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Hallmark drama profiles Al-Anon founder

April 20, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Screenwriter William Borchert’s portrayal of Lois Wilson to air Sunday evening on CBS

With over 24,000 groups across the world, Al-Anon has become an international support tool for families and friends of alcoholics since its beginning in 1951. But the story of its founder—Lois Wilson, the wife of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson—is little known.

Thankfully, that will all change this weekend when Hallmark’s latest film in its Hall of Fame series, The Lois Wilson Story: When Love Is Not Enough, debuts on CBS. Lois’ story is told by personal friend William Borchert, who co-wrote the screenplay based upon his book by the same name. He also wrote the screenplay for the Emmy-winning film My Name is Bill W.

“This is an incredible movie about the woman who really is responsible for everything; without Lois Wilson there would have been no AA, because there would have been no Bill Wilson—he would have died,” Borchert says. “Finally, Lois Wilson is getting her due and the world is coming to know what she has done for millions and millions of families.”

Borchert became acquainted with Wilson after his wife met her at a local picnic. Living not far away from her Bedford Hills, N.Y. home, Borchert paid a visit to Wilson. “She showed me around the house and upstairs in her home, she had photographs and replicas and all kinds of awards she and Bill Wilson got from traveling the world,” Borchert recalls. “What I saw was a fantastic movie laid out in front of me.”

William Borchert walks Lois Wilson to the podium to address guests at an Al-Anon family picnic in 1986. Photo from The Stepping Stones Foundation.

Wilson was skeptical at first, but Borchert’s wife assured her of his writing talents. “I then spent a great deal of time with her with a tape recorder,” he says. “She shared her whole life with me.” From these conversations with Wilson, as well as meetings with friends of Bill Wilson, Borchert developed the screenplay for My Name is Bill W. “But I felt bad because there wasn’t time in the movie to tell much of Lois’ story, which was extraordinarily important because she co-founded Al-Anon,” he adds.

Wilson’s anonymous status, as required by Al-Anon tradition, prevented Borchert from producing a film exclusively about her and her efforts in the recovery community. But after her death in 1988, he decided to put all of his archived material to good use and write her biography, which would eventually be published by Hazelden Publishing in 2005.

The basis of Borchert’s story is the deep bond between Bill and Lois Wilson—but the real message lies in the fact that this love is not enough to help Bill overcome his alcoholism. “I believe this could be a very important support tool because it so clearly shows how alcoholism develops in a family and how Lois didn’t understand what was going on,” Borchert says. “She thought that her love for him would be enough to cure him and get him to stop drinking. A lot of families believe that—how often have we heard a wife say to her husband, ‘If you really loved me, you wouldn’t drink like that.’”

Even after Bill Wilson achieved recovery through the co-founding of AA and the 12 Steps alongside Dr. Bob, Lois Wilson continued to be affected by his disease. It was at this point in Bill’s recovery, in fact, that Lois was most distraught. “She thought once he stopped drinking—and this is what families go through, too—everything would be fine,” Borchert says. “But when he got sober, she found that she was angry, resentful, and couldn’t understand why. She also had lost a lot of her spirituality; she had stopped praying, she had given up hope, and she didn’t realize any of this until he got sober.”

After an argument during one of Bill’s AA meetings at their home, Wilson stepped outside to clear her head and noticed a line of cars outside her house—each with a woman waiting inside. “She found out that these women had been driving their husbands to the meetings to make sure they got there and were driving them home to make sure they got home sober,” Borchert says. “So she invited these ladies into her kitchen for a cup of tea, and as they sat around the kitchen table talking, she began to hear from them what she was feeling inside of herself—despair, hopelessness, resentment, anger.”

After this impromptu meeting, Wilson “adapted” the 12 Steps that her husband had written to guide his recovery from alcoholism to fit with her own journey toward recovery. These adapted 12 Steps would become the foundation of Al-Anon, “a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength, and hope in order to solve their common problems.”

Borchert is a recovering alcoholic himself, having been sober for 48 years, and he knows firsthand how widely the effects of alcoholism are felt. “There are somewhere around 35 to 40 million alcoholics in the U.S. alone, and each one of them affects at least five to seven other people. So that means there’s over 200 million people in this country impacted by the disease of alcoholism and so many of them don’t know what to do or where to go,” he says. “Lois Wilson shows the way. She had the answers, and it comes across in this movie. She found her way out and started a 12-Step program to help families do the same thing.”

Aside from being a support tool for families of those in recovery, Borchert hopes that his films will also help raise awareness of alcoholism and other addictions as chronic diseases. “It’s not a moral lapse and it’s not a criminal thing—it’s an actual disease,” he says. “The American Medical Association said that back in 1951, but there is still a stigma attached to it and people still look upon alcohol and drug addicts as weak-willed or criminal or bad because it’s a difficult disease to understand.”