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BILL W. by Francis Hartigan

BILL W.

A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson

By Francis Hartigan

Pub Date: March 18th, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-20056-0
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

A readable, informative, succinct, respectful, but nonreverential biography of Bill Wilson (1895–1971), the guiding spirit

and organizer of Alcoholics Anonymous, the hugely successful (millions of members in 140 countries) "mother" of all self-help

movements.

Formerly both a director of the AA-related Stepping Stone Foundation and the longtime secretary and confidant to Bill

Wilson's wife, Lois, Hartigan is very much an AA insider. Yet he clearly has done a great deal of research, and is usually able

to write with a certain critical distance. Thus, he captures vividly the near-mystical November 1934 experience that impelled the

ruinously alcoholic Wilson—at the time, he "lived to drink," had lost countless jobs, and was more than $500,000 (in today's

dollars) in debt—to go cold turkey and remain sober the rest of his life. Hartigan also captures Wilson's psychological

weaknesses, including his depression (sometimes, as during the long period 1944–53, cripplingly severe), his womanizing, and

his smoking, which ultimately killed him. These addictions are far outweighed, however, by Wilson’s range of strengths, including

boundless commitment toward the movement he cofounded with Dr. Bob Smith of Akron, Ohio; great personal charm; tremendous

organizational entrepreneurship; excellent media relations; and openness toward divergent viewpoints. Wilson made AA into a

progressive organization by successfully pushing to allow African-Americans, gays, and lesbians to participate as early as the

1930s and '40s, when such a stance was unpopular, even shocking, to many members. As he demonstrated in experimenting in

the late 1950s with LSD, which he hoped would help cure alcoholics, he never outgrew his penchant for risk taking. The author

absorbingly presents his hero warts and all, though often assuming readers have too great a familiarity with AA (for example,

he frequently alludes to, yet never enumerates, its famous Twelve Steps).

Hartigan depicts Wilson as not only an organizational genius, but also as an amazingly resilient, largely appealing, and

otherwise immensely interesting human being.