Stepping Stones – the Historic Home of Bill and Lois Wilson

 

 

Stepping Stones is the historic home of Bill and Lois Wilson, who lived in the house from 1941 until their deaths in 1971 and 1988, respectively. Bill Wilson was a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and the author of four books, including Alcoholics Anonymous (1939). In Alcoholics Anonymous, aka “the Big Book”, Wilson disseminated the idea of alcoholism as an illness and provided a program - the 12 Steps - for treating alcoholism and maintaining sobriety. The 12 Steps and AA enabled, and continue to enable, millions of people around the world to achieve and sustain lasting sobriety and helped reshape the public’s perception of alcoholics.

 

Lois Wilson was the co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups, the self-help group for family members of alcoholics and the founder of Alateen, a group for the children of alcoholics. Al-Anon and Alateen have also grown to reach international membership, with chapters in 115 countries.

 

Bill Wilson and the Founding of Alcoholics Anonymous

 

Bill Wilson (1895-1971) was one of the two founders of AA. His personal experiences and leadership were critical to the success of the organization. After years of severe drinking and numerous failed attempts to stop, Bill was considered to be a hopeless alcoholic. He tried spiritual groups and detoxing in hospitals, but inevitably returned to drinking. His wife was told he would likely die or have to be committed to an asylum. While in a private hospital, he had a spiritual experience that removed his compulsion to drink. His experience is reflected in the second of the 12 steps, acknowledgement of a higher power.

 
Wilson also realized that the responsibility of working with other recovering alcoholics was necessary to his staying sober. He developed this practice as a fundamental tenet of AA after an incident in 1935. He had been sober for several months, but a failed business meeting led him to yearn for a drink. Instead of succumbing, he found a directory of churches and began calling and asking if someone could put him in touch with other alcoholics. Eventually he was introduced to Dr. Robert Smith, known as Dr. Bob. During their ongoing friendship, Bill gave encouragement to Dr. Bob as he struggled to stay sober. This helped Bill maintain his own commitment to sobriety, and the concepts of sponsorship and service were established.

 

AA Takes Shape

 

June 10, 1935 was the date of Dr. Bob’s last drink and is regarded as day AA was founded. Every member of AA can trace his or her sponsorship back to Bill Wilson, the first sponsor. Wilson realized that only another alcoholic could truly understand the tangled emotions evoked by his debilitating ordeal. As Dr. Bob wrote, “He was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language.”([1]) Group meetings at which members shared their personal experiences demonstrated to alcoholics that they were not alone and that recovery was possible. AA meetings offered understanding and inspiration rather than the judgment and guilt that typically drove an alcoholic to seek comfort in alcohol. If a member did have a lapse and drink, it was seen as a setback rather than a failure.

 

The Big Book is Published

 

Bill Wilson anonymously authored four books on alcoholism: Alcoholics Anonymous (1939), Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1953), Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957), and The AA Way of Life.([2]) Alcoholics Anonymous, known as the Big Book, included the 12 Steps and numerous autobiographical stories contributed anonymously by recovering alcoholics. Wilson wrote the first eleven chapters and edited the autobiographical chapters. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions established the guidelines for AA that ensured its long-term success; these principles are still used by AA groups and the General Service Organization today.

 

Alcoholics Anonymous defined alcoholism as a disease of the body, mind, and spirit, and changed the public’s perception of alcoholics and alcoholism. Wilson did not invent this theory; the idea was developed by medical professionals as early as the eighteenth century and was explained to Bill by a psychiatrist.([3]) However, he was instrumental in spreading this theory through his writings and the organization he founded.

 

Before the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism was regarded as the result of a character defect or moral weakness.([4]) Groups such as the Oxford Group, a Christian reformist movement that Bill had joined while seeking a way to control his drinking, regarded use of alcohol as a sin; the remedy for alcoholism was to pray for forgiveness. Medicine offered little help as facilities were rare. Treatment meant drying out at a sanitarium for those who could afford it, or at a state mental hospital or jail for those who could not.([5]) This rarely resulted in permanent sobriety. As late as 1941, the popular press noted “it [alcoholism] remains one of the great unsolved public-health enigmas.”([6]) Public stigma and the lack of viable treatment options combined to prevent alcoholics from seeking help and embarking upon the path to recovery.

 

Alcoholics Anonymous offered an explanation of why alcoholics drank based upon unbiased scientific investigation rather than facile character judgments. It provided a practical treatment program and a community of support that has helped millions attain lasting sobriety. In 1951, the American Public Health Association presented the Lasker Award to AA “in recognition of its unique and highly successful approach to that age-old public health and social problem, alcoholism…In emphasizing alcoholism as an illness, the social stigma associated with this condition is being blotted out…”([7]) As of the 2005, more than 25 million copies of Alcoholics Anonymous had been sold.

 

Lois Wilson and the Founding of Al-Anon Family Groups

 

Lois Wilson (1891-1988) founded Al-Anon Family Groups for the family members of alcoholics. In the early days of AA family members (typically wives, as most AA’s member were men) attended AA meetings with the alcoholic. This approach helped wives support their husbands, but did not provide a forum for wives to share their own experiences and feelings. By 1940 Lois began organizing separate meetings that became known as “Family Group Meetings.” Lois understood first-hand that friends and family members of alcoholics have to deal with their own issues related to the alcoholism and sobriety of their loved ones. She advocated the use of an adapted version of AA’s 12 Steps to help resolve them.

 

In 1951 Lois and her friend Anne B. began an effort to formally coordinate the numerous Family Groups across the country. The Central Clearing House, as it was called, was initiated at Stepping Stones and the library served as its headquarters for the first year. The Clearing House provided assistance, information, and materials for the groups. Eventually, the Clearing House became known as Al-Anon Family Groups. In 1957 Lois organized Alateen for the children of alcoholic parents. Both of these groups grew to include chapters around the world.

 

The Wilsons' Influence

 

The Wilsons’ influence on twentieth-century society is immeasurable. The 12 Steps remain the most successful means of treating alcoholism and are the central treatment program in most hospitals and clinics. AA does not keep official membership lists; however, in 2007 the General Service Office estimated the organization’s international membership at 2,085,125 members ([8]). A 2002 report calculated that 51,245 groups with 1,160,651 members existed in the United States alone.([9]) More than 200 other groups that address issues as varied as drug addiction, gambling, overeating, and surviving incest have subsequently adopted the 12 Steps. In 1990 Life magazine named Bill W. one of the 100 most important Americans of the 20th century, and in 1999 Time magazine selected Bill W. as one of the 100 most influential people of the century.([10])

 

Al-Anon and Alateen have approximately 26,000 group meetings in 115 countries.([11]) In 1988 its membership was estimated to be over 500,000.

 

Moving to Stepping Stones

 

Stepping Stones was to become the Wilsons’ first and only real home, and the place where they produced many of their important contributions.([12]) During the first 23 years after their marriage in 1918, the couple moved numerous times. They spent much time traveling, as part of Lois’ valiant efforts to keep Bill away from alcohol, and lived in a series of apartments in Brooklyn, New York and Canada. During the 1930s, both the Great Depression and Bill’s drinking worsened and he was unable to find regular employment. The couple moved into Lois’ girlhood home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. In 1939 the bank foreclosed on the house and the Wilsons were evicted. They spent 1939 and 1940 as the guests of relatives and AA friends, or living in the AA Clubhouse.

 

During that period they relocated, by Lois’ count, 51 times.([13]) Through the help of an acquaintance, Bill and Lois purchased and moved into Stepping Stones in Bedford Hills, New York in April 1941.([14]) Bill lived at Stepping Stones until his death in 1971 and Lois until her death in 1988. Many of Bill’s writings, including three of his four books, were written in his Studio behind the Main House. He devised and wrote the 12 Traditions - the framework that ensured AA’s long-term success - in the Studio. Lois founded Al-Anon Family Groups in the library of the Main House in 1951.

 

Many of the Wilsons' friends and acquaintances through their work with AA and Al-Anon visited or stayed with them at Stepping Stones. Knowing the importance of Stepping Stones to the recovery community, Lois built a separate building in the early 1980s to house an archives, office, and apartment. She made provisions for the property to be turned over, upon her death, to the Stepping Stones Foundation, which operates it as a museum. People associated with AA and other 12 Step programs from all over the world come to Stepping Stones to pay homage to these two remarkable people.  

 

Stepping Stones is listed on the New York State and national Registers of Historic Places, and the New York State Women’s Heritage Trail. The house is operated as a museum that is open to visitors Monday-Saturday at 1pm with a reservation and all other times by special appointment.

 

Along with offering tours and special events at the historic site, The Stepping Stones Foundation’s operational priority is preserving the contents of the historic archives, including more than 10,000 objects, 2,500 textiles, 5,000 written materials, 1,000 photos, and other ephemera. In addition, Stepping Stones offers educational programming to bring the story of Bill and Lois Wilson to the public.

 

 

                        Bibliography

 

Archives Scrapbooks, Vol. 1 - 1939-1942, Vol. 2 - 1943. Offset reproductions of newspaper clippings about AA. 18 1/2" x 16 1/2".

 

                 Alexander, Jack. “Alcoholics Anonymous: Freed Slaves of Drink, Now They Free Others.” Saturday Evening Post (March 1941): 59-65.

 

"Bill W.” Life, vol. 13, no. 12 (Fall 1990): 66. 

 

Cheever, Susan. “The Healer Bill W.” Time. (June 14, 1999): 201-204.

 

Kurtz, Ernest. A.A.: The Story. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.

 

Pace, Eric. “Lois Burnham Wilson, a Founder of Al-Anon Groups, is Dead at 97.” New York Times (October 6, 1988): B26.

 

Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and How the A.A. Message Reached the World. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

 

Stevens, John W. “Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous Dies.” New York Times (January 26, 1971): A1.

 

Thomsen, Robert. Bill W. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Foundation, 1999.

 

Wilson, Lois. Lois Remembers: Memoirs of the Co-Founder of Al-Anon and Wife of the Co-Founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. New York: Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1987.

 

Wilson, William G. A.A. Comes of Age. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc.: New York, 1977.

 

 

www.al-anon.org,    www.alcoholics-anonymous.org,     www.steppingstones.org

 



[1]  Alcoholics Anonymous (New York:  Alcoholics Anonymous World Service, 2001) p. 180.

[2]  New York Times obituary.

[3]  Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1790

[4]  Lois Wilson, Lois Remembers (New York:  Al-Anon Family Groups Headquarters, 1987) p. 73.

[5]  Lois Wilson, p. 145.

[6]  Jack Alexander, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” Saturday Evening Post, p. 9.

[7]  Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 571.

[10]  Susan Cheever, “The Healer Bill W,”  Time, June 14, 1999, p. 201-204.

[12]  Thomsen, p. 284.

[13]  Lois Wilson, p. 126.

[14]  Lois Wilson, p. 134.