From previous books, we know that Susan Cheever, a columnist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, has suffered heavily under the yoke of alcohol, both as the child of author (and hard drinker) John Cheever and as an adventurous souse in her own right.
Perhaps this helps explain why, for her new book, she profiles history's most influential drunk, William Griffith Wilson, known to legions as Bill W., the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.
One needn't hunt for the biographer's motivation; Wilson was the genre's low-hanging fruit. Despite having cofounded a miraculous fellowship of more than 2 million and having inspired dozens of other 12-step programs for addictions to food, cocaine, sex, spending, and other substances and behaviors, Wilson has been the subject of only two previous treatments, both sanctioned by his widow and written before 1975.
What's harder to fathom is why Cheever chose to bury the book's greatest revelation: In a 38-chapter book, Cheever waits until Chapter 35 to discuss Helen Wynn, the woman with whom Wilson apparently lived, at least part time, even though he and his wife, Lois, never divorced. Further, Wynn wasn't the only other woman: Cheever cites Wilson's "erotic hunger," and says that "whatever inhibitions he may have had were swept away" in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
A critic could quibble over whether another writer would have delved into that discovery deeper, and sooner, considering that it raises questions about Wilson's honesty and big-picture sobriety. But it would take an acolyte to combine the notions of "brilliant spiritual development" and "flawed by sexual compulsion" in the same sentence.
Unquestionably, it is an explosive issue: Did the figure behind this monumental spiritual movement merely swap addictions - the equivalent of switching deck chairs on the Titanic - from booze to sex? Some might seize upon that as evidence of AA's weak foundation, but by doing what had been impossible - saving millions from a condition previously untreatable - AA's 12 Steps prove their own legitimacy. A more proper point to draw would be that even people who birth or husband great movements are still human. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. Or JFK.
For Cheever's book, the news crowns a story that, even without it, is richly informative and full of revelation, both to the general reader and to those who've read the Big Book, AA's basic text, which Wilson wrote in consultation with his peers. Who knew, for example, that Wilson could have been Forrest Gump's brother? He was a Mayflower descendant, his wife's cousin married John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison tried to hire him, and he created a form of market research long before his other great discovery. Later, when his celebrity would help explain it, he hung out with A-bomb scientist Robert Oppenheimer, regularly consulted with Bishop Fulton Sheen, and was friends with the author Aldous Huxley.
The richness of Wilson's life is also riven with pathos, no more so than because he became unable to experience the relief that others found in AA's rooms. Others could blend in, find comfort in being one of many. But tens of thousands of AAers and their families held him almost as a saint, and he always had to be "on."
As fascinating as Wilson is, one could argue that he is the book's second most interesting figure. Lois Burnham Wilson stayed by her husband's side through 53 years of marriage, and one has to wonder how and why. When they met and courted, he was jobless and a school dropout. Then came his first drink, in New Bedford in 1917, which quickly brought them to the gates of hell: extended unemployment, social ostracism, severe depressions, several institutionalizations, even physical abuse - Cheever writes that Wilson once threw a sewing machine at his wife. And all that, of course, preceded Helen Wynn, a relationship Lois had to be aware of, Cheever adds.
Cheever notes, of course, that Burnham founded a movement of her own: Al-Anon, the fellowship of individuals who may not be addicts themselves but whose lives are unhealthily intertwined with them. But the closest Cheever comes to explaining Burnham's incredible . . . patience (or dependence) is that she "seemed to be an amazingly good sport."
Perhaps someone else will come along to tackle that question. It's fair to say that with Bill Wilson, Cheever already had more than enough to fill a book.