Alcoholism as a Family Disease in William Borchert’s "How I Became My Father… A Drunk"

Monday, October 24, 2016
Author: 
Michael Rass

Many people in the 12 Step community have seen the Hallmark film "My Name Is Bill W." which tells the story of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-founder Bill Wilson. Last fall, the film’s screenwriter, William G. Borchert, published a memoir about his own struggle with alcoholism and his successful recovery. Borchert’s "How I Became My Father … A Drunk" powerfully illustrates the impact of genetic predisposition in alcohol use disorders. The book details how young Borchert grew up in New York City in a household with an alcoholic father. Borchert recalls horrendous incidents caused by the alcohol abuse of his father William Henry Borchert. Once, Borchert, Sr. caused a car accident while driving under the influence with his wife and children in the car. In another episode, Ruth Borchert (Bill’s mother) almost died of acute appendicitis while her husband was out drinking.

Alcohol abuse was everywhere in the Borchert family. Three of his father’s four brothers were alcoholics, Borchert recalls in the book. Two of his own nine children are in recovery as well. In the beginning, "How I Became My Father" takes us back in time to the 1930s and 40s when alcoholism was little understood and treatment was very limited. The term “alcoholic” was reserved for “Bowery derelicts” in those days, says Borchert. “Back then, people were not aware that it was a disease.”

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “many scientific studies, including research conducted among twins and children of alcoholics, have shown that genetic factors influence alcoholism. These findings show that children of alcoholics are about four times more likely than the general population to develop alcohol problems.”

Traumatized by the inability of his father to control his obsession with alcohol, and plagued by his own low self-esteem, Bill Borchert, Jr. eventually became an alcoholic himself. Desperate not to repeat the mistakes of his father, Bill became a successful journalist at a fairly young age, covering stories for the The New York Journal-American, an important daily in the 1950s and 1960s.

Unfortunately, the job very often involved frequenting bars where Bill, Jr. downed many shots and beers with colleagues and potential sources. He felt that alcohol was oiling the hinges. “It took away my feelings of low self-esteem and added a great deal of bravado in its place.”

The trap was set and Bill’s “solemn oath that he would never become anything like his father was flushed right down the toilet.” After a car crash caused by drunk driving, Bill’s mother implored him “Please, don’t become like your father, Billy!” It didn’t make a difference. Bill felt he had become powerless over alcohol. The low self-esteem was beginning to turn into hopelessness.

“The more you drink, the worse it gets,” he told this writer. “You begin to call yourself all kinds of names, you think you are an absolute loser. You become a totally negative person, and when you are a totally negative person what is there to hope for?”

Bill’s marriage to Bernadette began to go through the same ups and downs as his parents’ relationship with the women trying to get their husbands to quit drinking.

For Borchert, addiction is a threefold disease with physical, mental, and spiritual aspects. “The biggest part of the disease is when you lose your spirit — it becomes a spiritual malady,” he told me.

“Addiction is a tough beast to tame. It wants to kill you,” he writes in his memoir. After contemplating suicide, Bill joined a 12-Step program to get sober. The fellowship of other alcoholics was crucial for Borchert’s recovery. “You need guidance from your Higher Power, you can’t do it alone. And you need guidance from your sponsor and guidance from the group,” says Borchert.

After hitting bottom in 1962 and starting down the path of recovery, Bill became a partner in an independent film production company. In the 1970s, Artists Entertainment Complex produced box office hits like “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”, both starring Al Pacino.

Bill's father eventually achieved recovery through a 12-Step program as well and the two reconciled before William Borchert, Sr. died in 1982.

Borchert, Jr. continued his success in the movie business. He wrote the script for the acclaimed television film "My Name Is Bill W." starring James Woods, JoBeth Williams and James Garner. James Woods won an Emmy for his portrayal of Wilson while Borchert’s script was nominated for an Emmy. Borchert’s work was part of the 12th Step which calls for carrying the message to fellow alcoholics.

“The perception of the disease of addiction has improved over the years,” he says. When Borchert was in active addiction, “addicts were hidden away in the basement". Today, there’s more knowledge and understanding and therefore more acceptance.

“Recovery is possible and absolutely wonderful,” says Borchert. But it’s not easy. “For many people, meetings could be enough but there are at least ten percent of addicts who need residential treatment,” he says. But it’s absolutely worth it. “You find a life beyond your wildest dreams.”

Information about the book can be found at williamborchert.com