TV Review: When Love Is Not Enough – The Lois Wilson Story

Anyone who’s heard of Alcoholics Anonymous knows the name of Bill W., one of the co-founders of the organization, along with Dr. Bob. But the story of Bill W. or, better yet, the story of Lois Wilson, Bill’s wife, is little known. But watch the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie – When Love Is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story – and you can’t but help to marvel at the grit, determination and love this woman had for a self-avowed drunk.

The movie, adapted from the book of the same name by William G. Borchert, is a moving look into the private life of this couple who, like millions of Americans, struggle daily with the effects of alcohol dependence and alcoholism. That it began back in 1918 and the world view and society are much changed today doesn’t matter. What hasn’t changed is the devastating damage alcoholism does to an addict and those closest to him or her. In this case, Lois, besides being the long-suffering wife of a falling-down drunk who repeatedly promised to quit and failed, was also Bill’s chief enabler.

This is not to cast blame on Lois, or for any spouse of an alcoholic, for that matter. It is just a reflection of the way things are. The natural tendency is to make excuses for the alcoholic, to deny that there is a problem, to believe the attempts at abstinence and the subsequent lies and relapses and capitulation into financial ruin, homelessness and emotional bankruptcy.
It’s nevertheless hard to look at Bill’s fall from prominence as a successful Wall Street investment broker. It’s even more difficult to watch Lois as her white knight turns into a lout. At least he never struck her – not that the movie portrays, anyway. Many wives of alcoholics aren’t so lucky.

The pattern of promises, relapse, and more promises followed by more relapses is just too disheartening. Three quarters of the film is devoted to this vicious cycle of addiction. Granted, the only alternative at that time was to check into a sanatorium (hospital) to get detoxified. You were morally deficient if you drank, and, then, it was Prohibition and drinking was against the law. Still, no law would stop Bill from getting his hands on booze. In no time at all, he was a man with a big problem. The guys at work were constantly hitting the sauce, but Bill seemed to wind up the worse for wear. Gradually, it got so bad that the superiors took notice. Bill was warned to clean up his act. He tried, but failed.

Then the great stock market crash occurred. Many investors blamed Bill for their losses. He felt a failure – and took to drinking even more. Inevitably, he lost his job. This gave him the excuse to dive even further into the bottle. By now, he was a hard-core alcoholic. Still, Lois stuck by his side, believing his promises to quit drinking. But it was just not to be.

Bill finally hit rock bottom, walked out and checked into a hospital. When Lois came to see him, he told her he had begged for God to help him get sober, and a bright light surrounded him. He’d quit for good this time. He knew what he had to do. Lois, wanting to believe, showers Bill with love. Always his helpmate, she vows to stand by him.

Finding a job, going to Cleveland for a few days, Bill doesn’t call Lois. She finally hears from him after four days and, to her astonishment, he’s sober. She had been afraid he’d gone on another binge, just as he’d done countless times before. Bill, excited, tells her about Dr. Bob, whom he met and the two started talking about drinking and their attempts to come clean. There’s a spark of hope in Bill’s voice, and he begs Lois to come to Cleveland to be with him, meet Dr. Bob and start a new life together.

In Cleveland, Dr. Bob and his wife welcome Bill and Lois into their home. The men really have something in common: At last they’ve each found someone who knows exactly what they’ve been going through. The two wives find the same kindred spirit. In the last 15 minutes of the movie, the beginning of what came to be called Alcoholics Anonymous is shown – as well as the start of Al-Anon for the wives of the alcoholics. Bill W. and Dr. Bob started A.A., and Lois started Al-Anon. This, actually, is the best part of the film, and it would perhaps be much better if more time had been devoted to this. But there are other films for that.
Still, the portrayals are very realistic – too much so, some may say. The acting by Winona Ryder as Lois and Barry Pepper as Bill is spot on, although a bit too painful for anyone who’s gone through the same circumstances. If it helps to shed light on alcoholism and how it affects those closest to us – without being too close to home (the distance of time allowing the viewer to separate it from today, just for comfort, if nothing else) – then that’s a good thing.

The movie is available on DVD from Hallmark.com, where you can also purchase the book, and find out more information on A.A., Al-Anon and other organizations that have helped millions of alcoholics and their families find their way into recovery.