It makes sense that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous came from a valley in northern New England, where the brief riot of summer is inevitably followed by the lacerating remorse of winter. Bill Wilson grew up in East Dorset, a quarry town in southern Vermont, in one of those sprawling New England farmhouses that are so much a part of the American image of familial happiness. Much was repressed and sublimated to create this impression. New England before the twentieth century was a land of hard lives and desperate choices. As told by Susan Cheever in her workmanlike, sermony new biography, My Name Is Bill, Wilson’s life was harder than most. His parents quarreled, his father drank and philandered and, when Wilson was 10, left the family for another woman and a quarry farther north. His mother decided to become an osteopath and moved to Boston to study, leaving Wilson with his grandfather. His sense of abandonment was amplified by the death of his prep-school love during a minor operation. A higher power by any name could see that this sort of psychic pain could drive a man to drink.
What comes through most powerfully in this book is the pain of the great man as lifelong lonely little boy. Still, the tall, garrulous, charismatic Wilson put on a brave face, blazing a bright path through broad-shouldered, industrious, often alcoholic America. He took up drinking in earnest as a young artillery officer on his way to World War I when he discovered that alcohol miraculously transformed him from an awkward quarryman’s son to a sophisticated boulevardier.
His return from World War I, when the world’s respect disappeared once he took the uniform off, has a Best Years of Our Lives poignance. One of his jobs involved taking his wife on a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson around the country, researching companies to invest in by meeting the employees in local bars. Cheever keeps the debauchery, which must have been considerable, mostly offstage, occasionally giving us a glimpse of the cold gray dawns when his long-suffering wife, Lois, discovers him passed out.
Wilson was a gifted tinkerer. As a boy, he became obsessed with building a boomerang, and finally built one that worked. In his twenties, he did so well on a test written by Thomas Edison that the great inventor offered him a job in his laboratory. Inexplicably—he’d barely started to drink at that point—Wilson declined. His house in Bedford Hills was outfitted with Wilson’s own Rube Goldberg contraptions to manage the furnace and the water.
But his greatest invention, Alcoholics Anonymous, was thrown together from a cluttered spiritual toolshed: Vermont town meetings, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Oxford Group, an Evangelical movement fashionable in the thirties (at least until its founder, Frank Buchman, found a little too much to admire in the Third Reich). The Oxford Group preached salvation based on six steps, and Wilson, dragged to a meeting by a former drinking buddy, saw the light—or at least enough of it. Along with the co-founder of AA, Bob Smith, he became a national celebrity.
As much as this is a book about a repentant man, My Name Is Bill is the tale of a forgiving wife. Cheever heaps praise on this woman and their marriage without ever fully discussing the immense stress it must have put on her. Cheever drops hints throughout the book about Wilson’s romantic predilections. This was a problem that began even before they were married, with Lois’s 17-year-old sister. “Sometimes, Bill found himself kissing her and hugging her.” Cheever, incidentally, forgives him before giving him a chance to come clean. Martin Luther King Jr., whose illicit appetites were more than compensated for by his good works, comes to mind, but the question lingers: Should a biographer forgive, or should that be left to the reader?
My Name Is Bill is both more and less than a biography (and Wilson deserves a better one); it’s the life of a saint, written by a disciple. Cheever, the author of a powerful memoir of alcoholism, Note Found in a Bottle, is forever looking for lessons and parables and original sources in the life of the holy man, admiring his simple goodness, marveling at his ability to accomplish so much while suffering from his crushing depression. She’s more forgiving than Lois. This may be because she had her own alcoholic, sex-addicted, brilliant man in the family: The book is dedicated to her father, John Cheever.
Buy it at bn.com.