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The documentary film Bill W. tells the story of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder William G. Wilson.

That shape am I

Some people start life, William James tells us, “with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over.” James himself was the latter sort, a chronic sufferer who identified with the “sick souls” he describes in The Varieties of Religious Experience. His diary entries speak of a time in the late 1860s when he “about touched bottom.” When he saw a catatonic patient, James’s identification was instant and visceral: “That shape am I, I felt, potentially. Nothing that I possess can defend me against that fate, if the hour for it should strike for me as it struck for him.” The experience led James to conclude in Varieties, “Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these.”

 

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