One Page At a Time

Susan Cheever's Chilling Glimpse of AA's Tormented 'Saint'

By David Von Drehle, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2004; Page C01


During her research for a biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, author Susan Cheever dug through the just-opened archives at Stepping Stones, Wilson's longtime home outside New York City. Alongside an archivist, she sifted reams of material that had not been looked at in decades.

One day, the archivist handed her a sheaf of wide, green-lined pages -- hourly logs kept by the nurses who tended Wilson on his deathbed.

Cheever glanced at them. They seemed mundane.

"Keep reading," the archivist urged her.

Cheever came to the pages covering Christmas 1970. On the eve of the holiday, Bill Wilson passed a fitful night. A lifelong smoker, he had been fighting emphysema for years, and now he was losing the battle. Nurse James Dannenberg was on duty in the last hour before dawn. At 6:10 a.m. on Christmas morning, according to Dannenberg's notes, the man who sobered up millions "asked for three shots of whiskey."

He was quite upset when he didn't get them, Cheever writes.

Wilson asked for booze again about a week later, on Jan. 2, 1971.

And on Jan. 8.

And on Jan. 14.

"My blood ran cold," Cheever said recently of the discovery. "I was shocked and horrified." With time to ponder, though, she found herself thinking, "Of course he wanted a drink. He was the one who talked about sobriety being 'a daily
remission.' I realized that this was a story about the power of alcohol: that even Bill Wilson, the man who invented sobriety, who had 30-plus years sober, still wanted a drink."

In the Big Book, as AA's foundation text is known, Wilson recalled the time in 1934 when doctors concluded that he was a hopeless drunk and told his wife that there was no cure, apart from the asylum or the grave. "They did not need to
tell me," he added. "I knew, and almost welcomed the idea."

On Jan. 24, 1971, the man known modestly to legions of alcoholics as "Bill W." was finally cured.

Powerless Over Alcohol

Cheever's discovery, reported in her book "My Name Is Bill," doesn't really change what little we know about alcoholism, a cruel, confounding and mysterious disease. It doesn't really change what we know about Wilson, a rough-hewn and unorthodox American saint sketched by Cheever in all his chain-smoking, womanizing, Ouija-board-reading, acid-tripping holiness.

But it might change, at least a bit, the way some of us think about miracles -- the shelf life of miracles, the limited warranty they carry, and how high-maintenance they are. Miracles come in Bill Wilson's story, but always with strings attached. They are a bequest -- but not like an annuity that pays out endlessly and effortlessly. More like an old mansion, precious and beautiful, but demanding endless, unglamorous upkeep.

The miracle of Wilson's sobriety -- and the birth of AA -- arrived like something out of the Old Testament. It was 1934, late in the year, when the doctors had given up on Bill. Booze, which once put its arm around his shoulder, now had its jaws around his throat. A smart, handsome, charming man, Wilson had become the kind of drunk who could set off one morning to play golf and awaken a day later outside his house, unsure how he got there, with his head bleeding mysteriously and his unused clubs still at his side. "The more he decided not to drink," Cheever writes, "the more irresistible drink seemed to become."

So for the third time, Wilson checked himself into a private hospital in New York that specialized in drying out "rum hounds," as he called himself. He knew what to expect: doses of barbiturates, assorted bitter herbs, castor oil and other purgatives, vomiting, tremors and depression. He also knew it probably would not work, that just about every hard case like him went back to drinking after being discharged.

The prospect was so dismal that Wilson picked up a few bottles of beer for the cab ride.

Wilson had a friend named Ebby Thatcher, another alcoholic, who had a friend named Roland Hazard, yet another drunk, who was wealthy enough to seek help from the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung in Switzerland. When Jung realized how serious Hazard's drinking problem was, he told his patient that the only hope was a religious conversion -- in Jung's experience, nothing else worked. The American psychologist William James had arrived at a similar conclusion, declaring in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" that "the only cure for dipsomania is religiomania."

Well, by God, Hazard got religion and sobered up, for a while. He preached this approach to Thatcher, and Thatcher in turn proselytized Wilson.

"I was in favor of practically everything he had to say except one thing," Wilson later recalled of his conversations with Thatcher. "I was not in favor of God."

After a couple of days at Towns Hospital, Bill Wilson was past the d.t.'s and feeling really low. Science could do nothing for him. He now realized that he couldn't kick the booze by himself. Yet he was unable to believe in the only power experts knew of to save a drunk.

Then:

"Like a child crying out in the dark, I said, 'If there is a Father, if there is a God, will he show himself?' And the place lit up in a great glare, a wondrous white light. Then I began to have images, in the mind's eyes, so to speak, and one came in which I seemed to see myself standing on a mountain and a great clean wind was blowing, and this blowing at first went around and then it seemed to go through me. And then the ecstasy redoubled and I found myself exclaiming, 'I am a free man! So this is the God of the preachers!' And little by little the ecstasy subsided and I found myself in a new world of consciousness."

Wilson never had another drink.

Carry This Message

Brimming with vision and new consciousness, Wilson blew back into the familiar world as if everything had changed -- not just for him, but for all of creation. He bragged that he was going to save every drunk in the world. He went scavenging for men to preach to, finding them in missions and hospitals and jails and among his own drinking buddies. Some of his targets thought he sounded an awful lot like the Bible-brandishing temperance ladies he had rebelled against as a young man. He discovered that many alcoholics were "not in favor of God" -- God was an authority figure and drunks don't deal well with authority.

"This doesn't work," he despaired to his wife, Lois. She reminded him that he was keeping at least one drunk sober -- himself.

But within months, even that project was at risk. Having been blinded like Saul on the road to Damascus, he now had his sight back and -- as often happens to the miraculously enlightened -- was discovering little by little that he was much the same as before.

Tempted while on a business trip in Akron, Ohio, Wilson fought off the bottle by cold-calling churches from the hotel directory in search of a drunk to help. One call led him to an alcoholic surgeon named Bob Smith. Initially, Smith objected to being saved -- this was after one of those sad-but-hilarious tales that give a sort of rosy glow to a truly savage disease: Wilson's first scheduled encounter with Smith was called off after the doctor staggered home blotto carrying an enormous potted plant for no discernible reason. He deposited the non sequitur before his bewildered wife, then passed out.

The next day, when they finally met, Wilson answered Smith's reluctance by saying that he wasn't there for Smith, he was there for Bill Wilson. This was a key insight in the development of AA -- the realization that helping another drunk is key to staying sober oneself. It reflected Wilson's new humility about his wondrous white light and great clean wind. Before, he was trying to work miracles in the lives of others. Now, he was just trying to maintain the miracle in his own.

And it worked. After one relapse, Smith, who had been drinking even longer and harder than Wilson, got sober. Bill W. and Dr. Bob shared the story of their recoveries with more drunks in this same spirit. Some of those men and women got sober themselves, and reached out to still others. And so on, down through the years and out around the planet to the largely anonymous millions of today, who range from celebrities to legislators to schoolteachers to busboys, from a former first lady to the businessman striding down the sidewalk to the desperate soul working on a second sober sunrise. AA is now so widespread and well known that creators of the children's movie "Finding Nemo" could playfully include a 12-step meeting for fish-addicted sharks, confident that every parent in the global reach of Disney would get the joke.

It's impossible to know exactly how many people have tried AA, how many stayed sober, how many attend meetings and how often. The group is not only anonymous, it is non-hierarchical, nondenominational, non-centralized, nonpartisan. According to the Twelve Traditions that govern AA, there is no requirement for membership except a desire to stop drinking, and the group endorses no cause apart from that one. All it takes to convene an AA meeting is two alcoholics who feel like talking, and the tone of the meetings is as varied as the people who choose to attend. Group consensus rules in all things, so in any good-size city there are smoking meetings and nonsmoking meetings, meetings for early risers and for night owls, meetings mostly populated by long-timers and meetings more oriented to the newly sober.

The 12 Steps and decentralized structure have proved so effective and popular that other groups have copied the template for dealing with other problems: Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and so forth. But AA has never branched out. Getting and staying sober has been labor enough.

Unlike many spiritual visionaries, Wilson came to understand "that when he heard the voice of God, it was often just the voice of Bill Wilson," as Cheever puts it. And so, in the now-famous catechism that he created, AA members are pledged simply to turn their will and lives over to "the care of God as we understood him," with italics right there in the Big Book. Prospective converts are often assured that they may take as their God the nearest radiator if that's what works for them. Almighty God with the white beard, or a gentle breeze in the treetops, or the sublime engineering of a molecule, or the vastness of space, or the love of friends, or the power of the AA meeting itself: Choose your own Infinite.

Whatever works.

In the can-do land of the bottom line, even our spirituality tends to be results-oriented.

But the language of AA plays provocatively with a simple word: "work." In one sense, sobriety is something that just happens, much like Wilson's great clean wind. It is a gift from the Higher Power to the alcoholic. At the same time, "work" means work, as in tangible, sometimes even grudging, effort. In the early days, Bill W. and Dr. Bob would sit in the Smith parlor refining their drunk-saving techniques, and often Smith's wife, Anne, read aloud from the Bible. They were partial to the Epistle of James, which reminded them that "faith without works is dead." AA members speak of "working the steps," and many meetings end with the affirmation that "it works if you work it."

This means returning again and again to the state of mind and the exercises that constitute the upkeep on each miracle of sobriety. Beginning with the admission that they are powerless over alcohol and continuing through labors of humility, repentance, meditation and service, AA members maintain the dam that holds back the obliterating tide of booze from their lives.

A Friend of Bill W.

Cheever is a forthright woman with a big laugh and no immediately obvious illusions, a hard-working writer who publishes books like clockwork, pens a column for Newsday and teaches at Bennington College. She decided to write about Wilson because "I loved him. I loved how he changed the world without knowing it, just as a way to stop drinking himself. I loved his Yankeeness," by which she seems to mean a range of qualities, from the Emersonian flinty optimism, to the unsentimental practicality, to the hovering dark clouds and the weirdo seances, which she calls his "table-tapping after dark."

No doubt she also loved Wilson for the fact that his miracle, worked and reworked through the long chain of drunks, touched her own family, late in the life of her father, the short-story artist John Cheever. Booze was the lubricant of Cheever's masterpieces. He was the poet laureate of postwar suburbia, in which hope, striving, lust and angst were all refracted through the bottom of a cocktail glass.

But what was symbol and atmosphere in his stories was toxic in John Cheever's life, as his daughter explained in her acclaimed memoirs "Home Before Dark," and booze washed into Susan Cheever's life as well. In her book "Note Found in a Bottle," she recalls learning to mix a martini by the age of 6, and doing plenty of drinking as an adult. Susan Cheever now speaks of her father's AA years as an amazing gift to the whole family, not a gift of bliss so much as a gift of simple reality. When a drunk enters the unreal world of his illness, he takes his family and friends with him.

Her homage to the family benefactor is pro-Wilson but not hagiographic. "I like to take saints and make them into people," she explains. She touches the spiritual bases in her portrait of Wilson, but seems more moved by the concrete elements. Over lunch at a Manhattan bistro, she recalls her first visit to Wilson's boyhood home in East Dorset, Vt., not far from the Bennington campus. Cheever noticed the low ceiling of the stairway leading to Wilson's room, and caught a glimpse in her mind's eyes, so to speak, of the gangly boy having to duck his head each time he passed.

"And I was him," for that moment, she says. "I understood what it was to be a depressed 10-year-old boy trapped in that house" after his parents had abandoned him to his remote and austere grandparents.

It's not easy making a spiritual figure compelling and real without slipping into iconoclasm. Cheever's approach is to apply a writerly version of Wilson's humility. She gets the goods on his serial adultery, for instance, but declines to make too much of it. "He was engaged to Lois when he was 18 -- hello!" Cheever says. "They were married 53 years. All we really know is that they were friends through an amazing life. He was a good-enough husband."

Likewise, she can look into Wilson's LSD experiment with proto-hippie Aldous Huxley without getting mired in a puritanical inquisition into whether this constituted a "slip" in his sobriety or hypocrisy in his creed.

This attitude allows Cheever to see that Wilson's inconsistencies and quirks weren't blemishes on his record -- they were the essence of a flawed man who was endlessly seeking what works. "Again and again, his intuitions were wrong," Cheever says. "But he wasn't interested in problems. He was interested in solutions." Most of the key traditions of AA operations, including its independence, anonymity and governance-by-consensus, ran counter to Wilson's personal disposition. "He wanted fame and fortune, but somehow was able to figure out that AA would have to be a group in which nobody represents it, nobody speaks for it and nobody's in charge of it."

Sobering Reality

The striking thing about Wilson's story -- which only settles in upon reflection -- is how hard his life was even after he sobered up.

What, really, had that bright light and clean wind changed? He and Lois remained penniless, even homeless, for years. Sometimes it seemed that AA was determined to keep him poor forever. He had a chance to cash in by allying his message with a particular hospital, but his fledgling flock forbade him to do it. He harbored hope that John D. Rockefeller Jr. would lavish money on him, but instead Rockefeller came through with a tiny stipend. Alcoholics Anonymous struggled for six long and underwhelming years before catching its crucial break: a glowing article in the Saturday Evening Post.

Then, as the group flourished, Wilson was attacked by jealous colleagues and abandoned by old friends. He sank into a crushing depression, and "often just sat for hours with his head on the desk or with his head in his hands," Cheever writes. "When he raised his head, he was sometimes weeping." Wilson liked children but was childless. Cigarettes were killing him but he couldn't stop smoking.

He wrote of "being swamped with guilt and self-loathing . . . often getting a misshapen and painful pleasure out of it."

It was enough to drive a man to drink.

Yet for 36-plus years of this troubled and very human life, he was able to resist that next drink. Perhaps the most efficacious miracles are the small ones. And because "his mind was the right lens" and his will was "the right machine," in Cheever's words, for mass-producing that limited but crucial victory, Bill Wilson's miracle keeps working, one person and one day at a time.

2004 The Washington Post Company


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