Aldous Huxley always overstated everything, but his claim that a fellow named Bill Wilson was "the greatest social architect" of the 20th century was only slightly exaggerated. In truth, the obscure founder of Alcoholics Anonymous reshaped millions of lives with a model for human change that became as powerful as Freud's and may last even longer.
Wilson transformed public ideas about drunkenness and about how people can deal with self-inflicted emotional wounds. His invention spread across the world and inspired dozens of similar movements, from Gamblers Anonymous to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. As an institution, AA also embodies rare freedoms, including the freedom from politics, money, and class. Meetings bring together people with only their weakness in common; men who would elsewhere be considered bums routinely converse with people who look as if they never lacked a good suit or a good dinner. Unlike all other mass movements, AA has little money, no lobbyists, no charismatic leader and no fundraising campaigns. Its raw materials are words, its technique is conversation.
Uniquely, AA can't be hurt by government restraints because it doesn't depend on government money. It can't be hurt by sociological study of its success rate because people going to meetings don't register their names. It also avoids foundations, for which John D. Rockefeller Jr. deserves credit. At the beginning, AA expected major help from the Rockefeller Foundation. But Rockefeller, hugely generous though he was, pointed out that grants would cripple AA. Whoever raises money holds power, as every university and charity knows; AA needed to spread authority among its constituents. Rockefeller's insight became central to AA's development.
Susan Cheever, the author of the latest Wilson biography, My Name is Bill (Simon & Schuster), writes with the gratitude of the saved. As the daughter of John Cheever, a superb writer and a guilty alcoholic, she lived in a house where "we laughed while alcohol twined itself around us like a choking, deadly, invisible vine." Martini-fuelled disagreements escalated into apocalyptic rages, yet no one made the connection between misery and alcohol.
Certainly Susan Cheever didn't. Despite all the evidence around her, she grew up believing that alcohol was the answer to her problems. Well into adulthood, she discovered AA, and told her story in Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker. Her obtuseness resembled Wilson's. His childhood was cursed by a drunken father, but he nevertheless spent 17 dreadful years as a self-destructive drinker.
Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, his co-founder in 1935, began their recovery when they decided that only an alcoholic can help another alcoholic; "kinship in suffering" opened otherwise locked doors. AA borrowed from many sources, including the town meetings of Wilson's native Vermont and Carl Jung's observation that recovery from alcoholism usually involved a spiritual dimension.
They also harnessed the ancient force of personal narrative. Susan Gardner, a University of North Carolina English professor, first began to think about joining AA while reading, of all things, the thrillers of James Lee Burke. His hero, Dave Robicheaux, is a drunken New Orleans detective who becomes a small-town cop and a slightly unreliable AA member. When Gardner began attending AA meetings, she discovered that "storytelling is healing medicine." A meeting often becomes mainly an exchange of narratives. Cheever says "we understand our lives by telling ourselves stories about what happens to us."
Those who appreciate the infinite varieties of human character will find Bill Wilson a rich field of study. While he created an institution grounded in self-discipline, he was a chronic adulterer and a suicidal smoker who kept on puffing long after he developed emphysema and began using an oxygen tank. He loved LSD and urged everyone he knew to try it, which some fellow AA members considered a bad idea. He jumped with pathetic eagerness on every spiritualist bandwagon that passed his way, often holding table-tapping seances with dead friends and relatives, sometimes using a Ouija board to make contact with the Beyond.
Everyone knows about AA, yet no outsider really knows it. On one level it's famous, on another secret. Still, anyone who studies institutions should look at it with care. Peter Senge, an MIT organizations theorist, argues that scholars need to "Find out what it is that Alcoholics Anonymous seemed to figure out -- I don't know how they did it ... it's amazing, they rediscovered fire." Certainly they understood that people can best endure change with the help of others like themselves, an insight that has value far beyond the sphere of addictions.