First Published 25th December 2021. Updated 14/08/2022
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.”