AA Remains Deep in Denial About Anonymity

By Susan Cheever 05/27/13

Two years ago I received some hostile reactions to my call for a debate about anonymity. Today I'm breaking my own. Why hide behind a wall of secrecy that betrays our wish to carry the word?

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My name is Susan, and I am an alcoholic. This is how I introduce myself in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, meetings that are comforting, enlightening, and have helped me stay away from a drink for more than two decades.

We are told that there are no rules in AA. “No AA [member] can compel another to do anything... Our 12 Steps…are suggestions,” explains Tradition One at the beginning of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, written by Bill Wilson and published in 1953.

But people love rules, and many have grown to hold AA to a sacred standard. Tradition 11 states, “We must always maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.” As a result of this “rule,” public statements by recovering alcoholics who are trying to juggle helpful confession with maintenance of their anonymity are often very confusing.

Even as AA members in the public eye are told to keep their AA membership secret, they are also told to do service: “You can’t keep it unless you give it away.” Sometimes these two directives collide. New York Mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s honest discussion of her alcoholism and bulimia in the press this month is a good example.

On the front page of The New York Times, and later in interviews at Barnard College, Quinn explained that she was an alcoholic, but that she had “moderated” her drinking, and that three years ago—“for health reasons”—she had decided to stop drinking altogether. Almost by definition, most alcoholics cannot permanently moderate their drinking and then glide to a graceful halt. Readers with a drinking problem might well have concluded that stopping is a matter of “deciding” on moderation as Quinn did.

When asked at Barnard if she goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Quinn did a deft sidestep. She pointed out that the second “A” in AA stands for “anonymity” and that she wanted to honor the Traditions of AA. In not talking about AA or her connection to it, Quinn maintained her own anonymity, and spared herself the punishment of being attacked by the shrieking self-appointed vigilantes who sometimes police AA’s Traditions. But she may also have failed to help people who could have followed her lead or been encouraged by her experience.

I respect Quinn’s decision, and that of anyone in the public eye who has to choose between being honest and honoring Tradition 11. It’s a hard decision to make. A few AA members, like Don Imus, Christopher Lawford and Patrick Kennedy, just tell the truth. Most members avoid the decision by using code words: They are “in recovery,” they “go to 12-step meetings,” they are “powerless over alcohol.” This use of language lets fellow AA members know that the speaker goes to AA meetings, but it doesn’t help people who don’t know the code—and who might benefit the most from an honest revelation. This is the path I have tried to follow—with many slips and slides—until today, with this column.

“Don’t break my anonymity,” people hissed at me. Others worried I couldn't stay sober if I didn’t obey the Traditions. 

Yet being honest when speaking to the public about our struggle with alcoholism, while also preserving our anonymity, is a far more complex path than it might first appear. By not being straightforward about our recovery, are we reinforcing the stigma that still shadows alcoholism? Doesn’t hiding our AA membership suggest that something about it is shameful? 

According to Tradition 11, I am allowed to say that I am in recovery and that I owe my recovery to a 12-step program. What I am not allowed to say in public is that I go to an AA meeting almost every day, that I work the 12 Steps, that I do service as a sponsor and at meetings, and that this has kept me sober and delivered a pretty happy life. Much of the time I am, to quote AA literature, “happy, joyous and free.” I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but on this subject I am not even supposed to speak for myself. I am not a leader in AA—I am a grateful follower—but my gratitude has not rendered me mindless. AA has taught me the beauties of humility and of obedience, but it has not excised my ability to question. 

Times change, even in Alcoholics Anonymous. My first meeting in 1975 would be almost unrecognizable today. Thirty years ago, most people in AA meetings were chain-smoking men. Now no one smokes and meetings are often predominantly female. At the end of the meeting there is a semi-compulsory handholding and chanting that would have seemed strange to the founders and early members.

Even the Traditions have been altered to fit in with the modern world. A desire to stop drinking is no longer the only requirement for AA membership, as Tradition Three says: Desire to stop debting, drugging or smoking also bring people into AA. These days, money and spirituality do mix in many people’s lives, despite the warning in Tradition Two that this is a bad idea. Although 12-step work—carrying the message to other alcoholics—is often freely given, it can also be had for a hefty price from thousands of alcoholism counselors and in hundreds of rehabilitation centers of all kinds. This is a far cry from the principles demonstrated in Bill Wilson’s story of how he turned down a badly needed job counseling alcoholics at Towns Hospital.

Yet two years ago, a few fellow writers/AA members and I suggested that we discuss changes in the second half of Tradition 11, which demands we do not break our anonymity. (My column for The Fix, "Is It Time to Take Anonymity Out of AA?" followed Clancy Martin's piece, "The Drunk's Club," in Harper's magazine, and was in turn followed by David Colman's piece, "Challenging the Second A in AA," in The New York TImes.) The outcry sounded like an explosion in Wombley’s Clapboard Factory. “Don’t break my anonymity,” people hissed at me in meetings—ignoring the fact that I was not suggesting breaking anyone’s anonymity. Other people said they were worried about me: How could I stay sober if I didn’t obey the Traditions? 

People in AA seem terrified of change. The book Alcoholics Anonymous, with its companion Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, are read and reread as if they were holy writ, rather than the writings of a group of failed automobile polish salesmen. Many AA members cling to the details of Alcoholics Anonymous as if letting go might get them drunk. Perhaps because the program has saved their lives, they don’t want to risk any kind of change—even though many changes have already happened. 

Anonymity is a powerful idea. From the Lone Ranger to Guy Fawkes to the Masons to Skull and Bones, the idea of a veiled identity has been both sexy and appealing. Anonymity can also keep you safe. Anonymity means you have a secret—and nothing is more fun than having a secret. People in AA call other drinkers “civilians.” We recognize one another by our jargon. “Are you a friend of Bill?” is our password. We have created a clubhouse mentality with our own codes, customs and rituals. 

Yet is the enchantment of being anonymous and keeping our AA lives secret getting in the way of making AA as open as possible to those who need it? When someone goes to an AA meeting they generally find an extraordinarily open and welcoming environment. What about the people who never make it because they don’t understand AA? Wouldn’t it help them to have examples of successful people in AA?

There is still a wall between people who are sober in AA and the many others outside of AA who can’t get sober or don’t know how to get sober. How can we help them if we don’t reveal ourselves? 

In Alcoholics Anonymous we are saved through service, but to speak in public about the salvation—without explaining the means of our salvation—often seems less like service and more like secrecy. If AA members are entitled to their own anonymity, shouldn't those of us who wish it be entitled to break our own anonymity, if we believe doing so can help others? 

Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

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Susan Cheever, a columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.