Time Magazine released a list of the top 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson is on that list. Like Opera Winfrey, Bill Gates, Sigmund Freud or any other others on the top 100 list, most of us have an opinion about them. People think Bill W. is a messiah or a cult leader and he is neither. Inside the fellowship, he has been canonized as being touched by God in some quarters of the fellowship, and demonized as a fraud and scoundrel in others. When either of these extremists start yapping it gets my eyes rolling. I am an alcoholic. The plain truth of this man is important to me; any exaggeration thereof is problematic. But what interest would film-makers who weren’t alcoholics have in this story told so many times before?
The story hasn’t been retold as often as I thought. There are of course several books. There was the 1989 My Name is Bill W. and the more recent Lois Wilson story, When Love is Not Enough but there has never been a full length documentary about this particular Time Magazine Top 100. Between producer Dan Carracino and director Kevin Hanlon you won’t find an alcoholic. But shake any family tree and a few drunks fall out; Kevin speaks of alcoholism checkering his family story. Dan Carracino read Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous and couldn’t put it down. He was captivated by the scores of hit-and-miss game changing event in the life of Bill Wilson and others that has given AA the legacy it has today.
There is some new footage and stills. The film makers found some of it on eBay. Seventy people were interviewed for the film. About twenty made it to final edit including Annah Perch, Executive Director of Stepping Stones, Gail L., Akron Archivist, the voice of Bill W., Dr. Bob, Lois W. and Ruth Hoch, long time secretary for Bill. Bill White, Historian and Author of Slay the Dragon, Ernie Kurtz, Historian and author, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous and The Spirituality of Imperfection, AA member historians and grateful sober AA members on camera in shadow, some who knew Bill W., others who live in his legacy.
Storytellers delve into the grim realities of 1930s alcoholism treatment that included electro-shock therapy, lobotomy and sterilization. The story follows Bill and Lois’s struggle as addict and codependent and we don’t meet Bob until Bill does and AA doesn’t officially launch until, after a few false starts, Bob sobers up for good June 10th, 1935. As members grew from a couple to several dozen the break comes gradually away from the Oxford Group, whose recovery principles were widely used by early AAs.
In part, the discontent with the Oxford Group as a means of treating alcoholics had to do with America’s transformation from modernism to postmodernism. The Oxford Group and its Four Absolutes was the epitome of modernism and binary thinking. AAs evolution from Six Steps to Twelve showed signs of pluralism, relativism and the idealism of postmodern thought. It was really the maturity of AA and the evolution of the Traditions that moved AA from an autocratic to democratic society.
This documentary honors Bill Wilson and the fellowship he created. If you are looking for a balance of naysayers and advocates, this story gives voice only to AA cheerleaders and champions. That said, as outsiders themselves, the filmmakers are candid about Bill’s use of LSD and they don’t dance around a favorite coffee shop topic: Did Bill Wilson scream for whiskey from his death bed?
How did I like it? I am an AA nerd and an AA critic so I didn’t learn anything I hadn’t read or heard before. But I did gain a profound understanding for how Bill Wilson planted and tended to a shade tree under which he would never sit. Bill was as he characterized himself, “AA’s floundering father,” and he tried to become a member of AA like anyone else. It never happened. He wrote Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, he turned over the operation of AA to the fellowship of AA but we never let him just be a member. A chilling example is given of Bill Wilson hero-worship by a member who tells of how his sponsor returned to his home town to say he had met Bill Wilson. Everyone stood in line to shake the hand that touched Bill Wilson as if they were connecting with the life force of God. There was nowhere and no time that Bill Wilson could go to a meeting and be treated like a regular member of AA. He never got to take it or leave it, come or go as he pleased, like we all do.
I do wish the documentary looked at the pressing problems of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous—the stagnation of membership numbers and the reification of our guiding principles. I wish some of the “AA is a cult” trolls got their say in this documentary. Why? Because I think it makes an even more convincing story when you add to it the violent opposition that had rallies to naysay. You can’t change the world without ruffling some feathers and inspiring dissent.
The oversimplification was restated that “God as we understand Him” is for everyone, when clearly it is still AAs biggest barrier builder as our society grows more secular. Less people today in the western world who believe in a creator concept call their deity “God” or “Him.” And for most youth dabbling in drinking now, they have never been in a church and the idea of their fate being attached to adherence to a supernatural being would be simply absurd. How will they find their own authentic salvation in an AA that, in many quarters grows more dogmatic in sharp contrast to the communities it serves?
That said, this isn’t a documentary about AA. It is about Bill Wilson who left a legacy of a growing, inclusive fellowship of spiritual anarchists. For 36 of our 77 year history, AA had a founder. How we will fare without one is a story that hasn’t reached a conclusion yet. But if you want to know how we got this far, Bill W. tells an important part of our story. For me, like watching the story of the Titanic, I wish it will end differently this time; I hope he quits smoking and doesn’t help save us from alcoholism only to die of another addiction. Oh, the spirituality of imperfection.
Read an interview with the creators from TheFix.com:
See the trailer for Bill W.:
Find when and where the movie is showing or get on a waiting list for the DVD:
AA’s General Service Office tells me that the number of groups AA has granted permission to amend the Twelve Steps for has now eclipsed 500. The movies closing credits states 60 groups that have morphed from the Twelve & Twelve concept, including Al-Anon 1954, Narcotics Anonymous in 1955, Gamblers Anonymous in 1957 Overeaters Anonymous in 1960, Neurotics Anonymous in 1964, Debtors Anonymous in 1971, Families Anonymous in 1971, Nar-Anon, 1971, Sexaholics Anonymous in 1979, Cocaine Anonymous in 1982, Nicotine Anonymous in 1982, Workaholics Anonymous in 1983, Co-Dependents Anonymous in 1986.
For all of us, the life of William Griffith Wilson is one to get to know any way we can.