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The Story of Bill W. and the Foundation of AA

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William Griffith Wilson, also known as Bill W., was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous alongside Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith. While most people in the recovery community know his name, not very many people today know the whole story behind his personal struggles, AA’s founding, the Twelve Steps formation, or the Big Book’s publication.

About Bill W.

Bill was born in Vermont on November 26, 1895. His maternal grandparents raised both him and his sister after his parents abandoned them both. Throughout most of his adolescent and teenaged life, Bill had little interest in school and showcased a rebellious attitude. By the time he was seventeen, Bill had begun to struggle with depression. Eventually, he would also struggle with alcoholism.

As an adult, Bill met and eventually married his wife, Lois Burnham. The two married just before his departure for the Coast Artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant in World War I. He returned after the war to live with Lois in New York, where he later checked into the Charles B. Towns Hospital for Drug and Alcohol Addictions for alcoholism. During his four separate stays there, he received care from Dr. William D. Silkworth. It was Silkworth who introduced Bill to the idea that alcoholism was an illness rather than a moral failing. This idea would later help millions of people after the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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The Foundation of AA

After successfully getting sober, Bill found himself surrounded by temptation and was almost always on the edge of relapsing. To combat his cravings, he joined the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian organization that helped people with a variety of problems. Several of the people in this group at the time were also combatting alcoholism. Bill found other recovered alcoholics and discovered that talking through his issues with them helped him stay sober. This open line of communication regarding alcohol addiction eventually led him to Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, who would later help him form one of the longest-running addiction meeting platforms in history.

The Twelve Steps

While the two friends and co-founders left the Oxford Group to form Alcoholics Anonymous, they did borrow inspirational ideas from the Christian organization to include in their new program. Together, Bill and Dr. Bob reworked these ideas to be more inclusive for a wider variety of people with religious affiliation. Even those with no religious affiliation would benefit from this collection of personal growth milestones. Eventually, Bill and Dr. Bob’s recovery philosophies became the famed Twelve Steps.

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The Publication of the Big Book

In the years that followed, the members of Alcoholics Anonymous faithfully followed the Twelve Steps, which were outlined in what would later be famously called the Big Book of AA. This manifesto, written both by Bill W. and several anonymous contributors, is one of the earliest examples of self-help literature that outlines alcoholism as a disease and not a moral failing. It’s also a testament to the inspiration that Dr. Silkworth once gave Bill during his own time in recovery.

Once Bill and his assistant writers completed the first draft of the Big Book in January of 1939, the group printed and shared four-hundred copies of it. The founders wanted to test its popularity among everyday folks and opened up the book for public review. Once a few recommendations came back to them, they made final edits for official publication in April of that same year.

The final version of the Big Book was edited to reflect the same sense of inclusiveness that made the meetings so famous. Rather than encouraging AA members to embrace God or Jesus Christ, the book called for recovering alcoholics to call upon a higher power of their own choosing— a “God of [their] understanding”— for help to get and stay sober. The nonconformist and general tone of the Big Book made Alcoholics Anonymous enormously more accessible to people of non-Christian faith. The book has been translated into 67 different languages so far. Additionally, AA now has more than two million members from 170 countries around the world.

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The Original Manuscript and the Big Book’s Republication

After the first publication in 1939, Bill kept the original 161-page manuscript, which contained edits from both himself and his AA members scrawled in red, blue and black pencil. He and his wife Lois kept the original copy safe in their home until his death in 1971, at age 75. After that, Lois gave the manuscript to a friend, Barry Leach, who kept it safe until his passing in 1985.

Several of the owners after Leach put the manuscript up for auction in the early 2000s. In 2004, the original working copy of the Big Book of AA, complete with handwritten notes, sold for about $1.56 million. The book was auctioned again in 2007 for $992,000 but was repossessed by AA World Services, who was legally the rightful owner after Leach’s death. However, the organization recently waived its rights to the book and are putting it up for auction a third time. Many expect the manuscript to sell for at least $2 million in May of this year.

In the meantime, copies of the manuscript have been re-released in a new publication called “The Book That Started it All.” This new version, which is only the fourth edition in about 70 years, includes notes and essays from various AA historians. Additionally, it includes more content surrounding the struggles of women and minority groups in AA.

The Twelve Steps of AA at Road to Freedom

At Road to Freedom, our recovery program combines faith and Bill W.’s core philosophies to help people conquer their addictions. For more information about our faith-based 12-Step traditional program, please call us at 844-402-3605. All calls are confidential.

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