SPELLBOUND BY AA: AN INTERVIEW WITH NELL WING
Here is an interview with Nell
Wing, Bill’s secretary after Ruth Hock retired. Published in the Grapevine© in
Nine years after the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous began in Akron, Ohio, the Grapevine magazine published its first issue in June 1944. Three years after that, Nell Wing arrived in New York. A young woman in her late twenties, Nell had decided to go to Mexico to pursue a career in sculpture. In the meantime, she wanted a temporary job to earn a little more money for the journey. The agency where she applied for a temporary job told her about an opening at the headquarters office of Alcoholics Anonymous. Nell knew about AA, having read Morris Markey's article "Alcoholics and God" in the September 1939 Liberty magazine, and through other magazine articles in the early forties, as well.
In 1947, she started working in the
office of the Alcoholic Foundation (now the General Service Office), and in 1950
became Bill W.'s secretary. Within a few years, she became close friends with
Bill and his wife, Lois, and on weekends she regularly went up to Stepping
Stones, their home in Bedford Hills, New York, to help Bill with correspondence
or research, or just to keep him and Lois company.
After Bill died in 1971, Nell continued her close association with the General Service Office and with Lois. She organized the AA Archives, and in 1993 published a memoir called Grateful to Have Been There.
Nell never got to Mexico, but she
worked for AA for thirty-six years. She still travels frequently around the
country, speaking to groups about AA history. Two Grapevine staff members
interviewed Nell Wing at the Grapevine office in New York.
Grapevine: You've described
the Grapevine as having an "improbable history." What did you mean?
Nell Wing: It's miraculous
that the Grapevine is still in existence fifty years later. The Grapevine
doesn't have what a lot of magazines have, like ads or a sales force. It has to
stick to its primary purpose and basically that's to ask members to write
articles and to share their stories. But the Grapevine has kept going because
there are many, many people who understand and appreciate it. There are always
enough members who find it useful and helpful in maintaining sobriety and keep
it going. Some even read it long before becoming members of AA.
Grapevine: What was it
about the Grapevine that Bill W. found so appealing?
Nell Wing: He quickly saw
it as a means of carrying the message. And since he couldn't connect personally
with all groups and areas in AA on a regular basis, he used it as a primary
source of sharing and explaining the important issues that he wanted accepted by
the Fellowship. It took several years, as we know, before there was a steady
and enthusiastic growth of Grapevine readers. But Bill thought that sharing his
ideas in print this way was important. It was there - you could read it, you
could think about it, you could refer to it later.
Grapevine: That was one of the reasons for writing the Big Book - so the program wouldn't get "garbled" in transmission
Nell Wing: Exactly. If it's
in print, it's a matter of record. And the fact is, Bill was perhaps his own
worst enemy in trying to get his ideas across. He could pound you into a
corner, so to speak, because of his frustration when his ideas were not
understood and accepted by the trustees and the membership at large. So the
Grapevine was an effective way for him to reach people - without the pounding!
Grapevine: The Grapevine is
now fifty years old, and we're considering what our role for the future will
be. Do you have any thoughts about where the Grapevine fits in?
Nell Wing: Preserving the
experience - to my mind that's what you do in the Grapevine. The Grapevine's
purpose is similar to the purpose of archives in general: to preserve the past,
understand the present, and discuss the future. So many young people are coming
in today and they need to know about the history of AA.
Grapevine: What was your
first acquaintance with alcoholics or AA?
Nell Wing: My dad was a
teacher and a justice of the peace in our small town. I knew about alcoholics
very early on because the state police would often drag guys over at three in
the morning, rapping on our door. And many of these drunks were professional
people in our town or nearby towns, and perhaps good friends of my dad's.
Occasionally he'd pay their fines for them - when you've been out drinking until
three A.M., who has any money left to pay fines with? I read about AA in the
September Liberty magazine - sitting in my college dorm - in 1939. So when I
first came to work at AA, I knew about it, and I also knew that a drunk was not
always a Bowery bum.
Grapevine: You worked with
Bill W. for twenty years. Tell us more about him.
Nell Wing: As I said, he
could be adamant about what he knew had to be accomplished. He had the vision
to see what was needed in order to preserve the Fellowship. But everybody liked
to argue with Bill, and he liked to argue, too! Listening to Bill was some
experience. When Bill would be talking, say at a banquet, many in the audience
would be very moved and even weeping at what and how he shared. He could touch
you in ways that were really remarkable. Generally, he could learn from
experience. Like for example when he was advised to set the tone and tense for
the text of the Big Book: don't say, you must do it this way. Just say, look,
this is what we do. He was a teacher but not a preacher!
Grapevine: What's amazing
is that he listened.
Nell Wing: I always think how Bill was so much like the philosopher and writer William James. Both Bill and James were spiritual, though not necessarily deeply religious; they were also both pragmatic New Englanders. Bill had a way of talking about a deep faith inside himself the way James did. Bill liked to read about different interpretations of what God was like. He was very philosophical, and James's The Varieties of Religious Experience was very meaningful to him, as it was to many AAs both in those early years and since.
Grapevine: How were Bill and
Dr. Bob different from each other? Was Bill the greater risk-taker?
Nell Wing: I think so. Dr.
Bob, as a doctor, believed in being cautious and advising people how to evaluate
ideas and solutions, to weigh them carefully - have everyone in agreement before
taking action. Bill believed in putting the goal forward and aiming for it. No
matter who liked it or who didn't like it: aim for that goal. Bill always
thought way ahead. Dr. Bob was the monitor, evaluator, the ground level, the
supporter of Bill's ideas, even perhaps not always agreeing with the timing of
an idea. Another miracle! A perfect match! A wonderful partnership, indeed.
Yes, Dr. Bob was the right person to balance Bill. His view was, Keep it
simple. Bill had vision; that was one of his gifts - he could see the road
Grapevine: Where do you
think he got this?
Nell Wing: I don't know. He
simply was of that character. He had a need to think ahead to the next step, a
sense of direction, an ability to judge what the needs were, and a great ability
to bring different streams of thought together. But he took time to think
things through. People said that up at Stepping Stones, Lois was the one who
did the yard work, the plumbing, and the daily things that husbands usually do.
It was true. Bill would be walking a lot, contemplating, just thinking ahead.
Grapevine: Did Bill have a
sense of humor?
Nell Wing: Yes, he'd knock
us off our chairs sometimes. He'd tell Lois and me something funny that
happened to somebody he'd heard about, and the way he told it, we would just
absolutely go into hysterics. He could tell a naughty story, too. It wasn't
that he was always pristine about everything. In the office, Bill and I used to
share a big room; I was at one end and he was at the other end. So I saw the
"passing parade," as it were - people coming in to see him. Occasionally
somebody would say, "Hey, Bill, I just heard this," and then tell a joke
currently making the rounds. And Bill would look at him as if the guy was
crazy. If he didn't relate to a story or it didn't have a spark, he'd just kind
of look at you. The poor guy would be standing there, so disappointed that he
was telling Bill a joke and Bill wasn't laughing.
Grapevine: Lois and Bill
never had children. Do you think they wanted them?
Nell Wing: Lois did,
certainly. She always wanted children but she had three ectopic pregnancies
back in the twenties. She and Bill tried to adopt but the adoption facility
said they needed a friend who could recommend them, and the friend they asked -
an old friend of Lois's - said that quite frankly she didn't think it was the
right thing to do, because of Bill's drinking. So they never got the go-ahead
to adopt. But Lois loved children. Up at Stepping Stones, young kids would
come running over to visit with her. She didn't treat them like silly children
but would talk to them as if they were adults. And even years later, the
grown-up children would come back and see her. At Halloween time especially
there were always lots of neighborhood kids - I never think of Halloween without
remembering Bill and Lois. Lois always had the table full of pumpkins and
treats. When the children knocked at the door she'd be there to give them a
little something. Then the kids would pull straws to see who got the biggest
Grapevine:: You mentioned
before about Bill reading. Did he like to read?
Nell Wing: He read a lot in
earlier years. One of Bill's great attributes was that he could listen and
learn. And a lot of very well- informed people came to visit Stepping Stones
over the years. A lot of ideas were expressed there and talked about.
Grapevine: Did Bill imagine
that AA was going to be as big as it is today?
Nell Wing: I remember in the
late 1940s I said, "Bill, this Fellowship is going to go all over the world."
He laughed and said, "Nell, you can say that - I can't." But the growth was
phenomenal. After the war, many servicemen in AA were stationed overseas and
were responsible for getting AA started in Japan in the late forties and in
Frankfurt, Germany. Actually, in Japan, the program started out with thirteen
steps, not Twelve. And do you know what the wives were called in Japan? The
Chrysanthemums. Wives were invited to open meetings - well, not invited, but
tolerated, and they definitely did participate!
Grapevine: Any thought on
what made AA so successful?
Nell Wing: You know, one
reason is that Bill wanted to avoid the mistakes of the past. He paid great
attention to what made the Washingtonians and other similar movements fail back
in the nineteenth century.
Grapevine: That's true,
especially in a Grapevine article in 1948 - "Modesty One Plank for Good Public
Relations." [In this article, Bill discusses how the Washingtonians veered from
their initial singleness of purpose - which was helping alcoholics - and how
they didn't have a national public relations policy - a Tradition, as AA does.]
Nell Wing: Yes that was a
marvelous article. But there were also plenty of things going on in the present
that helped shape AA policy and Traditions, too.
Grapevine: Such as?
Nell Wing: Well, for one
thing, when Marty M. was soliciting for the new National Committee for Education
on Alcoholism (later the National Council on Alcoholism), she made a big error
in 1946. She said that whoever contributed to the NCEA would also be
contributing to AA, or that AA would benefit from it. Well that created some
explosion! Bill was traveling and speaking out West and AA’s were bombarding
him with questions: "What's going on? What is this woman saying?" The
trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation had their first press conference because of
this, explaining that what Marty said was not endorsed by AA, and that the
trustees had nothing to do with the solicitation announcement. Bill and Dr. Bob
had earlier let their names be put on the NCEA letterhead because Bill was very
supportive of what Marty was doing in the field of alcoholism. Bill never
believed that AA had all the answers for every alcoholic. He always said that
whatever worked for the individual was what was needed. Anyway, the Marty M.
controversy lasted four years - it was a fast and furious business at the time.
But it helped galvanize acceptance of the short form of the Traditions, which
were later accepted in 1950 at the Cleveland Conference.
Grapevine: While Bill was
clearly one of the Fellowship's old-timers, it seems he was often at loggerheads
with other members about a variety of things.
Nell Wing: Well, when he
wrote the Twelve Concepts in 1959, most of the Fellowship wasn't interested at
all. And in the early fifties he proposed a change in the ratio of alcoholics
to non-alcoholics on the Board of Trustees. And nobody wanted to hear about
that proposal, either. Nevertheless, both the Concepts and the ratio proposal
were eventually accepted by both the Board of Trustees and the Fellowship as a
Grapevine: These are more
examples of how Bill looked ahead.
Nell Wing: Absolutely.
That's why he was so concerned about establishing the General Service Conference
in 1951. By the late 1940s, it was no secret that Dr. Bob probably didn't have
long to live. [Dr. Bob died in 1950.] And Bill was wondering how much time he
himself might have. He wanted and expected the Fellowship to be able to go on
without him and Dr. Bob. But nobody wanted to face the fact that he was going
to die some day.
Grapevine: Weren't there a
number of projects Bill wanted to get to in the years following Dr. Bob's death?
Nell Wing: In 1954, Bill had
the idea of creating a writing and research team to help him with, among other
things, a major history of AA. Bill's depression was still with him and he knew
that if he could give a lot of time to doing something specific and keep at it,
that would help the depression. He wanted to do a good, thorough history and
also put together a new edition of the Big Book. The scope of the history
project proved to be too much, though, and had to be scaled back. Nevertheless,
the result was AA Comes of Age. The new edition of the Big Book finally did get
completed, and Bill was also eager to do a summing up of what he had learned,
the wisdom that had come up through the Fellowship. He had a very precise idea
of the kind of book he wanted to write, but he wasn't able to do it. In the
end, what took its place was As Bill Sees It - not a bad substitute!
Grapevine: What were Bill's
Nell Wing: Most times you
didn't know he was going through it. His depressions came and went. Sometimes,
not often, but occasionally, when he was dictating to me in the office, he would
just put his head in his hands and weep for a bit. The worst of these
depressive bouts were between 1945 and 1955. What he accomplished, AA-wise,
despite his depressions, is a miracle. So many people wanted Bill's advice -
not just AA and Al-Anon friends, but nearby neighbors at Bedford Hills. They'd
ask if they could come over to Stepping Stones, and Bill always said yes to
everyone. To get away from the phone ringing and all the people, Bill and Lois
would often go away in the middle of the week - to their "hideaway," they called
it, a small rented cottage ten or fifteen miles away. Lois would write and work
on Al-Anon matters and Bill would catch up on correspondence and memos regarding
current AA projects. Then, once a year they often took an overseas trip,
usually in the fall, and in the spring they would take a trip around the United
States and Canada, visiting AA friends and discussing AA matters. Harriet, the
housekeeper, would pick up their mail, and I'd go through it to see what needed
to be answered right away and what could wait for their return.
Grapevine: Bill seems to
have taken every opportunity possible to communicate - through memos, letters,
Grapevine articles, the Big Book, the "Twelve and Twelve," traveling around,
talking to groups.
Nell Wing: Yes, he was a
terrific communicator! And he felt intensely the need to share his plans for
AA's future and to receive endorsement of them - despite the often feisty
opposition from some. Right here, I would like to mention the Grapevine book,
The Language of the Heart, for I think it's a most valuable book. If you want to
know what Bill W. was all about, read that book!
Grapevine: Tell us about
working in the Archives of the General Service Office.
Nell Wing: I wanted the Archives started, as did Bill. My father, who valued history, had a huge library at home, and after college I took a course in library science and liked it. I always thought that it was very important to preserve AA history, preserve how it started and how it grew - to remember the mistakes in order to avoid future ones. It certainly was important to Bill, but it was hard to get others to understand the need for setting up an Archives. In Europe, in the fifties, archives were thought to be very important, but were not generally so considered here in the United States. We're a "now" people; we don't always think about the future in terms of preserving the past.
In 1954, a fellow named Ed B. was
hired to help Bill with his writing projects. Ed was a wonderful guy - a
writer, a criminologist, and just newly sober - but he didn't think it was
important to preserve all the material we had collected and researched. Our
desks were opposite each other and I'd watch him going through pamphlets and
letters, throwing many of them in the wastebasket. I'd say, "Hey, Ed, we can't
throw all this away." I knew from experience that each of Bill's letters
contained at least five different ideas! Ed had had a laryngectomy - so he'd
write out a note, "No, that's not important any more." I didn't argue, but
after he left work at four o'clock, I'd take everything out of the wastebasket
and put it all safely away in storage boxes until I could sort it out. I'm
especially grateful that Bill so strongly believed in preserving AA's
experience. He knew the importance of getting things done, and had a special
gift for timing. I often think, suppose he hadn't possessed certain leadership
abilities - where would AA be now? Maybe some little sect, who knows? I think
it was destined. I think the Higher Power set this up, I really do.
The fantastic success of AA is like
a big puzzle and there are pieces that you know fit in, but you just don't know
where until you look back into the past.
Grapevine: How has being so
close to the Fellowship affected you?
Nell Wing: Well, I always
like to say I'm on the outside looking in. About a week after I first came to
the office, I attended an open AA meeting at a meeting hall on Forty-First
Street. I remember a gentleman sharing his story and I found myself weeping -
while everyone else was laughing! Right from the start, I was spellbound by
AA. One person helping another who had a similar problem - that is still a
stunning idea to me.
Over the years, I've gained some
spiritual gifts myself. Most non-alcoholics who are familiar with AA feel the
same sense of growth.
Grapevine: Hanging around
with a bunch of drunks for this long - it can only go up from here!
Nell Wing: I'll tell you
something, I don't know people who have lived and learned and reacted to life
like AA members. I've been taught - and I'm grateful. Every morning when I
wake up, I express gratitude for what's happened to me.
© Grapevine, AA Grapevine Inc., 1994
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