Wilson, William Griffith
William Griffith Wilson (November 26, 1895 – January 24, 1971), also known as Bill Wilson or Bill W., was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), an international mutual aid fellowship with over two million members belonging to 100,800 groups of alcoholics helping other alcoholics achieve and maintain sobriety.
A Declaration of Unity
This we owe to A.A.’s future; to place our common welfare first; to keep our Fellowship united. For on A.A. unity depend our lives, and the lives of those to come
For Wilson, spiritualism was a lifelong interest. One of his letters to his great friend and spiritual adviser the Jesuit Father Dowling, describes how he felt that spirits were helping him whilst he was working on his book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, in particular a 15th-century monk named Boniface.
Wilson had ample evidence of his own for believing in the reality of the spirit world, as he had a number of extraordinary spiritual experiences. But he did not share this fact with AA, content to let the experiences guide his actions.
I Am Responsible...
When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of A.A. always to be there. And for that: I am responsible
Following AA's Twelfth Tradition of anonymity, Wilson is commonly known as "Bill W." or "Bill." Wilson refused an honorary degree from Yale University and refused to allow his picture on the cover of Time. After Wilson's death in 1971, his full name was included in obituaries.
In 1955 Wilson turned over control of AA to a board of trustees. In 1999 Time listed him as "Bill W.: The Healer" in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
For our group purpose …
there is but one ultimate authority — a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience.
The drift into alcoholism
Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity
having but one primary purpose — that of carrying its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
Wilson was born in East Dorset, Vermont, the son of Emily (née Griffith) and Gilman Barrows Wilson. His parents' home and business was the Mount Aeolus Inn and Tavern. His paternal grandfather, William C. Wilson, was an alcoholic, who stopped drinking entirely after a conversion experience on Mount Aeolus.
Both of Wilson's parents abandoned their children. His father never returned from a purported business trip, and his mother left to study osteopathic medicine. Bill and his sister were cared for by their maternal grandparents, Fayette Griffith and Ella Griffith, in their house. Although he appeared to spring back against this blow, he suffered serious depression at the age of seventeen following the death of his first love, Bertha Bamford, from complications of surgery.
Wilson met his wife Lois Burnham during the summer of 1913, while sailing on Vermont's Emerald Lake; two years later the couple became engaged. He entered Norwich University, but depression and panic attacks forced him to leave during his second semester.
In 1917, he was mobilized and joined the Vermont National Guard. It is there he was first introduced to alcohol. He found that drink ‘liberated him from his awkward shyness’ and said that he had "found the elixir of life."
He wrote. "Even that first evening I got thoroughly drunk, and within the next time or two I passed out completely. But as everyone drank hard, not too much was made of that."
Wilson married Lois on January 24, 1918, just before he left to serve in World War I as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Coast Artillery. After his military service, Wilson returned to live with his wife in New York. He failed to graduate from law school because he was too drunk to pick up his diploma. Wilson then became a stock speculator. However, his constant drinking made business impossible and ruined his reputation.
In 1933 Wilson was committed to the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions in New York City four times under the care of Dr. William D. Silkworth.
Silkworth's theory was that alcoholism was a matter of both physical and mental control: a craving, the manifestation of a physical compulsion (the physical inability to stop drinking once started) and an obsession of the mind (to take the first drink). He was eventually told that he would either die from his alcoholism or have to be locked up permanently due to the brain damage it caused.
Problems of money, property, and authority may easily divert us from our primary spiritual aim.
We think, therefore, that any considerable property of genuine use to A.A. should be separately incorporated and managed, thus dividing the material from the spiritual
The spiritual experience that changed his life
In November 1934, Wilson was visited by old drinking companion Ebby Thacher. Wilson was astounded to find that Thacher had been sober for several weeks under the guidance of the evangelical Christian Oxford Group. Wilson took some interest in the group, but shortly after Thacher's visit, he was again admitted to Towns Hospital to recover from a bout of drinking. This was his fourth and last stay at Towns hospital under Doctor Silkworth's care and he showed signs of delirium tremens.
It was while undergoing treatment with The Belladonna Cure that Wilson experienced his "Hot Flash" spiritual conversion. It is interesting that ‘The Belladonna cure’ is mentioned only briefly in the many reports of this incident, and because it was a ‘medicine’ everyone dismisses it as having no impact at all. But the ‘medicine’ that Bill Wilson was taking was the sort of ‘medicine’ witches used to use to go out of body. It isn’t witches ointment, though one suspects it should have been used in this way, as Bill sounds like he was close to meeting his maker.
The name Hot Flash greatly underplays the extraordinary nature of this experience. So extreme and intense was it that he did not drink alcohol again for the rest of his life. He also appears to have developed a wish to repeat it, as many do who have had such a close encounter with their higher spirit.
Experimenting with LSD
In the 1950s Wilson, experimented with LSD, an approach which earned him a great deal of criticism from his fellow AA members as it was, to them, simply replacing one drug - alcohol - with another - LSD. But this is a somewhat bizarre assertion given the cocktail of drugs that doctors were administering and still are administering to alcoholics. LSD is considered much safer than the cocktail of belladonna, henbane and chloral hydrate he was given!
In criticising Wilson for ‘taking drugs’, his fellow AA sufferers completely missed the point. Wilson was trying to find out why the spiritual experience happened and thus try to make it repeatable, and repeatable especially for people who were difficult cases to treat. He was also wise enough to understand the greater application of spiritual experience, as it had also had a very positive impact on his depression.
It is a generally acknowledged fact in spiritual development that ego reduction makes the influx of God's grace possible. If, therefore, under LSD we can have a temporary reduction, so that we can better see what we are and where we are going — well, that might be of some help. The goal might become clearer. So I consider LSD to be of some value to some people, and practically no damage to anyone. It will never take the place of any of the existing means by which we can reduce the ego, and keep it reduced.
LSD is known as an ego busting drug. He thus concluded that this is thus the key – squash the big I am.
“Bill was enthusiastic about his experience; he felt it helped him eliminate many barriers erected by the self, or ego, that stand in the way of one's direct experience of the cosmos and of God. He thought he might have found something that could make a big difference to the lives of many who still suffered”
If we look at the many precepts he devised, all help with squashing the big I am, taming the ego.
Each A.A. group needs the least possible organization.
Rotating leadership is the best.
All such representatives are to be guided in the spirit of service, for true leaders in A.A. are but trusted and experienced servants of the whole.
They derive no real authority from their titles; they do not govern. Universal respect is the key to their usefulness.
He had the help of the Jesuit priest and close friend mentioned above in devising this list and this little known priest – a man whose story has never been told, Father Ed Dowling – knew exactly what had to be done.
The book by Robert Fitzgerald. The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters documents the friendship and also provides a great number of letters that show how profoundly indebted Bill knew he was to Father Dowling’s insight.
Our relations with the general public should be characterized by personal anonymity.
Our names and pictures as A.A. members ought not to be broadcast, filmed, or publicly printed. Our public relations should be guided by the principle of attraction rather than promotion. There is never need to praise ourselves. We feel it better to let our friends recommend us.
Wilson joined the Oxford Group and tried to help other alcoholics, but he then started to understand that the spiritual experience had been key and that the only way to help others with the same problems he had had was to use the same approach, provoke a spiritual experience.
Whilst in Ohio he met Dr. Bob Smith, an alcoholic. Wilson explained that the only effective cure he had found was via the spiritual experience. Dr Smith then "began to pursue the spiritual remedy for his malady with a willingness that he had never before been able to muster”. After a brief relapse, he sobered, never to drink again up to the moment of his death in 1950.
Wilson and Smith began working with other alcoholics. 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 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 A.A. groups themselves ought to be fully supported by the voluntary contributions of their own members.
We think that each group should soon achieve this ideal; that any public solicitation of funds using the name of Alcoholics Anonymous is highly dangerous, whether by groups, clubs, hospitals, or other outside agencies; that acceptance of large gifts from any source, or of contributions carrying any obligation whatever, is unwise. Then, too, we view with much concern those A.A. treasuries which continue, beyond prudent reserves, to accumulate funds for no stated A.A. purpose. Experience has often warned us that nothing can so surely destroy our spiritual heritage as futile disputes over property, money, and authority
We have seen that the basic method used in AA by which people are healed - both of alcoholism and depression - is the Squashing of the ego, and a great many of the 12 precepts are there to help with that basic approach.
Alcohol in excess has an appalling effect on vitamin levels and Wilson also spent a great deal of time researching the use of vitamins and better nutrition as a means of countering the effects of alcohol – helping alleviate the symptoms, whilst people were attempting the cure. He also recognised that better nutrition may help those with mental health problems. “Wilson believed that niacin had given him relief from depression, and he promoted the vitamin within the AA community and with the National Institute of Mental Health as a treatment for schizophrenia”.
His fellow AA members were not very supportive of him in this endeavour either, but they have been proved wrong. We have hundreds of papers that show that nutritional deprivation causes or is a contributory cause of a great number of serious diseases including depression and schizophrenia, and that boosting the vitamin levels which have been depleted is indeed extremely helpful.
Wilson did not die from alcoholic related disease - he drank no alcohol for the final 37 years of his life - but from heavy smoking. He even continued to smoke while dependent on an oxygen tank in the late 1960s. Wilson died of emphysema and pneumonia on January 24, 1971.
Wilson's persistence, his ability to take and use good ideas, and his entrepreneurial flair are revealed in his pioneering escape from an alcoholic "death sentence," his central role in the development of a program of spiritual growth, and his leadership in creating and building AA, an independent, entrepreneurial, maddeningly democratic, non-profit organization
we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.
Robert Fitzgerald. The Soul of Sponsorship: The Friendship of Fr. Ed Dowling, S.J. and Bill Wilson in Letters
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