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Lois Wilson Story: When Love is Not Enough

The Biography of the cofounder of Al-Anon

By William G. Borchert

Picture if you will, eight women parked in front of the Clinton Street Brooklyn home of Bill and Lois Wilson. Their motors are running and they are steamed.

On this night in 1938, their husbands, most of them newly sober, are attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous with the organization’s co-founder, Bill Wilson. What ticks the ladies off is that their husbands have replaced drinking with meetings, leaving them once again alone and unloved.


At that moment, Lois, with suddenly heightened awareness of her own resentment and anger, realized that spouses, too, have been touched by alcoholism and must seek and find a dramatic alteration in their own lives if they are to get well and stay well.

Lois, on that night, brought the women in for a get-together of their own in the kitchen and out of it there emerged Al-Anon Family Groups, the Fellowship she co-founded with her good friend, Ann Bingham. Like Alcoholics Anonymous, co-founded by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the impact of Al-Anon has been huge.

Today, there are Al-Anon Family groups in practically every town and city across America and in 130 countries around the world. Membership is estimated to be close to a million.

Author William Borchert, who was nominated for an Emmy in 1989 for writing the highly acclaimed Warner Brothers/Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, “My Name is Bill W,” starring James Garner, James Woods, and JoBeth Williams, has done equal justice to the “Lois Wilson Story.”

Borchert in this book, gives us a moving and powerful love story about two charismatic figures who really did change the world. The fact is, Bill and Lois, both of them attractive and smart, were absolutely nuts about each other.

In the early days, they would hit the road in motorcycle and sidecar, and the first thing you know they’re off in the canebrake making out.

It was not all play, however. Bill was a stockbroker and on their road trips, he would visit companies and gather first hand information about how they operated and how they were doing. Indeed, he is credited with being a pioneer in the field of securities’ analysis.

As Bill’s drinking increased, Borchert’s book records, Lois would frequently lose her temper when he would embarrass her at parties or at home in front of friends and family.

“I got mad at him, terribly mad,” Lois said, “I’d throw all kinds of things at him, but it really didn’t make a difference. That talk is wasted on a drunk. He wanted me to help him stop his drinking. You couldn’t be mad at him then. You just had to forgive him.”

In 1939, four years after Bill quit drinking and founded Alcoholics Anonymous with “Dr. Bob,” they lost their Clinton Street home where Lois had been born and where she had lived with her husband during his battle with alcoholism and then final recovery.

The fact was they had no money and very little coming in, and for almost two years they lived out of suitcases, moving 51 times — living mainly with generous AA friends and in a room above an old AA clubhouse on 24th Street in New York City.

Finally, in 1941, as the result of royalties he received from the book he wrote called “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and also known as the “Big Book,” they moved into a home in Bedford Hills, New York overlooking the Hudson River. Lois named it, “Stepping Stones.”

For the next 30 years, Bill and Lois lived out their days traveling in the service of their twin ministries.

In 1971, stricken with emphysema, Borchert writes, Bill Wilson died at the age of 72, and the world finally discovered who founded the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous when The New York Times published his full name on its front page.

Lois was almost crippled with grief but eventually rallied and carried on her work for the next 17 years, but she never got over Bill.

When the end came for her, as she lay dying, she waived off attempts to prolong her life and delay reconciliation with her husband. “I want to see my Bill,” she scribbled on the pad they provided.

Lois Burnham Wilson, at ninety- seven years old, joined her beloved Bill later that evening. It was October 5, 1988. She was buried next to her husband in the small family cemetary in East Dorset, Vermont.

Lois’s name is chiseled on the simple white marble gravestone, but true to principles of anonymity, there is no mention of Al-Anon. Bill’s gravestone, equally discreet, makes no mention of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Editor’s note: More than 150 million Americans are affected directly or indirectly by the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. Research shows that every alcoholic’s behavior affects at least five others in his or her circle of family members, relatives and associates. Imagine where we would be without Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous.