In an effort to build public understanding of AA’s Anonymity Traditions, the trustees’ Public Information Committee prepared this article for release to newspapers and wire services.
WHY ARE Alcoholics Anonymous members anonymous alcoholics? Why are all those people who used to be so noisily unconcerned about making public fools of themselves so passionately interested in anonymity? (“Anonymity” is even hard to say.)
Is it so the members can hide their deep shame from public ridicule, as many believe? Or is it that AA people are afraid to admit they needed help to quit drinking?
In most cases, the truth is the precise opposite. Anonymity, often called “the spiritual foundation of AA,” is its true genius. Anonymity protects the sobriety of individuals from corrupting fame or notoriety; it disciplines the Fellowship to govern itself by principles rather than personalities; it prevents the growth of self-appointed spokesmen; and it insures safe haven for newcomers.
Far from hiding in corners or skulking in church basements, most AA members, once safely sober and happily helping others, rightfully feel proud of AA, their fellow members, and themselves. They feel like telling the world about it.
So what would be wrong with that? AA could use some good publicity and some success stories, right?
Sure, AA can use some publicity. But Joe Jones or Mary Smith, recovered alcoholics, just can’t handle the stuff, any more than they can handle alcohol. Fame can inflate the ego the same way wine inflates the head. The recovering alcoholic can find himself wallowing in the kind of egocentric orgy that got him in trouble originally.
The AA program calls for the admission of helplessness with booze, the immersion of self in a new way of life, the destruction of the alcoholic ego, and the gradual construction of a new and healthy ego. Anonymity teaches the AA member that sobriety is a deep spiritual blessing, best not accompanied by easy popularity.
Anonymity helps him (or her) to concentrate on the essentials–great gratitude to his Higher Power for his sobriety and appreciation of the AA Fellowship for helping him keep it.
If AA was to abandon anonymity, it would then be run by highly visible people, rather than being guided by strong principles. These people would publicly interpret AA in their own way to still-suffering alcoholics. The interpretation of even the best-intentioned leader may not be what is best for all.
AA is a deceptively simple program that simply works. Each member brings his or her own personal slant or perspective to the same truths, the same program. The fundamental concepts are best experienced firsthand, not absorbed through lectures.
If personalities were permitted to dominate AA, leaders, teachers, prophets, gurus, or oracles most certainly would arise to straighten us all out. AA is a fellowship in the truest sense; we get sober and stay sober with the help of the group. A leader in this intensely personal experience would tend to divide and polarize, rather than insure maximum freedom. Anonymity keeps personalities out of the driver’s seat.
AA is not a secret society, but each member respects the anonymity of the others. This is a comforting fact for newcomers, who may wish to feel that their “awful secret” is safe with us, until they come to realize themselves that it is not so awful.
We also are realistic enough to recognize that, in spite of widespread recognition of alcoholism as a disease and not a crime, there still is much residual stigma attached to it in the public mind. Anonymity shields us from that prejudice and permits us to go about our business of helping each other and other alcoholics.
Finally, the last two of AA’s Twelve Traditions state the case simply and well.
Tradition Eleven: “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.”
(Note that anonymity is insisted upon only at this public level. This is why your neighbor who is in AA breaks no AA Traditions by telling his friends, neighbors, and co-workers of his success with the AA program.)
Tradition Twelve: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
(By sticking firmly to principles, AA has become one of the most successful disorganized organizations in history. It consists of people, but is ruled by principles.)
In the 1840’s, an organization called the Washington Temperance Society flourished on the East Coast. While operating on many basic AA ideas, the Washingtonian movement omitted personal anonymity.
As a result, it became an organization with executives, lines of authority, and the beginnings of the bureaucratic paraphernalia that afflict big government.
The Washingtonian movement actually wound up with street-corner evangelists, even parades with bands, drum majors, and baton twirlers (sober ones, it is to be presumed).
If you can imagine the incongruity of an AA float in your local Fourth of July parade, you can appreciate the value of AA’s Anonymity Traditions. No, AA is anything but a secret society; it is a happy, grateful fellowship where experience, strength, and hope are unselfishly shared.
Anonymity helps keep it that way.