If you had a problem with alcohol in the late 1960s or 1970s you might be quietly approached by someone who said they were "a friend of Bill W." Bill Wilson was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and those who had been through his program identified themselves as “a friend of Bill W.”
To be a friend of Bill W. meant you understood certain principles, such as asking forgiveness of the people you’d harmed, and turning your life over to a higher power. One of my good friends became a “friend of Bill W.” before I met him and remains one of the finest people I know. He sometimes talks about how much AA means to him and how he has gone onto sponsor other people to become "a friend of Bill W.” But not a lot. Being "a friend of Bill W.” also means being humble, regardless of the number of people you may have helped.
The other day I joined a gym. I haven’t belonged to a gym for years, but for me it’s the best way to exercise. I know others can be diligent and throw their jogging shoes on and run out the door, but that just isn’t me. I need a gym.
And since it had been more than a decade since I’d lifted a weight I paid for a couple sessions with a trainer. The beefy trainer in his early twenties seemed as if he lived a life light years away from my concerns. In the midst of setting up a work-out routine he asked me about my hobbies, and I mentioned that I wrote for a web-newspaper on autism because I have a daughter with the disorder.
“Do you know Jenny McCarthy?” he quickly asked.
I told him I hadn’t actually had the pleasure of meeting her, but she also occasionally wrote for Age of Autism, in addition to her books and television appearances. Then I asked how he knew about her.
He went onto explain he had several cousins with autism and their parents were avid followers of Jenny. And it struck me then that Jenny McCarthy has become our common touchstone, just as Bill W. was to a generation of people struggling with addiction problems. Like alcoholics struggling to recover in the 1960s and 1970s we're still something of an underground movement, but Jenny is our code word.
I didn’t have to explain about the role of vaccines in autism, the raging debates, the “gene” studies which reveal less the more you examine them, and how we believe medical authorities are concealing vast amounts of information like the Vaccine Safety Database. My trainer knew. He knew Jenny.
And maybe that's been Jenny’s greatest contribution. You need only become familiar with her writings and public appearances to be in on the conversation. She has done so much of the education for us. We just need to continue that conversation.
When I go back I'm sure I'll have more conversations with my trainer about his cousins with autism and ways to possibly help them. I'd been looking for something of a break in going to the gym, but it doesn't seem like that's my destiny. The demands of the epidemic intrude even as I'm struggling to fit into a pair of size 34 jeans. And in the helping tradition of Bill W. it's the only response I could give.
In the future maybe the question won’t be “Do you know Jenny McCarthy?”, but are you "a friend of Jenny?”
Kent Heckenlively is the Legal Editor of Age of Autism