Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Should A.A. remain anonymous?

Rob B put me onto a topic here and I'd like to present it here in such a way that we see both sides... and maybe some interesting comments that this topic generates.

Please bear with my cutting and pasting;

Heard on NPR, "Taking the A out of A.A."


An article from the New York Times that began “I’m David Colman and I’m an alcoholic” went viral last week and generated page upon page of discussion online and in print. In it, Colman openly discussed his 15 years of recovery and spoke to other sober people who think that it may be time to revise the anachronistic stigma of addiction and alcoholcs anonymous’s public relations policy that states “ we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”


■the new york times piece on a.a.

■responses to dave's piece

Then a seconde article here from the N.Y. Times titled "Challenging the second A in A.A.";
Then, finally an article from The Telegraph discussing why the idea would be a big mistake and why we should not violate the traditions set forth titled "Dropping the Anonymity Rule would be Disastrous for Alcoholics Anonymous";
In an interesting piece on the New York Times website, from Sunday’s paper, a recovering alcoholic named David Colman asks whether the anonymity requirement, which Alcoholics Anonymous imposes on its members, is outdated. He thinks it is old-fashioned because these days there’s no reason to be ashamed of addiction. I think dropping the anonymity rule would be a disaster. It’s an essential part of AA’s success, and the organisation tampers with this key principle at its peril. I think that shame drives addiction, but the antidote to shame is not necessarily incontinent openness – just as the remedy for constipation isn’t diarrhoea.

Why is AA anonymous? Well, here are some of the things AA says on the subject. The 12th tradition states that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions”. AA expects its members to “place principles before personalities”. They are expected not to “break” their anonymity in public. And the rules specify they should respect “personal anonymity at the level of press radio and television”. AA’s public relations policy is based on “attraction rather than promotion”. Consider that when famous people trumpet their AA credentials, potential members are as likely to be put off having anything to do with AA, as they are to be encouraged.

The New York Times piece is worth reading. It has contributions from John Cheever’s daughter, Susan, who you’d expect to know more than most about alcoholism. She wrote a piece in The Fix, an addiction magazine, asking whether it was time to take the “A” out of AA. As with Colman, her view is that addiction is an illness, it no longer taints the sufferer with a social stigma, so it’s unhealthy to be secretive about it.

Is she right? Only up to a point, I think. You shouldn’t stigmatise alcoholics, of course not. But alcoholism does involve the operation of free will to an extent, and therefore it is never going to be morally neutral. It’s a disorder of the mind and the soul. But it’s not just the same as diabetes or cancer. And there are plenty of good reasons why ordinary people, as opposed to show-offs and celebrities, will want to remain discreet about an alcoholic history, even if it was years in the past. As Mary Elizabeth Williams puts it in Salon:

Not everyone has the freedom of an Eminem to write an album called “Recovery” and sport an AA triangle at the Grammys. Not everyone has the clout of Russell Brand, who has mirrored his famous bouts of excess and subsequent sobriety in Get Him to the Greek and Arthur. For others, there are profound social and career repercussions. If you’re a schoolteacher or a doctor, maybe you don’t want your colleagues and clients to know that a year ago, you were getting obliterated before work.

The extraordinary thing about AA is how little its members have meddled with it over the years – especially when you compare mainstream Christian denominations, which are forever churning out new and improved translations of their key texts.

The Big Book of AA, the founding text, remains virtually unchanged in its core chapters from when it was written in the 1930s. It retains the old-fashioned locutions of the American mid-west, the non-inclusive language, the talk of drinking “sprees” and the like. And few seriously want to update it. Why? Because it works, and AA members are sensibly reluctant to mess with it. Since anonymity was such an important founding principle, better leave it as it is, surely.


You'll see my comments at the end of the last link.



  1. Anonymity is so misunderstood. More within the fellowship than out of it, I think.

    Maybe today it isn't about the stigma. But that isn't the point. Anonymity is a spiritual principle. What it means is that I am one of the many, just a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

    My personal experience is this-I am not to be a secret. To many members of the public I am known as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. When I came to work at the job I have now, I had no anonymity. Many of the staff and many of the clients knew me and knew that I was an A.A. member. What I have became aware of it that raises the bar on how conduct myself. People watch us, you know. I have to watch how I present my opinions on stuff alcoholism , addiction, treatment, therapy, etc.

  2. I agree with Jim I always felt that anonymity was synonymous with humility or the act of trying to be humble.
    Today it is difficult to distinguish what exactly they want from anonymity or what can anonymity do for them.

  3. Patrick,
    thanks for taking the time to put this together. Anonymity is a spiritual principle in that it reminds me to remain humble. In AA I use my full name. In my personal life and professional circles there are people who are aware I am in AA, however I don't mention AA nor do I try to be "the voice of AA" If I am asked about it, I speak openly, but I work with the law of invitation.

    Like Jim said, we are watched, our actions speak volumes about our recovery and the AA program. I completely disagree with Colman. Before I completely judge him. I would be interested in what his daily practice looked like, where he was at with 10-12, what his current inventory looked liked, etc... My guess is that his motives are not as altruistic as he would make them out out to be. Ego re-emergence in alcoholics is huge, Dr. Tiebout wrote alot about this. Like I said, I don't know Coleman, so this is just my opinion, it is possible I am wrong.

    I have issues with folks who feel that AA needs changing. It's stuff like this that has gotten us so far removed from the actual program. Can't wait to see what the 5th edition looks like.

  4. Jim makes an important point here. My anonymity makes me one of many, no more or no less important than anyone else in the fellowship. I believe this was one of Bill W.’s intentions when he insisted on anonymity within the fellowship – no one individual, regardless of their position in society, is more important than any other member of AA.

    It’s a spiritual issue of principles before personalities. It’s the principles of the program that are important, not the personalities who belong to the fellowship. You can be the most important person in town, the president of the company, the HMFIC of the whole world; but in the rooms of AA you’re just another alcoholic.

    Colman makes the statement: “But even some who have faithfully observed the practice, myself included, have a suspicion that, if staying anonymous is not an outdated (and sometimes absurd) technicality, it is at least a choice that everyone should have.”

    Huh? It is a choice. I introduce myself at meetings as “I’m Joe Driscoll and I’m an alcoholic.” That’s my choice. While I use my last name, I’m still pretty anonymous. I may as well be Joe Shit the Ragman. Most others just use their first name. That’s their choice. Outside the rooms I don’t hide from the fact that I’m in AA, nor do I advertise it.

    I’m also very careful to protect the anonymity of everyone I know in AA. If I come across someone out in public we’re like two ships passing on the night.

    Susan Cheever and many others completely miss the point in the article. People don’t remain anonymous because they’re ashamed of being alcoholics. At least no one that I know does. Rather, a lot of them could face some serious problems with their jobs if the fact were known. There’s a reason that the medical profession has the Caduceus group and that the legal profession has it’s closed groups.

    Rick Ohrstrom objects to the fact that members of AA hide behind their anonymity and don’t lift a finger to help fight for the rights of people in recovery. Bullshit, Rick. What don’t you understand about “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety.”? What don’t you understand about attraction rather than promotion? This guy has 25 years in recovery but doesn’t understand a damn thing about AA.

    Colman seems to answer his question of whether we should challenge the concept of anonymity at the end of his article by referring to the 12th Tradition and the cultivation of humility. As he says, shedding your last name can go a long way towards shedding the weight of being yourself.

  5. I'm not putting my A.A. affiliation on my resume anytime soon.

  6. Good stuff guys.

    I like what Rob said about not judging Mr. Coleman until I see how he lives.

    I was in a meeting last weekend and the topic was the part of the 10th Step out of the book where it talks about a fit spiritual condition. I believe the that the simplest way to check that is to look at how I treat others. I said that I may not always be a good judge of my spiritual condition. Maybe you might want to ask the checkout lady at the store, or maybe my co-workers or any number of people that I encounter during the day. I once heard someone say that when they skimp on 10 & 11, they pay the price. I think that is a pretty typical alcoholic viewpoint. What I know today is that when I skimp on 10 & 11 other people pay the price.

    What I'm saying directly relates to what we are discussing. The way I live shouts much louder than anything I say. I am not one much for slogans, but like they say I may be the only Big Book that someone might see.

  7. To be honest, outside of the circles of A.A. and recovery in general, I don't think most people could give a care. I don't think we're on their radar as members of A.A.

    I sort of like that we don't put on white shirts and black pants, jump on a bicycle, and go door to door spouting the Word. I'm glad we're not castrated monks giving out Watchtowers on the street corner, and I'm glad we're not balded toga-wearing hippies hanging out at airports. Well... actually the later sort of went out with the 70s, huh?

    But now on the internet... there seems to be quite a bit to be said about recovery, proAAers and anti/XAers... but I have yet to come face-to-face with an anti/XAer on the street. I would like to. I would like to see them and see if they've heard of Orange or ST. Nothing as of yet in the f2f world.

  8. Good point Patrick. No one outside of AA could give a shit less about this anonymity business. Yeah, it makes good press for Cheever et. al., and psychologists are always willing to throw their two cents into any discussion that'll get their name in print.

    I don't think the average reader of the Sunday Times is really interested in whether we're anonymous or not. (Well, OK, I've read the comments to the article and some really weird people read the paper. But again, it's the NY Times.)

    This is a great example of people outside the program, for the most part, posturing their educated theories as to how AA should be run. And I really wonder about those people like Colman and Ohrstrom who claim to be in the program yet show some real ignorance of a few basic AA principles.

    Colman brought out some points in the article that are worth discussing, and that's certainly his right. But having read it several times now I don't think he's arguing for abandoning anonymity as much as opening the point up for debate.

    I keep going back to the last two paragraphs of the article and his reference to Tradition 12. As I said, I think he answered his own question there.

    I also keep thinking of something my grandfather used to say. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

  9. You're right Patrick. That's why anonymity is so important. We never know who is watching. But I think a lot of us want some kind of special treatment because we're sober and living the way that a lot of people do anyway.

    I'm nothing special and I'm not that important.

  10. That statement will wake up the old ego.

  11. Anonymity I think does have various definitions for the multitude of folks in AA. Some people don't want you to know there last name for a variety of reasons, some like to remain cloaked around their immediate family at first (saves them the embarrassing comments that can come from insensitive members)I can't think of many who want there employers to know right off. Some like to remain quiet to everyone at first so they can get their feet under them. I did it this way, I sort of just disappeared from everything and everybody. I went to a different town for my meetings. Just needed to do it this way at first. Be anonymous.
    We have other voices shouting that some need to quit hiding behind anonymity especially the criminals sent to AA from the judicial element. I really find this to be a stone under my foot (irritation) Ya know it is there but you don't really want to stop and do something about it. Actually I have no idea what I could do anyway.
    Commenting on the authors of this article, I find there assessment to be shortsighted and maybe a tad selfish but I also have to give them their right to their opinion.

  12. On a different note, looks like I have survived the rapture, did you guys make it? we did have some thunderstorms that were kind of cool, but nothing apocalyptic. Guess we'll have to wait until 2012. That's fine with me as the fishing is getting good and the weather is getting nice.

  13. Those fucking idiots.

    Tell me why did this make the news?