Biography of Bill Wilson, A Complex Figure

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"Bill W." was a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and although widely known, his anonymity was broken officially until after his death in 1971 at 75 years-old. At the time, he had more than three decades of sobriety to his credit.

Although born in a time when alcohol consumption wasn’t highly regulated, Wilson didn’t take his first drink until he was 21. The single beer apparently had little effect on him and his road to becoming the most famous alcoholic only really took off later on when he was exposed to cocktails. Right off, he’d drink until he blacked out, but being a young man in a war-time America (WWI), hard drinking was the rule rather than the exception.

Learning to be an alcoholic

Like many others, Bill Wilson managed his drinking enough to make a life for himself, although even he eventually succumbed to the “destruction in a bottle.” He even made it through law school – only to ruin it by not showing up to get his degree. Many years after he became sober and famous for AA, he held fast to the rule about anonymity and refused an honorary degree from Yale.

In the typical cycle of an otherwise successful person who is partnered with alcohol, Bill’s life became a series of jumps forward (at one time a successful investment advisor) and hard falls. His reputation as a drunkard eventually overcame his merits as an entrepreneur and in 1933, at the age of 37, he was committed to a New York hospital on four different occasions to “dry out.” This set him on the path of finding a permanent treatment for his alcohol addiction. Over 16 years he’d learned to be an almost functioning alcoholic. The rest of his life would be dedicated to learning how to stay sober.

The 12 Steps

Wilson had found some understanding alcoholism as a disease during treatment. The next year he added an ingredient which became a basic building block of AA: spirituality.

Joining a Christian Fellowship group turned out to be enough to keep Wilson sober. But he was unable to effectively help others or turn them away from drinking. In 1935 (two years after Prohibition was repealed), Wilson and a group of fellow alcoholics in a Christian fellowship for alcoholics started what would eventually become AA.

Dr. Bob Smith, another member and alcoholic in the group is credited as co-founder. Wilson was tasked with writing down a simple series of steps the group used and other material in a book so that the program could be passed along to others. By 1937, the group had managed to keep each other sober and the methods they used would come to be known as “The 12 Steps” and “Alcoholics Anonymous” – sometimes called simply, “The Big Book.” While there are other authors, Wilson, along with Dr. Bob, are credited as the founders of AA.

After AA and Legacy

Wilson continued to promote AA actively and explore his spiritual side. Critics point out his rumored infidelities as examples of taking advantage of the vulnerable (women were joining AA as early as 1939) and there is at least one affair associated with Wilson. However, Wilson remained married to the same woman his entire life.

Other criticisms revolve around Wilson’s continuing search for ever more exotic and “fringe” types of spirituality, including taking LSD to recreate his conversion experience and maintaining a “spook room” in his house for séances. None of this altered the basic fabric of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Wilson died of a second addiction that was never treated or mentioned in AA – emphysema from excessive smoking. Granted, he started smoking at a time when tobacco propaganda made light of the “habit,” but it still shows that addiction is an ever present risk for some. If not one substance, then another. Wilson escaped a death from booze, but died from smoking.

Although no exact records are kept because of anonymity, AA is thought to have about two million members worldwide and continues to provide the 12 step method to alcoholics at no charge (donations are accepted). The program has been adapted to many other addictions, notably Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous.

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