I read My Name Is Bill – His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous by Susan Cheever when I was back on holiday in Ireland a couple of months ago. I’m not a member of AA, but I do look upon Bill Wilson as a bit of a hero. Time Magazine named him in their top 100 of the most important people of all time, and I think he deserves this recognition. Bill W. was a great synthesizer of ideas, and he had enough charisma to make people take notice of the cause he was promoting. He was no saint, but he was certainly someone to admire.
Controversy Surrounding Susan Cheever’s Book
I first heard of this book because of the controversy surrounding it – there are reports of things that some fans of Bill W. would prefer to be kept hidden. Susan Cheever is a recovering alcoholic, and it is obvious that she has a great deal of affection for Alcoholics Anonymous and the founders of this group. During her research for the book she came across material that initially disturbed her, and she knew that it would shock plenty of other people as well. Susan made the decision to print the story of how Bill W., the founder of the most successful alcohol recovery program in history, asked for whiskey on his deathbed – not just once but on four separate occasions. She came across this information while searching the notes of the nurse who was looking after him for the last few days of his life. When I first read about Bill’s near relapse I did feel shocked, but I certainly do not think that it takes anything away from his life and his work – I discussed this before on here in the post If I Ask For Whiskey On My Deathbed Please Just Give It To Me .
Fair Assessment of Bill Wilson
I’d heard about the demand for whiskey on his deathbed before I began reading Susan Cheever’s book, so I was sort of expecting more shocking revelations, but they didn’t really come. It is hard to ever know with any autobiography, but it did feel to me that she was providing a fair account of his life. I’ve heard that many of the AA members who have taken the time to read the book feel the same way too. Bill Wilson was a human, and like all humans he had his good days and his bad days – this continued after he became sober. He was no saint, but he never claimed to be one. In fact one of his greatest achievements was to create the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous – he created these rules to save the organization from people like him.
The one thing that seems obvious from reading this book is that Bill Wilson had a deep spiritual hunger. He often spoke about the profound spiritual experience that allowed him to break away from addiction, and he seems to have spent a good deal of the rest of his life trying to recapture that experience. In later years he experimented with acid, and he even created a ghost room in his house where he would try to communicate with the dead. Bill devoured spiritual teachings, and he seems to have found it easy to assimilate new ideas.
The Bad Days of Bill Wilson
Getting sober did not mean the end of Bill Wilson’s suffering. He endured long periods of crippling depression, and there were times when he hardly had the energy to get out of bed. Bill continued to be addicted to cigarettes, and he was unable to give these up even when they were obviously killing him. There are also lots of stories about his inability to remain faithful to his wife. It is easy to use the weaknesses of Bill W. to attack his program, but this is not really fair. The sad truth is that he was unable to benefit from the fellowship he created because of his inability to participate like everyone else. Even when he handed over the organization to the members he was still seen as the leader. If he turned up at a meeting he would be the focus of attention, and so he avoided going to them.
The Good Days of Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson achieved some remarkable things in his lifetime, and he has undoubtedly helped many people escape the misery of addiction. The thing that made him so special was that he never really tried to hide his imperfections. He wrote extensively about his problems, and this work contains a great deal of wisdom. Bill Wilson wasn’t some “holier than thou” prophet trying to lead people from on high – he was right there with them struggling with the same things that they struggled with. His advice is worth more because he wasn’t talking from a pulpit but from experience.