The Drinking Life, and After: Soft-Focus View of A.A.’s Hero

My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson-His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous , by Susan Cheever. Simon and Schuster, 306 pages, $24.

He demanded a drink on his deathbed. Yes, in the final days of his long, knotty life, after 36 years of hard-fought sobriety and public battle against the demon rum, the man behind AlcoholicsAnonymousdemandeda drink-several, actually, with increasing belligerence, even going so far as to threaten to punch the nose of the nurse who denied him. But whether you think this doozy of a detail puts the lie to Bill Wilson’s mission or merely reinforces the tortured heroism of an all-too-human visionary could hinge on whether or not you’ve read Susan Cheever’s sympathetic biography, My Name Is Bill.

Actually, “sympathetic” is putting it mildly; “hagiographic” is more like it. What we have here is the literary equivalent of laying gauze on the lens. Cue the violins: The elders of A.A. can rest safe that their founder has received the velveteen treatment.

Not that Ms. Cheever ducks the issue. She deserves credit for including this deathbed bombshell in the final six pages of her biography. But talk about burying the lead! Instead of spotlighting it, Ms. Cheever slips it in, almost in passing, as part of the roseate glow of closure. Where are the trumpets announcing this astonishing fact? Where is the rigorous re-examination such a revelation would seem to demand?

Ms. Cheever is brave enough to list other problematic stuff, too: “Bill loved LSD.” “Bill was not the stuff of saints.” “Bill was human, extraordinarily human.” Bill was “sexually less than perfect.” These are big statements, but in each case you have the feeling she’s hard-pressed to admit to them, except in demure terms and coy language. She has a way of soft-soaping things, of finding excuses, of adumbrating rather than analyzing. That LSD detail, for instance. Can one drop acid and still claim sobriety? Can one proselytize for a hallucinogen-“Bill urged everyone he knew to try it”-and still claim to be on “The Path”? Instead of aggressively pursuing such questions, Ms. Cheever bends over backward to overcontextualize his behavior, if such a thing is possible. “In the early 1960s the substance called LSD was still mysterious as well as being completely legal,” she writes, apparently unaware of how that “completely” threatens to erode her credibility. “Furthermore, it was used as a part of a series of experiments being conducted by great minds, men deeply committed to creating a society better than the one that was responsible for two world wars and a host of other horrors.” Does this mean the choice was between committing genocide and tripping your ass off?

Through the course of the book, an apprehension grows that the author knows more than she says. Wilson’s interest in the paranormal (including extensive use of an Ouija board set up in a designated “spook room”), his explosive breaks with friends and supporters, as well as the “adulation, sometimes expressed physically and erotically, [of] many women”-it’s all there, but presented in soft focus. So much euphemistic language is employed in Wilson’s defense (what exactly does it mean that “Personalities were sparked by Bill’s outsized ego and intelligence, and he often sparked back”?) that the reader is finally forced to make a decision: Either you go along with the happy spin, or you try to take the measure of the man himself.

Fortunately, there’s much to admire in My Name Is Bill. Ms. Cheever’s descriptions of nature, both in Wilson’s native Vermont (the land where, as his rascally dad used to say, it was “ten months of winter and two months of damned poor sledding”) and in the bucolic New York hamlet to which he repaired for the final chapters of his life, approach the clear-eyed rapture of her father John’s best nature writing. Indeed, with just one adjective-Wilson’s tombstone is made of “sugary” Vermont marble-she lays claim to the Cheever magic.

Equally eloquent are her jitterbug descriptions of drink. “He never forgot the warmth of the tavern and the way the men there seemed to melt together into one person-a person immune to loneliness.” Or again: “The sweet drink made of gin, dry and sweet vermouth, and orange juice shimmered in its glass … sweet and airy at the same time.” After imbibing, “He stepped out into the driveway of the house, enthralled. Behind him he could hear soft saxophone music. As he walked down the drive through the fragrant summer night, he moved as easily as if invisible chains had fallen away.”

So seductive are these pleasures that it’s not long before Wilson starts to slide; and with a novelist’s concision, the slide soon becomes literal. “By the end of the day,” she writes, “he’d be so broke he had to slide under the [subway] turnstile to get back to Brooklyn.” Ms. Cheever excels at weaving together the contradictions of this voluble, charismatic, depressive character-which lends to her tale a tinge of inevitability. (“For all his showmanship and flamboyance, Bill was horrified by people who waited for hours or traveled for miles just to be in his presence. He was abashed at becoming a celebrity.”) The personal slide also happens to coincide with the slide of the stock market, so that, in her telling, Wilson’s story becomes emblematic of a society’s mythic fall from grace.

The standard debasements follow: collapsing at airports, bar fights with thugs, throwing sewing machines at his too-long-suffering wife, stealing change from the purse of same, secreting gin bottles in the overhead tanks of toilets, waking up with no memory in flea-bitten hotels. It’s the classic cycle of binge drinking and concomitantly desperate remorse, including pathetic pledges written and rewritten in the family Bible. Sorry stuff, even with the gauze.

And then: epiphany. The miracle road of sobriety has been told often enough, in its many variations-no point in repeating the story here. But what’s new are the surprising elements Ms. Cheever brings in to explain it: the temperance movement of Wilson’s Vermont childhood and the cathartic effect of reading William James, including this line from Varieties of Religious Experience (1902): “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes.” Reading that, Ms. Cheever claims, Wilson felt understood for perhaps the first time in his life.

There’s understanding, and then there’s understanding. Many questions arise: Can a biographer be said to have so much understanding that she overidentifies with her subject? From the opening chapter, can she exhibit so much compassion for young Bill Wilson, for the “raw, desperately hurting boy” and his “caul of despair,” that her objectivity becomes clouded? Can she stay on a first-name basis, from the title on, without compromising her clarity? Is the biographer’s function to plead her subject’s case (“he was not a perfect man, but he was the perfect man for the job,” his “humanness does not diminish him, it makes him a writer, guide, and teacher,” etc.), or to let the unvarnished facts speak for themselves? When does discretion become a veil? Is there such a thing, in a biographer, as too much heart?

God knows, I’m not agitating for a cheesy tell-all. But it’s hard to avoid the sense that Ms. Cheever’s first allegiance is not to the reader but to the legend of Bill Wilson, Inc. Some parts of his life, including his sex life, are still officially secret, she duly notes. Says who? Anyone not under the sway of A.A. would plow ahead and bust those secrets-either that, or risk the charge that she not so much breaks the contract with the reader as never commits to it in the first place.

In all fairness, Ms. Cheever finds herself in a difficult position, caught between two irreconcilable tenets built into the fiber of A.A. itself. On the one hand, there is the rule to maintain all confidences, to not air dirty laundry and thereby betray the trust. On the other hand, and equally sacrosanct, is Bill Wilson’s own iron-clad law that the “one requirement for sobriety was ‘rigorous honesty.'” The only sure way to avoid being called an apologist is to subscribe to the latter.

Daniel Asa Rose, former arts and culture editor of Forward, is the author most recently of Hiding Places: A Father and His Sons Retrace Their Family’s Escape from the Holocaust (Simon and Schuster).