2017-07-12
An excerpt from "My Name Is Bill" by Susan Cheever. Reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster.

Bill Wilson was an enthusiast, a man who was fascinated by whatever was happening at the moment. He bent his lanky body eagerly toward whoever was speaking; he paid such close attention that the ash often fell off his forgotten but still-smoking cigarette. Once he got hold of an idea, he explored it from every angle until he let it go -- if he let it go. Catholicism fascinated him. His spiritual adviser, Father Ed Dowling, was a devout Roman Catholic, and although Bill had stopped going to church in a formal way when he left the Congregational Church of his boyhood, he had become a Christian without a church.

Nevertheless, Bill Wilson insisted that belief in God was not a prerequisite for membership in A.A. He knew how important it was to the survival of the program that it be in no way religious or associated with any religion. He was proud of the way the program had avoided associating itself with a specific God, limiting itself in the steps to what was called God as we understood him. Even so, as soon as many drunks heard the word God, they headed for the door.

In the 1940s Bill met Monsignor Fulton Sheen, the popular Catholic radio host. Sheen, who later converted Clare Boothe Luce to Catholicism, was a man Bill Wilson could talk with. He began visiting Sheen for instruction every Saturday. Perhaps this -- a different kid of religion -- was the answer. In his darkest times he had found solace in a prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, a Catholic saint.

Bill wrote letters to Ed Dowling about the sweetness of Catholicism, and letters to Sheen laying out his questions. "I feel more like a Catholic," he wrote Sheen, "But I think more like a Protestant." Perhaps if this struggle had happened later in his life, it might have had a different result. But his wrestling with the possibility of conversion with its divine certainty was happening in the 1940s. He was still very much the leader and guide of his beloved A.A., and he knew that anything he did would be publicly allied with the program.

Bill Wilson was a man keenly aware of history, especially the history of other groups like his own. He studied the Washingtonians' story and wrote about the group himself. Under the title "Modesty One Plank for Good Public Relation," he wrote about the organization that had at one point enlisted almost 100,000 alcoholics who helped each other stay sober. In his article Bill listed four reasons for the complete dispersal of the Washingtonians: overdone self-advertising; competition with other organizations instead of cooperation; indulgence in controversy; refusal to stick to their original purpose of helping alcoholics. Bill was also impressed by the story of Mary Baker Eddy, another New England teacher who had preached the connection of the soul and the body in an idea similar to those behind Alcoholics Anonymous. Eddy also believed, as did Bill, that the living could communicate with the dead. A powerful woman who had her epiphany after she fell on the ice of a New Hampshire lake and prayed herself back to health, Eddy's movement promoted the idea that all physical ailments were actually spiritual ailments and could be cured through prayer.

Although Eddy's Christian Science Church is still extant, Bill studied the way in which her movement had been damaged by both her refusal to step down as a leader and her willingness to take credit for the work of others. He was also struck by her trials with the membership of the religion she had founded.

Bill Wilson was also distressed by the absolution of Roman Catholicism, even in the gentle interpretations of Monsignor Sheen. He hated the idea of the infallibility of the pope, and he found it hard to believe in transubstantiation -- the literal rather than the metaphorical belief that the sacraments of the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ. At heart, he was always suspicious of authority -- that was part of his genius -- and the authority wielded by the Roman Catholic Church and all churches was not attractive to him. "The thing that still irks me about all organized religion is their claim how confoundedly right all of them are," he wrote to Bob E., an Akron A.A. member. He also believed that a conversion to Catholicism on his part would profoundly hurt A.A. His longing for the one true church, whatever that might be, was part of his restlessness in his role as the man who represented Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill's spiritual quest extended beyond organized religion. During the calm postwar years of the Truman presidency Bill and Lois, along with Anne and Bob Smith, continued to investigate psychic and spiritual phenomena. These days, psychic phenomena and the way people use to understand them and identify them are completely out of favor. For Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, though, their investigations were part of a tradition of activity in rural New England at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. There was no television then and little electricity. When night fell on the small houses in New England towns, the people who lived there found other things to do. Theirs was a society intimate with death; the death rate for children was high, and even healthy men and women often died in their fifties. There were no funeral homes. The dead were laid out in their own homes and mourned before they were taken to the churchyard at the edge of town, where they were buried by those who had loved them the best.

Perhaps we are right to think that the dead are gone forever, locked away somewhere that makes communication with us impossible. Or perhaps that isn't what has happened. Perhaps what has happened is that our modern world distracts us and distances us so completely that we no longer hear the voices of the dead. Even when we are present at a deathbed, and this is a rare occurrence, the corpse is whisked away by men from the funeral home and reappears in a sanitized version, dressed up and made up and laid in an expensive box.

Usually, though, the coffin is closed, and the grave prepared by strangers and then filled in by them after everyone has gone home. Today we are so removed from the process of dying and burying the dead that it's no wonder that the dead don't seem to be around. Both Bill Wilson and Bob Smith came from a different world, an old-fashioned world where the difference between the living and the dead was not as clear. Sometimes the Wilsons used a Ouija board. A flat piece of wood marked with two lines of the alphabet and two lines of numbers, with the words "Yes" and "No" printed at the corners and the words "Goodbye" at the bottom, the board was operated by a triangular piece of plastic or light wood with a small window in its center. Lois and Bill, or two or three of the other participants, rested their fingers lightly on the board, closed their eyes, and allowed the unconscious pressure from their fingers to move the triangular marker across the smooth surface. Sometimes it stopped on Yes or No; at other times it spelled out what seemed to be words.

On evenings when they decided to use the table instead of the Ouija board, they gathered around it, each person with their fingers resting lightly on the table's sharp edge. They dimmed the lights. Bill's voice would often ask the questions. "Are there any spirits in the room?" he would ask. "Are there any spirits who have a message for us?" Breathing slowed. The spirits seemed to gather in the room's dark corners, above the shelf where Bill's violins and musical instruments were kept, or in the angle of the wall and ceiling near the window.

Then the people seated around the table would hear a soft, hesitant tap. Sometimes, if Bill had asked a direct question, the taps meant yes or no: one for yes and two for no. At other times the spirits had a longer message. If it tapped once, that meant the letter A, twice for the letter B and so on. In an evening the table might tap out a phrase or two. According to both Bill and Lois, on more than one occasion they succeeded in levitating the table a few inches off the floor.

At other times the Wilsons and their guests experimented with automatic writing. Bill Wilson was very good at this. He would set a pen down on a piece of paper, close his eyes and wait for the spirit to guide his hand. On some evenings Bill would relax his long frame out on the living room couch in front of the big stone fireplace and wait in a state of half-dreaming, half-consciousness, the smoke curling up from his cigarette. Lying there, he would receive messages, sometimes whole, as when he heard the Reverend Dwight Moody warning him against the past, and sometimes they would come to him letter by letter.

One evening the message spelled out appeared in Latin. Not knowing Latin, Bill took the message to John D. Rockefeller's associate Willard Richardson, who studied it and said it appeared to be an account of early Christianity in Italy. In Nell Wing's version of this story, Willard Richardson was in the room while Bill was receiving the message, and the Latin turned out to be a sermon written by St. Boniface. "They were working away at spiritualism," says a friend who was often a visitor there. "It wasn't just a hobby."

On a visit to Nantucket in 1947, Bill was making coffee in the dim, early morning light in the kitchen at the house of his A.A. host when he was accosted by the shade of a Norwegian sailor, complaining that he saw people dimly and that when he spoke no one listened. The sailor was soon joined by the spirit of a man who introduced himself as David Morrow. Morrow told Bill that he had been killed with Admiral Farragut during the Battle of Mobile Bay. Then, as morning came and the kitchen grew brighter, he was joined by two other spirits: former whaling captains named Pettingill and Quigley. When Bill told this story at breakfast, he was met with friendly disbelief. People usually tried to humor Bill in order to avoid arguing with him. Later in the Wilsons' visit to Nantucket, they happened to be at the head of Main Street; there they saw a small Civil War memorial engraved with the name David Morrow. A subsequent visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum confirmed that indeed Pettingill and Quigley had been the masters of whaling ships.

Some A.A. members were disturbed by these psychic activities and by Bill's interest in the paranormal. In the 1940s and '50s, before stepping down at the 1955 St. Louis Convention, Bill went along with the suggestions of the group and its other leaders, as if he did need to live his life in a way that would help A.A. and build the program and its precepts. But as the forties ended, Bill seemed to realize that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life as the founder and leader of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In fact, Bill Wilson's life can be seen as a struggle to achieve peaceful separations. His parents and his first girlfriend were torn away from him; Lois stayed with him even when she, perhaps, should have left. Male friends and colleagues like Hank Parkhurst and Tom Powers stormed off after working with him. It was in the task of separating from the program that he had the worst time. Was it fair that everything he did had a huge effect on A.A.? No. In his last years Bill stopped going to meetings. He was unable to be anonymous in any meeting, he complained, so he never got the benefit that meetings had for normal recovering alcoholics.

Just as some A.A. members concluded that his depressions might mean that A.A. didn't work, they now decided that Bill's search for voices beyond the grave somehow cast aspersions on the program. Closer to home, the men who worked with Bill almost every day--sophisticated men and women who had come from fields like advertising and publishing--were concerned about Bill's activities in the spook room and on the living room couch at Stepping Stones.

Some members thought the psychic activity Bill indulged in made him look crazy; others, who actually believed that he was able to summon spirits from another world, were afraid that he was speaking with evil spirits, or a hodgepodge of ghosts who would almost definitely given him bad advice or try to confuse him.

One of the members of the Chappaqua A.A. group, Tom P., remembers that he and group of fellow recovering alcoholics got so upset about Bill's spooking that they decided to do something about it. To the men who counted themselves his followers, many of Bill's activities came to seem ones unbecoming to a great leader. Since Bill Wilson never wanted to be leader, he was not inclined to listen. The Chappaqua group, which met in the small, wealthy town of Chappaqua near Bedford Hills and had become the self-appointed guardian of local A.A. powers, was joined by another recovering alcoholic named Summer Campbell and a few of the men who worked with Bill. Another one of the men, Tony Guggenheim, wrote to a man they all respected -- C.S. Lewis at Cambridge, England -- to describe Bill and Lois's activities and to ask what he, Lewis, thought of them. Tom P. remembers that Lewis wrote back with total disapproval. "This is necromancy," he wrote. "Have nothing to do with it." Apparently, Bill's colleagues thought that an indictment from a man like Lewis would influence Bill to change his private beliefs. Apparently, they didn't know him very well.

By this time Bill and Lois were drawing away from the many rules and regulations that the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous would have liked to impose on their lives. So despite the controversy, they continued to communicate with spirits. In the evening, with a few friends, they would watch the light fade through the big oak and maple trees and arrange themselves around a table in the room at the back of the house, or in the wooden and upholstered chairs in the double-height living room in front of the big fireplace. Sometimes they would be joined by believing neighbors, sometimes by A.A. visitors from out of town, sometimes by one or two people from the office or one of the local A.A. groups. Their séances were never a secret.

* * *

A quiet would come over them, almost as if they were conducting a group meditation. Lois would calm her beating heart and gaze out at her garden. Up the hill, in the fading light, she could just make out the outline of Wit's End. Bill would take his place on the long sofa -- one of the few pieces of furniture that could accommodate his entire length.

Outside, they could hear birdsong, the warblers and finches from the garden. Sometimes Bill would unfold his body from the sofa, take down one of his violins, and saw out some sweet country tune. Then he would lie down and there would be silence again in the room, now lit with a few candles.

There would be a slight, almost imperceptible stir in the silent air, as if someone had come invisibly to keep them company. The curtains rustled in the evening breeze. The smoke rising from the ashtray wavered. The smell of the outdoors, the new-mown grass in the summer or smoke from the piles of burning leaves in the autumn, would fade from their senses. Even the sounds from nature seemed to enter the trance. They could hear a silence beyond silence. Then there would be an almost inaudible tap, or Bill's quiet voice would begin to form a letter.

Bill and Lois had a rich past together, and on these evenings they were in the presence of the past, in the company of the Yankee householders clustered around their kitchen table on cold nights before they had electricity. They were in the presence of all their own dead, of Bill's cousin Clarence whose sad violin had been Bill's first fiddle, and the stern Fayette and Ella Griffith, of Lois's beloved mother, and her handsome father who read Swedenborg's teachings to his children in the Clinton Street living room, of all those who had passed on before them.



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