Making the Pilgrimage to AA’s Mecca

Judging from last weekend’s weather, God is definitely in Al-Anon. Heavy rain lifted just in time for 300 people to celebrate the annual Al-Anon and Alcoholics Anonymous picnic at Stepping Stones, the clapboard house in the  Westchester County, NY, woods where Bill and Lois Wilson lived for 30 years until his death in 1971.

Stepping Stones is Al-Anon and AA’s famed country house. Al-Anon, the program for Alcoholics’ wives and families, was officially begun here in 1951, at Lois Wilson’s desk on the second floor of the house looking out on the apple trees she and Bill gave each other as Easter gifts. Here in “Wit’s End,” a cinderblock shack that he built just uphill from the house, Bill wrote The Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions in 1952. He also wrote the resolution that turned over AA to its members in 1955. In the house’s high-ceilinged central room Bill spoke to newcomers and gathered with other sober alcoholics; he played the cello, used the Ouija board and drank coffee in the little kitchen at the back.

The first Stepping Stones annual picnic was in June 1951; both Lois and Bill loved to entertain, although money was scarce and Stepping Stones, in Bedford Hills, is an hour-long commute from New York City.

Although there is plenty of controversy in AA, current recovery disagreements were put aside for one mellow afternoon.

At this year’s picnic, where the food was BYO, a majority of the pilgrims were families, mostly white, a smattering of oldsters, kids, young couples; tattoos, T-shirts and not a few size-14 dressed. Some came from as far away as Virginia and California. We all sprawled on the grass to hear speakers—both professionals and civilians—testify to the historic spirit of the place and the lifesaving effects of the organizations. If they were short on personal details characteristic of meeting shares, they were long on gratitude. There was no press coverage; I was perceived as just another recovering AA member. I recognized no one from Manhattan, where I live and have met hundreds of people in AA over the years.

An Al-Ateen speaker talked about how the program brought clarity and growth to her around 40 years ago when she was a confused, ignored 10-year-old. AA speaker Stephanie O. told the crowd that she had 18 years in Al-Anon before she realized that she was an alcoholic and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “The spirit of Lois makes it all work out,” said Stepping Stones executive director Annah Perch.

Indeed although there is plenty of controversy in AA as anyone who has gone to a business meeting can attest, current recovery disagreements—about the costs and benefits of anonymity, about whether drug addiction stories should dominate AA meetings, about whether the documentary, Bill W., which is showing in theaters nationwide right now, is an historical achievement or an exploitation of AA—were put aside for one mellow afternoon. (But sadly, there are no photos for publication, given the anonymity rule.)

The  Japanese dogwood in front of the house is taller, but otherwise the place looks much as it did when Bill and Lois happened to drop by in March 1941. Last weekend, as the sun washed the bucolic scene, I ran into Stepping Stones’ previous director, Eileen Giuliani. Eileen was my guide when I was working in the Stepping Stones archives, writing Bill Wilson’s biography, My Name is Bill W., begun in 1999 with a piece in Time magazine naming Bill as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Eileen found a toboggan for my son in the winter, and he whooped down the steep hill below the house as I scoured the indexed folders of Bill’s journals and correspondence. In the summer the kids played on the grass while I did research. Now she and Annah  Perch compared notes and decided the picnic was a hit.

When they first saw Stepping Stones in 1941, Bill and Lois were literally homeless—because of Bill’s drinking they had lost Lois’ family house in Brooklyn Heights, and they had been “visiting” friends for almost two years before squatting  in a room above the AA Clubhouse on 24th Street in New York City, a tiny space for Wilson whose height was often a problem. “We painted the walls and curtained two orange crates to use as dressers,” Lois wrote in her memoir, Lois Remembers. “From an old friend we bought a bed without a footboard, so Bill could hang his feet out. We had to crawl over the bed to reach our clothes, which hung on hooks on the wall.”

AA, however, was thriving. In February a reporter named Jack Alexander had  written a flattering, thorough piece about AA in the Saturday Evening Post and a year earlier John D. Rockefeller, Jr., had given an AA dinner at New York City’s Union Club, which had resulted in only modest financial help but a huge boost in confidence.

In Wit’s End, people from as far away as California took photos of themselves sitting in Bill Wilson’s desk chair.

An AA friend had mentioned that she would like to sell Bill and Lois her empty summer house in Bedford Hills, but the idea seemed absurd to two people who were all but bankrupt and who could barely pay the $20 a month to keep their furniture in storage. One day the Wilsons were visiting in nearby Chappaqua and decided to drive over and look at “the famous house, just out of curiosity,” Lois writes. The place was locked, so Bill broke in through the back window; as soon as he saw the big room and great stone fireplace dominating the interior, he knew they had to live there. It reminded him of East Dorset, Vermont, where he had grown up, and its seclusion appealed to him—he had had a taste of being famous and he didn’t like it.

The place had no furnace, a small water pump and unpainted rooms. They begged and borrowed the $6,500 price divided into $40-a-month low-interest payments, bought a second-hand car for $30 and within a month moved to the house they first called Bil-Lo’s Break and later named after its many steps up from the garage to the house.

Last Saturday, the speakers stood near the apple trees while the crowd spread out on the grass and up the hill. In Wit’s End, people took photos of themselves sitting in Bill Wilson’s desk chair under the letter from the great pioneering psychologist Carl Jung praising AA that is framed on the wall. As uneventful as the day was (what would you expect at picnic?), it felt great to be there, surrounded by a feeling of generosity, affection and shared struggle. I wandered around and thought  about Bill, how he would work in the garden or sit in a lawn chair and read or walk through the woods down to the station. I was delighted to relive the time in my life when my kids were young and I was involved with Bill in that love-affair way that biography entails.

Undeterred by expenses, hard work or even death, Bill and Lois are still entertaining their friends.

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