AA and Anonymity—What Would Bill W. Do?

By Susan Cheever 06/07/11

Long before it became an inviolable tradition, A.A.'s leaders interpreted anonymity in their own unique ways. As AA's most prolific historian reports, even the fellowship's founder struggled with the concept.

At an early A.A. meeting in 1942, some participants optedt to wear masks.

In 1954 A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson was offered an honorary degree from Yale University. Delighted, he took the offer to the trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation. But when trustee Archibald Roosevelt explained that his father, Theodore, had avoided personal honors, Bill knew what he had to do. After all, he had just defined anonymity in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions published the year before. “If I don’t take this, it will act as a terrific restraint on big shots and power seekers in Alcoholics Anonymous,” he wrote to his old friend Mark Whalon. “I’m declining for that reason only, not because I am so damn noble or anything.” Bill Wilson, who never graduated from college, refused a degree from Yale because he didn’t want to break his anonymity.

Personal anonymity at the public level, the aspect of anonymity that caused Bill Wilson to decline the Yale degree, is only one small fraction of what anonymity means in A.A. Mentioned in the eleventh tradition that urges recovering alcoholics to “maintain personal anonymity at the level of press radio and film,” it’s not about what happens in the rooms of A.A. It’s not about the principle of confidentiality and keeping other alcoholics’ names and stories to oneself. It’s not about the spiritual umbrella of anonymity that defines each recovering alcoholic, no matter how successful, as being just another drunk.

“If I don’t take this prize, it will act as a terrific restraint on big shots and power seekers in A.A.,” Bill Wilson said. “I’m declining for that reason only, not because I am so damn noble."

Another important A.A. principle is the idea of service to others outside A.A.  You can’t keep your sobriety unless you give it away, one slogan says. This principle is critical in our world where the public’s ignorance of addiction and treatment is appalling and disturbing. Many people still fail to understand alcoholism and its links to our health care crisis, and even more have no idea how treatment works or what happens when an individual recovers in A.A. They don’t know because people in A.A.  don’t tell them. Yet this ignorance is lethal. Alcoholics who don’t get treatment often die. So how can A.A. members who deal with the press, balance the obligation to educate and be of service with the obligation to preserve anonymity?

My recent column in The Fix on this subject and a subsequent piece in The New York Times have upset many A.A. members. A.A.'s own General Services Organization, which took over from the Alcoholic Foundation, even sent a letter to "our public media friends" requesting their "continued cooperation" in respecting the tradition of anonymity by not identifying people as A.A. members—no last names, no photographs. It seems as if merely asking the question whether it is time to redefine this one narrow aspect of anonymity is widely viewed as a wholesale attack on the entire organization. Readers who opposed even engaging the issue, even for the worthwhile goal of decreasing stigma, often express a kind of blind faith in the traditions of A.A., as if they were handed down on the Mosaic tablets. As furious at me as these readers may have been, their faith in A.A. moves me deeply, partly because it reflects the profound gratitude many of us feel to the organization, to Bill W. and to one another for our sobriety. In its rigidity and resistance to questioning, it also reflects an equally profound insecurity—a fear that rocking the boat could lead to the drowning of the entire crew. Still, I have confidence that A.A.—and even our own recoveries—is secure enough to withstand a little constructive criticism.

Since A.A.’s 1935 beginning, the idea of anonymity has been anything but rigid. Bill Wilson’s observation that perfection comes through trial and error is especially relevant when it comes to anonymity’s many changes. The first mention of anonymity in A.A. has nothing to do with self-protection or a response to the shame of being publicly identified. “It is important that we remain anonymous,” the founders wrote in the preface to Alcoholics Anonymous, “ because we are too few, at present, to handle the overwhelming number of personal appeals which may result from this publication. Being mostly business or professional folk, we could not well carry on our occupations in such an event.”

Bill Wilson’s friend Marty Mann broke her anonymity and Bill’s while raising money for what became the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependency. Mann’s attempt to educate the public about A.A. backfired in the short term—she slipped—but N.C.A.D.D. is now a thriving organization that helps many people. Hundreds of other A.A.-ers also broke their anonymity in the same spirit of public education. But by 1951, when Bill sat down in his small cinderblock shack on the hill above his house in Bedford Hills to write the Twelve and Twelve, the benefits of anonymity had grown larger and clearer in his mind.

Anonymity as described in the literature of A.A. has three parts: spirituality, community and personal identity, and public relations. They comprise a balancing act between A.A. members’ responsibility to help other alcoholics and their responsibility to the group and their own sobriety. “Our growth made it plain that we couldn’t be a secret society, but it was equally plain that we couldn’t be a vaudeville circuit either,” Tradition Twelve reads.

The most important function of anonymity is spiritual. “We are to place principles before personalities,” Tradition Twelve tells us. “We are actually to practice a genuine humility.”

The second part of anonymity guarantees the safety of the rooms of A.A. and the comfort of members. Nothing heard in a meeting is repeated outside the meeting—including members’ identity. This anonymity makes an A.A. meeting a sacred space where all members have one purpose—to get sober.

Serious people—leaders and publicly admired professionals—rarely mention that they are members of A.A., while silly people break their anonymity left and right. For any alcoholic who needs help, this can be devastating.

The third aspect of anonymity comes from Tradition Eleven. Here, Bill Wilson brilliantly lays out a policy of “attraction not promotion” for A.A. members. Although “our work, as such, needed to be publicized…to reach quickly as many despairing alcoholics as they could,” he explains, a quiet adherence to A.A. principles would be a better means of publicizing A.A.’s work than billboards and barkers. The eleventh tradition goes on to say that A.A. members should maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.

Yet this definition of anonymity has already been slightly changed. Currently, according to the General Services Organization, which took over from the Alcoholic Foundation,  “A.A. members may disclose their identity and speak as recovered alcoholics, giving radio, TV and Internet interviews, without violating the Traditions—so long as their A.A. membership is not revealed.”

This instruction has been parsed in a dozen ways by those of us who have a presence in the media. To add to the confusion, in spite of the G.S.O. definition, there is much disagreement among the members of A.A. about what constitutes an anonymity break. Everyone in recovery in the public eye has developed their own way of talking about being in A.A—with results that are often more vaudeville than secret society. Serious people—leaders and professional people who are publicly admired—rarely mention that they are members of A.A. while silly people break their anonymity left and right. For any alcoholic who needs help, this can be devastating.

Where the argument over anonymity needs to move is here—to a discussion about what our obligation is, as serious people, to improving this destructive state of affairs. How much are we genuinely concerned about others who desperately need help, education and information, and how much are we concerned with our own privacy and unwillingness to change?

Susan Cheever, a regular 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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