Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The New York Times, published a provocative essay on Alcoholics Anonymous' principle of anonymity.  The point of this "Style and Fashion" story was to challenge the continued viability of the "principle of anonymity."  Here's an excerpt from the piece:

"I’m David C[omitted], and I’m an alcoholic.

In the 15 years since I quit drinking, I’ve neither spoken nor written those words, and now, in doing so, I have more or less violated the first-name-only tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, the grass-roots organization whose meetings have helped me (and millions of others) quit drinking. As A.A.’s 11th Tradition states, 'We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.'

Of course, in the meetings I’ve attended over the years, anonymity has always been a kind of collective fiction. Before and after sessions, I find myself talking to people I know from work: greeting an artist I’ve interviewed or a fashion designer I want to; hashing over logistics with a P.R. guy or a magazine editor. At one of these, a big Sunday meeting in Greenwich Village, I’ve been surprised to see well-known actors and authors up on the dais to share their stories — often, I’ve noticed, when they have something to promote, as if it’s just another a stop on the press tour. Frequently, I find friends introducing me to others in the group by my full name, 'You know David C[omitted], don’t you?'

More and more, anonymity is seeming like an anachronistic vestige of the Great Depression, when A.A. got its start and when alcoholism was seen as not just a weakness but a disgrace.

Over the past few years, so many memoirs about recovery have been released that they constitute a genre unto itself. (Kick Lit?) Moreover, many of them share a format that comes from A.A. itself: most 12-step meetings revolve loosely around what is called a 'qualification' — an informal monologue by one member about his or her battle with the bottle. The last few years have brought us fleshed-out qualifications by Augusten Burroughs ('Dry'), Mary Karr ('Li'”), Nikki Sixx ('The Heroin Diaries'), Eric Clapton ('Clapton: The Autobiography'), Nic Sheff ('Tweak') and James Frey ('A Million Little Pieces,' fabricated, in part, though it was), as well as hundreds of other blurry, cautionary tales of debauchery and redemption. Somewhere, their patron saint — Augustine of Hippo, whose 'Confessions' inaugurated the sinner-cum-saint format in A.D. 398 — is smiling. With precious few exceptions, like Thomas De Quincey’s 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater' in 1822 and Lillian Roth’s 'I’ll Cry Tomorrow' in 1954, the form barely existed 20 years ago. [ . . .]
'I think it’s extremely healthy that anonymity is fading,' said Clancy M[omitted], a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Mr. M[omitted] broke his anonymity in a 9,000-word essay he wrote in the January issue of Harper’s Magazine detailing his experience getting sober in A.A. and his frustrations with the resistance he met in meetings when trying to talk openly about the psychiatric medications that he, like many recovering addicts, took.

But not everyone is happy about this turn toward openness, chief among them A.A. itself, which last year issued an expanded statement on anonymity that has been read at some meetings, adding language about the importance of discretion on social networking Web sites, hoping to ward off breaches both purposeful and accidental.

Some people have posted pictures taken at A.A. meetings on their Facebook pages, said a spokeswoman [ed. no such person exists] for A.A. who asked not to be identified. In some cases, they may have involuntarily outed other attendees. 'We don’t have the wherewithal to deal with the complaints,' she added. 'It’s literally in the thousands now.'

In the world of recovery — encompassing the greater community of recovering addicts, which overlaps mightily but not officially with A.A. and its alphabet soup of sister groups — anonymity is a concept that, even if it doesn’t feel bit old-fashioned, can be self-defeating.  [. . . ]
'There’s not a day that goes by that some major figure doesn’t announce himself as a substance abuser. There’s a community of people who don’t see it as shameful. These are people that have learned from challenges who have a hunger for life and money to spend, and who want to make up for lost time.'

But even for people who want to be more open, the exact line of where anonymity begins and ends is not clear-cut. Many people assume that to identify themselves as 'sober' or 'in recovery' qualifies as a breach. In fact, only identifying yourself as a member of A.A. or other specific 12-step groups does.

The topic of clarifying these boundaries was brought up yet again at A.A.’s annual General Service Conference, which took place in New York City last week, with debate focused on how the organization’s 'Understanding Anonymity' pamphlet could be best worded to guide those who want to follow the letter or spirit of the principle.

This delicate question was the subject of an essay by Susan C[omitted] in The Fix, titled 'Is It Time to Take the Anonymous Out of A.A.?' Given that she has written books about both her alcoholism and that of her father, the writer John C[omitted], as well as one on the history of A.A., it’s not hard to guess whether she is an A.A. member. But in her essay, she vented her frustrations with trying to observe the practice of anonymity while trying to speak frankly about addiction.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction,' Ms. C[omitted] wrote. 'A.A.’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice.'

Dr. Bob and Bill W.
Her message wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms, inciting a flood of largely critical comments from the site’s readers. (One of the tamer ones: 'Without ANONYMITY, A.A. will not continue to exist and help millions of alcoholics and addicts all over the world!')  [ . . .]

Having written a biography of Bill [W.]— that is, Bill Wilson, one of the founders of A.A. — Ms. C[omitted] is in a position to say what the idea of anonymity was intended to do as few are. First and foremost, anonymity was meant to shield those struggling to become sober from the stigma of being an alcoholic, a stigma far more marked 75 years ago when there was little research on alcoholism as a medical condition over which its sufferers had little control.

These are the most common considerations when weighing the reasons for anonymity. But the second part of the ideal, spelled out in A.A.’s 12th Tradition, makes the case for observing anonymity within A.A. itself — and it’s worth noting that there’s little, if any, dissension on this subject.

Unlike the more practical 11th Tradition, aimed at the outer world, the 12th Tradition takes a crack at our far more problematic inner world. Stating (somewhat obliquely) that 'anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities,' it’s about cultivating the often overlooked idea of humility, an excellent means for quieting the now-me-more urges that bedevil addictive people more than their peers.

In this light, anonymity is a token, a symbolic gesture, but we are symbolic people. Even shedding your last name can go a surprisingly long way toward shedding the weight of being yourself."
The ABAJournal referred to me as the "anonymous blogger."  I am anonymous.  I believe in anonymity.  The NYT essay on anonymity is foolish, factually inaccurate, and offensive.  

Of course, celebrities and politicians in recovery ignore the rules (traditions)--surprise, surprise it's what got them into drug and alcohol treatment in the first place.  Yes, of course, Bill & Bob and the authors of the AA Big Book and 12 Traditions prophesied that celebs and politicians would self-profess (and self-promote) their membership in AA--it's one of the reasons for the anonymity principle.  All Alcoholics Anonymous needs is a few more spokespersons like the Lohans or any of the other folks who think a little bit of sobriety entitles them to ignore the traditions.   

According to Wikipedia current AA membership hovers around 2 million folks worldwide.  Millions of drunks, and indirectly families, friends and employers have been helped by AA.  It is free.  It works because of its 12 traditions among which Anonymity is primary.  Go ahead, name a more successful program of recovery? 

The debate over anonymity in the comments section of the New York Times article more eloquently lay out all the underlying philosophical and practical reasons for anonymity than I could possibly raise, here.  It works because it's not about me, or Bill W. or any of the celebs, politicians, self-confessional authors--it works because it about "we" and not "me."


  1. I find this quote hysterical:

    "'I think it’s extremely healthy that anonymity is fading,' said Clancy M[omitted], a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Mr. Martin broke his anonymity in a 9,000-word essay..."

    I hope you realize that you give Mr. Martin's last initial only at first and then post his full last name in the very next sentence. Whoops!

  2. Yeah, bummer. Thanks for the tip--my editor took the day off.

  3. "According to Wikipedia current AA membership hovers around 2 million folks worldwide. Millions of drunks, and indirectly families, friends and employers have been helped by AA. It is free. It works because of its 12 traditions among which Anonymity is primary. Go ahead, name a more successful program of recovery?"

    Funny that you offer no data about how often it works, how well it works, and for how long. That is because AA is a hoax, as a means of keeping people sober, and the organization itself actively discourages and disrupts any analysis of its effectiveness.

    That is not to say that some people who attend its meetings stay sober. Some 5-10% of people with substance abuse problems are also able to just stop on their own, as well.

    There is nothing special about AA as a support group, and nothing offensive about it as one. What is deeply offensive is the story that AA is a particularly effective way to get/stay sober. Perhaps equally so is the religious dogma inherent in its tenets.

  4. Enforced anonymity seems to be a challenge at best when it comes to those in addiction recovery groups as social media continues to take over. Those in recovery depend on the accountability of their peers just as many depend on their buprenorphine treatment to help them stay the long course ahead of them.

  5. While many alcoholics seem to be okay with a lack of annonymity, it seems to me there continues to be a stigma around seeking treatment for things like heroin addiction.