William Griffith Wilson was born on Nov. 26, 1895. For recovering alcoholics the world over, the fact that the date falls near Thanksgiving is no accident.
Several years ago, California-based producer Dan Carracino and New York City director Kevin Hanlon became fascinated by Bill’s story and the phenomenon of Alcoholics Anonymous. Their documentary “Bill W.” was released in 2012 and recently aired on PBS SoCal.
ANGELUS: Neither of you are alcoholics. Why Bill Wilson?
Kevin: About 10 years ago I happened to be reading Ernest Kurtz’s book about AA history — “Not-God” — which I found to be a page-turner. It’s a fascinating story even if you’re not an alcoholic or don’t have people in your life who are alcoholics. Bill W. was on the precipice of destruction, of death, and found a way out that no one else had been able to find before, at least not on the scale that he did.
Dan: It’s just a fantastic story. No one knew how much was hanging in the balance that afternoon in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio, where, on May 12, 1935, Bill made the fateful phone call that led him to AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith. The whole trajectory of the history and treatment of alcoholism changed that afternoon. It changed because Bill figured out that in order to keep sober himself, he had to help another drunk.
AA was not the first society where two drunks sat down and talked to each other and stayed sober. Various organizations had popped up from about 1840 on, but no one could ever keep it together long-term. They often become cults of personality and the second the founders died, the groups died.
Kevin: What gripped us both about this story was the sacrifice, the price that he had to pay. The thing about Bill Wilson was that he could never fully avail himself of the organization he cofounded. He didn’t have AA in front of him. He was the person who had to map all of that out.
He seemed to know that he was an absolutely unique individual, but he also knew how very human he was. His genius was that he was able to recognize his own flaws and codify them so that other people could recognize those shortcomings within themselves. AA’s famous 12 steps arose out of that. Then he spearheaded the development of the 12 traditions and 12 concepts, which truly allowed AA to survive, and to survive beyond him. There’s nothing like it before he came along. The articulation of the disease, plus the roadmap of not only how to find sobriety, but of how to stay together, how to keep the organization from collapsing from within.
Dan: Many people, for instance, are unaware of AA’s notion of corporate poverty. AA is self-supporting — the hat is passed at every meeting — and they also decline outside contributions. If you try to give them a million dollars, they won’t take it. That’s all Bill Wilson.
Their public relations policy is “Attraction, not promotion. Obviously, AA had to be publicized somehow, so we resorted to the idea that it would be far better to let our friends do that for us.” These two guys who look like vacuum-cleaner salesmen founded what is the most truly radical organization of our time. Because maybe the most radical thing is that it’s utterly, completely free.
Kevin: Bill was also a deceptively brilliant writer. Reading “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book,” at first glance you think, “My God, I wouldn’t give this to a five-year-old.” It’s so simplistic. And then when you read it a third or fourth time, it’s devastating, how deep it is in so many different ways. One of Wilson’s great talents was that he could distill very ancient and very profound spiritual principles in such a way that they could be easily grasped by alcoholics of every socioeconomic status.
In the process, he sacrificed his personal life and his personal wants and needs in a really profound way. He didn’t flaunt that and most people in AA don’t know it, but he gave up far more than perhaps even many people in AA are aware of.
ANGELUS: How did you come to have Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s “Cello Suites” on the soundtrack?
Dan: Bill played the cello, in part to relieve his lifelong depression. We met a woman who knew Bill W. In later years he and his wife Lois invited her up to Stepping Stones, their home near Westchester, N.Y., for lunch. Afterward Bill brought his cello outside and sat on the lawn playing Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto.” She said, “The vibrations actually filled my chest cavity. I had such a sense of Bill’s isolation as he was sitting outside on the lawn playing and that the cello helped ease that sense of isolation.”
Kevin: In talking about why AA would survive into the future, Bill said the organization would make it, “not because we’re a better people — but because we’re a weaker people.”
Our imperfections and vulnerabilities are what make us human. That’s the core of our story.
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.