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Tex Goes to the Movies: Bill W.
Bill W., for all his attempts at anonymity, has been idolized by members of the most successful self-help group in history, Alcoholics Anonymous, that he helped found on June 10, 1935. He was also called one of the greatest people of the 20th Century. The A.A. Big Book that he co-wrote with a team of early A.A. members has been translated into almost as many languages as the Harry Potter series of books, sells millions of copies a year and according to the movie, there are meetings of A.A. in over 170 countries.
Alcoholics Anonymous cannot help anyone, but it’s openness to members whose only qualification is “a desire to stop drinking” has helped millions. And it is certainly an advancement from the treatment for alcoholics in the 1930s shown in the movie: electric shock, lobotomies, sedation, and other drug treatments.
The movie starts from the beginning of Bill Wilson’s bottoming out. Bill W. worked on Wall Street and was also a traveling salesman. Both jobs encourage social drinking at business meetings, office parties and industry conferences where drinking is ubiquitous. For alcoholics like Bill, social drinking leads immediately to binges and lost days to drinking. As one member put it, "The guy who took the first drink was not the guy who took the second drink." Thus, anyone with a tendency, either biological or psychological, toward alcoholism will likely start alcoholic drinking in these careers.
The movie focuses on Bill Wilson’s life, his difficult with drinking, and his search for a cure. In a series of interviews with members of A.A. (in silhouette to remain anonymous) with 4 to 56 years without drinking, we learn about A.A. and their perception of Bill W. We also learn about Bill from old audio recordings, historical films and reenactments of his speeches at early A.A. meetings. Letters from Bill to members and groups around the country also reveal his character. The movie also features Lois W., his long time wife and founder of Al-Anon (a support group of friends and relatives of alcoholics). Her reflections of Bill’s alcoholism are enlightening but sparse. The movies is, after all, about Bill W.
From the letters to friends we learn of his early struggles to lead A.A. One of his early revelations, one that may have saved his life, is as he says, “I needed the alcoholic to stay sober.” This need to help other alcoholics to remain sober is one of the keys to the A.A. steps. The twelfth step states, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs” (emphasis mine).
As the film shows, Bill knew that if he didn’t find others to work with, he would be lost. Through a series of events, Bill meets Dr. Bob, a hard case alcoholic that felt he was alone with his alcoholism. Dr. Bob saw that Bill not only understood the disease of alcoholism, but Bill had some idea about how to address it. It was not through “victory” that one would become free, it was though surrender to “a God of your understanding” and the disease that one could become sober.
The movie does not address the problem many alcoholics have with the concept of God, and neither will I. It helps to remember that many of the original ideas (such as the twelve steps) were adopted from the religious Oxford Group. Moreover, A.A. started in the 30s, before the decadence of the 60s and the questioning of all institutions by the youth culture. It is important to note that there are atheist A.A. groups and groups that keep the word "God" out of the readings of the twelve steps and put words such as "a higher power" in its place.
The movie does a good job discussing Bill’s personal struggles and need to help others. It also features a history of A.A. itself, for it was the thing that made him so well known. Certainly, the effectiveness of twelve step programs long term can be questioned,
http://www.orange-papers.org/orange-effectiveness.html but A.A. creates a community and inclusiveness that goes beyond any statistics. And for those that have tried other forms of recovery, from will-power to hospitalization, A.A. can be a life saver.
While the twelve steps http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-121_en.pdf is a great model for recovery for many, it is the traditions http://www.aa.org/en_pdfs/smf-122_en.pdf that kept the organization together. The twelve traditions can be used for a model for many institutions and non-profits. A turning point in the movie, plot point if you will, occurs as Bill steps away from the leadership of A.A. and becomes a member instead of its figurehead and decision maker. At this point, groups had cropped up all over the nation and A.A. was going to have its first national conference. What he and other members of the leadership did was create a successful model of anarchy. http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/kropotkin/britanniaanarchy.html Ideas such as “common welfare”, focus on purpose (to quit drinking), autonomy of each group, self supporting groups (sustainability), service to the group and not oneself are all important tenets that can be applied to anarchic groups.
Before you start thinking that the story of Bill W. is one of triumph and light, you must remember that it is the story of an alcoholic. The darkness is presented throughout his life just as much as the brilliance. In the later part of the movie, we see Bill experimenting with LSD for his depression and as a way to alleviate his continued desire to drink. The movie allows you to judge that for yourself without playing melodramatic music, ala John Williams, how to feel about Bill's drug experimentation. He also developed emphysema from years of smoking. For all his talents, he was no saint. And that is the point. As several people mention in interviews, he did great work to help others afflicted with alcoholism despite his own ailments.
The music was fabulous. As my dear 30 plus years clean and sober mother said, “I can’t believe they got Yoyo Ma to do the music for them.” It also looked excellent. The reenactments of Bill’s speeches had a slight sepia tone to them like aged photographs; it was very effective. Much of the script was taken from letters and speeches framed around Bill’s story. That also added to the drama. However, if you are not an alcoholic or close to an alcoholic, it may be hard to relate to the film. The drama will also more compelling to those that already know the history of A.A.
Rating: Full Price
Ratings system from best to worst:
5. Pay full price, see it twice
4. Full Price
1. See it only if they pay you