Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where Bill W. Came From

Born behind the bar in his family's big red inn—117 years ago this week—Wilson's Vermont youth wasn't exactly bucolic. His encounters with early adversity show how the child was father to the man.

The Vermont inn where Bill W. was born photo via

Alcoholics Anonymous cofounder Bill Wilson was born on Thanksgiving behind a bar. His father’s family owned an inn, the sprawling red-gabled Wilson House on the south side of the village green in East Dorset, Vermont, a small town where quarrying and polishing local marble was the only industry. (His father, Gilly Wilson, was a quarryman.) Raised in these humble circumstances, Bill Wilson grew up to pioneer a movement that has forever enriched our view of addiction. It’s instructive to study Bill Wilson’s early years, because in ways that seem more than coincidental they prepared him for the role he would play in history.
Born in 1895, William Griffith Wilson was a dyed-in-the-wool Vermont boy. AA is deeply rooted in the rocky soil and granite traditions of New England, from its grass-roots, town-meeting democracy as Bill expressed it in the twelve traditions to its farm-boy practicality to its understanding of the limits of temperance. When Bill Wilson finally met Dr. Bob Smith, AA’s other cofounder, in a gatehouse in Akron, Ohio, when Bill was almost 40, one of their bonds was that they were both Vermont boys—Smith was from St. Johnsbury—and their broad vowels and dropped consonants sounded like home to each other.
Bill Wilson’s start in life was not promising. His mother, 25-year-old Emily Griffith, had a difficult labor, and the baby was finally delivered by primitive forceps, half-asphyxiated, “cold and discolored and nearly dead,” his mother later wrote in a letter to her son. “There is evidence of alcoholism” in the Wilson family, the authors of AA’s official history, Pass It On. Even now the Wilson House, still run as a hotel, has the extravagant architecture and colors that somehow reflect the generous, experimental attitude of a drinker on a good day.
Bill Wilson’s parents abandoned him and his sister, Dorothy, to the care of their stern Griffith grandparents.
By contrast, the Griffith House across the village green is trim and gray, and his mother’s family was all hard-driving teachers, lawyers and judges. “The first indication that the marriage was in some trouble may have appeared during Emily’s pregnancy,” wrote Robert Thomsen in his biography of Bill Wilson, Bill W. Emily suggested that her husband go out alone, and he began to do that more and more. By the time Bill was 10, his parents’ marriage had come apart. They both had other plans—Gilly got a quarryman’s job in the West, and Emily went to Boston to become an osteopathic physician. Bill Wilson’s parents abandoned him and his sister, Dorothy, to the care of their stern Griffith grandparents. Bill moved into the narrow Griffith House, a house so small that going downstairs, the awkward, lanky boy had to stoop to keep from bumping his head. At night if he wanted to stretch out in bed to read, he had to put his feet out the window to accommodate his height.
Bill W. grew up at a time when the temperance movement was sweeping New England. Groups like the Washingtonians and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were advocating an end to drinking—a reaction to the previous century, when America had been the drunkest country in the world. As a boy, Wilson learned, in school and through observation, that drinkers cannot be legislated into people who do not drink. Vermont was a dry state, but “going to Cambridge” was the euphemism for crossing the border into New York on a liquor run. In temperance clubs, people who had taken the pledge held meetings to help each other stay away from a drink.
Arriving in adulthood, Bill Wilson was already a complicated, educated man.
Bill’s gruff, prosperous grandfather tuned out to be an ideal father-surrogate for the abandoned boy. In mourning for his own son when his grandson moved in, he was won over by Bill’s determination and charm. He gave the boy books, and encouraged his musical talent—Bill was an accomplished fiddler and violinist—and mechanical experiments. He enrolled the boy in a private school, Burr and Burton, in nearby Manchester, where Bill became a big man on campus, a promising student, the captain of the football team and the boyfriend of the local minister’s pretty daughter, Bertha Bamford. Arriving in adulthood, Bill Wilson was already a complicated, educated man who knew the forks and was also at home in the marble quarries of East Dorset.
What happened over the next two decades—Bertha’s death and Bill Wilson’s first serious depression; his engagement to Lois Rogers, an older girl who summered in Manchester; his Wall Street success and severe alcoholism—was certainly not what he would have wished for. Yet his Vermont roots and education, the resilience developed in the wake of his parents’ abandonment, his exposure to both the hardscrabble quarry families and the wealthy summer people of Manchester, all seem necessary stones in the foundation that helped him find a way to stop drinking, a way that has become a worldwide movement with millions of members.
East Dorset hasn’t changed much since 1895. Winter is coming on, the woodpiles are high, and fires are lit in the Wilson House. Nights are freezing, and there will soon be snow on the hillsides of Mount Aeolus above town. Christmas decorations are going up in front of the Town Office on Mad Tom Road. The sprawling, red-clapboard Wilson House and the trim, gray Griffith House still face each other across the green. 
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. She is a frequent visitor to the Wilson House and East Dorset.

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