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“When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story,” April 25, CBS
April 21st, 2010
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) – Millions of people around the world are familiar with the life story of Bill Wilson (1895-1971), the co-founder – together with Dr. Bob Smith – of the spiritually based recovery group Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, the organization’s meetings are often discreetly referred to as gatherings for “the friends of Bill W.”

Far fewer may be aware of the role played in Wilson’s long, torturous struggle against addiction by his tenaciously loyal wife, Lois (1891-1988), who herself founded the parallel organization Al-Anon to benefit those harmed by a loved one’s drinking problem.

Her achievements, and the story of the Wilsons’ remarkably resilient marriage, are chronicled in the 240th Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, “When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story.” This sensitive, though at times necessarily bleak, dramatization, which stars Winona Ryder in the title role, airs on CBS Sunday, April 25, 9-11 p.m.

Despite an initially successful career on Wall Street during the boom years of the 1920s, Bill Wilson (Barry Pepper) – a small town Vermonter who had married the self-described sophisticated New Yorker Lois Burnham in 1917 – fell rapidly and disastrously under the sway of his compulsion, a decline only accelerated by the onset of the Great Depression and the concurrent loss of his job.

As portrayed here, Bill’s downward spiral – unchecked by repeated promises of reform solemnly inscribed in the family Bible and even by a binge that almost proves fatal – leaves Lois hiding money from him and forced to sell or pawn more and more of their possessions. Though the script implicitly indicates her lifelong religious commitment, Lois eventually finds her seemingly unavailing prayers for her husband “turning to ashes in my mouth.”

Only when Bill himself, confined in a hospital and on the verge of complete despair, cries out to God for help and suddenly experiences the divine presence and a sense of release and freedom – as recounted here in a moving scene visually reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting – does his life begin to change. Now relying on God’s power, rather than his own, Bill achieves lasting sobriety and begins the ministry that would evolve into AA.

While enthusiastically supporting Bill’s newfound vocation, Lois discovers that her own unresolved emotions of resentment, inadequacy and guilt – she fears her inability to bear children may have contributed to Bill’s problem – are widely shared among the wives of the men Bill counsels. So Lois begins hosting simultaneous therapeutic discussions for them, leading to the birth of Al-Anon and Alateen.

As an exemplar of marital fidelity – she separates from Bill briefly, but relents in response to his anguished plea for help – and of religiously motivated outreach, Lois, subtly portrayed by Ryder as prim yet courageous, is a historical figure well deserving of this laudatory profile. Though its subject matter entails scenes of drunkenness and discord not appropriate for the most impressionable, this is otherwise uplifting and unproblematic programming.

Mulderig is on the staff of the USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting. More review online at

From April 23, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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