Young Bill Wilson – Part Two
By bob k
The Prequel Begins
It was the night before Thanksgiving when the pains of child labor drove Emily Griffiths Wilson from preparations for the next day’s meal.
Emily’s pains drove her from out of the kitchen into the north parlor. She lay on a couch there, trying to breathe, doubling over as the contractions wracked her body… In and out of consciousness, she screamed and cried out as midnight passed. Inside the house, the midwife and her mother tried to comfort her. Outside, Bill’s friend-to-be, Mark Whalon, remembered a crowd of local boys gathered on the porch listening to Emily Wilson’s screams as evidence of the strangeness of the adult world. Later, Emily was fond of saying that Bill’s birth had almost killed her.” (My Name Is Bill, Susan Cheever, p. 18)
The future founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, “William Griffith Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in a room behind a bar… about 3 am on a wintry morning.” (Pass It On, p. 13)
Bill’s mother had emotional problems and a low tolerance for stress. Prescribed a “rest cure,” Emily went to Florida, where there were family friends, and she stayed for an extended period of time. In this she found salutary benefits, and the process was repeated. She was generally accompanied by her pre-school age daughter, three years Bill’s junior, on these sojourns but her young son was left behind.
In 1903, when Bill was seven, the family moved to Rutland, a city of about 15,000, twenty-five miles north up the valley. This transition was certainly difficult for a shy lad from a village of perhaps 200. Problems between his parents had been increasing, with Emily spending considerable time away in Florida visiting friends. “The move promised a change in a marriage that had bogged down in the stifling details of domesticity. Emily’s life, at this juncture, appears to have been devoted to an effort to analyze and then in some way dominate her circumstances.” (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 16)
Fifty years later, in a speech delivered in St. Louis, Bill reflected on the troubled Rutland times. “I was tall and gawky, and I felt pretty bad about it because the smaller kids could push me around in quarrels. I remember being very depressed for a year or more, and then I began to develop a fierce resolve to win. I resolved to be a ‘Number One’ man.” (Licit And Illicit Drugs, E.M. Bruckner) “It was during this period that I can see how my willpower and distinction, later to keynote my whole life, was developed. I had many playmates, but I think I regarded all of them as competitors. At everything I must excel.” (My First Forty Years, Bill Wilson, p. 15)
A Series of Unfortunate Events
“But then, in 1905, an incident occurred… There was talk… an affront to dignity… and that was more than the proud Emily could stand. Gilly left town.” (Thomsen, p. 17) Biographer, Susan Cheever is more direct: “Gilman apparently got involved with the local minister’s daughter. Emily took Dorothy on long visits to Florida that were ostensibly for health. She had a series of what her son heard called nervous breakdowns. For a while, she was sent to a sanitarium. Then she decided her breakdowns were caused by her marriage.” (Cheever, p. 20)
Whatever Gilman Wilson’s flaws, they did not block the love and admiration of his only son. “When he stood beside his father, Bill Wilson never felt too tall. He never felt skinny then or thought his ears stuck out too far and was never afraid that he was going to do something awkward that would make people call him ‘Beanpole.'” (Thomsen, p. 5)
One cool, autumn night a very drunk Gilman Wilson took his son for a late night wagon ride. The quarryman was silent, perhaps in his own thoughts, as they rode out to his little manager’s shed. Leaving his son in the cart, the senior Wilson went inside for some time, not forgetting his jug of hard cider. In the carriage, a trepidatious young Bill Wilson, not yet ten years old, waited expectantly, and feared the worst as he remembered his parents dinnertime argument.
“‘You’ll take care of her, won’t you, Billy?’ he said. ‘You’ll be good to your mother, and to little Dotty too.’ And before he could answer, his father reached out a hand and mussed the back of his hair. ‘Sure you will,’ he said. ‘Sure. You’re okay, Billy,’ then withdrew his hand, and Billy knew this was it.” (Thomsen, p. 9) No further explanation was given. “When he awakened in the morning, his sister, Dorothy, was waiting to tell him their father had gone away. This was in the autumn of 1905. Billy didn’t see his father again until the summer of 1914, and by then they had discovered they had nothing at all to say to one another.” (Thomsen, p. 12)
Easily seen in hindsight, there was a “fundamental and insuperable incompatibility of Bill Wilson’s parents, who had little in common… This was a case of opposites attracting, and then colliding.” (Bill W and Mr. Wilson, Matthew J. Raphael, pp. 23-24) “Emily had hoped that marriage would turn him (Gilly) into a responsible man.” (Cheever, p. 7) It did not. Some people are perhaps not well-suited for parenthood. Young Bill Wilson seems to have had the misfortune of having two parents of such type.
Nonetheless, “Bill suffered loss and abandonment at a tender age, although he never suggested that this had much to do with his alcoholism.” (My Search for Bill W., Mel B., p. 9)
In the spring of 1906, Emily Wilson took her children on a picnic to Dorset Pond (aka Emerald Lake), where she made two announcements to her children.
First, their father was never coming back, and secondly, she was moving to Boston to study medicine. The second revelation had a corollary – the children were not going with her, but would be staying with her parents.
“It was an agonizing experience for one who apparently had the emotional sensitivity that I did. I hid the wound, however, and never talked about it with anyone, even my sister.” (Pass It On, p. 24) He went into a year-long depression, and Lois later claimed that it had “made him feel set apart and inferior to youngsters who lived with a mother and father.” (Pass It On, p. 27)
Number One Man
“Fayette and Ella Griffith proved kindly as surrogate parents. Yet deep within young Bill Wilson ached a feeling of rejection… the more painful because, in his mind, it was deserved… Grandfather Fayette tried hard to be a father to the boy, but he was a taciturn and introverted man, a too quiet person.” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 10)
“I had to be first in everything because in my perverse heart, I felt I was the least of God’s creatures.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, p. 53) It was Fayette who provided the challenge to be the first non-Australian to build a working boomerang, and after six months of frustration and failures, persistence paid off. “I sawed the headboard of my bed to get just the right piece of wood, and… whittled away’… He called his grandfather to watch as he threw the boomerang. It circled the churchyard and almost struck Fayette in the head as it came back. ‘I remember how ecstatically happy and stimulated I was by this crowning success,’ Bill said. ‘I had become a Number One man.'” (Pass It On, p. 30)
“Whenever his proud grandfather reported the tale in Bill’s hearing, all the lights in the room seemed to come up brighter. He was filled with a kind of power, and when they went on about his accomplishment, he could feel it growing, spreading through his body, as if some potent drug had been released.” (Not-God, p. 11)
Chapter 4 of the Big Book, and the 12 + 12, make it quite clear that Bill Wilson was possessed of a somewhat skewed grasp of what lies in the minds of atheists and agnostics. The genesis of these misunderstandings dwells, of course, in his own story.
Until the age of eleven, “Bill Wilson went unquestioningly to the Congregational Sunday School across the green. All the Griffiths went to church.” (Cheever, p. 44) One weekend, all the children were asked to sign temperance pledges. “Although Wilson knew a great deal about drinking and what drinking could do to a family, he wasn’t about to let some Sunday School temperance preacher tell him what he had to do… He walked away from Sunday School and away from church. He decided he was an atheist. If there was a God, how could he have allowed all this to happen. If he was to have a decent life, he knew he would have to build it for himself, in spite of God, with his own intelligence and determination.” (Cheever, p. 45)
“Bill’s closest friend from about 1908 was Mark Whalon, a university student about ten years his senior. The two… passed much time together when Mark was home on vacation, the boy Bill revelling in his enthusiastic friend’s quotations from Shakespeare and Burns, Ingersol and Marx, Charles Darwin and William Graham Sumner.” (Not-God, p. 11) “Mark Whalon became Bill’s guide through the complication of life, literature and education.” (Cheever, p. 37)
One day, they stopped by a tavern, and young Bill Wilson was struck by the atmosphere. “Bill felt nothing but a crazy happy feeling of lightness. He had laughed so hard and so much, the muscles of his stomach ached, but his whole being was relaxed… He wanted it again.” (Thomsen, p. 47) For one of the rare times in his life, young Bill experienced the pleasure of fellowship, community with one’s fellow men, and he experienced its palpable enervating power. “He knew this was the friendliest gathering he’d ever been in… everybody was talking together.” (Thomsen, p. 46) His good friend had introduced him to new ‘friends.’ “When Mark Whalon died in September of 1956, Bill Wilson collapsed first into hysteria and then into one of the depressions that had become dreadfully familiar to him and to his wife and mother.” (Cheever, p. 43)”
It was Lois who opined that in his entire life, Bill Wilson had only had two friends, the second being Dr. Bob.
Burr and Burton
“The teenage Bill Wilson spent most of his high school years at Burr and Burton, a prestigious school in Manchester, Vermont. He had thought of himself as homely, awkward, and vastly inferior to his classmates. In fact, photographs of him at the time show him to be tall, broad shouldered, and handsome, and he became president of the senior class, a star football player, and the star pitcher and captain of the baseball team. Bill also acted in the school’s stage productions, and he was first violin in the student orchestra.” (Hartigan, p. 19) “With each new triumph, a new dimension seemed added to his life… (he) was beginning to develop something of a reputation as a raconteur…. (and) he was proving that if he adhered to his scheme – receiving a challenge, formulating a plan of action and then pursuing the plan – he’d not only be accepted, he would be admired, envied.” (Thomsen, p. 51)
And it was while he was at Burr and Burton that Bill met Ebby Thacher, a man he would see, and drink with, occasionally over his adult years, and the man who would re-enter Bill’s life in such a dramatic way in November of 1934.
Things were going well for Bill, and they were about to get better.
The Summer of Love
“During the spring of his junior year in 1912, Bill fell ‘ecstatically in love,’ as he said, with Bertha Bamford, a classmate and the daughter of the local Episcopal minister. (She was) a beautiful, brainy, and popular girl.” (Raphael, p. 29) His affection was reciprocated, and her family welcomed him. Bill’s autobiography provides a fore-telling of ideas that would years later appear in Chapter 5 of the Big Book:
I’m going to make quite a point of an easily understood triad of primary drives. The drive for distinction and power; the drive for security – physical, financial and emotional; and the desire to love and to be loved, romantically or otherwise. Well, you see, at this period, now that I am in love, I am fully compensated on all these primary instinctual drives. I have all the prestige there is to have in school. I excel, indeed I’m the number one where I choose to be. Consequently, I am emotionally secure. My grandfather is my protector and is generous with my spending money. And now I love and am loved, fully and completely for the first time in my life. Therefore, I am deliriously happy and am a success according to my specifications. (My First Forty Years, p. 30)
“In November, Bertha went to New York City with her parents, where she underwent surgery (to have a small tumor removed) in Flower Hospital and died from postsurgical hemorrhaging. Bill first learned what had happened when he was summoned to the school chapel along with the other students to hear the tragic news of their classmate… Bill reacted to the loss of Bertha in the same way he had to his parents’ divorce and their subsequent departure from his life. This time though his devastation was even more severe. The depression he plunged into… lasted three years.” (Hartigan, p. 19-20) “My whole career and my whole life utterly collapsed.” (My First Forty Years, p. 30)
“It was simply a cataclysm of such anguish as I’ve since had but two or three times. It eventuated what was called an old-fashioned nervous breakdown, which meant, I now realize a tremendous depression.” (Pass It On, p. 35) The most sceptical among us can be forgiven, perhaps, for wondering if this could have all been the result of a botched abortion.
This tragedy propelled young Bill Wilson to a “crisis of faith,” which surely must be doubly troubling for atheists. He “felt all his faith in providence slipping away… all his loving meant nothing to the terrible ongoing forces of creation.” (Thomsen, p. 63) “He had discovered his radical powerlessness over his own and other destinies. He had also discovered his proclivity for depression and began to search for an emotional anodyne.” (Raphael, p. 31)
At this time of crushing devastation for her only son, Emily interrupted her own busy schedule to tell Bill to “snap out of it.”
Bill would move on from Burr and Burton to Norwich University, America’s first private military college, in Northfield, Vermont. “In high school Wilson was a star athlete, orchestra leader, and president of his class. But he was also neurasthenic and depressive; after his first year at Norwich University, mysterious heart palpitations, stomach upset, and generalized malaise laid him low for a year.” (The Language of the Heart, Trysh Travis, p. 66)
None of the Burr and Burton stardom was relived at Norwich. He was miserable there. This was September, 1914, and in August he had made the continent-wide trek to see his father for the first time in nine years. The reunion was disappointing.
At Norwich, the almost nineteen year old’s academic performance had him holding his own, but socially he remained withdrawn. “Early in the second semester, he fell… and injured his elbow. He insisted on going to Boston to be treated by his mother, who was now a practicing osteopath. He had no desire to return to school.” (Pass It On, p. 44) Returning to Norwich on the train, Bill had a severe panic attack, and these episodes continued back at school. “No physical cause could be found for his troubles… ‘at the end of a couple of weeks, I was sent to my grandfather in East Dorset, which was exactly where I wanted to go.’ He was overcome by inertia, unable to do anything… The doctor gave him a bromide and tried to persuade him that there was nothing wrong with his heart.” (Pass It On, p. 45)
“Eight months after the death of Bertha, Bill had met Lois Burnham while she was vacationing at Emerald Lake near East Dorset. Lois was a receptionist at the YWCA in Brooklyn and four years Bill’s senior.” (Pittman, p. 145) They shared a mutual interest in boating. “They spent sunny summer days racing each other up and down the little lake. There was something about Bill Wilson that intrigued her even though he was a teenager and she was a young lady. Was he letting her win?” (Cheever, p. 61)
“The following summer the relationship grew.” Bill confided to Lois his dreams of glory as well as his many doubts and fears. Lois thrilled to and completely believed in the former, sympathized and promised to help with the latter. By the end of the summer they were secretly engaged.” (Hartigan, p. 24) “I think Lois came along and picked me up as tenderly as a mother does a child… I began to fall in love with her.” (My First Forty Years, p. 32)
He returned to school that fall and once more found himself in trouble. In revealing her secret relationship with Bill to her seventeen year old sister Barb, Lois found out that her beau had been quite flirtatious and had done some kissing with the younger Burnham. Bill sheepishly explained this away as a subterfuge to mask his secret engagement to Lois. She forgave him, and a long pattern of such absolution was begun.
Significant events were taking place in Europe and in 1917, all classes at Norwich were cancelled and students automatically became members of the US reserve forces. Young Bill Wilson was saved from poor grades and disciplinary actions by America’s looming participation in World War I.
Given options, Bill went with the safest choice, the Coastal Artillery. “In his mind he was a coward for joining the heavy artillery…” (Cheever, p. 73) “I had never had, at least for many years, such a terrible feeling of shame and guilt. How I had let my ancestors down!” (My First Forty Years, p. 41) Following training in Virginia, Bill was sent to Fort Rodman, Mass., where “the first citizens took us to their homes, making us feel heroic.” This is where the ‘Bronx cocktail’ of “Bill’s Story” has its origins.
Bill would later described that period in his life, and his compulsion to drink:
My self-consciousness was such that I simply had to take that drink. So I took it, and another one, and then, lo, the miracle! That strange barrier that had existed between me and all men and women, even the closest, seemed to instantly go down. I felt that I belonged where I was, I belonged to the universe, I was part of things at last. Oh, the magic of those first three or four drinks! I became the life of the party. I actually could please the guests. I could talk freely, volubly. I could talk well… (T)he next time or two, I passed out completely. (My First Forty Years, p. 43)
It would take him another couple of decades to climb out of Towns Hospital, a sober alcoholic, meet Dr. Robert Smith and, just few years after that, write the Big Book.
But let us stop at Bill’s story, the opening to the Big Book. Let us end at the beginning, as it were, having accompanied Bill from his birth in the back of a bar to New England, where “war fever ran high.”
I really like what you guys are up to. This type of clever work and reporting! Keep up the fantastic works guys. I’ve included you in my blogroll.
Hello to all commentators. I would like to make a comment regarding there being only two major friends in Bill’s early life. There was a third, and probably the most comforting in later life. That was his future brother-in-law, Rogers Burnham. Rogers (Rog) and Bill met originally when Bill visited the Burnham cottage on Emerald Lake. They were both teenagers, and they bonded easily because of similar interests, intelligence, and compassion. It was Rog who specifically urged his sister, Lois, to pay attention to Bill even though she was four years older than Bill…he 16 and she 20, and they became secretly engaged there at Emerald Lake. My book, “Rogers Burnham, The Original Man Behind Bill W.” (2011) tells of that bond, and includes copies of correspondence between Bill and Rog in later life. Also in this book are copies of Lois’ diary notations of how she & Bill and Rog visited Mark Whalon in later life. Also, there is a copy of a wonderful poem written by Mark,”Lem’s Plan” Those four people became interrelated in ways which had nothing to do with alcohol…they were a demonstrable and realistic definition of ‘family’.
You can read more about Rogers Burnham and the Wilsons in a wonderful post by Les right here: When did I become an alcoholic?
Thanks Bob for the whole Bill W. story. I believe I may have read all the sources, yet I’ve never been able to put it together, in such a way as his traumas became so clear. This could be that your story is shorter than the sources and hits one more intensely. So much for giving over our will – Bill seems to have had a very strong one and I’m convinced that may have got him through much of the AA work, too.
Many people in AA seem extremely reluctant to speak of their earlier traumas although there may not be too many in AA who are without them; there may be more women than men, but I’m not completely convinced, having lost four brothers tragically at young ages. It could be that men just don’t talk about them sensing a weakness here?
The most moving part of the story is Lois’ comment that Mark Whalon and Bob Smith were Bill’s only friends. I was moved by the isolation he must have felt even in sobriety. It’s hard to say why he was isolated but one could speculate. It’s so good to have this blog and the non-believers groups as traditional AA can be a very lonely place for many of us and I suspect it rates right up there with resentments as the number one problem for alcoholics – of course this aspect of traditional AA is capable of filling us with resentments especially when we go to a meeting with a sign in front of the room, “You are no longer alone,” and feel completely alone. Thanks for reminding this alcoholic of Bill’s traumas and loneliness.
Well done Bob. Interesting stuff again. I was surprised that, despite his success at high school, he was such a loner really – social success didn’t really seem to bother him. He seemed to have a particularly tough life in many respects (losing a lot of people who were close to him) but maybe that is just my perspective. Thanks again anyway.
Very well written Bob. Really enjoyed it.
Well written and interesting story of personal struggle.
The master of story-telling exposed in Part Two. Thank you once again for including so many interesting details and describing Bill’s complex relationships so well. So few words yet so clearly put: the dynamics between father and son; Mark Whalon and Bill, to name but a couple. Credit should also be given to the manner in which the progression of Bill’s depression is interwoven throughout the story. Loved it!
Nicely written. Great piece of AA History thanks for sharing.
Yes, thank you, Bob, for a wonderful summary of the traumas and influences, which set Bill up to become the ego-driven, self-will-run-riot alcoholic that he became. Though I’ve read many of the resources from which you drew to fashion the article, it was instructive and beneficial to see them conjointly cited – with what we’ve learned in recent years about the negative impact of trauma from practitioners such Gabe Mate, it is especially fortuitous for us that Bill, despite his struggle with major depressions throughout much of his life, was able to stay sober and fashion not only the Big Book, but more important, in my opinion, the Twelve Traditions and Twelve Concepts, as well as providing us with the wealth of material in his Grapevine articles, prodigious correspondence and other written materials through which he sought until the end of his life to widen the gate of AA to any alcoholic regardless of belief or lack thereof.
Excellent, and to echo what was said before, well seamed together. Of course, looking through, one could presume that a history of family trouble led to a mindset that required drinking. My take on it is that a sense of alienation leads to what I would call spiritual dis-ease which is relieved by drinking only amongst alcoholic types. This requires both a sensitivity to existential pain and the ego-centric/isolation-caused pain itself which may itself come from many causes, not necessarily family strife.
Thanks again Bob. Nicely written piece of AA history:)
Excellent compilation. Thank you. I have read neatly all the attributed sources. Great to see them together in a fluid piece.