esteem, only to get drunk again within
weeks. This time the prognosis was complete insanity or
death - within the year. Bill was thirty-nine.
November of 1934, Ebby, an old drinking pal, dropped by
to visit. Bill was glad to see him, hoping for a break in
his lonely routine of solitary drinking and suffering. But
his friend wanted only to talk - no drink.
told Bill he had been dry for some time, that he had experienced
a spiritual rejuvenation through an Oxford group, the movement
Annie and Bob were trying in Akron.
had been recruited by another Oxford member, a man who had
literally roamed the earth seeking a medical or psychiatric
cure for his drinking. He finally turned to Carl Jung in
Zurich, who told him there was nothing he could do for a
case as desperate as his. But Jung added that some had been
relieved of alcoholism and similar torments by experiencing
a spiritual transformation. He urged his patients to affiliate
with some group that stressed inner, spiritual change. The
man found the Oxford group, and then Ebby, Ebby found Bill.
couldn't help but see the change in Ebby; everything about
him was different, especially his attitude. Ebby stressed
that working with others was ,a keystone in Oxford's philosophy,
the "helper" deriving the greatest benefit. Bill
listened, but took no action. Within a month he was back
at Towns. Severe psychosis was setting in, and Dr. Silkworth
told Lois that "wet brain" was around the corner.
happened" to Bill one night in that hospital. In his
blackest moment of despair and self-pity he begged whatever
God there was to help - and meant it.
once he knew his plea was answered. He felt enfolded in
light and a deep peace flooded through him, routing his
anguish, guilt and despair. The change in Bill was immediate
and startling. A few days later, an amazed but cautious
Dr. Silkworth released him from the hospital. Bill Wilson
lived another thirty-six years without desiring a drink.
and Lois attended Oxford meetings together, and Bill spent
most of his waking hours carrying Ebby's message to other
alcoholics. None got sober; success-driven Bill became progressively
discouraged and frustrated. Weeks later he suddenly realized
how stunningly successful his effort really was: he wasn't
was no white-knuckle, tough-it-out, II dry II sobriety.
Bill's craving had gone, the mental obsession had vanished.
The key was to live day by day according to spiritual principles:
surrender to God, continual interior housecleaning, prayer,
and service to other sufferers.
spring Bill was well enough to look for work again. Wall
Street had shunned him for years; no one wanted to risk
another Wilson fiasco. Bill patiently made daily rounds
at the brokerages and exchanges, sober now, not drunk, hung
over, or looking for a handout or a place to crash. Old
colleagues noticed, and became willing to take a chance
on Bill Wilson again.
such a connection, Bill had traveled to Akron to carry out
a complex transaction. The negotiations went badly and by
that May Saturday morning Bill felt defeat and failure.
Tomorrow was Mother's Day, and he missed Lois. There was
plenty of time to kill, to get depressed - maybe in the
hotel lounge, maybe with a ginger ale . ..or maybe "just
one" would do no harm.
mental clamor could mean only one thing: Bill needed help.
He needed to share with another alcoholic. But how to find
one? He immediately spotted a church directory by the hotel
desk. Clergymen always know of problem drinkers; Bill headed
for the directory instead of the lounge. A few phone calls
later, and the connection with Annie Smith's Oxford friend
have taken off my robe; must I put it on again? I have washed
my feet; must I dirty them again?" (Song of Songs 5:3)
remained in Akron trying to salvage what he could of his
business project, and visiting with Bob and Annie everyday.
Dr Bob stayed sober, and at the end of May headed for a
medical convention in Atlantic City.
a relapse: a silent telephone meant only one thing to Bill
and Annie, and they dreaded meeting Bob at the Akron depot.
A very drunk, very sick man tottered off the train, one
who admitted right on the station platform that he was licked.
Half measures ended for Bob Smith that day, and he immediately
picked up the simple tools of Bill's program. It was June
10, 1935, and Bob stayed sober until his death in 1950.
The spiritual movement that later became Alcoholics Anonymous
began that day with two "members," one a stranger
on a futile business trip and the other barely able to stand.
days Bill and Bob found member #3. Bill soon returned to
New York, but traveled frequently to Akron to share experiences
and ideas with Bob, Annie, and a growing band of recovering
Yes, for she and other spouses attended the meetings right
along with the alcoholics. Lois did the same in New York.
By 1937, the Wilsons and Smiths could count forty sober
people between the two cities, forty people who had stayed
away from drink for significant periods of time - by any
past measurement, an astounding result.
the promoter, Bill persuaded both groups to publish their
message: if 40 could be helped, why not 400, or even 400,000?
A book was soon in the works. Draft chapters went back and
forth between Akron and New York, sparking a year-long debate;
the members couldn't agree on how their program worked.
Variety and individuality flourished in typical American
style, giving rise to the A.A. aphorism, 'My sobriety could
get you drunk."
haggling ended by December of 1938. Everyone - even the
atheists - finally agreed on that formulation of spiritual
principles now known as the Twelve Steps. Alcoholics Anonymous,
A.A.'s "Big Book" (which incidentally provided
a name for the movement) went to press.
course there's much more to tell, but that's another story.
short quotations introducing each section of our story reveal
the heart of twelve-step spirituality. They also symbolize
the timeless, universal character of spiritual principles,
as reinterpreted in all their vigor in the specific time,
place and circumstances of twentieth-century America, and
as incarnated in the very common life stories of everyday
American people. Like Saint Paul, Bill and Bob discovered
the transforming power of admitting our own powerlessness
and vulnerability, of owning and accepting the messy facts
of our existence, and letting a "Power greater than
ourselves" put sense and order into our story. This
is humility, the essence Of A.A.'s first three steps, and
a homegrown counterweight to American preoccupation with
power, invulnerability, and the trappings of prestige and
success. Like Saint Teresa, Bill and Bob found that a story
untold does not unfold. Honest sharing in healthy relationships
is as necessary for growth as rain for a garden. Spiritual
friendship is the energy that makes the steps work, and
a training ground for authentic intimacy and loving detachment.
the Beloved in the Song of Songs, Bill and Bob learned that
the best stories are love stories. And the very best are
not romantic fantasies but everyday stories of people putting
on their robes and dirtying their feet, of troubles faced,
obligations met, and service gladly rendered, again and
sum, the Twelve Steps are a simple prescription for cultivating
the ageless qualities of humility, detachment, and unconditional
love. They emerged from the otherwise tragic and even sordid
circumstances of twentieth-century America. But from such
sorry materials, Bill, Bob, Lois, Annie - and millions like
them - continue to tell us a true "American success