I’m an only child, but I grew up in a house full of “babies.” It’s a term sometimes used in Alcoholics Anonymous to describe people sponsored by another person working A.A.’s 12-step program. From an early age, I was surrounded by people practicing introspection out loud with fellow addicts.
My mother had more than three decades sobriety when she died, and I’m now the keeper of her well-worn leather-bound copy of “Alcoholics Anonymous” — known to recovering alcoholics as “The Big Book.” I flipped through it often right after she died, hoping the passages she’d highlighted might reveal things about my mother that I’d never known — or even thought to wonder about as a child.
It’s been years since I’ve given much thought to growing up with A.A., but a film called “Bill W.” brought it all back. It’s a documentary exploring the life of Bill Wilson, who co-founded A.A. with a fellow dubbed “Dr. Bob” by the group that uses first names and last initials to preserve the anonymity of its members.
Not because of stigma, it’s explained in the film — but as a curb on egos too prone to spinning out of control. Wilson knew the perils of pedestal time, whether created by self or others — and “Bill W.” makes clear the challenges Wilson faced trying to be just another drunk in the room.
His story is really the everyman story, which gives “Bill W.” a broad appeal beyond its built-in audience of about two million A.A. members worldwide. It’s told using photographs, audio and video tapes, letters shared between Wilson and others (many exchanged with the wife he called “darling”), recollections of those who knew him, and experts familiar with A.A.’s development and evolution.
The beauty of A.A. is twofold, according to the film. It’s adapted well to the changing nature of modern society, and its tenets can be applied by folks at all stages of the journey through recovery. A.A. was founded by Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith during 1935 in Akron, Ohio — but “Bill W.” does more than merely recount the experiences of its earliest members.
“Bill W.” recalls Wilson’s time in Akron and NYC, spanning several centuries and featuring black and white clips of important events along America’s timeline. Prohibition. The Great Depression. Two world wars. The age of LSD. For fans of the TV series “Mad Men,” this film offers genuine insight into how the culture of cocktails destroyed actual lives.
One woman featured in the film describes falling deeply and madly in love with alcohol the very first time she used it. Scary stuff, considering the fact that no one knows who among us has a brain hard-wired for such things. “Bill W.” explores both the medical model of alcoholism and Wilson’s early life experiences that appeared to prime the pump.
“Bill W.” is part personal history, part cultural history. It’s filled with images and insights that help to put his story within the context of the past while nudging viewers to consider the trajectory of their own lives. You needn’t be an alcoholic to drink it all in.
Coming up: Shakespeare meets Victor Hugo