Is It Time to Take the Anonymous Out of AA?

By Susan Cheever 04/07/11

Anonymity has always been a bedrock tradition of AA. Yet even as it protects people from stigma, it also preserves the negative status quo. After all these years, should AA come out of church basements and into the streets?

Does secrecy simply add to the shame of a medically recognized disease?

A reporter from The New York Times called me the other day to ask about the continuing necessity of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous. We had a very strange conversation. We both wanted to abide by AA’s Tradition Eleven: “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” I have always taken this to mean that I should not discuss with the media what I know from personal experience about the organization.

Nevertheless, I wanted to help him. We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction. AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice. When it comes to alcoholism and AA, the problem is very public, but the solution is still veiled in secrecy.

Despite pop culture’s glut of celebrities rehabbing and relapsing right before our eyes, an astonishing number of people still believe that drinking too much is a failure of will power—forget all this talk of genes, heredity, early psychological issues, self-medication for depression and anxiety. “Even when many people say they believe alcoholism is a disease, they still think it is a moral problem,” says Pat Taylor of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a recovery nonprofit dedicated to public education. “We need to do a better job of informing the public about the fact that people can and do get well.”

Many others believe that granting someone the label of “alcoholic”—a different version of the disease metaphor—means that they cannot be held responsible for their behavior. Many of the terrible stories reported in the media as domestic abuse, horrific traffic accidents, even atrocities of wartime are in fact crimes committed by someone in the grip of addiction, although that fact often goes unmentioned. There is scant money for research on addiction, whose annual toll in lost productivity and healthcare costs is in the billions.

Anonymity is a hot topic these days. A recent SAMHSA survey shows that a majority of Americans have a positive attitude about people in recovery—so the argument that anonymity protects people from being stigmatized seems less and less germane. But within AA anonymity is still sacred—after all, it is written into the Twelve Traditions. Bring it up in almost any AA meeting, and you will be frowned at and probably given lots of unwanted, emphatic advice by the meeting’s self-appointed vigilantes.

Two AA traditions deal with anonymity: Tradition Eleven’s “always anonymous” recommendation and Tradition Twelve, which counsels people in AA to place principles above personalities. In other words, when you come to AA, you check your accomplishments, your bank account,  your police record and even your last name at the door.

When Bill W. and his fellow AA members wrote the traditions, they left as many loopholes as possible. There are no rules in AA: the traditions and the steps are described as “suggestions.” AA never tells anyone what to do. Nevertheless, it seems to be human nature to tell other people what to do. As a result, while the program itself has no rules, many individual alcoholics act as if it did.

Anonymity makes a lot of sense. It protects people at a meeting from gossip on the outside, or it tries to. In a small community, like the town of Akron, Ohio, where AA began in 1935, anonymity shielded professionals from the public shame that might attach to their alcoholism, although in small communities someone’s active alcoholism is not exactly a secret. The silliness of this aspect of anonymity is embodied in a photograph of an early Ohio meeting in which everyone wears a black party mask, as if that were an effective disguise.

Anonymity protects, but it also hides. For the gay community, the act of coming out has been critical to ending negative stereotypes and stigma. Could the same kind of pride and public exposure transform prevailing blame-the-addict attitudes? Because AA membership is secret and many meetings are not open to those who don’t have a desire to stop drinking, the group has taken on the air of a of cult, with secret language and rituals. Over the years, a few brave souls have broken their anonymity and written frankly about what it takes them to stay sober, including what happens in their AA meetings—for example, Clancy Martin in a brilliant essay, “The Drunk's Club: AA, The Cult That Cures,” in the January Harper’s.

Many people in AA will do everything but break their anonymity outright, identifying themselves only as a “recovering alcoholic” or even as being “in a 12-step program.” I am still one of those hedgers, trying to write about recovery without violating the tradition—and all the while wondering if that’s like pretending to be a little bit pregnant.

But these are all only baby steps. What if it was widely reported that a significant percentage of US senators are in AA or that there are AA meetings in the West Wing of the White House? What if hundreds of the movers and shakers in recovery—doctors and lawyers and airline pilots, the Fortune 500 businessmen and ministers—stood up and were counted as members of AA? It would go a long way toward clearing away the misunderstanding that still surrounds us. 

Susan Cheever, a columnist at 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.