“Alcoholism isn’t a spectator sport. Eventually the whole family gets to play,” wrote Joyce Rebeta Burditt, author of “The Cracker Factory” (1977). An alcoholic’s destructive behavior is estimated to affect at least four other people, usually loved ones like Lois Wilson.
While many people could answer “Dr. Bob and Bill W.” if asked what two men are credited with founding Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), it is safe to assume that far fewer could identify Bill W’s wife, Lois Wilson, as the cofounder of Al-Anon. But like her husband, Lois Wilson is also a hero to recovering people throughout the world who credit Twelve Step programs with saving their lives. In fact, there are many in recovery circles who sincerely believe that without Lois, AA would not have happened because without Lois, Bill W. would not have survived.
Like other influential heroes, Lois and Bill Wilson were far from perfect. Their story, told poignantly in a book by William Borchert titled “The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough” (Hazelden, 2005), is an engaging but not always pretty love story that lets us appreciate the immense toll alcohol takes.
“I used to think my life really began the day I met Bill,” Lois once told Borchert. “I guess I was as addicted to him as he was to alcohol. Then he got sober – and I got well.”
Borchert, the screenwriter for the award-winning television movie “My Name is Bill W.,” knew Lois for the last 14 years of her life. In addition, he serves as a director of the Stepping Stones Foundation, an historical and educational nonprofit organization housed in the last residence that Bill and Lois Wilson shared in New York.
The Wilsons moved to Stepping Stones in 1941, after what Lois called their “living around” period when they changed their abode 51 times, “not counting weekend stops” during 1939 and 1940. By that time, they had lost Lois’ family home and had to rely on their AA friends to help them out. But Lois was used to hardship by then. In 1925, they traveled across the country on a motorcycle and camped out while they chased one of Bill’s many dreams in the exciting era of Bonnie and Clyde and the stock market boom. Despite her recent miscarriage and frequent humiliations over Bill’s growing dependency on alcohol, Lois was optimistic about their future and her husband’s promising career in finance. When Bill’s drinking got worse, Lois tried to make him pledge on her family Bible that he would stop.
However, things continued to deteriorate and Lois Wilson found herself making excuses for her husband, who sometimes wouldn’t even bathe or put on clean clothes unless she forced him to. His alcoholism lasted 17 years, required frequent hospitalizations, and almost cost him his life. Bill’s life changed forever when he connected with Dr. Bob Smith, and they discovered that they could keep sober by asking for God’s help, helping each other, and reaching out to help other drunks like themselves.
While Bob’s life improved, Lois’ life got more hellish when her husband insisted on bringing alcoholics home with him to dry out. “I guess I thought that once he stopped drinking, everything would go back to what it was like before – happy and loving,” she said.
She often felt excluded and grew resentful of Bill’s fellowship meetings. One meeting night she walked outside their house and noticed car after car in which a lone woman sat waiting for her husband to emerge from Bill’s meeting. She impulsively invited them in for tea and lemonade, and they began to share their feelings and rage about their respective husband’s alcoholism and how it had dramatically affected their lives. Although she did not know it then, this first “kitchen meeting” gave birth to Al-Anon, the Twelve Step mutual-support group for loved ones of alcoholics.
In the author’s note to his book, Borchert reminds readers of what the famous writer, Aldous Huxley, once said: “That when the history of the twentieth century is finally written, the greatest achievements America will be known for giving the world will be Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.”
Bill Wilson died in 1971. Lois Wilson died in 1988, at the age of 97. Their simple white marble gravestones in Vermont record their names and Bill’s military rank. Neither stone mentions Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, but the reality that tens of millions continue to practice derivations of AA’s Twelve Steps guarantees that their story will live on.