The Devil and Bill Wilson

[The following article was written in response to a story in The Washington Post on May 3, 2004 by staff writer David Von Drehle, titled “One Page At a Time: Susan Cheever’s Chilling Glimpse of AA’s Tormented ‘Saint.’”]


By Richard K. 


“If there was a Devil, he seemed the Boss Universal, and he certainly had me.” - From “Bill’s Story,” Alcoholics Anonymous, First Edition, 1939, p. 20


My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson – His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, is the latest in an onslaught of published testimonials to AA’s irreverent golden idol.  Author Susan Cheever offers little of what hasn’t already been told in recent years on the life of the exalted New York co-founder.  Bill W. was a womanizer.  He suffered lengthy bouts of depression, including one that lasted twelve years.  He attempted to contact the spirits of the dead in Ouija-board séances.  He turned on, tuned in, and dropped acid.  He became a one-man promotional advertisement for niacin [Vitamin B-3] therapy.  And, of course, he chain-smoked himself to his deathbed.


In a Washington Post book review on May 3, 2004, staff writer David Von Drehle inaccurately reported that Ms. Cheever “sifted reams of material that had not been looked at in decades,” suggesting that she “dug through the just-opened archives at Stepping Stones, Wilson’s longtime home in New York City.”  In fact, several historians of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement [including Dr. Ernest Kurtz, Dick B., and Bill Pittman] had already pioneered the journey to AA’s eastern Mecca.  And like each of these noted authors, she uncovered a secret.  This one was devastating.  Admitted Ms. Cheever, “My blood ran cold.”   According to the meticulously kept logbook of James Dannenberg, one of two male nurses who kept vigil over the final bed-ridden days of the dying architect of “America’s greatest social movement of the twentieth century,” Bill Wilson pleaded for drink.


Stunned by this revelation, one which she knew very well had the potential of sending shockwaves across 100,000 church basements in 150 countries, Cheever was struck by a sudden wave of rationalization.  “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.”


Cheever was referring to Bill’s infamous, oft-quoted decree, “We are not cured of alcoholism.  What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”  Up until the moment this latest disclosure by Susan Cheever hit the bookshelves in February, one of the two best-kept secrets in AA was the fact that prior to the 1939 publication of the Big Book, the pioneering members of Alcoholics Anonymous were proclaiming a cure for alcoholism!  Sadly, AA’s Conference-approved literature has taken great pains to undermine this fact in its own historical narratives, claiming the testimonies of these early members, some of which were included in the first edition of AA’s Big Book, were “misleading.” [Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, 1980, p. 136]  The recent compilation of deleted stories from the Big Book, Experience, Strength and Hope [2003], suggests the pioneer AA’s were using “terminology (that) is strange to us” because they were “still largely uneducated about their alcoholism.” [p. 2]


To the contrary, these founding members of AA had accepted alcoholism to be an “medically incurable disease” via Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, physician at Towns Hospital in New York City, where Bill went to dry out four times.  And yet they still believed they were cured, as did Dr. Silkworth himself:


“Dr. Silkworth…made the statement that he had treated a number of these ex-alcoholics present [at a meeting with Willard Richardson, caretaker to the charitable interests of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr.], some of them several times, and that not one of them, in his opinion, could have been permanently cured by any means known to medical science or to Psychiatry.  He went on to state without reservation that while he could not tell just what it was that these men had which had effected their ‘cure,’ yet [sic] he was convinced they were cured and that whatever it was, it had his complete endorsement.  He stated that alcoholism is, medically, an incurable disease.” (Emphasis added)  - From “History of the Alcoholic Movement up to the formation of The Alcoholic Foundation on Aug. 11, 1938,” by Frank Amos [1938]


Recent research has uncovered hundreds of newspaper and media articles spanning the years 1939 to 1944 [following the release of the Big Book and its “we are not cured” statement] containing proclamations of AA’s cure for alcoholism by members of AA, their families, and outside observers. [See Richard K., So You Think Drunks Can’t Be Cured? Press Releases by Witnesses to the Cure, Golden Text Publishing Company, 2003.]  Among the individuals proclaiming their cures in the press was none other that Bill Wilson himself.  In a later talk in 1947, he explained, “We used to call it a cure in those days.  We’ve since changed our minds.”  Though Bill may have changed his own mind, others in the fellowship didn’t, notably in the Midwest region of Akron and Cleveland, Ohio.


Why did Bill change his mind?  Did it have an effect on his life?  Why did others in AA maintain their position that they were cured?  And just what was this mysterious cure for alcoholism?  In order to address these questions, certain facts need to be understood.


First, Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by two men with distinctly different backgrounds.  Dr. Bob Smith, AA’s other co-founder, was a Believer.  In his youth he belonged to the North Congregational Church in his hometown of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where his parents were pillars.  He continued his affiliations with Protestant Christian churches for much of his life, including St. Luke’s of Akron, the Church of Our Savior, and then as a charter member of the Westside Presbyterian Church.  Finally, near the end of his life, he became a communicant at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Akron.



Bob received an excellent training in studying the Word with Bible classes, Monday night Christian Endeavor, and Wednesday evening prayer meetings.  A lifelong avid reader, he continued to increase his familiarity of the Bible and other religious literature of the day through his participation in the Oxford Group, and until his death Dr. Bob stressed the importance of the study and application of the Good Book.


By contrast, Bill Wilson was an avowed “conservative atheist” and was never a member of a church.  It was not until November 1934 when, in the midst of alcoholic despair, Bill was paid a visit by childhood friend and then-newly sober Oxford Grouper Ebby Thacher with the message, “God has done for me what I could not do for myself.”  Intrigued by Ebby’s appearance and his talk, Bill went to find out for himself exactly what had transformed his old friend.  In what has become the other best-kept secret in AA, he went down to Calvary Mission in New York City and gave his life to Christ. [Reference: Lois Wilson’s talk in Dallas, Texas, May 29, 1973; We Remember Lois W., Glenn K Audio Tapes, #10312]  Seventy-two hours later, the still-drinking Bill Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital to clear his mind and think about Ebby, the Calvary Mission, and Ebby’s message.  Within three days, on December 14, 1934, Bill had his famous “spiritual experience.”  Eighteen years later, AA member number three Bill Dotson recalled:


“…I was listening and trying to find out why they [Bill and Dr. Bob] had this release that they seemed to have.  Bill looked across at my wife, and said to her, ‘Henrietta, the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.”

- From “Alcoholic Anonymous Number Three,” Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, 2001, p. 191


What exactly was this cure?  It was confession of Christ, prayer meetings, Quiet Time with Bible study and reading devotional literature, religious discussions, emphasis on church affiliation, and Christian outreach. [See Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 1980, pp. 130-136; and Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, Paradise Research Publications, Inc., 2003, pp. 9-13, 19-20]  Simply put, early AAs were BELIEVERS.  At one time this included Bill Wilson, and he said so repeatedly.


So what happened between the years 1935 and 1939 that would change Bill’s mind?  The answer can be found in a 1931 book titled The Common Sense of Drinking.  Its author, Richard R. Peabody, was a lay therapist to affluent alcoholics, and he developed a “cure” for alcoholism by formulating a secularized approach to treatment based on the mind-cures of the Emmanuel Movement.  Peabody’s book contained the statement, “Suffice it to say, once a drunkard always a drunkard – or a teetotaler!  A fairly exhaustive inquiry has elicited no exceptions to this rule.” [p. 82] Though his treatment was marginally successful, Peabody himself was not.  He relapsed in the mid-1930s and died from alcoholism.  A copy of Peabody’s book owned by Bill Wilson still resides at Stepping Stones.  In his own handwriting, Bill inscribed inside the front cover:


“Dr. Peabody was as far as is known the first authority to state, ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,’ and he proved it by returning to drinking and by dying of alcoholism – proving to us that the condition is uncurable.” [See Dick B., When Early AAs Were Cured and Why, Paradise Research Publications, 2003, p. 66]


With this statement, Bill Wilson effectively tossed aside four years and dozens of AA’s own proven cures, and it ushered in a new era of incurable “daily reprieve” that was co-opted by the American alcoholism treatment industry into a multi-billion dollar institution that elicits a near five percent success rate.  AA’s General Service Office confirmed similar abysmal results within AA itself in the report Comments on AA’s Triennial Surveys. [Internal Memo 5M/12-90/TC, 1989]


And yet the Friends of Bill W. continue to ignore these data and propagate myths and misconceptions about the early days of AA.  They claim the pioneers all got drunk.  Nonsense.  Rosters exist that prove the early claims of a “75% success rate for alcoholics who really tried.” [See Richard K. A New Light: The First Forty – A Chronological Survey of the Early AA Pioneers (1934-1939), Golden Text Publishing company, 2003] They claim one can believe in any type of idol worship, or even nothing at all, to attain sobriety.  David Von Drehle writes, “Choose your own Infinite.  Whatever works.  In the can-do land of the bottom line, even our spirituality tends to be results-oriented.” [David Von Drehle. “One Page At a Time: Susan Cheever’s Chilling Glimpse of AA’s Tormented ‘Saint.” The Washington Post, May 3, 2004, page C01]


The problem is: the results have been terrible.


The latest revelation of Bill Wilson’s woefully bitter last days by Susan Cheever should not be taken lightly by the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Nor should it be excused by the likes of Ms. Cheever and others with dismissive remarks like, “That’s the nature of the disease.”  No, that was the nature of Bill Wilson.  In the last twenty years, historians have repeatedly come to his rescue whenever another of his exploits was revealed in print.  For example…


On Bill’s depression:


“Since it was obviously not a mental or attitudinal problem, he felt it must be biochemical…[I]t did seem that his most crippling depressions followed periods of intense emotional and physical activity, when he was expending enormous amounts of psychic and spiritual energy.” [Nell Wing, Grateful to Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill and Lois, and the Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous, Hazelden, 1992, 1998, p. 80]


[Comment: Maybe his “shopping the pie counter” of unhealthy, otherworldly hobbies had something to do with his ongoing depression?]


 “What made matters worse, some AA members suggested he just wasn’t working the steps ‘hard enough.’” [Robert Fitzgerald, S.J. The Soul of Sponsorship: The friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters, Hazelden, 1995, p. 37]


[Comment: Bill himself once wrote, “Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone.  The only condition is that he trust in God and clean house.”  Wouldn’t you say they were merely taking his advice, Father?]


On Bill’s LSD experimentation:


“Addressing such concerns requires perspective: the 1950s were not the 1990s…Bill experienced no sense of shame or guilt over his activities.  He in fact regarded them as in service to the A.A. fellowship…In fact, Wilson’s experimentation with LSD reflects one more facet of his persistent pursuit of ‘the spiritual.’” [Dr. Ernest Kurtz. From “Drugs and the Spiritual: Bill W. Takes LSD.” The Collected Ernie Kurtz, The Bishop of Books, 1999, pp. 40-41]


[Comment: Bill had persistence all right.  But honestly, for five years?]


On Bill’s extramarital proclivities:


“She [Susan Cheever] gets the goods on his [Bill Wilson’s] serial adultery…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.’” [David Von Drehle, “One Page At a Time: Susan Cheever’s Chilling Glimpse of AA’s Tormented ‘Saint.” The Washington Post, May 3, 2004, page C01]


[Comment: Being married for 53 years excuses his many years of “thirteenth stepping,” Ms. Cheever?  Being friends is now considered to be “good enough” in marriage?  Doesn’t a commitment mean a commitment anymore? Hello!]


Now comes the news that he repeatedly demanded whiskey from his nurses at the end of his life.  The Friends of Bill W. will undoubtedly rush to his defense with such statements as, “At least he didn’t take a drink.”  Is this all that’s really important?  Judging by similarly stated sentiments at current AA meetings, it must be.


The real point is not whether or not he took the whiskey.  The real point is that he became willing to.  Bill wound up an old man dying of a self-inflicted condition, complaining bitterly about his wife, and picking fights with the nurse.  Ms. Cheever attempts to brush all this aside, explaining, “It’s a measure of the power of alcohol that even in his last days alive, Bill Wilson still wanted a whiskey.” [My Name Is Bill, p. 249]


Let’s compare Ms. Cheever’s comments with this excerpt from Dr. Bob’s last major talk in Detroit:


“I’m still very human, and I still think a double Scotch would taste awfully good…Being a bit out of practice, I don’t believe I’d last very long.  I’m having an awfully nice time, and I don’t want to bump myself off, even with the ‘pleasures’ of the alcohol route.  No, I’m not going to do it, and I’m never going to as long as I do the things I’m supposed to, and I know what these things are.  So, if I should ever get tight, I certainly would have no one but myself to blame for it.  Perhaps it would not be done with malice aforethought, but it would certainly be done as a result of extreme carelessness and indifference.” [Anonymous. The Co-Founders of Alcoholics Anonymous: Biographical Sketches of Their Last Major Talks, Alcoholics Anonymous world Services, Inc., 1972, 1975, pp. 15-16]


Spiritus contra spiritum.  The power of Almighty God to overcome alcoholism.  And yet, like an ever-growing number of individuals in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson made the decision to throw in the towel.  So how do we treat this?  “It’s the nature of the disease.”


Enough is enough.  If the Friends of Bill W. were real friends, they would stop making excuses for him.  Let’s face it: For much of his life, Bill Wilson was a lost individual who never overcame the spiritual battle.  With the help of Dr. Bob, he had found the cure for alcoholism in 1935 and wanted to tell everyone about it.  Then Bill discarded the Bible and removed Jesus Christ from the Big Book at the behest of a few New York atheists.  He banished the Oxford Group’s Four Absolutes, saying, “They didn’t want to get too good too soon.”  He adopted  “higher powers” and opened the door for New Age Alcoholics Anonymous where radiators and folding chairs are deified.  He received criticism from those adamant at “keeping it simple,” and he became depressed.  Deeply depressed.  Bill tried to appease everyone, and he wanted to be loved.  And he paid dearly for not sticking to the principles of the original program.


For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things for the Spirit.

For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. [Romans 8:5-6]


For all their reported similarities, the two co-founders had vastly different approaches to their own lives.  Dr. Bob stayed true to the Word, prayed daily, and helped five thousand drunks without pay.  Bill wrote books, fussed with Traditions and the General Service Conference and wandered aimlessly through spiritual misery.  Ultimately, one needn’t look any further past the final moments of the lives of both AA co-founders to know the difference.  As the midnight hour struck, Dr. Bob Smith sought the loving hand of his Heavenly Father.  Bill Wilson sought a drink.


In the end, we can all learn a lesson from Bill’s life.  Certainly he made a major impact in the lives of countless thousands of people.  His work with Dr. Bob Smith led to a worldwide network of alcoholics helping other alcoholics to recover.  But he was, after all, just a man.  Susan Cheever concurs: “Bill Wilson never held himself up as a model; he only hoped to help other people by sharing his own experience, strength, and hope.”  For the future of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill left behind an even greater legacy.  He had taught us what not to do as well as what to do.


The Washington Post© on May 3, 2004


Richard K. is an author, researcher, and historian of AA and alcoholism treatment.  He is also a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and resides in Haverhill, MA.   May 4, 2004

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