Virus imperils AA co-founder’s birthplace, a virtual shrine

Virus imperils AA co-founder’s birthplace, a virtual shrine

EAST DORSET, Vt. — The shrinelike birthplace of one of the two Vermont natives who founded Alcoholics Anonymous is in danger of closing, another victim of the restrictions made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic.

The shutdown from March until midsummer meant no people could stay in rooms in the hotel where AA co-founder Bill Wilson, who according to the organization’s lore, was “born behind the bar” in 1895.

“The house is a symbol of hope. It’s a symbol of humanity. It’s a symbol of our commonality, and it’s a place to feel it, touch it, smell it, experience it,” said Dr. Andrea Barthwell, a former official in the Office of National Drug Control Policy who visited Wilson House in 2003 while promoting an effort of the George W. Bush administration to help people fight addiction.

As someone in recovery, Barthwell said, walking the halls of the Wilson House had a profound impact.

“It would be an incredible loss to have that go down because of COVID,” she said. “COVID has destroyed enough.”

The pandemic shutdown meant recovery groups couldn’t rent the East Dorset hotel for seminars, and the local Alcoholics Anonymous groups that frequently attracted people from nearby states or even farther couldn’t use the meeting rooms.

AA memorabilia festoons the largest meeting room in Wilson House, a hotel built in the mid-1800s. There’s the 1999 New Hampshire license plate ODAAT — for the organization’s slogan, “One day at a time.” There’s BIGBOOK from New Jersey, GRACEAA from New York and YESICAN from Nebraska.

Elsewhere in the house is a first edition of 1939’s “Alcoholics Anonymous,” frequently referred to as the Big Book, written by Wilson, which has now been printed an estimated 35 million times. There is a light that is never extinguished in the room where Wilson was born.

AA works by having recovered alcoholics collaborate personally with people who have not yet recovered. Before the pandemic, the anonymous meetings where people frequently give only their first names were held in most communities of any size most every day.

While people who have recovered with the help of AA swear by it, there is a lack of scientific consensus about its effectiveness as a treatment method. Barthwell said that is largely because AA won’t affiliate with any organizations to be studied and because people who use AA are self-selectors, so there can be no randomized, placebo-controlled study.

The Wilson House is a non-profit organization that is legally separate from Alcoholics Anonymous, but it gets most of its income from people who stay in the house and who came to attend one of the seminars, or from the fees or donations from the groups that use it.

Now meetings are being held again at the Wilson House, but distancing requirements mean the crowds are half the size they were, and the weekend seminars that help fill the 14 hotel rooms have been cancelled.

The organization did take advantage of state and federal relief grants, but they’re still facing a $275,000 shortfall for this year’s $500,000 budget.

Wilson House Executive Director Berta Maginniss doesn’t know what will happen next year.

“At some point, there has to be a decision,” she said.

While Wilson was born in the house that bears his name, he was raised by his grandparents in a house nearby that is also owned by the non-profit. After leaving Vermont, Wilson went on to become a New York businessman.

He struggled with alcohol over the years, becoming, as Wilson House Archivist Shawn Harrington put it, “a hopeless drunk,” until an old drinking buddy who had found sobriety helped him stop drinking.

Wilson was about six months sober in mid-1935 and struggling to maintain it when he visited Akron, Ohio, on a business trip. On Mother’s Day, he met fellow Vermont native Dr. Robert Smith, who was struggling to quit drinking.

Wilson was there June 10 when Smith had his last drink, considered the founding of AA.

Wilson later came up with the 12 steps that form the foundation of AA and an estimated 200 other programs, such as Al-Anon, Debtors Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, that have spun off from it.

Smith died in 1950 and Wilson in 1971. The building where Wilson was born declined until was purchased in 1986 by a friend of the movement, who renovated it and reopened it in 1988.

The Wilson House does not advertise to attract guests, and only a small sign hangs over the main entrance to identify the building.

Lindsey Harty, the Wilson House director of development and someone who is in recovery, said people come from across the world to visit.

“I’ve cried with people and held them in the moment because coming here and being in the presence of Bill’s spirit, you feel healed and you feel whole,” Harty said. “And for people in recovery, particularly new in recovery, feeling whole again is the world. It’s everything.”

Wilson Ring, The Associated Press

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