I saw a terrific play the other day, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is tricky material for a general audience, as I know, since my own first mystery has a recovering alcoholic protagonist. In the course of selling it, I found the theme of alcoholism acted as a kind of litmus test for agents and editors who read it. And I’m still waiting with some apprehension to see how mystery lovers receive it when it comes out next year. So I was heartened by the enthusiastic reception the play got from a mixed audience. The New York Times called it “an insightful new play,” and the New Yorker said it “paints an endearing portrait of friendship and human weakness with warm humor.” I know the audience was mixed because when Robert Krakovski as Bill Wilson spoke the opening line, “My name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic,” about half the audience chorused, “Hi, Bill,” immediately getting it that we were in an AA meeting.
For those who don’t know the story, Bill Wilson was a stockbroker with a big ego and a bigger alcohol problem whose last-ditch attempt to stop drinking before it killed him led to a meeting with Bob Smith, a surgeon and equally hopeless drunk, in Akron, Ohio in 1935. After having tried everything, including religion, the two men found that talking to another alcoholic—someone who’d been there too—made it possible to stay sober for just one day, and then another and another.
They made every mistake in the book, taking drunks into their homes, lending them money, and overselling their method instead of listening, while their long-suffering wives wondered if the remedy didn’t leave them as lonely and overburdened as the alcoholism had. But it worked. Two men in Akron in 1935 have become a fellowship of more than two million worldwide.
What was then deeply stigmatized as an incurable moral weakness has become understood as a chronic but treatable disease. The success of AA has led not only to additional self-help programs for those suffering from a variety of addictive disorders and those who love them but also to effective professional treatment: counseling, therapy, and addiction medicine.
It’s a small world. I know of playwright Janet Surrey as a fellow addiction professional and feminist psychologist. (Her coauthor and husband, Stephen Bergman, is a highly regarded novelist and playwright under the pseudonym Samuel Shem.) And I once shook Lois Wilson’s hand, when she was a frail but still feisty little old lady of 93. Dr. Bob, the older of the two men, went to medical school in 1898, to give an idea of the time span involved. I could have chosen a lot less risky theme for my mysteries, but I write about recovery from alcoholism because it’s a life-changing experience. I have seen this transformation many times, and it is always inspiring—awesome in the true sense of the word. At some point in the play, Bill and Dr. Bob are accused of calling everything a miracle. I don’t blame them. I’d say recovery is a miracle every time.