What the Heck Does Anonymity Mean?

By Dee Young 12/13/15

The Fix talks to a cross-section of AA members on the meaning of anonymity and their 11th Tradition.

What the Heck Does AA Anonymity Mean?

Unlike civilians, sober alcoholics want oodles of accolades simply because they’ve stopped self-destructing. Co-founder Bill Wilson, whose arrogance has been well documented, demonstrated that drunks have enormous egos. 

I know from experience that we boozers can pass out on a barstool, get home in a blackout, and wake up feeling superior. I used to see a Bowery bum and point, saying, “See, I’m fine. That guy really has a problem.”

I’ve been thinking about anonymity a lot lately. I hear so many conflicting opinions about it—what it is, why it’s important, and whether or not we need it anymore. I decided to look it up to see if I think it still matters.

In 1946, Bill W. wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.” 

Humility is a word I never came near before AA. It sounded too much like humiliation, and I’d had too much of that. When you Google humility synonyms, you’ll find some that support that definition of it: lowlihood, mortification, sheepishness. But in 1988, when I was a newbie, my home group explained the synonyms that AA literature is talking about: modesty, unpretentiousness, courtesy.

Humility is one of the most powerful tools in AA. Liquor sucks up any drunk’s energy even after we’ve quit drinking. The rate of relapse is high, and there never comes a time for a sober drunk to coast. The nagging thought, “I can have just one,” pops up at parties, family gatherings, when I’m happy, sad, or bored. Diligence is the only way for me to win the day. 

If I had things my way, everywhere I go, people would stand up and applaud me for my sobriety. They’d talk about me at dinnertime and quote me. Everyone would know my name. Thankfully, I have a wise sponsor to remind me, year after year, that serenity comes from generosity of spirit, not self-obsession. 

Instead of thinking about me all the time, I can focus on somebody else. Offering help to someone is still the best way for me to get out of a bad mood.

I interviewed a cross section of AA members and asked what they thought anonymity means and how they feel about Tradition 11: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”


I don’t resent celebrities who declare their recoveries in AA publicly, but I do think it’s a foolish thing to do. They position themselves as the representatives of AA, so that when they relapse (as so many of them do), they may give some people the impression that AA doesn’t work. Indeed, AA doesn’t work for everyone, particularly for people whose egos propel them into the spotlight to announce their supposed recoveries in total disregard for the 12th tradition. People who don’t stay anonymous at that level are putting their own recoveries in danger as well as possibly harming AA. But I can’t control what celebrities do or say any more than I can control the misleading statements that some psychologists and other researchers publish about AA. As for kids believing that celebrity per se is a reason to look up to someone, that may be a bigger problem for them than anything that a specific celebrity says.


When I first got sober at a Manhattan meeting on the Upper East Side, I was really in bad shape. I thought I was a nobody. I had self-hatred, self-loathing, all of that. When I went to that meeting, there were three very famous people there. I felt like if they were there, then maybe I was okay and wasn’t with a bunch of losers. There is a part of me that thinks when celebrities talk about their recovery and AA, and you see them at meetings, it helps us feel like we’re all the same. 

On the other side of it, there are actors, actresses, famous people that get sober and don't stay sober, and it makes it look like, “Oh it’s just a lot of crap. They just say they’re sober and then AA doesn’t work.” So I have two views on it. But in general, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone saying they’re in recovery.


When anybody in an AA room is famous and they told you something private, by keeping that a secret, that’s holding anonymity. By talking about what they said, even at all—like when you want to tell because you think it makes you sound special—that’s not being anonymous. 

Wait a minute, hold on. Let me look up anonymity on my phone. It says, “Obscurity, facelessness, namelessness, nowhere, nothingness or silence.” The antonyms are “celebrity, fame, notoriety, and renowned.”

Hmm, that’s interesting. So I guess I think that by talking about AA, it’s like promoting it, advertising it. That’s why I think they don’t want you to write about AA.


When Daniel Radcliffe was doing the play “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” he was recovering from alcoholism. He came out publicly. I think it was in Entertainment Weekly. It was one of those big pulp things saying, “I'm an alcoholic. Many of the Harry Potter movies I made drunk.” He told the press he’s in AA.

I guess I’m of two minds about saying you’re in AA. I break my anonymity all the time. Not only because it’s helped me, but maybe it can help you, the person I'm talking to, if you have a problem. It comes up in very peculiar ways, like at the laundromat. I had two huge bags of laundry and live up two flights of stairs, and it was just too much. I asked the lady who runs the place if I could borrow a cart if I brought it back the next day. They all looked at me like I was trying to steal the cart, but I said, “I’m here all the time. I go to a meeting every morning right near here.” She said, “What kind of a meeting?” And I said, “AA meeting.” She gave me the cart immediately. That made her trust me.

There will also be an occasion where somebody says, “Ugh, alcoholics, they’re so unreliable.” Well, I’m an alcoholic and I don’t think you know what you're talking about. People should be aware of the good the program can do, so I break my anonymity all the time.


According to the program, people can say, “I’m an alcoholic,” but we’re not supposed to announce publicly, “I went to AA to recover.” The reason is, if someone says they like AA and then they fall on their face publicly like so many celebrities do, then other people might say, “AA doesn't even work, I’m not even going to try.” I think they don’t want to risk AA’s reputation because they want people to get help and quit drinking. 

I like to tell people I’m in AA because I think it plants a seed. When famous people talk about AA, I think about teenagers who worship rock stars. If someone I thought was really cool said, “If you have a problem with drugs and alcohol, don’t worry. Lots of people do. There is help, you can go to AA.” I think it would have been good to know that AA exists and that cool people go. 

Now, so many celebrities are coming forward about it, but a lot of people criticize them for breaking the traditions. The thing is, there are no rules in AA. Only suggestions. So I think people should do what they want to.


It says right there in the literature that we seek publicity for AA principles. So anonymity doesn’t mean not talking about AA, but the idea is to talk about it anonymously so you’re not promoting yourself. It’s for a spiritual reason. It’s not because of people relapsing. It’s to keep your ego in check. 

AA has no problem with members writing about AA if they use pseudonyms. AA wants people to know about the program. In Tradition 12, it says we couldn’t remain a secret society or we’d never be able to help anyone. 

You don’t need to be anonymous in a meeting, but you’re not supposed to talk about who you saw there or what you heard in the meeting. But the most important thing is not to promote yourself. If you don’t learn to be humble, you’re gonna drink.


If you read about the history of AA, you’ll find that in addition to helping alcoholics be “right sized” and not have huge inflated egos, there were other reasons for anonymity. The program was founded in 1935. AA published the “Big Book” a few years later. It wasn’t until 1953 that AA came out with the book “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” They’d learned a lot by then and realized that being anonymous was important, because otherwise people could just go around saying they were an AA spokesperson and use it to make money and get famous. That would pervert the whole purpose. Bill Wilson realized AA wouldn’t survive if people were getting paid to advertise products by using the AA name. There’s even an article about this. It was in the AA Grapevine. It talks about how AA can’t be used to sell products. It talks about how AA can’t go around selling pickles and pretzels and everything else.

Dee Young is a pseudonym for a writer in New York, who last wrote about AA's literature being too antiquated.

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