Should the second “A” in AA be dropped? A.A.’s 11th Tradition states, “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” To clarify—it’s okay to identify yourself as “sober” or “in recovery,” but it’s not okay to identify yourself as a member of A.A. or other 12-step groups.
But is this anonymity a throwback to another era, when being an alcoholic was a disgrace? A debate is raging in the media and on the internet, and it’s worth examining both sides.
Last week, the New York Times ran a story by a recovering alcoholic, “Challenging the Second ‘A’ in AA.” The author, David Colman, calls anonymity a “collective fiction.” At the meetings he’s attended over the years in Manhattan, the people he hears telling their stories are often people he knows–people from work, or well-known authors and actors.
Why should AA be so secretive, Colman and others argue, when that only reinforces the idea that being an alcoholic is shameful? People should be able to share their stories publicly, as many celebrities (Pink, Eminem) and memorists already have (think Mary Karr, Susan Cheever, Caroline Knapp, James Frey).
Maer Roshan, editor of The Fix, a new site aimed at the recovery world, compared the anonymity of alcoholics to gay people being in the closet. “Having to deny your own participation in a program that is helping your life doesn’t make sense to me…You could be focusing light on something that will make it better and more honest and more helpful.”
In a piece for The Fix, Susan Cheever, also a recovering alcoholic, who has written a book about Bill Wilson, the founder of AA writes: “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction…A.A.’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice.”
Then came the rebuttals. Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece for Salon–“Can AA survive our tell-all era?” She argues that you can’t really compare celebrities, writers and other people in creative professions to others. Not everyone has the freedom and clout to come clean. Entertainers like Eminem and Russell Brand are supposed to run wild and free—admitting their alcoholism only contributes to their mystique. But what about doctors or teachers, or people who don’t live in ultra-liberal Manhattan? As Williams writes, for these people, there could be “profound social and career repercussions” if their colleagues and clients “know that a year ago, [they were] getting obliterated before work.”
Yes, anonymity may seem old fashioned in this era of reality TV, but still—as Williams writes: “AA’s business model of having no official spokesperson and of attraction rather than promotion…is not for everybody, but you’ve got to give it props for its refusal to turn itself into TLC network, quick-fix shlock.”
It’s easy to understand both sides of the debate, but I say, if you want to write a memoir or come out of the closet as an alcoholic, that’s fine, but don’t make it policy that everyone should have to do the same.
If they dropped the anonymous part of AA, millions of people who could have been helped will turn away from the organization because they don’t have the desire to share their sobriety with the world—or their neighborhood.
Anonymity also protects children of alcoholics. If I ever asked my mom, “Who goes to your AA meetings,” she would explain AA’s code of anonymity, and how important it was for people’s information to remain private. I, in turn, felt secure that the other people at her local meetings wouldn’t be blabbing all over the neighborhood about the personal information my mom shared. What if some kid in my class got hold of that information?
I shudder to imagine some reality TV show, “My mom, the alcoholic,” where the camera goes inside an AA meeting, the recovering alcoholics performing for the camera. Just because the parent agrees to reveal personal details of his or her life, doesn’t mean the child is ready to deal with the repercussions of those revelations.