Bill Wilson — whom Aldous Huxley called
"the greatest social architect of our century (the 20th)"
After AA found its sea-legs in the early 1940s Wilson morphed into its inspirational and organizational CEO. He was a brilliant speaker and writer. Many of his addresses and all of his writings for the Grapevine, the latter numbering more than 200 articles, can be read on Silkworth.net. His sheer breadth and the depth of his understanding are remarkable, as are his humility and the care for people to which these writings attest.
During the years leading up to the pivotal 1955 Convention Bill traveled widely. As he visited fledgling and established AA groups, he collected information about the growing pains and the challenges facing the fellowship at the grassroots level. In response, he developed and formalized the 12 Traditions. As with the steps, he solicited the advice and contributions of others. They were first published in the Grapevine in 1946 and several years later formally adopted by the fellowship. Cheever, along with others, believes they, not the steps, have been the key to AA’s longevity.
Wilson’s second achievement during AA’s “coming of age” years was to turn the leadership of AA over to the General Service Organization. Cheever describes Bill’s thinking: “Against a great deal of opposition, he insisted that Alcoholics Anonymous not have leaders like himself and Dr. Bob . . .” Bill wanted AA to be a democracy in which all AA’s could be heard, and he wanted it governed by rotating, elected representatives. After Bill lobbied for years, the change was finally embraced by the International Convention of 1955. Following the decision Bill remarked that, “Alcoholics Anonymous was safe — even from me.”
The 1955 convention was, like the Jack Alexander article of 1941, a turning point for both Wilson and AA. Wilson was 59 years old, 21 years sober, and had 16 more years to live. He finally had a house and a steady income, thanks to royalties from the sale of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA itself had reached full maturity and established the governing principles that would ensure its durability over the decades to come. He was a famous and revered figure, respected as much outside AA as within it. Yale University wanted to bestow on him an honorary degree, but Bill, in keeping with the traditions, turned it down. For the same reason, he declined to be on the cover of Time magazine, even if pictured with his back toward the camera.
The picture of Wilson with which Cheever leaves the reader is that of an imperfect but supremely gifted leader, who found, through the mysterious synchronicities of history, a perfect match for his gifts and passion. In her finely layered portrait, she suggests that his struggles with smoking, women, and his own ego were inseparable from his humanity and thus from his success as a founder and leader of AA. Near the end of her book she remarks that Wilson was an imperfect man, but the perfect man for the job.
Nonetheless, some will feel that Cheever’s failure to grapple with the significance of Wilson’s womanizing mars her account. Had Bill merely lusted after women in his heart, or succumbed to single dalliance, most of us could identify with the underlying temptation and be glad to know that Bill’s humanity embraced the same imperfections most of us find in ourselves. But Bill’s affairs and liaisons with women went far beyond this. They were chronic, almost obsessive. When he attended AA meetings in his 60’s, two men would be assigned to keep an eye on him and intervene when he became excessively enraptured with one of the women he was chatting up.
Perhaps we have become inured to bad behavior from admired public figures — FDR, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton — but it is hard to identify an important principle of the program that Wilson did not repeatedly violate, including the honesty he extolls in the Big Book and 12&12. The messenger did not live the message. This does not invalidate the principles that many AA members try to live by today, but it would certainly raise this question among the public at large.
Perhaps this is why official AA does not want to comment on or even acknowledge Bill’s “woman problem.” Similarly, there is no acknowledgment by official AA of Bill’s repeated and aggressive requests for a drink during the last weeks of his life. This avoidance of unpalatable truths about Wilson’s life is understandable, but probably a betrayal of AA values, of our commitment to facing the truth about ourselves even when it is painful. Might it not be healthy and cleansing for AA as a whole to acknowledge Wilson’s failings and imperfections?
Writing 15 years ago, Cheever does not address the growing secular movement within AA or speculate on how the subject of her book might have reacted to it. But from her portrait of Bill we can glean a couple salient facts.
First, Wilson’s own religious sensibilities were unconventional. He borrows from traditional Christian themes and verbiage from the culture in which he is immersed but does not deploy them theologically. For example, he rarely mentions Jesus Christ or the Christian notion of salvation from sin through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Wilson’s God is more generic; he knew that a person can believe in God without being religious. He was never a regular church-goer, or a booster of the institutional church.
Wilson happily characterized AA as a “benign anarchy,” and in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, he salutes the “great contributions” of atheists and agnostics who “widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”
Second, Wilson was no theoretical purist or intransigent ideologue. His passion was for doing whatever possible to help alcoholics get and stay sober. He would be among the first to say that whatever worked in the 1930's may not work today.
As a pragmatist it was the “what works” that he cared most about, not what conformed to established presuppositions. At the end of the Big Book he admits, “We realize we know only a little.” Bill’s interest in LSD and niacin strongly suggest that he would have been open to the current use of medications like Naltrexone and Campral. He would also have advocated for psychological treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, the essence of which is already encapsulated in the program’s emphasis on changing thinking and behavior.
Were Bill alive today he would probably be distressed not by today’s secularists, but by intolerant traditionalists who want to exclude others from AA and deny them their chance at sobriety. As a realist Bill would be surprised that so many traditionalists haven’t cottoned on to the fact that they have already lost the battle they envision themselves fighting. Every year their numbers dwindle while those of free-thinkers multiply. Bill would have advised those who still live in the 1930s to accept what they cannot and will not be able to change.
Galen T., A.A. Beyond Belief