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Saturday, January 16, 2016

My Name is Bill

The story of Bill Wilson - One Vermonter who has made a difference to millions.

In 1999, Time Magazine labeled "Bill W." as "The Healer", in their list of  The 100 Most Important People of the Century.   

William Griffith Wilson is more commonly known as "Bill Wilson", or in keeping with anonymity, "Bill W." He was a Vermonter, and one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

"Bill W."

William Griffith Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont, the son of Emily (née Griffith) and Gilman Barrows Wilson.   

Historic road marker in Dorset, Vermont
He was born at his parents' home and business, which was called "The Mount Aeolus Inn and Tavern", which was the largest house in East Dorset and was built by his great-grandfather, William Barrows.   The house, was converted into an inn and was essentially the social center of town.

Not a photo of Bill W.
His father left when he was a little boy to attend a business trip and never returned.  His mother left to attend Harvard University to study osteopathic medicine, leaving Bill and his sister to be brought up by his maternal *(1) grandparents, Fayette Griffith and Ella Griffith, in their home.  Fortunately, Bill and his sister were heavily doted upon and lived a rather fashionable existence, hereafter.  

 Young Bill Wilson
Bill was known for being highly intelligent, and was encouraged to read, and to play the violin.  He attended Burr and Burton High School in Manchester, Vermont, and became class leader, and the Senior Class President.  When he was just 17 years old, he fell in love with a girl named Bertha Bamford, who he intended to marry.  She was older than he, and wealthy. When she unexpectedly died from complications of surgery, it left Bill in a deep state of depression, which he carried with him, in one way or another, forever after.

In the summer of 1913, he met his future wife, *(2) Lois Burnham while sailing on Emerald Lake in Vermont.  He attended Norwich University, but was part of a group involved in a hazing incident for which no one would claim responsibility, and the entire group was punished.  In June of 1916, his class was reinstated to serve the country, and as part of the Vermont National Guard, he was a commissioned artillery officer.  


His first drink was a glass of beer, which was innocent enough, during dinner out with his military companions.  Weeks later, he drank Bronx cocktails and became intoxicated to the point of "passing out".  At this time he felt as if he had "found the elixir of life", after realizing that the drink helped ease his shyness.  

Lois Wilson
Lois and Bill were married on January 24, 1918, just before he left to serve in World War I as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Coast Artillery. Though he never saw the real "action" of war, he did distinguish himself as an exemplary soldier. 

Bill Wilson in military garb

After his military duty ended, he returned to live with his wife in Brooklyn and secured worked in a surety company.  He took economics courses at night to study toward a degree in law, but when it came time for him to write his final exam, he was too drunk to complete it, and never graduated. 

Not yet discouraged, he successfully obtained work on Wall Street where he worked as a critical informer to provide information to brokerage houses.  His constant inebriation was tolerated for several years by his coworkers due to the amount of money he brought in, which was based on the information he filed.  

Lois and Bill - image source texasdistrictaa.com
His job was to travel the country to evaluate  companies for investors.  His wife Lois traveled with him, and his constant intoxication was definitely a concern of his co-workers, not to mention his wife, and when the stock marked crashed in 1929, his alcoholism progressed and ultimately destroyed his reputation.   He had made countless promises - to himself, his wife, friends, family and co-workers - but the sad truth was, he simply couldn't stop. 


"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results."  - A. A. slogan (Einstein)

Prior to the stock market crash, Bill and Lois lived with her parents, and later he and Lois lived alone.  All witnessed the horrifying decline of Bill, as he descended into desperate and chronic alcoholism.  He simply could not stop drinking.  He would sober up, relapse and then be committed to mental institutions.  

"The idea that somehow - someday he will control and enjoy his liquor - drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker." - From the Big Book of AA

He was sincere in his wish to end the insanity, to stop drinking but cravings came and history continued to repeat itself.  The pattern became an obsession, as he struggled to recover, and stay sober; but, the urge was too strong and he would become drunk all over again until it escalated that he would be committed to a mental hospital.  The rage, depression and obsession would be expressed to his doctor, Dr. Silkworth, who did his best to treat this baffling disease.  


Dr. William D. Silkworth
He explained to Bill that the problem [of drinking] "had nothing to do with vice or habit or lack of character. It was, he said, an illness with both mental and physical components. Silkworth is quoted widely as calling the illness a combination of "an obsession of the mind that condemns one to drink and an allergy of the body that condemns one to die" or go mad if one continues to ingest alcohol." - Source: silkworth.net

Silkworth's theory helped develop some of the core elements of Alcoholics Anonymous, which later became the program.

"Dear Ebby,

No day passes that I do not remember that you brought me the message that saved me - and only God knows how many more.

In affection, 



In November 1934, an old drinking buddy of Wilson, visited him and Bill had envisioned a night of heavy libation and hearty chatter.  He was shocked to learn that his friend, Ebby Thacher, had been sober for several weeks.  But how could have this hopeless drunk stopped drinking?  Bill was intrigued and listened to Ebby's story.

Ebby Thacher
Wilson learned that Ebby had been attending meetings, under the guidance of the 'Christian Oxford Group'.  At the time, Wilson was greatly interested, but not long after Ebby's visit, he was drunk and then admitted to Towns Hospital.  

Bill's wife, Lois, who must have been completely hopeless and exhausted finally conceded that had but few choices, to which Dr. Silkworth concurred:  
Get locked up, 
go insane, 
or die. 

This was the fourth and final stay at Towns hospital under Doctor Silkworth's care.  Wilson was exhibiting signs of delirium tremens (the "D.T's).  Still, his thirst for change was profound.

During his last stay, something fantastic happened, while undergoing treatment.  He was visited by Ebby Thacher, who tried to persuade him to turn himself over to God, and if he allowed it, would be liberated from the chains of alcohol.  Later that same day, Bill saw a bright light which he states lead to his sobriety.

Sadly, I should note here that circumstances were different for Ebby.  He, too, would continue to relapse throughout his life, and never maintained sobriety.


Bill later wrote to one of the world's most famous psychiatrists, Dr. Carl Jung, of his spiritual experience, which converted him and from that point forward, never drank again:

"My depression deepened unbearably and finally it seemed to me as though I were at the bottom of the pit," he wrote to Jung. "All at once I found myself crying out, 'If there is a God, let Him show Himself! I am ready to do anything.'"

At that moment, Bill wrote, his hospital room seemed to flood with white light. "I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind's eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man." 

Wilson described his experience to Dr. Silkworth, who told him, "Something has happened to you I don't understand. But you had better hang on to it".


"Wilson joined the Oxford Group and tried to help other alcoholics, but succeeded only in keeping sober himself. During a failed business trip to Akron, Ohio, Wilson was tempted to drink again and decided that to remain sober he needed to help another alcoholic. He called phone numbers in a church directory and eventually secured an introduction to Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic Oxford Group member. 

Dr. "Bob" Smith
Dr. Bob and Bill W.
Wilson explained Doctor Silkworth's theory to Dr. Bob:  That alcoholics suffer from a physical allergy and a mental obsession. Wilson shared that the only way he was able to stay sober was through having had a spiritual experience, and talking to another alcoholic. 

First Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, 1939
- Image Source: google images

Early AA meeting - appears to be Ebby Thacher speaking?

Dr. Bob, as he is affectionately referred to, was familiar with the tenets of the Oxford Group and upon hearing Wilson's experience, "began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness that he had never before been able to muster. At the time, Dr. Bob did not consider alcoholism a disease, and did relapse one more time.  When he sobered up, he took to heart Bill Wilson's sentiments learned from Dr. Silkworth - that alcoholism is a malady of the mind, emotions and body. Dr. Bob never drank again.  Wilson and Smith began working with other alcoholics. 

Bill W at another's bedside
After that summer in Akron, Wilson returned to New York where he began having success helping alcoholics in what they called "a nameless squad of drunks" in an Oxford Group there.

Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson
Dr. Bob and Bill W. developed the 12 Steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, by sharing their stories with other alcoholics, who in return shared their stories.  By participating in these groups as described, strictly for this purpose (talking about being alcoholic, without fear of ridicule or failure) the AA meeting was born.  


Bill was charming, and charismatic.  He also apparently loved the ladies.  In fact, I think it would be safe to say that his horns were as big as his halo. 

I don't know why, but Lois tolerated his indiscretions for years.  After Bill got sober; he was full of remorse for his infidelities, which is apparent in his writings, as he makes many general references to [mostly men] being unfaithful.  I think it would be safe to say that his guilt ran the highest surrounding a woman that he met in 1962, by the name of Helen Wynn.  

Helen Wynn
You can read the account of his "wicked ways" here or here.


Dr. Bob and Bill W. wanted to spread hope to other alcoholics, so in 1938, Bill began to write the manuscript for what is known as "The Big Book" of Alcoholic Anonymous, which was first published in 1939.

If you are familiar with the contents, you will see that he obtained the material from many sources, as he examines many cases of fellow members at that time.  Historically, the stories at the back of the book have changed through different publication of editions, however the first chapters have not changed.

You can find the entire book, online here.


• The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) 12-step (shown below) recovery program is a free treatment program for people suffering from alcohol abuse and addiction.

• AA members follow a set of recovery steps to achieve and maintain abstinence from alcohol. Many people use a sponsor to help them through the process.

 The program uses a spiritual approach that includes a belief in a higher power. Members define that higher power in their own way—it does not have to be "God".

• Meetings are often held in public spaces such as churches or schools. Some meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend, while others are only for alcoholics or prospective AA members.

 Becoming a member is free. The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.  Membership is self supporting (meaning you can kick in a buck or two to help pay for coffee, creamer, napkins, etc.)  

• You should consider yourself to have a drinking problem to join AA. But anyone can attend open meetings.

Bill and Lois Wilson
There are many - many slogans from AA and they all have meaning.  Here is my favorite:

"More will be revealed" - what the heck does this MEAN?

This 4 word phrase may sound as if it is intended to be mysterious. Well it is.  In a nutshell, it means the longer you stay sober, and follow the principles outlined in the Big Book - you will learn about not only yourself, but about the disease of alcoholism. Of course, there is much more to this, but let's keep it simple.... however, in keeping with the above thought that more WILL be revealed, think about:

"We feel that elimination of our drinking is but a beginning" (page 19)

"Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs" (page 20)

The 12 Steps of AA:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The Big Book is one of the best-selling books of all time.  

By 2012 it has sold 30 million copies.  

In 2011, Time magazine placed the book on its list of the 100 best and most influential books written in English since 1923, the beginning of the magazine.  

In 2012, the Library of Congress designated it as one of 88 "Books that Shaped America."

In 1938, after about 100 alcoholics in Akron and New York had become sober, the fellowship decided to promote its program of recovery through the publication of a book, for which Wilson was chosen as primary author. The book was given the title Alcoholics Anonymous, and was published in 1939 and included the list of suggested activities for spiritual growth known as the Twelve Steps. 

"The movement itself took on the name of the book. Later, Wilson also wrote the Twelve Traditions, a set of spiritual guidelines to ensure the survival of individual AA groups. The AA general service conference of 1955 was a landmark event for Wilson in which he turned over the leadership of the maturing organization to an elected board." 

"During the last years of his life, Wilson rarely attended AA meetings to avoid being asked to speak as the co-founder rather than as an alcoholic.  A heavy smoker, Wilson eventually suffered from emphysema and later pneumonia. He continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s.  He drank no alcohol for the final 37 years of his life; however, in the last days of his life he made demands for whiskey and became belligerent when refused. During this period, Wilson was visited by colleagues and friends who wanted to say goodbye. Wilson died of emphysema and pneumonia on January 24, 1971, en route to treatment in Miami, Florida. He is buried in East Dorset, Vermont." - wiki

Alcoholic's Anonymous is currently in its 78th year of continuous operation.  Meetings aren't just local, they are global. There are over 2 million members world wide, on any given day.  For some reason, to me, this seemed like a very small number considering the count is global, however, one must take into consideration that no membership records are kept, to preserve AA's message of anonymity.

Alcoholics Anonymous' texts and philosophies have been spun off to create many other groups, based on the 12 Steps and principles.  This self-help notion is applied to other addictions such as: 

Narcotic's Anonymous (a.k.a. "N.A.)

Over-Eater's Anonymous (a.k.a. "O.A.)

There are around 50 more self help groups, (gambling, sex addiction, smoking, debtors, etc.) that list can be found here

Bill and Lois


*(1)Ironically, Bill Wilson's paternal grandfather, William C. Wilson, (Bill's namesake) was an alcoholic who recognized that he had a problem, and had attempted to control his drinking by various spiritual pursuits, which included Temperance pledges and attending tent revivals to hear various preachers.  In desperation one Sunday, he climbed to the top of Mount Aeolus and implored God to help him stop drinking, he saw a bright light and felt a spiritual wind pass through him.  The experience left him in complete elation.  He felt he must share the news, and ran back to town.  He interrupted a Sunday service that was in progress at the East Dorset Congregational Church, and took the place of the minister who was delivering his sermon, at the pulpit.  He then relayed his experience to the congregation and for the next 8 remaining years of his life, never drank again.

*(2) Lois Wilson - cofounder of Al Anon

"...there are many in recovery circles who sincerely believe that without Lois, AA would not have happened because without Lois, Bill W. would not have survived."

Lois Wilson was a co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups.  This is another self-help group for family members of alcoholics.  She was the founder of Alateen, a group for the children of alcoholics. Al-Anon and Alateen have also grown to reach international membership, with chapters in 115 countries.


" ...the remorse, horror and hopelessness of the next morning are unforgettable " (page 15)

"Moderate drinkers have little trouble in giving up liquor entirely if they have good reason for it. They can take it or leave it alone" (page 20)

"S/He does absurd, incredible, tragic things while drinking. S/He is a real Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde." (page 21)

"An alcoholic in his cups is an unlovely creature" (page 25)

"The idea that somehow, someday s/he will control and enjoy his/her drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker." (page 30)

"The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed" (page 30)

" No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows." (page 30)

"There are those too who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest." (page 58)

"More than most people, the alcoholic leads a double life. He is very much the actor" (page 73)

"Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone" (page 98)

"Life will take on new meaning." (page 89)

" We absolutely insist on enjoying life." (page 132)

AA in COMIC STRIPS - "It happened to Alice" - (silent)


Buy the Big Book and related material here.

Read - or listen to the text via audio - to the Big Book or the Twelve Traditions online

Read about others involved in the "making of" Alcoholics Anonymous.

Stepping Stones - preservation of the historic home of Bill and Lois Wilson. You can listen to the voices of both Bill and Lois, and book a reservation to tour the home, or take a virtual tour, and more.  

Book a reservation (Destination - the Wilson Home) for the 65th Annual 2016 picnic trip here

Get a DAILY reading from this little gem:
"Daily Reflections" (Please note that this is not an "official" AA book, but it is frequently read on the appropriate date, as contemplation and for a powerful and general topic, as an opener for many meetings).

Easy to read - a fantastic book whether you are new in recovery or you have been an old timer - incredibly helpful tips and thoughts on how to avoid that first drink and much, much more. "Living Sober" is available online.

After 75 years, there is still hope, from wired.com. 

All about "chips".

History and Archives  AA

Frequently Asked Questions FAQ

Vermont is "Area 70", with 11 Districts   - Find a meeting here.