A thought-provoking if slightly case-in-point article in the NY Times this past weekend, “Challenging the Second ‘A’ in AA,” in which writer David Colman takes a skeptical look at the principle of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous. Given that he himself uses the opportunity to “unburden himself,” it may not be the world’s most objective take on the subject. He presents anonymity as something that is nearly as antiquated as the stigma of addiction itself, at one point going so far as to imply that there is civil rights’ dimension involved. Be that as it may, some might say that the self-aggrandizement on display here – using one’s sobriety as a hook for an article – inadvertently argues for anonymity.
The AA understanding of anonymity – which is only anonymity at the level of “press, radio and film” – was not meant primarily as a safeguard against stigma, but against any one person speaking for the whole organization (which, considering the types of addicts that find their way into the limelight, might be reason enough to keep the policy in place), another example of how AA has brilliantly institutionalized its anti-institutionalism. This is coupled with an understanding of the nature of addiction, that not having to claim membership actually facilitates membership. But then there’s the deeper diagnosis that one finds in the Big Book, that at the root of the alcoholic’s problem lies the “self-will run riot.” In this light, perhaps the notion of “principles over personalities” (which is what anonymity is ultimately about) might be seen as one that actually serves recovery, protecting the sufferer from themselves, rather than vice versa.
Of course, the issue isn’t black and white – Lord knows there are theological objections that might be voiced in response to anonymity (the whole notion of “witnessing” for example), and certainly the wider world (the church especially!) could benefit from hearing more from the 12-Step community. But not necessarily from those that are aching to speak for it:
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.
…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.
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.
“Having to deny your own participation in a program that is helping your life doesn’t make sense to me,” said Maer Roshan, the editor of The Fix, a new, hip-feeling Web magazine aimed at the recovery world. “You could be focusing light on something that will make it better and more honest and more helpful.”
This delicate question was the subject of an essay by Susan Cheever 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 Cheever, 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. Cheever wrote. “A.A.’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice.”
Molly Jong-Fast, 32, a New York novelist who became sober in A.A. 12 years ago, agrees. “It’s seems crazy that we can’t just be out with it, in this day and age,” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “I don’t want to have to hide my sobriety; it’s the best thing about me.”…
“I violate my anonymity daily,” said Rick Ohrstrom, the chairman of C4 Recovery Solutions, a consultancy firm. “I am 25 years in recovery, and have been out there fighting for the rights of people in recovery, and I’m sick and tired of people in A.A. meetings not lifting a finger to do anything about it. They hide behind anonymity — if you don’t tell anyone else that recovery works, that’s what you’re doing. That’s not how A.A. got to be where it was.”
Others insist on the importance of privacy. “Our effectiveness to reach the still-suffering alcoholic is better protected by anonymity, even today, than not having anonymity at the public level,” said Dr. Andrea Barthwell, the chief executive of Two Dreams Outer Banks, a rehab center in Corolla, N.C. “It’s possible that anonymity would be lifted sometime in the future, but there’s no one that’s made that compelling argument yet — and it can’t be done from outside the fellowship.”
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.