There have been several books and memoirs written about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith in the 1940s. But as Susan Cheever found when she was asked to write a profile of Wilson, there has not been an authoritative biography, until now. Cheever, the daughter of novelist John Cheever and the author of two memoirs of her own drinking life, has written a very personal portrait of Wilson, portraying him as a restless thinker who created A.A. the way an inventor might stumble on a revolutionary technology. We talked to her recently about her book and her subject.

Bill Wilson was a complicated person with an amazing story. How did you go about getting a handle on him?
There were a number of books about Bill Wilson, and by him, but a lot of the basic biographical tasks had not been done. I used everything that had been written, and I went to the archives at Stepping Stones [Wilson's home, now a museum], where I had the amazing luck of getting there before it had been indexed, so I could watch the process of archiving. There are a ton of letters. Bill and [his wife] Lois were great letter writers, and much of the early part of the book, when he's still drinking, are from their letters. Whenever you're inside someone's mind in the book, whether it's Emily Wilson's in the opening scene or Bill Wilson's in the Mayfair hotel, it's from their letters.

I also went to [Wilson's birthplace] in Vermont. The more I hung out in East Dorset, the more I saw how important Yankee free-thinking and pure democracy and stubbornness is to the program of A.A. Dr. Robert Smith [A.A. co-founder] was also from Vermont.

What was it about that Yankee mindset that led to AA?
Well a lot of threads start in Vermont that end up in the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of A.A.. One is the idea that each person has an equal voice. That's enshrined in the bylaws. A.A. actually belongs to and is run by it's own member. That whole idea of pure democracy comes right out of the Vermont town meeting.

Another thing is that lot of New England was dry when Bill Wilson was growing up. They taught temperance in the schools. Bill Wilson actually had an education in how to stay sober and how not to stay sober. And of course there is the rampant spiritualism of the turn of the century in Vermont and New Hampshire and upstate New York. People were reaching out for a different kind of God, throwing over the Calvinistic, British Puritan God. Not just of humanism, but transcendentalism, which is also enshrined in the 12 steps..

Where do you find that in A.A.?
Well "God as we understand him." That's Thoreau. That's Emerson. It seems to me that he took all these different strands--the religious, pure democracy, temperance, the transcendentalist-humanist strand, which was buttressed when he married a Swedenborgian--and wove them all into this astonishing program which has changed the way we think about addiction. When I look at his life, I think, 'Wow, this was a machine designed for this job.' He came out of this weird stew of educational and spiritual tenets that ended up being the best treatment for alcoholism.

The temperance movement plays a crucial role. As a child, he refuses to take the temperance pledge and rejects religion altogether. How does he get from there to seeing a higher power as a central part of a sober life as an adult?
Well, I think that's the story. For him, God took the form of a specific entity. He flirted and maybe even slept with Catholicism in his later years. But he had learned that God was an extremely personal concept, and that you can never say to anyone, this is the kind of God you must have. Part of his genius was understanding that there are things no one person can prescribe for another if the person wants to help the other.

This is where he really shifted the way we think. He understood that being drunk wasn't a lack of willpower or discipline. He understood that the way to treat addiction is to court a change of heart with the utmost gentleness. That is a really revolutionary idea. That understanding came from his own desperate attempt to get sober, through trial and error--mostly error. He became, as his friend Aldous Huxley called him, "The Greatest Social Architect of the 20th century."

His insight was that drinking was not a moral problem?
Absolutely. He took the idea that alcoholics were bad people and changed it to the idea that alcoholics are sick people. It changed the way we view addiction. It changed the way we see human nature. He changed the way we see each other as much as Freud did, I think. Bill led us to see that what we think of as a failure of willpower is not that at all. It's a disease.