Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Bedford Hills

BEDFORD HILLS — Anyone who has ever loved a drunk knows how much a pledge to quit drinking is worth. But these are not ordinary broken promises. The quit-drinking oaths that a certain Bill Wilson swore to his wife 80 years ago on the family Bible are now considered so valuable to the Alcoholics Anonymous story and to American history in general that they can no longer be entrusted merely to safe storage here at the couple's historic home and grounds.

"Those archives are a national treasure," said Manhattan writer Susan Cheever, who used the archives extensively for her 2004 biography of Wilson. "AA is one of the most extraordinary things that has ever happened in our world, and he was one of the three or four most important men of the 20th century." A $175,000 campaign is under way to permanently protect the famous broken oaths and some 120,000 other writings of Wilson, the co-founder of AA, and his wife, Lois, the co-founder of the Al-Anon movement for families of alcoholics.

"In the grand scheme of things, these are priceless," said Annah Perch, executive director of the Stepping Stones Foundation, the nonprofit that manages the Wilson legacy. "The sooner this stuff goes off-site and becomes microfilmed and digitized, the sooner we will be safe from a natural disaster." The idea is not only to make duplicates of the original documents as insurance against fire or flood, but to create a digital archive and put it online. That would make the archive much more widely available than it is now. As it is today, scholars and authors must apply for access to the documents.

For everyone else, getting close to the first couple of recovery is restricted to a few items that were recently made available at a new Welcome Center on the Stepping Stones grounds. The listing of their Dutch Colonial home on the National Register of Historic Places helped raise the profile of their mission in the middle part of the last decade. But the real impact of the 40 years the couple lived locally continues to play out in the lives of recovering alcoholics and their families.

Wilson proclaimed alcoholism a disease three decades before the American Medical Association did. The 12-step recovery solution that Wilson and co-founder Dr. Bob Smith created reversed the historically held belief that hard drunks could not stay sober, and it became the standard treatment in U.S. hospitals and clinics. "It is the only way we have to deal with addiction, and we live in an age of addiction," said Cheever, whose memoir of her father, John Cheever, documented the writer's battle with alcohol. "Bill Wilson truly changed the way we think about ourselves." All the more reason to protect the archives, said filmmaker Kevin Hanlon.

"I think it is impossible to understand Bill Wilson's life without these remarkable archives," said Hanlon, who recently finished shooting in Bedford Hills for a documentary about Wilson. "It is a story that resonates for an awful lot of people who don't suffer from alcoholism or know people who are alcoholics, although it strikes me how few people there are who don't know someone who has struggled with alcohol."

About one-third of the archive collection has already been sent to the company doing the preservation work with $25,000 that has already been raised for the effort. "We had so much faith in our donor community in how they have responded to our needs in the past that we started the project without all of the money in hand," Perch said.

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