Content notice: This post describes sexual harassment.
Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson was a serial adulterer, both before and after he quit drinking/joined the Oxford Group/started his own cult. For all his claims of having “conscious contact with God” after a “spiritual awakening”, Bill W. used the Twelve Steps to justify rather than overcome his shortcomings and defects of character. Womanizing was one vice of many he wasn’t willing to give up.
Once he had appointed himself a spiritual guru, Bill’s affairs took a predatory turn. The very earliest Alcoholic Squad and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings were men only groups. Cofounder Dr. Bob particularly objected to inviting women into the fraternity: “nice women” didn’t drink, after all. But the arguments of Bill and some elders overrode him and women alcoholics were brought into the fold.
Bill lavished special attention on the youngest and prettiest of these women. He once hired two barely sober young AA members as secretaries, despite the fact neither could type or take dictation. His motives became clear when he chaired a meeting that week with either woman beside him, his hands fondling their legs openly for all to see. This display of power and dominance came at the expense of the women he used.
After this had been going on for some time, Founder’s Watch Committee was formed by other AA leadership, to watch Bill at meetings lest he damage the reputation of the group.
“People were delegated to keep track of Bill during the socializing that usually accompanies AA functions. When they observed a certain gleam in his eye, they would tactfully stear Bill off in one direction and the dewy-eyed newcomer in another.”
– Bill W., A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, by Francis Hartigan, via Orange Papers
So Bill would shamelessly pursue newcomers with little sobriety who were counting on him and his miracle program, and use them to display his power. AA staff would smooth things over, cover things up, and otherwise protect the image of the group and its leader. No one was looking out for the women he preyed on. No one valued their sobriety or emotional well being.
One key feature of cults is protecting the interests of the group over the welfare of its members and AA is no exception. In the next installment we will examine how Bill’s sexist behavior still plays out in Steps groups today in the form of “thirteenth stepping”. Tomorrow I hope to introduce Bill’s advice to wives and the formation of Al-Anon. Stay tuned for more.