From Publishers Weekly
The first half of Wilson's life was a perpetual battle with alcohol; the second, a continual struggle to secure both his day-to-day sobriety and the organization that became Alcoholics Anonymous. Cheever's portrayal of Wilson's story never resorts to hagiography and doesn't dodge the controversies that other biographers have exploited, such as Wilson's womanizing and LSD use. The author of Note Found in a Bottle places greater emphasis on Wilson's rural Vermont childhood; his father's early desertion; his mother's stern, Calvinist nature; and the influence of his few male friends and authority figures. As a boy and adolescent, Wilson bounced among various activities and social groups, seldom sticking with one for long. He tended to seize upon short-term promises of happiness and security, whether a questionable job prospect or, with disastrous consequences, his first alcoholic drink. He grabbed impulsively at the first marriage opportunity, with Lois Burnham, four years his senior, and his drinking severely tested their marriage. In 1935, Wilson's contact with the Oxford Group and its Christian reform philosophy, and with Robert Smith, an Ohio doctor and alcoholic, laid a fragile foundation for the program and fellowship they would build into the worldwide organization for recovering alcoholics. Until his death in 1971, Wilson worked to strengthen the evolution of AA and never entirely abandoned his search for a better cure. Although the compression of so much material disserves Cheever's intentions, the resulting lumpiness is oddly consistent with Wilson's life and character.
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From The New England Journal of Medicine
The brief personal introduction that ends with ". . . and I'm an alcoholic" is often parodied in film and print, but it captures the central discovery that Bill Wilson stumbled on as he found the path to freedom from his own addiction to alcohol. It was by talking to other drunks about his own drinking that Wilson made his first steps toward sustained sobriety. The most famous of such conversations occurred with Dr. Robert Smith on June 10, 1935, marking the official date of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). The rest is history. But history is different from "the story," and in her book My Name Is Bill, Susan Cheever draws on her skills as a writer and on her personal experience with alcohol to develop this story in a masterly fashion. The book is as much a biography of Bill Wilson as it is a collection of stories, which are skillfully stitched together in a roughly chronological order. The result is at the same time pleasant to read and a scholarly insight into the life of this celebrated person. Cheever accomplishes this feat through the use of evocative descriptions of characters and scenes and the foreshadowing of future events. AA meetings are full of stories -- stories of failure, success, fallibility, and redemption. Each chapter in this book is a brief story that spans a handful of pages and is linked with the other chapters to draw the reader in and onward. Along the way I learned about Wilson's childhood and the departure of his alcoholic father at a critical stage in his boyhood; that event left the young Bill with an emotionally distant and critical mother, who ultimately also left him and his sister, this time in the care of their grandparents. He was steeped in the secular spirituality of the Swedenborgians, an influence that set the stage for the complex relationship that AA has with God ("as we understood Him," according to the organization's Twelve Steps). By virtue of having grown up during a time of the ascendancy of the temperance movement in the United States, Wilson made his own teetotaling oath, which was later broken many times by his subsequent devotion to alcohol. One of the four sections of the book describes this descent into alcoholism -- Wilson's "drunkalog," told and retold countless times, officially in the "Big Book of AA" and at the innumerable meetings that he attended as the organization's cofounder. It was during his active drinking years that he became engaged with and influenced by the Washingtonian and Oxford Group movements -- influenced particularly by their demise. The failures of these two temperance groups resulted in large part from the fact that their dominating, charismatic leaders were involved in social and political influence peddling. The two groups served as beacons of negative example that shaped the early genius of AA -- namely, its insistence on the anonymity of its members and on having no opinion about "outside matters" and an organizational structure that is a decentralized, leaderless democracy. As Bill Wilson once said, "Alcoholics Anonymous was safe -- even from me." The question of whether Wilson stepped down from his leadership role in AA because he recognized the threat he presented as the celebrated cofounder or because he was not able to pursue his outside interests in the spotlight of such a public life is not settled by this biography, but both rationales are equally likely. Cheever richly describes the personal struggle of this small-town Vermonter, who turned down an honorary doctoral degree from Yale since receiving such an accolade would have risked linking AA with a personality rather than with a fellowship of drunks. Cheever also fleshes out a thread begun in the book's early chapters that lets the reader in on Wilson's struggle with depression and anxiety, an exploration of his interest in the occult and in the practice of communicating with the spirit world, and speculation about his sexual exploits. Each of these stories provides insight into the complexity of this modern hero. (Figure) There are other biographies of Wilson, including an approved autobiography. But Cheever's story -- which is illustrated by photographs of the people, places, and things of his life -- is relatively unencumbered by a personal agenda. Moreover, Cheever's skill as a storyteller makes this an enjoyable reading experience. Timothy I. Mueller, M.D.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.