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Making a strange attraction of the birthplace of AA

One hour’s train ride north of Manhattan, in AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s former home, I stood before a picture and felt a shudder go through me.

The embroidered message read, “You and your damn meetings!” and featured a shoe flying through the air.

It was, literally, a small sign of the way Bill treated his wife Lois.

As Bill lost job after job through his drinking, Lois supported him by working in a department store. When he eventually got sober, she had to carry on supporting him as he refused to find work and instead devoted himself to his meetings.

191116513qnywox-lBill’s philandering at meetings was an open secret. He invented the term “Thirteenth stepping” in reference to hitting on the sick women who turned up seeking help from AA’s 12 Step programme.

Lois’s former secretary, Francis Hartigan, wrote: “Barry Leach, who knew Bill nearly 30 years, told me that, in the 1960s, he and other friends of Bill’s formed what they came to refer to as the ‘Founder’s Watch’ committee. People were delegated to keep track of Bill during the socializing that usually accompanies AA functions. When they observed a certain gleam in his eye, they would tactfully steer Bill off in one direction and the dewy-eyed newcomer in another.”

Tom Powers, who helped Bill write his second book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, eventually quit AA in disgust at Bill’s affairs. “This sex thing ran through the whole business,” said Powers. “It wasn’t just an episode.”

Lois wanted to write the “To Wives” chapter of AA’s Big Book, but Bill felt she wasn’t qualified. Bizarrely, he impersonated the voice of a wife and wrote it himself, advising wives to put up with their alcoholic husbands’ philandering, lest they relapse.

When Bill left for yet another euphemistic meeting one night, Lois’s humiliation finally became too much to bear and she snapped, hurling a shoe at Bill’s head and shouting “You and your damn meetings!” His response, immortalised in embroidery on the walls of their home, was to ridicule her by bringing up the incident again and again.

Bill dealt Lois a final slap in the face after his death when the details of his will emerged: he had left 10% of his estate to his favourite mistress, Helen Wynn.

We were shown around the rest of the house by a gangly, alcoholic volunteer who’d moved to New York from Scandinavia.

“Wow!” said an overawed former crack addict from Philadelphia as we were shown the lift that Lois had constructed after she became too old to make it up the stairs. “Wow!” he said again as he peered into an upstairs toilet Bill had built by the bedroom. “Woah!” he said when we were invited to have our photos taken at the kitchen table where Bill took his final drink. “Wo-o-o-ow!” he laughed as we listened to a tape of Bill and Lois making sweet music together on piano and violin. But he fell silent when we were shown Bill’s private office at the end of the garden. The building was referred to as “Wit’s End” by Lois because, said our guide, she was always at her “wit’s end” trying to get hold of him there as he would never pick up the phone. Curiously, the office was dominated by a double bed.

The tour ended back in the main house in the “spook room”. It was here that Bill and fellow AA co-founder Dr Bob Smith would hold “spook sessions” to commune with spirits, often employing a ouija board. AA’s 11th step of seeking “conscious contact” with God was taken directly from AA’s forerunner, the Oxford Group, in which members would hold “quiet time” sessions and write down in notebooks anything that came to them, supposedly from a higher power directing them how to run their daily lives. Bill claimed to have special abilities in channelling such messages from the spiritual world. He had performed “automatic writing” from a medieval monk named Boniface and a 17th Century Catholic priest from Barcelona. Curiously, they revealed nothing that could not be gleaned from texts at a local library. In another case, Bill revealed the names of three ghosts who had spoken to him. Later the same day, in front of friends, he happened upon their names at a local monument and in a museum – yet Bill claimed he had never been to those places before. Ever.

Spookily, as we stood in the spook room, a cash register mysteriously appeared, with our tour guide standing behind it. He began ringing in cash dollars as my fellow alcoholics began buying up DVDs, mugs, pens and AA-approved books. One even bought a stack of greetings cards featuring the legendary hurled shoe and slogan “You and your damn meetings!”

It certainly was spooky in that room.

This is extracted from Mat Ward’s excellent ebook, ‘Around the World in 80 AA’s where he tours the world investigating the phenomenon that is Alcoholics Anonymous.’ Buy it now.


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