The Life of Bill Wilson
Long before Bill Wilson took his first drink at age 22, the seeds of his addiction may well have been planted in his soul. Bill liked to talk about “being born behind a bar” in the tavern and inn known as the Wilson House and nestled peacefully among the Green Mountains in East Dorsett, Vermont. His grandfather and namesake may well have passed on to Bill the gene that gave him his physical “pre-disposition” to alcoholism, although William C. Wilson had taken the pledge along with millions of other Americans and abstained from drinking for the rest of his life.
Billy arrived into the world on the 26th day of November 1895, the first of two children born to Gillman Wilson and his school-teacher wife of fourteen months Emily Griffith Wilson. Their marriage, however, was not a happy one. Emily complained bitterly about Gilly’s frequent drunkenness and his irresponsible behavior. He worked as a miner in the nearby marble quarries until one evening in 1905 when he took a quiet buggy ride with the family. We don’t know exactly what happened or what was said that night; but once they returned to the house Gillman Wilson gathered his things, headed west, and abandoned his young family never to return. Bill he always loved his father, but maintained a more reserved emotional relationship with his mother. She was aloof and emotionally distant from Bill all his life. Emily soon placed Bill and his young sister Dorothy in the care of her parents as she went off to Boston to pursue what was to become a successful career as an Osteopathic physician. It was then that Bill began experiencing bouts with depression that would continue to plague him for most of his life.
Feeling abandoned by both his parents and harboring the guilt too often found in young children from such homes, Bill showed one side of himself to the world while another lay hidden in his heart. The first of several traumas left its mark and began to cast its shadow over the boy. Dorothy soon went to live with their mother while Bill was sent off to boarding school at Burr and Burton Academy. There he met another “budding alcoholic” who was later to play such a large part in his life – Ebby Thatcher. At the school, Bill’s peers taunted him for his being so tall and skinny; they poked fun at his two big ears. But Bill was increasingly under the sway of his shadow side and was determined to prove and assert himself. In a 1955 speech he said:
In that early period I had to be an athlete because I was not an athlete. I had to be a musician because I could not carry a tune. I had to be the president of my class in boarding school. I had to be the first in everything because in my perverse heart I felt myself the least of God’s creatures. I could not accept this deep sense of inferiority, and so I did become captain of the baseball team, and I did learn to play the fiddle well enough to lead the high school orchestra, even though it was a terribly bad band. I was the leader and I lead must – or else. So it went. All or nothing. I must be Number One.
Bill’s fateful quest to prove himself that Number One man resulted in his setting up a chemical laboratory in his room and studying Morse code. He read and experimented and soon built one of the first wireless reception sets in the state of Vermont. He often told how one day his grandfather had challenged him by saying that he’d read somewhere that only Australians could make a boomerang. Immediately, Bill said boastfully to his grandfather that he’d be the first American to do it and he would prove them all wrong. His obsessive patterns began to show themselves as he later reminisced: “The result was that during this long period of constructing boomerangs, I completely lost interest in everything else. My interest in school went to nothing…. I wasn’t interested in playmates, just boomerangs, boomerangs, boomerangs.” Six months later he got a taste for being that Number One man when he accomplished the impossible. The boomerang’s first flight almost clipped his grandfather in the head but it sent young Bill’s head to new heights! As with drugs and alcohol, however, the euphoria Bill experienced was short lived and the dark side of his insecurities soon reemerged looking for still another fix. Maybe a lover would do it for him this time. Her name was Bertha.
Bill recalled, “Despite my homely face and awkward figure, one of the girls at the school took an interest in me… now comes the minister’s daughter, and I suddenly find myself ecstatically in love.” Emotionally filled to overflowing he says, “… now I love and am loved for the first time in my life. I am deliriously happy.” But once again, Bill’s happiness would be cut short. He recounts how, “One morning the principal of the school came in, and at chapel he announced with a very grave face that Bertha Banford, the minister’s daughter and my beloved, had died suddenly and unexpectedly the night before.” Bill had what he later termed “a nervous breakdown.” He went into a depression that deepened and lasted for nearly three years. He used to steal out to the cemetery at night and mourned, “At this time I couldn’t be a Number One man.
I couldn’t be anybody at all. I couldn’t win, because the adversary was death….”
Bill later was enrolled at Norwich Military Academy but he continued to struggle with his life. He failed to make the baseball team, he failed in his music attempts and he failed his initial bid to get into a fraternity. Getting into an argument with a math professor, at last Bill felt challenged enough to study hard so he could prove his teacher wrong in front of the whole class. Bill earned an “F” in the process but fed his deep-seated need to stand out from the crowd. A hazing incident got him expelled for a time and it was then that he met his wife-to-be Lois Burnham who was vacationing in Vermont with her family. Hope had returned and Bill was now in love for a second time. By junior year, his popularity had stated to rise but his self-esteem remained fragile. But in 1917, his junior year, World War I intervened, and cut short his college career landing him in the army.
He was commissioned an Army artillery officer and sent to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It was there that Bill Wilson’s first drink awaited him in the form of a Bronx cocktail. The seeds of his addiction had been well sown and now they were ready to sprout.