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My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson--His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous

4.3 out of 5 stars 67 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0743405911
ISBN-10: 0743405919
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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (August 23, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743405919
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743405911
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (67 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael F. Drummy on February 22, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Is there really a need for yet another biography of William G. Wilson, the now famous co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and author of the original "Twelve Steps" of recovery? At last count, at least half a dozen full-length versions of Wilson's life have appeared in print since his death over 30 years ago. A number of the earlier biographies (e.g., Robert Thomsen's Bill W. [1975] and the anonymously written Pass It On [1984]) are, while certainly of some historical interest, unabashedly biased, sentimentalized, and verging on the hagiographic. Recently, however, more critical readings of "Bill W."'s life have been undertaken. Francis Hartigan's own Bill W., published in 2000, belongs to this class, as does the volume by Susan Cheever that is the subject of this review. These latter efforts provide a welcome and healthy corrective to the accounts of Wilson's life that tend, perhaps unintentionally, to lionize him out of all proportion.

There is little question that Bill Wilson was one of the most influential and quixotic figures of the past hundred years. In fact, Aldous Huxley regarded him "as the greatest social architect of the twentieth century" (Hartigan, 4). The significance of Cheever's particular contribution to the growing literature surrounding Wilson and the movement he spawned lies principally in her facility as an accomplished writer to provide a narrative context as well as fresh insight into and new understanding of this fascinating man. Unlike most of Wilson's previous biographers, she brings to life with exceptional skill those scenes from his life that are unusually compelling. At times it is indeed like reading a good novel.
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Format: Hardcover
Bill Wilson was the driving force behind the creation and growth of AA, and laid the foundation for many other 12-Step programs. The result is that millions of people are recovering from Alcoholism, drug addiction, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, sex addiction, and the list goes on. There is no denying his great contribution. There's also no denying his shortcomings, but if he were a perfect man we would not have this groundbreaking spiritual program of recovery.
I think Susan Cheever did a great service to Bill and all the people who have benefitted from his work by showing that he was a man, not a saint, not the devil, a man who did great things. The book shows also that Bill knew that AA should not rely on the leadership of one or a few flawed people, and that it should be led by a group conscience. I suspect Bill knew he had serious problems (the biggest being depression, the root of all the others)and that a larger group, a democracy, should carry the fellowship in to the future.
Great writing, great research, great story. Thanks Susan Cheever.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I found the book "My Name is Bill" to be delightful and engrossing. It quenched a thirst I have built up over many years to know more in the way of details about AA, Bill, and a lot of things that I could never get from AA literature. Cheever put skin, flesh, as well as colors, sights, sounds, and smells onto to the bare bones at a time when I was looking for just that.

The accuracy of particular details was not a huge concern for me, though I can understand it being so for people for whom Bill W. is a spiritual founder, and for whom AA literature is something of a spiritual canon. They have a certain right to be possessive of him, and perhaps an obligation to be vigilant about details, motives, and traditions. I just wanted to know Bill was from Vermont, not New York, as many people tend to believe or assume. I wanted to imagine some of his childhood, some of his family, and some of his surroundings. I did that with the help of Cheever, and in this way the details were more of a vehicle than an end unto themselves.

The book was a two-fold experience: first, and not unimportantly, it was a People-magazine-like-delight of finding out this or that about this person or that. For instance, learning that Bill tinkered with engines as a youth, or why and when he and Lois lived in that clubhouse. Secondly, while the book was not life-changing, it did leave me with images, and deepened understandings that will linger in my mind provocatively. One example is how his grandfather had a mountain-top spiritual awakening that resulted in subsequent life-long abstinence from alcohol. Another is how for much of his life Bill was not able to attend an AA meeting simply as person who needed to be there. The first I did not know about prior to reading this book, while the second I did. But in both cases the book contributed something substantive to my way of thinking and feeling about the topic of Bill Wilson.
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This book has been out for some time, and I bought it on the recommendation of a friend. Susan Cheever is the daughter of the well known novelist, a writer who has been through 12 step recovery and wrote a memoir of her alcoholic and depressed father. She did a considerable amount of research, and fairly describes Wilson's later years. It is interesting to read this in conjunction with Don Lattin's book about Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, who experimented with LSD before it became notorious. Bill Wilson was a complex man, something of a huckster and no saint but he had the ability to change course when headed for disaster. This will be of interest to those in recovery, maybe less so for the unaddicted. The book is respectful but not worshipful and fair minded.
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