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My Name is Bill
Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
By Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster
HC, 320 pg. US$24/C$36
ISBN: 0-7432-0154-X

How Bill W. saved others by saving himself

By Steven Martinovich
web posted February 23, 2004

My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics AnonymousBill Wilson's introduction to the power of alcohol was much like many other people's. Throughout his life Wilson fought battles against crippling depression and feelings of inadequacy. He experienced a revelation while at a party in 1917: alcohol could be used to overcome self-doubt. With a few drinks, he realized, he could transform himself from the shy wallflower into the life of the party. It was a discovery that plunged his life into hell for nearly two decades.

Author Susan Cheever is well equipped to explore Wilson's world. The daughter of an alcoholic and a confessed former drinker herself, Cheever is intimately aware of the illusions a compulsive drinker weaves to support their habit. And yet some do stop drinking thanks in part to programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founded by Wilson in 1935. The lessons that he learned in his battle to conquer his problem have translated into millions of people freed from their addiction.

My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous chronicle's Wilson's unorthodox life and his messianic mission to help those addicted to alcohol. Unlike previous efforts, Cheevers argues that Wilson's early years as a youth in Vermont, birthplace of rugged individualism, was instrumental in the formation of AA. Those traumatic years that saw his parents divorce, his mother abandon him with her parents and the death of his first love created the man who decades later would help others succeed even as he continued to fail.

Wilson was an intelligent and charismatic man -- a natural salesman -- that people naturally gravitated to and the type who once he set his mind on something, there was little capable of diverting his attention. This talented man, however, was also beset by feelings of inadequacy. Thanks to a negative example of a philandering father who enjoyed his drinking, Wilson was a teetotaler until his early 20s. That changed when he realized he could use alcohol as a crutch to overcome his shyness in social situations. That crutch eventually turned into a full-blown and out of control addiction to alcohol.

Like many alcoholics, Wilson loved the way that alcohol made him feel. It came at the price, however, of placing incredible strain on his marriage and frequent bouts of unemployment. In 1934 life changed for Wilson. The conservative Republican who was an atheist since the age of 16 had what he believed was a religious epiphany. Though he remained an ardent foe of organized religion his entire life, Wilson believed that a higher power had interceded in his life and from that day on never touched another drink again. His mission to save other alcoholics was born.

AA grew out of that mission just a few months later when Wilson met Dr. Robert Smith, whom he helped break his own alcohol addiction. The unlikely pair founded the organization in 1935 on the premise that alcoholics needed to talk to others like themselves, that alcoholism was a disease and that the struggle to stay sober was an ongoing war, which along with other notions, were eventually codified as the organization's famous Twelve Steps. After early years filled with skepticism by the medical community -- which largely believed that attempting to cure someone of alcoholism was almost always a wasted effort -- and alcoholics themselves, AA slowly began to grow by world of mouth and complimentary media coverage.

As Cheever points out, many alcoholics trade one addiction for another and Wilson was little different. Although she doesn't delve terribly deeply into this aspect of Wilson's life, there is considerable evidence that he cheated on his incredibly loyal wife -- famous for founding Al-Anon -- on numerous occasions. Wilson also experimented with LSD, ostensibly in the hopes of using it as a chemical cure for alcoholism, and with spiritual activities like Ouija boards.

Despite that, Wilson's contribution to the world can hardly be overstated. Thanks to his work we view addiction as a disease that is capable of treatment and untold numbers of alcoholics -- not to mention those in other programs that are based on AA -- have been helped as a result. Wilson was a complex man whose personality defied easy categorization and yet Cheever manages to paint a compelling picture. Though My Name is Bill suffers occasionally for not exploring more deeply certain aspects of Wilson's life, Cheever should be commended for bringing together a complex story in an accessible manner.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy My Name is Bill: Bill Wilson: His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous at Amazon.com for only $16.80 (30% off)

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