By Steve K.
The tradition of anonymity in relation to membership of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is increasingly being challenged by members aspiring to be public examples, or advocates, of long-term recovery from addiction. The anonymity tradition as stated in traditions eleven and twelve are as follows:
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.
Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, pp.184 & 188.
In today’s society we can also assume tradition eleven to include both TV and the Internet. Over the past couple of years, due to my writing activity, I’ve found myself increasingly questioning tradition eleven in particular; and can see both pros and cons in this principle.
The main disadvantage of public association with AA, that I can think of, is members being bad or dogmatic examples of recovery. Members who lack sobriety or virtue could be viewed as representing the fellowship of AA, damaging its reputation. Public association with AA could also encourage egotism within its members which is contrary to the aims of the Steps and Traditions. There is also the possibility of negative consequences in relation to public association with AA, for example; in relation to work opportunities or in the effects upon children due to stigma.
In relation to the last two examples however, it’s every member’s right to maintain their anonymity of membership of AA at any level they choose, regardless of traditions; and others should always respect this individual right. I don’t question this principle.
The advantages of individuals disclosing their membership of Alcoholics Anonymous, at the public level, are significant in my view.
There are plenty of examples of public figures who are known to be members of AA, and are open about their past histories of addiction. They often serve as good examples of long-term recovery and of turning their lives around and helping others in the process. They help to educate the public in relation to the nature of addiction and the possibility of good, long-term recovery.
There are also many members of AA and other Twelve Step fellowships who write about their recovery experiences and understanding publically; often professionally. I’ve personally benefited from these authors greatly in terms of my own recovery.
Some of these authors openly admit to membership of AA which adds authenticity; and for me, helps them carry a message of recovery. Authors such as Ernie Kurtz have written extensively about AA in a professional capacity and have helped many by doing so. While not openly writing from the position of being a member of AA, he mentions attending AA meetings over many years, and a little research soon informs the reader of his past struggles with alcohol.
The fact that this type of information is easily available in the digital age makes the principle of anonymity at the public level somewhat obsolete. The principle seems impractical in the 21st century with the phenomenon of social media etc. Bill Wilson and other founder members of AA are not very anonymous nowadays, and their images and biographical details can be easily accessed online and on the cover of books. The principle of anonymity at the public level doesn’t seem very effective.
The common practice of stating publically that one is “in recovery” or “on a Twelve Step program”, rather than a particular fellowship, as a way of technically respecting the anonymity tradition, is another example of how outdated the tradition is in today’s society in my view. The social stigma of admitting problems with addiction is not the same as it was in the mid-twentieth-century. People in recovery from addiction who are members of AA and open about this have greatly contributed to this reduction in stigma. Recovery is nothing to be ashamed of in my opinion and we should be openly positive about it and how we achieve it; which is usually with help.
The growth in public awareness in relation to the nature of addiction, in my view, greatly reduce negative judgements regarding known members of AA relapsing or behaving in a less than virtuous manner. We are all aware of public figures that return to drinking after being members of the Fellowship, and very few people would blame AA for this relapse.
The Spiritual Intention of Anonymity
I do see the value in the spiritual intention of the anonymity traditions; in terms of the practice of self-sacrifice and humility where individual ego is concerned. Placing “principles before personalities” for the welfare of the fellowship as a whole is a wise concept. No doubt the principles of anonymity, humility, unity, love and self-sacrifice have enabled the fellowship of AA to flourish for the past 80 years. These principles are expressed and practised through the twelve traditions and they all require a surrender of the ego to a degree.
Anonymity at the public level helps, I should think, to reduce the all too human temptation of egotism and self-seeking behaviour; and in this respect I can see its value and wisdom. However, I am still somewhat torn in relation to the principle of anonymity at the public level, as it seems a double-edged sword to me.
In one respect, I think it doesn’t help the cause of reducing public stigma and ignorance in relation to the nature of addiction and recovery. In another, the principle inspires humility and a lack of egotism, which is no doubt helpful for the individual and the fellowship as a whole.
The solution for me, as someone who writes about Twelve Step recovery from addiction, is to check my motives for any breach of anonymity at the public level. Am I being egotistical and seeking personal recognition rather than writing for my own growth, and, hopefully, the benefit of others? If I’m being honest with myself there’s always some ego involved in writing publically; in terms of wanting people to value my work, and in relation to my self-esteem. However, I don’t think that my needs in this respect are excessive, harmful or unnatural, and do not outweigh my desire to grow in a healthy way; and in doing so be of benefit to others.
Taking a moral inventory regularly is part of my Twelve Step program of recovery. So I shall need to continue to monitor my motivations in respect of any breach of anonymity at the public level.
I do see the spiritual intention and value of the AA tradition of anonymity; and so would like to try and adhere to the principle in general. In saying this, I’m not, and never will be egoless, and so will no doubt continue to struggle with this spiritual principle. I need to watch out for ego rationalisations and justifications; and maybe the above essay is just that. I’ll leave it for the reader to decide.