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Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson Paperback – October 12, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Bill Wilson (1895-1971), the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, never saw himself as a saint. In a biography that is admiring without being hagiographic, first-time author Hartigan, one-time assistant to Bill's wife, Lois, reveals a man whose accomplishments seem all the more extraordinary because his demons were so strong. A depressive, a chronic womanizer, a man who could not quit smoking even as he choked to death from emphysema, Wilson was, according to Hartigan, motivated by real spiritual sincerity and purity of purpose when it came to AA. At 39, on the edge of death from alcoholism, Wilson was "struck sober" in an incandescent moment when he felt surrounded by divine presence. Inspired by the Oxford Group, a Christian movement that sought to kindle such experiences, the famous 12 steps that Wilson developed led to gradual spiritual transformation. This approach was built not on white light but on Wilson's bone-deep sense that life without a higher power was unmanageable. Wilson was born in a small town in Vermont to parents who divorced and scattered, leaving the boy to be raised by loving grandparents who could not assuage the permanent wound to Wilson's self-esteem. After the death of his high school girlfriend, the handsome, talented Wilson fell into an almost catatonic despair, a foreshadowing of the depression and self-doubt that would descend on him even at the height of his fame. Frank about Wilson's experiments with LSD, religion and psychotherapy, this unofficial bio will do much to help a wide readership appreciate how Wilson exemplified the way in which weakness can lead us to exhibit extraordinary strength. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This intensely personal biography of Bill Wilson and the worldwide organization he cofounded looks at the man and the movement from the inside out. Hartigan, former secretary to Wilson's wife, Lois, used interviews with people close to Wilson to write this first full-dress treatment of him. Wilson's great insight was recognizing that alcohol was an illness that no one can conquer alone. Yet he lived a lonely life and has remained an elusive figure--until now. Hartigan repeats the well-known tale of Wilson's slide from successful stock analyst to drunken despair and his resurrection after cofounding AA. But he also paints a picture of a conflicted Wilson, at once arrogant and insecure, loyal to his friends yet unfaithful to his wife, sober but depressed. Despite a popular-magazine style, this book makes a long stride toward understanding the appeal of Wilson and AA's 12-step program. Recommended.
-Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition (October 12, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312283911
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312283919
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,008 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Mitchell R. Klein on March 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Having read all of the "authorized" and "official" biographies of Bill W. I find this one refreshing in its candor and revealing an unsanitized report of the truth. Though Bill was one of the co-founders of AA, most reports of his story left out the human part of him and helped in continuing the myths.
Mr. Hartigan did an excellent job in researching through the original documents and relying upon the oral history of who Bill really was. Having known Lois and doing my own research through original documents, I have found the sanitized versions of AA history quite lacking through obfuscation of accurate historical facts.
Negative reviews coming from those who prefer the sainthood of Bill W. to the actual facts presented in this work will surely continue. These people who look upon any revealing of the truth as an attack on their idol prefer to denegrate the works of those who reveal the truth. The historians and archivists who have had the opportunity to read the original documents and who have heard from those who were there know better.
More books revealing the truth will only serve to make AA stronger. After all, rigorous honesty is a part of AA's principles. Myths and legends make nice reading but the truth makes it all the more rewarding in the long run.
If one prefers the official party line and wants to read something that is less than reality this book will not be what they seek. However, if one is seeking the truth and chooses not to rely upon contempt prior to investigation - Mr. Hartigan's biography of Bill will be very informative.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Finally we have the definitive biography of a man to whom countless millions owe their lives. Not only alcoholics, but the wives, children, and other family members of alcoholics should read this excellent narrative of the life of Bill Wilson, co-founder of the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Hartigan's incisive style, and the book's compact but continually fascinating treatment of Wilson's personal struggle which finally brought forth the fruit of the original and most successful 12 Step recovery program, is easy to read, well documented, at times painfully truthful, yet faithful to the reality of who this great man was. Long overdue, this book fills the void which unfortunately was left by the previous effort of Robert Thompson. Unlike the previous volume, Hartigan's volume is thoroughly documented with a valuable bibliography and a full index. Every alcoholic on the planet should read this text and realize that the co-founder was just as human as they and suffered through the disease and the recovery just as they do. Well-done, Mr. Hartigan.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By J. Michna on November 1, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've been a "friend" of Bill and Dr. Bob since Christmas 1990, and have read a lot of material, both "conference approved" and other, and this book is probably the best biography of Bill W. that I've come across. I have to disagree with the reviewers who gave this work a low rating... I do not see this biography as a "hatchet job" or any sort of attempt to demean or diminish the memory of Bill Wilson.

Bill was not saint, and he never really sought sainthood. If some hold him to saintly standards or infallible behavior, those depictions were\are pressed on him.

Hartigan successfully describes Bill's childhood, young adulthood, service years, marriage and the early years of AA's struggles in great detail. Until I read this book, I knew from other readings that Bill had many faults, but I did not fully appreciate the depth of his alcoholic behavior, and its effect on both Bill and Lois. I also did not appreciate the severity Bill's lifelong struggle with deep depression.

This biography also does a good job putting context and details to Bill's lesser known "adventures" which folks hostile to AA use to discredit Bill and the AA program.

Bill experimented with LSD, starting in the 50's and into the 60's... starting when the drug was legal and being investigated for psychotherapeutic potential to help alcoholics and schizophrenics.

Bill actively promoted niacin for alcoholics, dragging the AA name into this promotion, but it was out of enthusiasm and hope to help the still suffering alcoholic. He was called to task for this, and the AA name removed from such endorsements.

Bill was unfaithful to Lois and maintained long term relationships outside his marriage.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Charles Bishop, Jr. on March 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Hartigan's new bio of Bill W., that anonymous guy with the warts, certainly will provoke trash reviews from some. Well, such reviewers would criticize St. Paul who killed Christians and then spread the Gospel worldwide. Hartigan's book is well-researched in the literature and through many personal interviews. His years with Lois Wilson, Bill's widow, provided him with the kind of history that is practically non-existent any more. The oldtimers are dead. So his bio of Bill saves much from oblivion. Argue all you want with his interpretations at times but let's give credit here for a first-class effort to paint a balanced picture of a guy who struggled all his life, not with sobriety, but with his weaknesses and moral, emotional and spiritual warts. In America today, we very often place multi-billionaires, sports heroes, movie stars, and the latest "15-minutes of fame" TV personalities on a pedestal...only to enjoy ripping them to shreds as they fall to moral weakness and media exposure. We place them up there with the virtues of power, prestige, and greed. How spiritually refreshing then to find this book about Bill W. who knew poverty most of his life and was tempted often by money, who was offered great public prestige and rejected it, who gave away the power of leadership to the AA Fellowship at large. Trying to hide these things would turn Bill W. into an empty plastic saint. I'll take Hartigan's book, warts [if any] and all. His experiences with Lois and many others were a treasure and he has shared that treasure with us. Thanks, Fran. Amen.
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Bill W.: A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson
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