My Name is Bill by Susan Cheever – Book Review

By Galen T.

After AA found its sea-legs in the early 1940s Wilson morphed into its inspirational and organizational CEO. He was a brilliant speaker and writer. Many of his addresses and all of his writings for the Grapevine, the latter numbering more than 200 articles, can be read on Silkworth.net. His sheer breadth and the depth of his understanding are remarkable, as are his humility and the care for people to which these writings attest.

During the years leading up to the pivotal 1955 Convention Bill traveled widely. As he visited fledgling and established AA groups, he collected information about the growing pains and the challenges facing the fellowship at the grassroots level. In response, he developed and formalized the 12 Traditions. As with the steps, he solicited the advice and contributions of others. They were first published in the Grapevine in 1946 and several years later formally adopted by the fellowship. Cheever, along with others, believes they, not the steps, have been the key to AA’s longevity.

Wilson’s second achievement during AA’s “coming of age” years was to turn the leadership of AA over to the General Service Organization. Cheever describes Bill’s thinking: “Against a great deal of opposition, he insisted that Alcoholics Anonymous not have leaders like himself and Dr. Bob . . .” Bill wanted AA to be a democracy in which all AA’s could be heard, and he wanted it governed by rotating, elected representatives. After Bill lobbied for years, the change was finally embraced by the International Convention of 1955. Following the decision Bill remarked that, “Alcoholics Anonymous was safe — even from me.”

The 1955 convention was, like the Jack Alexander article of 1941, a turning point for both Wilson and AA. Wilson was 59 years old, 21 years sober, and had 16 more years to live. He finally had a house and a steady income, thanks to royalties from the sale of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA itself had reached full maturity and established the governing principles that would ensure its durability over the decades to come. He was a famous and revered figure, respected as much outside AA as within it. Yale University wanted to bestow on him an honorary degree, but Bill, in keeping with the traditions, turned it down. For the same reason, he declined to be on the cover of Time magazine, even if pictured with his back toward the camera.

The picture of Wilson with which Cheever leaves the reader is that of an imperfect but supremely gifted leader, who found, through the mysterious synchronicities of history, a perfect match for his gifts and passion. In her finely layered portrait, she suggests that his struggles with smoking, women, and his own ego were inseparable from his humanity and thus from his success as a founder and leader of AA. Near the end of her book she remarks that Wilson was an imperfect man, but the perfect man for the job.

Nonetheless, some will feel that Cheever’s failure to grapple with the significance of Wilson’s womanizing mars her account. Had Bill merely lusted after women in his heart, or succumbed to single dalliance, most of us could identify with the underlying temptation and be glad to know that Bill’s humanity embraced the same imperfections most of us find in ourselves. But Bill’s affairs and liaisons with women went far beyond this. They were chronic, almost obsessive. When he attended AA meetings in his 60’s, two men would be assigned to keep an eye on him and intervene when he became excessively enraptured with one of the women he was chatting up.

Nell Wing

Perhaps we have become inured to bad behavior from admired public figures — FDR, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton — but it is hard to identify an important principle of the program that Wilson did not repeatedly violate, including the honesty he extolls in the Big Book and 12&12. The messenger did not live the message. This does not invalidate the principles that many AA members try to live by today, but it would certainly raise this question among the public at large.

Perhaps this is why official AA does not want to comment on or even acknowledge Bill’s “woman problem.” Similarly, there is no acknowledgment by official AA of Bill’s repeated and aggressive requests for a drink during the last weeks of his life. This avoidance of unpalatable truths about Wilson’s life is understandable, but probably a betrayal of AA values, of our commitment to facing the truth about ourselves even when it is painful. Might it not be healthy and cleansing for AA as a whole to acknowledge Wilson’s failings and imperfections.

*****

Writing 15 years ago, Cheever does not address the growing secular movement within AA or speculate on how the subject of her book might have reacted to it. But from her portrait of Bill we can glean a couple salient facts.

First, Wilson’s own religious sensibilities were unconventional. He borrows from traditional Christian themes and verbiage from the culture in which he is immersed but does not deploy them theologically. For example, he rarely mentions Jesus Christ or the Christian notion of salvation from sin through faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Wilson’s God is more generic; he knew that a person can believe in God without being religious.  He was never a regular church-goer, or a booster of the institutional church.

Wilson happily characterized AA as a “benign anarchy,” and in Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, he salutes the “great contributions” of atheists and agnostics who “widened our gateway so that all who suffer may pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief.”

Second, Wilson was no theoretical purist or intransigent ideologue. His passion was for doing whatever possible to help alcoholics get and stay sober. He would be among the first to say that whatever worked in the 1930s may not work today. As a pragmatist it was the “what works” that he cared most about, not what conformed to established presuppositions. At the end of the Big Book he admits, “We realize we know only a little.” Bill’s interest in LSD and niacin strongly suggest that he would have been open to the current use of medications like Naltrexone and Campral. He would also have advocated for psychological treatments such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, the essence of which is already encapsulated in the program’s emphasis on changing thinking and behavior.

Were Bill alive today he would probably be distressed not by today’s secularists, but by intolerant traditionalists who want to exclude others from AA and deny them their chance at sobriety. As a realist Bill would be surprised that so many traditionalists haven’t cottoned on to the fact that they have already lost the battle they envision themselves fighting. Every year their numbers dwindle while those of free-thinkers multiply. Bill would have advised those who still live in the 1930s to accept what they cannot and will not be able to change.


About the Author, Galen T.

Galen spent most of his career in the ministry, and in mental health and career counseling. He has published numerous articles as a career consultant. He is now an independent writer focusing on the application of personal narrative to addiction recovery and life generally. He has been sober since 1995 and is active in several of his local AA groups.  Galen is currently writing a book about narrative, self-identity, and personal change.

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  1. Jerry F. November 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    A very interesting and well-written article. It has been many years since I read the book, “My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson – His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Maybe I’ll read it again and gain a better understanding of Bill W and of our origin. I was tempted to write “origin myths” as I’m sure that our AA history will be replete with our own brand of revisionism.

    Those who are interested in the subject would do well to read Nan Robertson’s “Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous” and Cheever’s latest, “Drinking in America: Our Secret History.”

    Thank you, Galen.

  2. life-j November 12, 2017 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Galen, thanks.

    We do need to take a closer look at Bill. Cheever’s book is quite good. I do think it, and most other biographies, fail to look at how Bill wrote the big book too soon for his own (and our) good. Yes, it helped pull the fellowship together, but it also is a supremely poorly written (well, poorly argued, anyway) book, which makes us stuck with an awful program. And a lot of what got us there is Bill’s ego.

    Funny picture on the left side: It’s the top of Bill’s head, and the bottom of Bob’s

  3. Thomas B. November 12, 2017 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Thanks, Galen, for this captivating and exceptionally well-written review of Cheever’s biography of Bill, which I also consider the most fully enlightening about Bill’s life, faithfully portraying the good, the bad, and the ugly about the very flawed — as is each one of us — human being, William Griffith Wilson.  Despite his foibles and challenges, he guided AA’s evolution into a worldwide organization that has offered a process for relief from addictive behavior for millions.

    I personally am not at all concerned about Cheever’s revelations that at the end of his life in great physical pain, oxygen-deprived and dying from emphysema as well as filled with emotional remorse about his humanness, especially about his unfaithfulness to Lois, he wanted to drink. After all, he was an alcoholic, and drinking to relieve great physical and emotional pain for us is as natural as breathing.

    Further, I totally agree with your conclusion that were Bill to be alive today he would welcome the use of Naltrexone and Campral for helping alcohol addicts to gain sobriety, as well as fully supporting us secularists who are members of AA without belief.

  4. bob k November 12, 2017 at 8:10 am - Reply

    Besides Pass it On, I have Wilson biographies written Robert Thomsen, Nell Wing, Matthew Raphael, Mel B., Frances Hartigan, Nan Robertson, Tom White, and Susan Cheever. (not that I’m obsessed) I also have the delightful My First Forty Years, a memoir by Bill W. himself. The world probably doesn’t need another book about the AA founder, but I’m writing one anyway. (Okay, I am obsessed) Historical fiction.

    The Cheever book is far and away the best-written, opening with wonderful scenes of Vermont history and geography, but I’d rank it 3rd behind the Hartigan and Thomsen offerings. Of all biographers, Thomsen had the best direct access to Bill, but his 1975 release was Lois-vetted, and semi-conference-approved. Of necessity, he was circumspect.

    There is a great deal more about the Wilson sex life in the biographies that came after Lois’s passing. We shall never know the full extent of his sexual dalliances. There is no video to review. Nonetheless, the deniers sound more than a little silly in trying sanitize what is an obvious reality. The imperfect Wilson was surely the perfect founder for AA, and its ragtag band of less than saintly members.

    I like the tarnished halo. Neither I, nor he, falls within the camp of the noble folk who have done the steps EXACTLY as written. Mea culpa.

    I’ll exit with an effort to seem more intellectual than I am ;-), by quoting Sir Winston:

    “History cannot proceed by silences. The chronicler of ill-recorded times has none the less to tell the tale. If facts are lacking, rumors must serve. Failing affidavits, we must build with gossip.”

  5. Joe C. November 12, 2017 at 7:49 am - Reply

    Fabulous writing; Galen, what’s the timeline one your upcoming book?

  6. Lola November 12, 2017 at 6:59 am - Reply

    A photo of a woman identified as Nell Wing accompanied this article but I didn’t see any reference as to who she might be. (?) Perhaps one of Bill’s many female dalliances?

    • bob k November 12, 2017 at 8:16 am Reply

      Nell Wing is also the author of Grateful To Have Been There: My 42 Years with Bill & Lois.

  7. Gerald November 12, 2017 at 6:47 am - Reply

    Yes, the Traditions are what’s really different about AA, and I think especially Tradition Twelve’s spiritual principle of anonymity. I got lucky as an atheist newcomer. I landed in a group that practiced the Traditions. Other groups would have killed me.

    Yes, “an imperfect person who was the perfect person for the job.” That’s a great way to put it.

    Yes, LSD and niacin. Newcomers and not so new comers to AA should be made aware of the niacin experiments if for no other reason but to understand that AA’s simple program of action did not suffice to make Bill W. feel mentally well (!) But niacin, apparently, did. And with M.D.’s Bill ran what we would call “human trials.” He believed he had found a solution for the depressions that so often prevent newcomers from staying sober long enough to give AA’s simple program of action an honest try. Apparently Bill wanted to be known for niacin rather than AA (!)

    Prozac saved my life when I was new. In retrospect I believe my Prozac experience was akin to goal of the niacin trials: to keep the newcomer alive long enough and sober for long enough to give the AA program a fair chance to work.

    After the first couple years sober on Prozac, I received no further treatment till my sixteenth year of sobriety, when I changed my diet to ultra-low carb, high in healthy animal fat. Then *BOOM* – a miracle – I was relieved of my lifelong depression. Similar to the feeling of mental wholeness that Prozac gave me – and LSD too actually, in that sweet spot between the hours of coming up but before the hours of going back down – but t.e.n. t.i.m.e.s. better than Prozac. And I have not spent one moment depressed in over eight and a half years.

    So … changing my thoughts, beliefs, and actions in order to feel better, as per the AA program? Actually, just what religion, philosophy, and psychology have always had on offer… You bet. I swear by it. I need it. It works.

    But changing the way I feel, first, by eating a pre-civilized (Paleo, caveman, pre-agricultural) kind of diet, which changes my thoughts, beliefs, and actions for me automatically? You bet!

    … Why has the niacin experiment been swept under the rug? Same reason as Bill’s philandering? and the LSD experiment? Or for a different reason?

    I think it’s for a different reason. I think it’s the same reason that people hate to hear about antidepressants changing people’s lives: because that’s n.o.t. what’s on offer in religion, philosophy, and psychology.

    Instead, niacin sounds like ingesting a substance in order to make us feel better first, and feeling better automatically changes our thoughts, beliefs, and actions for us. That sounds a lot like drinking & taking drugs.

    Well, this has been my experience in recovery, not with just a single vitamin supplement  but with a compressive nutritional approach, and the nutritional cure for my lifelong depression is b.e.y.o.n.d. what’s on offer in religion, philosophy, and psychology, changing one’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions in order to feel better.

    That’s why I love the name of this group (web site? magazine?) “Beyond Belief;” for me, the significance goes beyond just religious belief but beyond a.l.l. beliefs, philosophy and psychology, too. Maybe I found in LSD back before I got into AA something like what Bill W. found in it, some relief from depression! I don’t know what he found, but I’ve had this experience three times now: being restored to sanity by non-spiritual (non-religious, non-philosophical, non-psychological) means. This most recent one, ultra-low carb dieting, I’m keeping it 🙂 Eight and a half years and not a moment depressed!!! (No beliefs or actions necessary, of any kind.)

    Thanks,

    Gerald in Japan

  8. XBarbarian November 12, 2017 at 6:46 am - Reply

    thought provoking read, thank you.

    I generically label  hardliners, whether party politics, religious zealots, history zealots, etc.. as simply, Fundies.  nostalgia, egoism, the need to dominate others, hierarchy.. these support the broken soul’s pursuit of control. absolutism.

    I have always bristled at the portraits in a mtg. bill and bob, and the follower nature, the sycophantic need to raise something up, as scripture, holy, immortal.

    my ESH is no less than, nor greater than, Bill or Bob, or you, reader.

    lastly, i would agree, the traditions are the foundation of the longevity of AA, the steps, being simply elaborated versions of previous understandings of useful ways to sooth my troubles.

     

    oh, and this little gem!  “We realize we know only a little.” strong reminder.. open the mind. practice being open to new ideas. I will store that for future use when discussing such things with fundies. 

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