Atheist Big Book Study: Bill’s Story
A fevered patriotism spread through the United States during the early days of the World War I, and to show their gratitude the well-to-do invited young doughboys into their homes. It was in this setting where Bill had his first drink, a bronx cocktail. Bill’s biographer, Robert Thomsen describes Bill’s recollection of that drink.
“Perhaps it took a little time, but it seemed to happen instantly. He could feel his body relaxing, a stiffness going out of his shoulders as he sensed the warm glow seeping through him into all the distant, forgotten corners of his being. Soon he had the feeling that he wasn’t the one being introduced but that people were being introduced to him; he wasn’t joining groups, groups were forming around him. It was unbelievable. And at the sudden realization of how quickly the world could change, he had to laugh and he couldn’t stop laughing”.
Bill returned from the war full of grandiosity and ambition. He was studying law at night and working for a surety firm during the day. His drinking wasn’t yet continuous, but it was starting to concern his wife and cause problems in his life, such a nearly failing a law exam. The law ultimately was not his calling, the lure of Wall Street was too much to resist, so he left his law studies to become a stock broker. He writes, “out of this alloy of drink and speculation, I commenced to forge the weapon that one day would turn in its flight like a boomerang and all but cut me to pieces”.
The boomerang analogy is taken from a childhood memory of the time his grandfather told him that only Australians can make boomerangs, that it had never before been accomplished by an American. Bill’s yearning to be the first, the best, the number one man, coupled with an obsessive ambition made it possible for him to produce a boomerang that worked. These very same qualities fueled by alcohol would one day fashion another kind of boomerang.
“Ego” is written throughout this section of Bill’s story, and it is ego that Bill later discovers must be deflated in order to find lasting sobriety. Ego deflation at depth, a principle borrowed from the Oxford Group.
Alcoholism is a progressive disease and in this section of the story, the party is over, alcohol is now a necessity. When the stock market crashed in October of 1929, Bill was determined to succeed in business and at times it seemed he was on his way, but inevitably his drinking would pull the rug out from under his feet. It was more than the great depression preventing Bill from working, he was drunk most of the time, “two or three bottles a day of bathtub gin” (Alcoholics Anonymous). Lois was the sole financial support with a meager salary earned working at a New York department store.
Though he tried to get his life together to somehow stop the destructive drinking, his best efforts were continually met with failure. He made many well intentioned promises to Lois only to break them a short time later. At times, he thought he had it beat, only to find himself drunk almost without thought.
After each drunken episode, he would awake the next morning full of remorse and fear. Suicide seemed a viable solution, but even those thoughts slipped into a void with the help of another drink. This went on for two years before a hospitalization was arranged by his brother-in-law and mother.
This is a familiar story to alcoholics. Before we can realize what’s happening, alcohol has completely taken over our lives. We experience fear bordering on paranoia, depression to the point of suicide, we try to get it under control, but with each failed attempt, we find ourselves falling even further into despair. We bring worry and suffering and emotional pain to those we love. It seems we are powerless.
I’ve Got Religion
During his first treatment at Towns Hospital, Dr. Silkworth explained to him the disease concept of alcoholism, and with this knowledge Bill was confident that he would never drink again, yet he found himself drunk a short time later.
The point that self-knowledge alone is not sufficient for recovery from alcoholism is made several times throughout the Big Book. It’s an important concept that establishes the need for help beyond ourselves.
The bleakness that was Bill’s life was interrupted by a visit from his old friend Ebby. The last he heard, Ebby was committed to a mental institution. Sitting at his kitchen table, Bill offered Ebby a drink and was surprised when the offer was declined.
“I’ve got religion”, Ebby exclaimed, and then proceeded to tell the story of members from the Oxford group saving him from commitment to the institution, and “told him of a simple religious idea and a practical program of action”. Ebby was sober now for two months, and he offered to share his experience with Bill if he would like to hear it.
As Ebby spoke, Bill’s resentment toward religion mixed with the gin that was swirling in his head, but he claims that he isn’t an atheist and that few people really are. He goes on to describe an atheist as “having blind faith in the strange proposition that this universe originated in a cypher and aimlessly rushes nowhere”.
Bill makes it obvious here that he has no understanding of atheists which is a tone running throughout the Big Book. Atheists and agnostics when mentioned at all, are used as examples of how anyone can find faith in A.A. The problem with this of course is that atheists, at least this atheist doesn’t want to live by faith. Furthermore, the idea that the universe rushes aimlessly nowhere is not at all a strange proposition. For us, life is made precious by the fact that our existence is fleeting and we are in awe at the accident of our being. It is the religious people who live by blind faith and the strange proposition that a supernatural immortal god is the sole explanation for all of existence.
Ebby tells Bill that “God has done for him what he could not do for himself. Looking at Ebby, Bill realizes that perhaps the religious people were right after all. Ebby goes on to explain that it’s not necessary to believe in any particular God, Bill can choose his own conception. it’s not even necessary to believe at all at this point, all that’s needed is a willingness to believe.
Some time after the talk at his kitchen table, Bill was taken to Towns Hospital for his third and final treatment. It is during this visit that he had a spiritual experience or as the old timers called it “his hot flash”. This experience provides Bill with a revelation that thousands if not millions of alcoholics could be helped with the message he received from Ebby. Thus started his journey of co-founding Alcoholics Anonymous.
It is quite clear from Bill’s story that this is indeed a religious program, complete with conversion, revelation and supernatural powers. But did the word “religious” have the same meaning at that time as it does now? Perhaps “religion” was merely the belief in a specific deity and the practice of a particular religion.
The first one hundred members when writing the Big Book may have considered their new program quite liberal in it’s approach toward religious matters. They were not favoring a specific denomination or sect. Instead they felt they were opening the door to all by relying on the Oxford Group conception of a personal God of one’s own understanding. Though that may have been the case in 1939, today the Big Book and the A.A. program it describes is clearly religious as it stresses the necessity of finding a “god”.
It’s a shame that it started out this way. I don’t believe Bill’s experience at Towns was supernatural in the least, if it happened at all, it can be explained by the stress, the medication, coming off of alcohol, there has to be a better explanation than a God making himself known and providing revelation.
Imagine if they had been thinking rationally. Though it may have appeared that belief in a god was keeping them sober and giving them the strength to change, it was really their fellow alcoholic. That is what is truly beautiful about A.A., it’s not a god who grants sobriety to the few, rather it is one alcoholic helping another. That’s the real higher power at least from my perspective, and A.A. could have been just as successful if not more so had it taken this approach, leaving religion as an outside issue.