Childhood & Early Life
William Griffith Wilson was born on November 26, 1895, in East Dorset, Vermont, in the Mount Aeolus Inn and Tavern, to Gilman Barrows Wilson and Emily (née Griffith). He had a younger sister named Dorothy.
His paternal grandfather, William C Wilson, had an alcohol problem and resolved to become sober when he had a "religious experience” under the influence of psilocybin.
Bill’s happy childhood went through a rough phase after his parents divorced when he was 11. With his father moving to British Columbia and his mother moving to Boston to study osteopathic medicine, a sense of abandonment stemmed in Bill. Such childhood issues triggered depression in him, which overwhelmed Bill several times in life.
Bill and Dorothy were raised by their maternal grandparents, Fayette and Ella Griffith. He became some sort of a rebel and hardly showed any interest in studies. Fayette encouraged him to read literature and learn the violin.
Bill struggled with his dejections and traumas for years. However, Fayette’s efforts made Bill gain confidence while attending high school. He became a class leader and a senior class president. He was also the captain of the football team of his high school and became the main violinist of the school’s orchestra. He, however, fell into depression again, at age 17, after his first love, Bertha Bamford, died.
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Life, Career, & Alcoholism
Bill enrolled at the ‘Norwich University.’ However, he struggled with depression and panic attacks, leading him to drop out in his second semester. He returned to the university the following year, only to be suspended with a group of students associated with an unfortunate incident. Bill was later reinstated after his class was mobilized as part of the ‘Vermont National Guard’ in June 1916, during the ‘Pancho Villa Expedition.’
He was delegated as an artillery officer in 1917. When Bill was undergoing military training in Massachusetts, he started drinking while attending dinner parties thrown by the locals for young officers.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 1913, while sailing on Emerald Lake in Vermont, Bill met Lois Burnham. The two fell in love and eventually got engaged. They married on January 24, 1918. Bill served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the ‘Coast Artillery,’ during the First World War. He returned to New York following his military service.
With time, his alcoholism started taking its toll. He could not graduate from ‘Brooklyn Law School.’ He ventured as a stock speculator, and although he initially garnered success, traveling and working with several companies, his drinking problem later ruined both his business and repute.
He was treated four times under Dr. William D. Silkworth at the ‘Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions’ in New York City in 1933. However, Bill could not get over his alcoholism issue. He was finally told that either he would succumb to his issues or would have to remain confined for good because of Wernicke encephalopathy.
Spiritual Experience, Sobriety, & Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
In November 1934, one of Bill’s old drinking companions, Ebby Thacher, visited his apartment. While Bill was expecting to drink and have a good time with Thacher, he was shocked to know that the latter had been able to remain sober for many weeks with the help of the Christian organization named the ‘Oxford Group.’ Thacher spoke about his conversion at the ‘Rescue Mission’ and also told Bill about the teachings of Rowland Hazard on the life-changing program of the ‘Oxford Group.’
Although Bill was initially not too keen on becoming sober, he controlled his alcoholism to some extent. He later developed an interest in the ‘Oxford Group.’ On December 11, 1934, he was admitted to ‘Towns Hospital’ under Doctor Silkworth for the fourth and the last time. This time, he displayed signs of delirium tremens. He finally gave up drinking for good after experiencing his "Hot Flash" spiritual conversion while being treated with “The Belladonna Cure.” Talking about his experience, Bill said that when he desperately and depressingly cried out saying he would do anything if God showed himself, he had the sensation of a bright light and had a feeling of ecstasy and tranquillity, too.
A new phase in his life saw him join the ‘Oxford Group’ and help other alcoholics become sober. Bill went to Akron for business, which, however, proved unsuccessful. At one point, he became tempted to drink again. He then realized that he should help other alcoholics become sober in order to maintain his sobriety. During this phase, on May 13, 1935, he was introduced to Dr. Bob Smith, an ‘Oxford Group’ member struggling to overcome his alcoholism.
Bill helped Dr. Smith attain sobriety. The two then started helping other alcoholics. After Bill came back to New York, he found success with many others. Eventually, "a nameless squad of drunks" sprung up from the ‘Oxford Group’ to help people maintain sobriety.
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He was the primary author of the book ‘Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,’ commonly known as ‘The Big Book.’ The book, first published on April 10, 1939, elucidated the ways to recover from alcoholism and was the originator of the seminal "twelve-step method" that is still extensively applied in treating several addictions. One of the bestselling books of all time, ‘The Big Book’ was named among the 88 "Books that Shaped America" by the ‘Library of Congress’ in 2012.
The title of the book was later adopted as the name of the squad ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ (AA), the first twelve-step group. As the number of ‘AA’ groups increased, Bill wrote down the ‘Twelve Traditions,’ where he set guidelines on how groups and members should maintain relationships with each other, the society, and ‘AA’ in its entirety. The ‘Traditions’ were originally published as the ‘Twelve Points to Assure Our Future’ in the ‘AA Grapevine’ in April 1946 and were later adopted formally in 1950, during the ‘First International Convention’ of ‘AA.’
Meanwhile, in 1939, he visited the ‘High Watch Farm’ in Kent, Connecticut, with Marty Mann. The same year, the two founded the ‘High Watch Recovery Center’ there. This alcohol- and drug-addiction recovery center is considered the first such center in the US that was founded on the principles of ‘AA.’
Bill also authored a book titled ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.’ The book was published in April, 1953, and elucidated the 24 basic principles of ‘AA’ and their applications.
As ‘AA’ expanded, gaining millions of members across the globe, Bill relinquished the leadership of the group to the ‘General Service Conference’ during the 1955 ‘AA’ conference held in St. Louis, Missouri.
Following the establishment of the anonymity principle of ‘AA,’ Bill declined to receive an honorary degree from ‘Yale University’ and also did not allow his picture to be published on the cover of ‘Time.’ The magazine named him on the ‘Time 100 List of The Most Important People of the 20th Century’ in 1999, mentioning him as "Bill W.: The Healer.”
Last Years, Death, & Legacy
Bill suffered from emphysema. He also suffered from pneumonia in the last years of his life and succumbed to his ailments on January 24, 1971, while being taken to Miami, Florida, for treatment. He was interred at the ‘East Dorset Cemetery’ in East Dorset, Vermont.
Bill left 90 percent of his book royalties to his wife and 10 percent to Helen Wynn. According to ‘AA’ biographer and the personal secretary of Bill’s wife, Francis Hartigan, Bill had become romantically involved with Helen, 22 years younger than him, in the mid-1950s and had even thought of divorcing his wife to marry Helen.
The Wilsons' home, which the couple had bought in 1941 and where Lois had later co-founded ‘Al-Anon,’ presently stands as a museum. It finds place in the ‘National Register of Historic Places’ and was named a ‘National Historic Landmark’ in 2012.
The book ‘My Name Is Bill’ by biographer Susan Cheever was written on him. His character was also featured in on-screen productions such as the TV films ‘My Name Is Bill W.’ (1989) and ‘When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story’ (2010) and the documentary ‘Bill W.’ (2012).