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Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson

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When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for millions, he wa When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for millions, he was no saint. After cofounding Alcoholics Anonymous, he stayed sober for over thirty-five years, helping countless thousands rebuild their lives. But at the same time, Wilson suffered form debilitating bouts of clinical depression, was a womanizer, and experimented with LSD. Francis Hartigan, the former secretary and confidant to Wilson's wife, Lois, has exhaustively researched his subject, writing with a complete insider's knowledge. Drawing on extensive interviews with Lois Wilson and scores of early members of AA, he fully explores Wilson's organizational genius, his devotion to the cause, and almost martyr-like selflessness. That Wilson, like all of us, had to struggle with his own personal demons makes this biography all the more moving and inspirational. Hartigan reveals the story of Wilson's life to be as humorous, horrific, and powerful as any of the AA vignettes told daily around the world.


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When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for millions, he wa When Bill Wilson, with his friend Dr. Bob Smith, founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, his hope was that AA would become a safe haven for those who suffered from this disease. Thirty years after his death, AA continues to help millions of alcoholics recover from what had been commonly regarded as a hopeless addiction. Still, while Wilson was a visionary for millions, he was no saint. After cofounding Alcoholics Anonymous, he stayed sober for over thirty-five years, helping countless thousands rebuild their lives. But at the same time, Wilson suffered form debilitating bouts of clinical depression, was a womanizer, and experimented with LSD. Francis Hartigan, the former secretary and confidant to Wilson's wife, Lois, has exhaustively researched his subject, writing with a complete insider's knowledge. Drawing on extensive interviews with Lois Wilson and scores of early members of AA, he fully explores Wilson's organizational genius, his devotion to the cause, and almost martyr-like selflessness. That Wilson, like all of us, had to struggle with his own personal demons makes this biography all the more moving and inspirational. Hartigan reveals the story of Wilson's life to be as humorous, horrific, and powerful as any of the AA vignettes told daily around the world.

30 review for Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson

  1. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    Hartigan’s work seeks to portray the life of the world’s most famous anonymous man, Bill W(ilson). Bill’s life is far from unique, but his life story is simultaneously inspiring and complex. Using personal correspondence interviews with friends and AA members, and memories of Lois Wilson (Bill's wife), Hartigan delves into the complex biographical presentation that was Bill’s life. From a typical late-19th century childhood, Hartigan gives the familial back story for both Wilsons. Learning a lit Hartigan’s work seeks to portray the life of the world’s most famous anonymous man, Bill W(ilson). Bill’s life is far from unique, but his life story is simultaneously inspiring and complex. Using personal correspondence interviews with friends and AA members, and memories of Lois Wilson (Bill's wife), Hartigan delves into the complex biographical presentation that was Bill’s life. From a typical late-19th century childhood, Hartigan gives the familial back story for both Wilsons. Learning a little more about Bill’s upbringing and his family’s history with alcohol and breaking the dependency does shed a little light on his future battles. From a ‘broken home’ to a life where scholastic challenges were not enough, Bill excelled and did what he thought was best, but everyone knew there was much more potential in him, if only he tried. Once introduced to alcohol, Bill’s ambitions were lost and his way was blurred by the constant need to drink. Hartigan parses no words and lays out some of the depths of despair in which the Wilsons found themselves, looking up from the bottom of a bottle. As a non-alcoholic, it is sometimes hard to fully understand the depth of the addiction and how a single drink leads to self-destruction and all-out intoxication every time. Bill tried to find the light, but always ended up turning away from it, even after numerous hospital stays. The reader is constantly reminded, these were the 1920s and early 30s, when medical knowledge was much different. After joining the Oxford Group, interested in helping heal those in all walks of life through Christian inculcation, Bill experiences spiritual awakening of sorts, after which time he distances himself from the holy rollers and begins his journey to create what will come to be Alcoholics Anonymous. Once sober, Bill seeks to spread the word as best he can to share the wealth of his new found sobriety. While he could have promoted himself as a healer or as one with the magical elixir, his approach, after reaching out to (fellow drunk) Dr. Robert Smith, is to counsel alcoholics in a conversation format and promote some form of spiritual connection to help them through their new lives, one day at a time. Hartigan discusses, throughout the book, the importance of spirituality to Bill and Dr. Bob, as well as the constant plight that organised religion has on the movement. The greatest separation from the Oxford Group came due to their constant belief that it is Jesus who is the key to success of all evils, while Bill feels it is a person's personal spiritual guide that will help them. From these small groups, and using some of the keys formally penned by Bill (admittedly plagiarised from the Oxford Group, in a way), AA is born and the road to recovery has direction. When Bill begins writing Alcoholics Anonymous and The Big Book, it is not a spiritual inspiration that leads to life-long success. There are still many pitfalls for Bill (and Lois) as they try to subsist on mere pennies and the generosity of others. If that weren't enough, Hartigan recounts the womanising side of Bill, always looking to attach himself to younger women, and his dabbling into things such as LSD and niacin. Politics within the early AA do come to the forefront and there is much squabbling about how to organise this group, led by a man who professes the importance of anonymity and the need not to see one's name in lights. Still, as its founder, Bill's decisions have some treat him as a deity while others try to spin him off as being greedy and out for his 15 minutes of fame. Perhaps most surprising is the funding from political heavy hitters that AA receives to get it off the ground. I was floored to learn that this 'family' was so closely tied to AA's early success. Hartigan does illustrate the fallibility of Bill, both as mentioned above with his sexual exploits, and his inability to kick the addiction of smoking, which leads to his ultimate death. Told in a gradual fashion, the reader can see Bill's latter years as he pulls away from the top of the pyramid and his eventually handing over the reins to others. Any curious reader may wish to know that Hartigan is not a historian in the traditional sense. He openly admits that he was Lois Wilson's secretary from 1983 until her death in 1988. Hartigan does a decent job at telling the Bill W. story, but does (admittedly) gloss over things in a paragraph or two where a trained historian may develop things will extensive interviews. That said, I was not looking for an 800 page biography, so this suited me well. He does use extensive knowledge, interviews and insightful ideas passed along by others to construct this piece of work that will open the eyes to any who have involvement in AA, Al-Anon, or Alateen, as well as the curious reader who may know what AA is but has no other context. Stellar work on this, Mr. Hartigan. You capture the essence of the story in a clear and readable way for any reader to enjoy. Kudos to you, sir!

  2. 5 out of 5

    Matt Edwards

    Meh... Not bad, not great.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bill

    Just a simple, down-home account of a man who was anything but simple. The story of Bill W is the story of a someone who was both deeply flawed (i.e. human) and phenomenally creative, insightful, and brilliant. I have had deep personal contact with 12 step programs for over 40 years and every chapter of this book helped me appreciate tne gift Bill W gave humanity. Bill W is not particularly well writtern, but it is adequate for tne task.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kelly F

    good book to get a basic understanding about the beginning of twelve step recovery programs

  5. 4 out of 5

    Paul Carlson

    A solid history of AA, its co-founder Bill Wilson, and the people around him. Informative and even-handed.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    I wish Goodreads had an option of categorizing books that we never finish reading, because I never finished reading this one. I decided to abort it. I was halfway through it and I liked it okay, but I just didn't feel like taking any more time on it. I do not normally abandon books, I try to always give them a proper and complete read-through, but I just couldn't with this one. I have sooo many books I wish to read that I thought my time would be better spent on those. With that said, I really c I wish Goodreads had an option of categorizing books that we never finish reading, because I never finished reading this one. I decided to abort it. I was halfway through it and I liked it okay, but I just didn't feel like taking any more time on it. I do not normally abandon books, I try to always give them a proper and complete read-through, but I just couldn't with this one. I have sooo many books I wish to read that I thought my time would be better spent on those. With that said, I really cannot give it a proper review. The amount that I did read, (well over 100 pages) was mildly entertaining and interesting, but obviously not enough to continue on. My apologies to the author. Maybe someday I will revisit it. (?)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Emjayinc

    Politely phrased but very honest and realistic insights into Bill, and Lois, his strengths and flaws, and Lois' characteristic acceptance, forbearance, and forgiveness. She could also have founded ACOA, if she had lived longer. Politely phrased but very honest and realistic insights into Bill, and Lois, his strengths and flaws, and Lois' characteristic acceptance, forbearance, and forgiveness. She could also have founded ACOA, if she had lived longer.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ginger Robinson

    I felt like I was reading a college student's paper on the history of AA. I couldn't get past the first chapter. I want to know the history b/c I'm interested, but I must find another biography :) I felt like I was reading a college student's paper on the history of AA. I couldn't get past the first chapter. I want to know the history b/c I'm interested, but I must find another biography :)

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bookworman

  10. 5 out of 5

    Larry Deans

  11. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

  12. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  13. 5 out of 5

    Loretta

  14. 4 out of 5

    Judy Byrd

  15. 5 out of 5

    Matthew

  16. 5 out of 5

    Scarlett

  17. 5 out of 5

    John Lux

  18. 4 out of 5

    Janet

  19. 4 out of 5

    Keith

  20. 5 out of 5

    Anneberrien

  21. 4 out of 5

    Jan Delville

  22. 5 out of 5

    Lynda

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jeff Christie

  24. 5 out of 5

    Diane Vermette

  25. 5 out of 5

    Paul Grasemann

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer L Hayes

  27. 4 out of 5

    Matty Leighton

  28. 5 out of 5

    Joe Bilek

  29. 5 out of 5

    Luis Barrios M.D.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Julie Ershadi

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