Our Perfectly Imperfect AA Founder

This spirituality–the spirituality of imperfection–is thousands of years old. And yet it is timeless, eternal, and ongoing, for it is concerned with what in the human being is irrevocable and immutable, the essential imperfection, the basic and inherent flaws of humans. Errors, of course, are part of the game… for to be human is to be error prone. (p. 2) 

This spirituality of imperfection begins with the recognition that trying to be perfect is the most tragic human mistake. (p.5) 

We are like others not in our virtues and strengths, but precisely in our faults, our failings, our flaws. (p. 48) 

The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham

As a failed human I couldn’t stand it if I thought Bill hadn’t failed. I couldn’t live up to a perfect example.

— an AA member

Five decades after his passing, Bill Wilson remains a character of endless fascination. 

He did a variety of things that were viewed by other AA members as eccentric, embarrassing, or even just plain wrong. A frequently voiced accusation was that the AA founder, the author of the 12 Steps, was not a good example of the behavior and morality expected (at least theoretically) of a 12 Step practitioner. 

Although he made notable efforts to detach himself from a “leadership” position within AA, that proved to be an impossible task. These many years after his death, Bill Wilson remains the public face of AA. The story of Alcoholics Anonymous is very much the story of Bill Wilson, and the story of Bill Wilson is the story of AA. Many modern members, especially those in the fundamentalist camp, would have us enter Maxwell Smart’s cone of silence regarding the peccadilloes of the founder, rigorous honesty having its limits, apparently. 

Part 1:  Broken Child, Broken Adult 

“You’ll take care of her, won’t you, Billy?” he said. “You’ll be good to your mother, and to little Dotty too.” And before he could answer his father reached out a hand and mussed the back of his hair. “Sure, you will,” he said. “Sure. You’re okay, Billy.” Then he withdrew his hand and Billy knew that this was it. 

Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p.5

But young Billy Wilson wasn’t okay. His beloved father went away, and he wasn’t okay. His mother arranged a divorce, and he wasn’t okay. The teasing at school escalated, and he wasn’t okay.  

Torn-to-pieces-hood 

As Thomsen’s narrative flashes back from the opening scene in the quarry to a brief family history, his aim is to suggest the fundamental and insuperable incompatibility of Bill Wilson’s parents, who had little in common, after all, except their long Yankee lineages and their growing up together. This was a case; it seems of opposites attracting and then colliding.  

Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, pp. 23-24

As a young boy, Bill Wilson clearly worshiped his father. “When he stood beside his father, Bill Wilson never felt too tall. He never felt skinny then or thought his ears stuck out too far, and he was never afraid that he was going to do something awkward that would make people laugh and call him Beanpole… If his father was nearby there was nothing to fear.” (Thomsen, p. 5) “Bill suffered loss and abandonment at a tender age, although he never suggested this had much to do with his alcoholism.” (My Search for Bill W., Mel B., p. 9) The abandonment by his father, who moved very far away, precipitated what William James would label “torn-to-pieces-hood,” an interesting term for the brokenness that plagues human beings in such a variety of ways.

Gilman Wilson was an attractive figure–handsome, athletic, gregarious, and charismatic. He was a singer and a storyteller. He was a leader of men, and a hero in the eyes of his son. Once Gilly had soured on his wife, or possibly earlier, he was a lousy husband. He was kind to his boy, but he was sporadic as a parent. He was kept busy with other pursuits of a more adult nature. His mother was left with Wilson House, when her own reformed alcoholic husband passed on in 1885. Gilly and his brother helped out running the bar. 

“Having a great sense of humor, he was an irresistible storyteller.” (Lois Remembers, Lois Wilson, p.15)

And, he was a drinker.

Mommie Dearest… not so much

My mother, however, was a disciplinarian, and I can remember the agony of hostility and fear that I went through when she administered her first good tanning with the back of a hairbrush. Somehow, I could never forget that beating. It made an indelible impression on me, for I really think that she was angry.  

My First Forty Years, Bill Wilson, p. 9 

He couldn’t ever remember what he’d done to provoke that thrashing, but he remembered the wild anger in her eyes and his own impotent terror as he was forced to stretch his body out, awkward, naked and ashamed, across his mother’s lap. 

— Thomsen, p. 20 

This primal scene of humiliation is used by Thomsen, to epitomize Billy Wilson’s relationship with his mother.

Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew J. Raphael, p. 23

“Beginning long before his parents divorced, Emily was frequently absent from the family. She was thought to have suffered from nervous disorders that required extensive rest cures. Not infrequently, Emily took his sister with her and left Bill behind. Bill often seemed to feel that he did not measure up.” (Hartigan, p. 17) 

Gilman left in the autumn of 1905, when Bill was about ten. Thomsen described the emotional effect on Bill as “a mortal blow to childish faith and security.” The following spring, Emily took her two children on a picnic, and made the announcement that their father was never coming back, and secondly, that she was moving to Boston to study medicine. The second revelation came the corollary that Bill and her sister would be staying behind in the care of her elderly parents.

“It was an agonizing experience for one who had the emotional sensitivity that I did. I hid the wound, however, and never talked about it with anyone, even my sister.” (Pass It On, P. 24)

“Some people can truthfully say of one of their parents that he or she was not the sort of person who should have had children. In Bill’s case, this seems to have been true of both of his parents, for they seem always to have been more interested in their own lives than they were in Bill’s or his sister’s.” (Hartigan, p. 12)She (Emily) was a very brilliant and forceful woman, with perhaps more love for ideas than for people.” (Lois Remembers, p. 106)

Following the news that his mother also was leaving; young Bill Wilson fell into a year-long depression.

 Depression 

Until recently, there had been almost no relief from depression for two years. And when I used to feel better, it was only that I had the blues less than usual. About six weeks ago, I cancelled every speaking engagement and completely withdrew from the office situation… after about ten days of this… I suddenly went “quiet.”… It was as though someone shifted my gearshift lever into neutral.”

Bill Wilson 1946 Letter to Dr. Tiebout

Her (Frances Weekes) thesis is that my position in AA has become quite inconsistent with my needs as an individual. Highly satisfactory to live one’s life for others, it cannot be anything but disastrous to live one’s life for others as others think it should be lived… So, we have the person of Mr. Anonymous in conflict with Bill Wilson.

Pass It On, p. 335

The postwar era saw Bill Wilson seeking psychiatric care, first with AA’s great friend Harry Tiebout, and later with Frances Weekes. Although AA’s Big Book is laudatory of our medical allies, a great many members tend to distrust and disparage physicians in general, and psychiatrists in particular. The news of AA’s principal founder “seeing a shrink” was not well received. “Why not just work the steps?” After all, the steps cure everything from headaches to psoriasis. “Access the One Who has All Power, not some human power quack!”

Bill W. had a long history of battling depression, starting around the time of his parents’ divorce. He had some good years as a high school student at Burr & Burton Seminary in Manchester, Vermont. By developing baseball skills and by joining the band, Bill gained social acceptance, “fitting in” with his more sophisticated fellow students. Ebby Thacher came into his acquaintance. “So, in spite of my awkwardness, I became a number-one man on the baseball field–the pitcher and the best batter, and the captain. Well then, of course, I entered a very happy period. I was beginning to compensate for my inferiorities. (My First Forty Years, Bill Wilson, p. 24)

The good became great when the beautiful and popular Bertha Bamford took a liking to the tall, quiet fellow from the nearby small town. “I had a terrific inferiority respecting the gals. But now comes the minister’s daughter, and I suddenly find myself ecstatically in love.” (My First Forty Years, p. 29) It all came to a crashing halt in November of 1912. Bertha had died of internal hemorrhaging from surgery in New York over the weekend. 

“With me it was simply a cataclysm of such anguish as I’ve had but two or three times. It eventuated in what was called an old-fashioned nervous breakdown, which meant, I now realize as a tremendous depression. Interest in everything except the fiddle collapsed… and my whole career and my whole life utterly collapsed.” (My First Forty Years, p. 30)  

The huge depression that followed the sudden loss of his teen-aged love was surpassed years later. Bill was extremely busy in AA’s earliest years, but as the excitement calmed after the book project was completed and Alcoholics Anonymous had entered America’s consciousness to the point of it becoming a national institution, for no apparent external cause, Bill Wilson was once more overcome with waves of depression.

AA members, men and women whose lives had been rescued from alcoholic disaster, began to refer to the founder of their life-saving program as a “dry drunk.” Even in the twenty-first century, there are many in AA who cling to the belief that the 12 Steps are the great panacea, God’s gift to mankind, a cure for every woe. Folks who wanted sympathy rather than approbation for their own disease of alcoholism, attacked the AA founder for not curing his clinical depression with prayer and inventory.

Many members of the life-changing “spiritual program” were dreadfully upset when Bill Wilson sought treatment by first one psychiatrist, and then another. Even in the twenty-first century, AA members tend to speak ill of psychiatry, their vehemence level generally being inversely proportional to their level of education. Doubtless, these prejudices were even stronger fifty, sixty, and seventy years ago.


About the Author

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1991, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AA Agnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published Key Players in AA History In 2013, he co-founded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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John S

That picture of Bill Wilson was a photograph of Bill in St. Louis, if I remember correctly it was taken in the 1940’s. I found it while rummaging through the files in the Western Area of Missouri AA archives. I have never seen the photo before, at least I don’t think so. Have any of you ever seen this photo before? Maybe it’s been in books that I just haven’t seen. Thank you Bob for your contribution. I know that Bill Wilson had done some terrible things, but he also did some good things. It’s interesting that human beings are… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K

That’s a fabulous picture of Bill. I have no recollection of ever seeing it. I have more essays coming about the criticisms of AA founder. Some I see as unfair; others have legitimacy. I side with those favoring a full airing.

Pat Nagle
Pat Nagle

Thanks, Bob, We need to show the maturity of loving Bill’s memory for the good he did despite his shortcomings. I feel he recognized the harmful nature of his BB dogmatism and religiosity pretty quickly, and said/wrote many things in future years to acknowledge it. I don’t want my life’s meaning to be based on the first three years of my sobriety, nor can I do that to him. Nor the last three years nor any other period. It’s enough to say I did the best I could. I hear people badmouth Bill for his adulterous leanings, dabbling in occultism,… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K

I think looking at the totality of Bill is best. I am no Bill hater–the quirks make him more like me.

norman langille
norman langille

Me like you Bob–I identify with so much of Bill, how can I be a hater–

John L.
John L.

Thanks for enlightening article. Bill certainly did have psychological problems, but beyond this, he had serious ethical shortcomings. I think the time has come for fair revisionist histories of Bill and Bob. Were they really “co-founders” of AA? Did AA ever have a founding moment, other than the first meeting of an AA group in Cleveland on 11 May 1939? Why did Bill and Bob, and they alone, receive money from Rockefeller? Why did Bill become sole recipient of royalties from AA, which made him a very rich man? BTW, I don’t agree with the statement, “AA members tend to… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K

There will be more coming addressing the multi-level quest for $$$, LSD experimenting, womanizing, and myth-making, among others. It was nice meeting you in Toronto. All the best.

Joe C
Joe C

Bill W knew he had an ego. Revelations about his youth show a case for how this—like many of us—could lead to overcompensating in our grandiose behaviour from a deep sense of worthlessness. Abandonment is a pretty good predictor of low self image. Depression or bipolar tendencies may have run in his family. I don’t mean to play armchair-psychologist. Let’s just say, I identify. He struggled to correct his distorted self-image and he showed signs of fending off others tendencies to canonize him. He would joke about being AA’s co-flounderer and he was quick to say there were better examples… Read more »

Bob K
Bob K

Thanks Joe C. I’m looking forward to the 10 year celebration at Beyond Belief. I was at the 2 year gig–my first “agnostic” meeting!

I’m fascinated by Bill, warts and all. Some would sweep the peccadilloes under the carpet, but I think cover-ups are often worse that the offenses themselves. Bill gets criticized a lot by some, and not at all by others. The critiques are legitimate in many cases, not so much so in others. “AA’s Perfectly Imperfect Founder” is looking like a four-parter. More to come over the winter.

Harry C
Harry C

I always look forward to your writings Bob, the essays are always well researched and validated. Another enjoyable and informative read. Plenty of emotional baggage in Bills being from his early years that he lugged about into his adulthood, his marriage and during his time in helping form and develop AA. At least he seems to have had the realisation that help was needed and wanted, other than the so called ‘spiritual’ solution that he promoted through his religiously biased AA writings. Thanks again Bob. Keep ‘em coming. 👍 🤝

Bob K
Bob K

Thank you Mr. C. There will be more coming on this theme–criticism of the AA founder. Some of the barbs are unfair, while others are most reasonable. Bill Wilson’s accomplishments are impressive, but he had serious issues. Bad genetics and a screwed up childhood contributed to all of that.