Dr Wilson and Mr Hide
Biographies of Bill Wilson, while not telling us anything which is actually untrue, do tend to look mostly at the Saint Bill, “plus a few problems too hard to overlook”, such as his infidelities, his chain smoking, his depression, all touched upon as lightly as possible in order to not ruin the myth.
What I’m going to do here is to fictionalize his story a bit, and hope that my version comes in about as true as all the others. I’m taking some artistic license.
I’m presuming there are indeed sides to Bill’s story that everyone is trying to hide.
So here we go.
Bill Wilson got disenchanted with AA quite early. But since everyone had put him up on a pedestal, he had to play the part. He had, after all, landed a job for life and had a good book contract. But the prospect of leading an organization which went in a completely different direction than he honestly had intended did bother him.
Nowadays most AA folks generally presume that everything Bill said in his early writings, such as the Big Book was right.
The earlier the writing – the more ignorant he was at the time – the more right he was.
His later writings and talks, which show that Bill had changed and grown like we all do in recovery – that gets less attention. As individuals we must change and grow, but as a fellowship we don’t want the confusion.
How did it get to this?
At Steppingstones Bill had an office built for himself on a hill above the house. Seems quite telling that he named it “Wit’s End”, rather than say “serenity acres” – he must really have been suffering? Why would he call it that? “Hi, is Bill home today?” “He’s at wit’s end”. Make a joke of the truth if it is the best you can do. But an article by Susan Cheever in the Fix 04-16-12 gives us a clue:
I interviewed Tom Powers before he died at his All Addicts Anonymous (AAA) East Ridge retreat, in Callicoon, New York, where he had established his own sober community after angrily leaving AA in 1958. Powers said that he could no longer tolerate Bill Wilson’s philandering; he also had reason to think Bill was a thief. While Powers’ judgmental voice is evident in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill’s mood had also become much darker. After 15 years leading AA, he was tired; he felt an enormous burden of responsibility and expectation. In fact, he introduced a resolution that passed in 1955 to turn AA over to its members.
Bill tapped AA friend Tom Powers, who had worked in advertising and lived nearby in Chappaqua, and magazine editor Betty Love [to help write the 12 and 12]. The three met in the morning in Wit’s End, the cinderblock office Bill had built on a ridge above his house. Soon after they began the work, Bill was felled with the third disabling depression of his life, which he called a “period of blackness.” Some mornings, Tom Powers later told me, Bill would just put his head down on his desk and weep while Powers and Love tapped out the new steps on Bill’s typewriter.
By the early 50s Bill had gotten tired of leading an organization he no longer truly believed in. And this is why he tried to turn over leadership of the organization to the fellowship, in the hope that it would set itself right. Turned out that the fellowship was even more conservative, more religion abiding, and set itself wrong with a vengeance.
Bill became a puppet, wheeled out at conferences to give the same talk about god every year, and the only thing new was some warnings about rigidity. The one thing they didn’t want to hear about. Bill had really tried to be heard at the 1953 conference, but without much success. Bill’s frustration really comes through in the conference report:
Bill said he proposes to consider “whether this program of ours is frozen as solid as an ice cube, or whether there is any elasticity in it, whether we are going to get into this business of insisting on conformity, whether we are going to get into the business of creating an authority that says: ‘These Steps and Traditions have to be this way.’”
In one country the steps have been altered somewhat in phrasing and reduced to seven. “Do you think we should tell those people: ‘You can’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous unless you print those Twelve Steps the way we have them?’ No. They are merely going through the old pioneering process we had to go through ourselves.”
“Where variations of the Traditions are concerned, we’ve gone up and down like a window shade. We even have a Traditions that guarantees the right of any group to vary all of them, if they want to. Let’s remember, we are talking about suggested steps and traditions. And when we say each group is autonomous, that means that it also has the right to be wrong.”
“My feeling is that the more we insist on conformity, the more resistance we create. But if the Traditions and Steps reflect accurately what our experience has been, the alcoholic, no matter where in the world he may be, will eventually adopt the principles that will work the best for him. If our principles are correctly stated, he will adopt them. If any improvements are to come, who can say where they may come from?”
Just take one problem – not too serious – and let us try to think how we would behave if it occurred. I know an author who is a humorist on the sarcastic side. Two or three years ago he got material together for a funny book about A.A. which would have roundly ridiculed us. The book was never published, because he found too many of his old writing cronies in AA, and they discouraged him. But suppose he had published this book?
You know what our first reaction would have been. It would have been a reaction of great rage. “He can’t do this to us!” But does that necessarily have to be our reaction? When we are unfairly critizised, loudly critizised at some time in the future, or are actually attacked, are we prepared to take such attacks in silence, and in dignity, with no thought of retaliation? – And if there is any truth in such an attack, can we humbly say, “That is so. This society stands corrected.”? (1953 Conference Report, underlining emphasis in the original)
He really tried to open the fellowship up to new ideas, but it fell on deaf ears. He gave up the fight.
By the time he wrote “The Dilemma of no Faith” in 1961 I can’t but wonder if he had gotten so far out of touch with the “allowable reality”, that indeed he had no more faith himself, but only pretended to, talked the talk, walked the talk, because he didn’t want to rock the boat anymore.
And yet there was this book Thomas B tells about – that around 1990 Nell Wing, Bill’s secretary for 30 years, and AA’s first archivist, told him that she and Bill had been working on a secular book which they hoped would be used instead of much of the original literature. We have not found any indication yet that such a manuscript exists, but this information at least comes from very close to the source, and would support the point of view that even though Bill may still have been a believer, his wheels were spinning hard, looking for a way to modify the program away from the religious dogmatism which so many were trying to cement into place.
This book has gone missing. Why would they work on it in the first place? Well obviously there is and was a need for it, but the big question is why it has disappeared, and why they may have worked on it more or less in secret. This makes one think that there may have been a core group in AA’s governing structure (which we supposedly do not have) that was really bent on keeping AA on a religious footing. How were they doing it? I don’t know. With at least some new, unbelieving members of the GSC being elected nowadays, maybe it will change in time. But a related cause for concern is the lawsuits that were made to keep AA literature pure, both in Mexico and Germany. Several hundred thousand dollars were spent on this.
As adamant as regular AA members are about the purity of the program, and about not using outside literature, it would stand to reason that there is a similar adamancy about it in headquarters and among the trustees.
Bill was a salesman. Think about how he put the program together, reflecting on himself. It was all about our (based on his own) faults and about making amends. He must have had a lot of faults, and a lot of amends to make. This would paint a picture of a selfish, manipulative, dishonest kind of person. Note that not all alcoholics are like that. There are a lot of shy, depressed introverted drunks, who didn’t ever have it in them to do the things Bill must have been doing during his stockbroking career.
If Bill had been abused in his early life, the program he put together would have been about forgiveness instead of about amends.
But the program reflected Bill’s own needs as he saw them at 3 years sober, and he presumed all drunks were just like him. Why wouldn’t he, at 3 years sober? I was every bit as ignorant and self-centered at 3 years sober as Bill was, though I came more from the abused category myself. And it is easy for me too, to think that everyone is just like me.
At three years sober, Bill was largely unrecovered. He steamrolled his preferences for the Big Book as well as he could. If he had been willing to listen to the agnostics in the group, the big book would have come out entirely different. Later, did he indeed keep his faith in his god, or did he just spend the next 30 years pretending?
It would make sense to ask why he had these bouts of depression. Yes there are medical reasons sometimes, but often it is just mental and emotional. Did he discover that the program he had made indeed was not as good for recovery as he thought it was as a 3 years dry egomaniac?
There are days I wonder if the “depression” really is a euphemism for “Bill wanted to change the program to something non-religious and simple, but they wouldn’t let him”.
One could go so far as to say he really had blown it, making a program with so many elements that do not work, that he had already cut a lot of people off from recovery. The fault, down the road, would eventually not so much be his, once others took over the real control from him, but it would have bothered him that he was the one who had set it in motion. Was all this the source of his depression? “Bill, you really fucked up!”?
But Bill at 3 years sober had really very few resources. No old-timers to lean on. He had read a handful of books, which at 3 years sober made him think he knew everything.
He had to embellish everything. “More than one hundred men and women” were in fact around 70-75. Most of those had just put a few months together. While this is good of course, we know how fragile a few months of recovery are, and especially back then when it was only the blind leading the blind, it would have been even more so. And many of them did indeed relapse. Several committed suicide. There were only 8 people with more than 6 months sobriety. Hardly enough success to build a movement on, but Bill was determined to do it anyway, and right there and then.
Granted, this is what pulled our fellowship together, but it really did put it on a clay footing.
Bok K writes:
Hartigan also interviewed Tom Powers Sr., Bill’s writing partner on the “Twelve & Twelve,” who stated that “Bill was frequently overwhelmed by the guilt and remorse he felt as a consequence of his infidelities and the turmoil his affairs were causing within the Fellowship.” (Hartigan, p. 170) Powers insisted that Wilson’s guilt over his infidelities was responsible for his depression. No argument was returned. “You’re right… But I can’t give it up.” (Hartigan, p. 171)
Of course we are also imposing our cultural standards on Bill’s womanizing which strictly speaking we may have no right to do. We take the short view of things. Even though I subscribe to fidelity myself, I must admit I can’t say that womanizing is any more wrong than say, having children outside of marriage, something we have come to think of as entirely ordinary by now, even though it was just as much of a no-no back then.
When therefore Powers and most of AA comes down on Bill so hard, it may be unjustified, and added to Bill’s problems. But still, it caused trouble in the fellowship. Bill faced a lot of judgment.
Personally I think the god stuff weighed more heavily on him in the end.
He had everything, a beautiful house, a wife he apparently couldn’t have sex with, but who stood by him as a mother, and enough income to be comfortable. But he had no peace, so he chain smoked until it killed him.
But the “Dilemma of no Faith” from 1961 is among his last major bit of writing.
Whether this doctor has been fictionalized too, like he did with so many other people in his stories is hard to know. I won’t quote from it here, since it ought to be read at length anyway.
But it is obvious that a lot of soul searching went into this piece.
He still talks of his own faith, but mostly in critical terms.
Bill was an unhappy man. It is probably safe to say he never recovered in the manner which we understand the word.
The epitaph Wikipedia leaves him is probably about as sorry as it really was:
During the last years of his life, Wilson rarely attended AA meetings to avoid being asked to speak as the co-founder rather than as an alcoholic. A heavy smoker, Wilson eventually suffered from emphysema and later pneumonia. He continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s. He drank no alcohol for the final 37 years of his life; however, in the last days of his life he made demands for whiskey and became belligerent when refused. During this period, Wilson was visited by colleagues and friends who wanted to say goodbye. Wilson died of emphysema and pneumonia on January 24, 1971, en route to treatment in Miami, Florida. He is buried at the East Dorset Cemetery in East Dorset, Vermont.
Bill Wilson started out with a lot of good intentions and simple ideas, few of which were realized. Everything that was realized was religious people’s agendas. No doubt it was his own fault for writing such a god-focused program in the first place, but his simpler ideas about one alcoholic helping another etc., only ever got to be accessories to the religion.
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.
As part of this mission, life-j has written a number of articles on AA Agnostica over the past several years and these are:
- My Path in AA (June 30, 2013). Also published, mildly edited, on January 12, 2016, as a chapter in the book, Do Tell!
- Our new chat room! (February 2, 2014). This chat room was closed after several months.
- Yet Another Intergroup Fight (March 2, 2014)
- A Grapevine Book for Atheists and Agnostics (September 7, 2014)
- Wounded Warriors (August 5, 2015)
- The Jellinek Curve (August 22, 2015)
- Science may one day accomplish this… (May 12, 2016)
- Open-Minded (September 22, 2016). This is a reprint of the article published in the October 2016 issue of AA Grapevine.
- The Secular AA 2016 Austin Convention (November 17, 2016). This is also a chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
- The Daily Reflections (January 19, 2017)
- Back to Basics and Other Religionists (July 6, 2017). Another chapter in the book, A History of Agnostics in AA.
- Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (November 23, 2017)
- Logical Fallacies of the Big Book (February 22, 2018)
- Moments of Clarity (October 21, 2018)
- Higher Powers (May 19, 2019)
- Dr Wilson and Mr Hide (August 11, 2019)
To date, he has also written a number of articles for the wonderful website, AA Beyond Belief:
- The Sinclair Method (November 22, 2015)
- Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke (April 9, 2017)
- About Being Here (July 2, 2017)
- A Call for Better Networking (April 19, 2018)
- As Bill Also Sees It (November 7, 2018)
- AA and the Art of Automobile Maintenance (November 11, 2018)
- Fix Broken Self-esteem with Ego Deflation? Huh? (November 18, 2018)
- Some Thoughts About AA in the 21st Century (December 2, 2018)
- Conference Approved (January 27, 2019)
- The Thing About AA (August 4, 2019)
Most of the earlier articles are available in a book put together by life-j. The book can be read and/or downloaded as a PDF right here: My Collected Published AA Stories.
In July of this year, life-j also published a book on Amazon. And an Introduction and Reviews of that book can be accessed here: About Being Here.
life-j has spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in art work and writing. He is now semi-retired on a five acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens. This is from the an introduction to his earlier book: “…the doctors have given me one to two years to live. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m taking a lot of time to write, while I can.”
Thank you, life-j.