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© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., December 1990
a newcomer in AA, I had a lot of ideas about needed changes.
Even in 1970, I thought the Big Book was too sexist and
I couldn't understand why none of the AA meetings served
decaffeinated coffee. And I was absolutely certain that
the biggest mistake was keeping Alcoholics Anonymous anonymous.
fact, I made an emotional plea to that effect when I had
six months sobriety under my belt, holding the Fellowship
responsible for my father's death from cirrhosis of the
liver. It embarrasses me to recall saying that if AA weren't
so anonymous, my father would still be alive, which was,
of course, an absurd statement. My father knew of AA and
chose not to go.
then I have seen example after example proving why anonymity
is so vital for our Fellowship. For instance, a few years
ago I was in a country in the Caribbean when AA was celebrating
its 25th anniversary there. At that time, it was their feeling
that anonymity was fine for AA in the United States but
not for them. The Fellowship was getting a great deal of
publicity because of the anniversary convention. There was
media coverage. One active member, a teacher by profession,
was being interviewed live by a local talk show host. He
was identified by full name as an AA member and was plainly
recognizable. In the course of the interview, he was asked
what percentage of the country's teachers were alcoholic.
Not anticipating the question and being nervous in front
of the cameras, our friend answered, "About fifty percent."
The headline in the newspaper that evening shouted, "Half
of Country's Teachers Alcoholic According to AA." Our
non- anonymous member had become an AA spokesman.
expressed in a letter to Sam D., Bill W. had some thoughts
on the subject of anonymity at the public level. Sam, an
AA member who was also a minister, had written to Bill stating
that he thought, in his case, it would be helpful to reveal
his AA membership before the general public by name and
picture. Here are excerpts from Bill's response, from a
letter dated June 22, 1946. Our Fellowship was eleven years
old: "As a fact, there are few principles or AA attitudes
about which I have a more definite conviction than that
of 'anonymity before the general public.' I find support
for my conviction among the vast majority of AA members
despite the fact that there seem to be a considerable number
of AAs in our southeastern chapters who agree with you.
But in discussing this matter I would rather not rely too
much upon the numerical support my own view has. Which of
our views is the better policy, the finer spirituality,
that's the question, isn't it?
less well schooled than you, I, too, regard myself a follower
in the tradition of the Master. Perhaps as a layman, I have
not much standing to interpret him. Yet my own observation
is this: that sometimes Jesus advanced propositions seemingly
contradictory. He lambasted money changers and people who
stoned whores, yet I believe he said 'resist not evil.'
He preached in public, and this to such great effect that
millions wish they could see him and hear him today. Yet,
did he not reprove those who made a public show of giving
alms, and did he not say that a prayer in a closet was better
than a prayer in public? What did he have in mind when he
said such things? If, as one who doesn't know the Bible
very well, I were asked to answer, I would say that he was
trying to throw a heavy emphasis on modesty and humility;
that he was deeply conscious of the human tendency to exhibitionism.
So, if I hear him aright, he is now saying to us AAs 'go
and preach these principles to all the world. But beware
of parading yourselves in the process.'
as you are now searching your soul about anonymity in public,
so did I have to go through that very process in 1939, the
year our book Alcoholics Anonymous went to print. I was
then called upon to make a decision, perhaps the most far-reaching
one I have ever taken. Had it not been for the wise counsel
of my friends in AA I must humbly confess that I probably
would have abandoned my anonymity before the general public.
Two courses were then before me because two titles for the
book had been proposed, and both were equally popular. Here
The Way Out by Wm. G. Wilson
don't mind saying, Sam, that the first one looked mighty
attractive to me. To justify myself I used to say 'Well,
Bill, you have surely learned enough about humility by now.
So the mere signing of this book will never go to your head.
The leaders of every other movement are publicized. All
movements have to be personalized. They have to have personal
symbols to lend them power and character. So why shouldn't
I sign this book? A good title too - The Way Out!
almost succumbed to these rationalizations but my friends
tipped the scale the other way. 'What if you got drunk -
and Bill, what kind of an example do you think you would
be setting for the rest of us egocentrics? Even if you could
stand a lot of newspaper publicity, we couldn't. Lots of
us would get drunk and let our movement down. And anyhow,
isn't the American public pretty well fed up on personal
ballyhoo, however good.' Well, Sam, my friends wouldn't
let me do it, and how right - oh how very right - they were."
spiritual value of anonymity has been recognized for a long
time. The ancient Greeks had a word for it and Christ spoke
in praise of the humility that fosters anonymity when he
said, "Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit
will now take a big jump in time and space and atmosphere
from the Sermon on the Mount to the second day of April,
1840, and Chase's Tavern in Baltimore, Maryland. On that
date, six drinking friends made a decision to stop their
drinking and took a pledge to do so.
called themselves the Washingtonians and in a year's time
they had reformed 1,000 drunks and had 5,000 other members
and supportive friends. On their second anniversary one
of their groups in the Midwest was addressed by a young
U.S. Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.
rapid was the group's rise that it soon had 600,000 members.
Along the way, however, it became so involved - even concentrated
- on promotion of its aims and success that its main original
purpose began to evaporate. Many of its members became embroiled
in public activities, giving voice to and taking sides in
outside matters such as abolition and temperance.
the end of 1847, just seven years after it began its original
noble venture, the Washingtonians had faded out of existence
and ceased activity except in Boston where, in all too brief
a time, it vanished altogether.
seventy years later, another movement surfaced that was
to be remarkably effective for a couple of decades. This
was the Oxford Group. Interestingly, its founder Frank Buchman
saw great virtue in anonymity and there was a considerable
length of time that he preferred to be known as Frank B.
This was to change, however, along with the overall tone
of the original Oxford Group movement. Before too long ordinary
membership purposes were shunted aside and eventually overwhelmed
by increasing cases of personal ambition, campaigns for
funds, and eager public searches for support, endorsement
and participation of well-known personalities.
earliest members, chief among them Bill and Dr. Bob, were
associated with the Oxford Group and were on hand, it is
reported, for a gathering in New York City where Buchman
revealed for the first time his personal hopes for dealing
with the problem of alcoholism. "I'm all for alcoholics
getting changed," he announced, "but we have drunken
nations on our hands as well."
was 1938 and before long the Oxford Group was transformed
into what was called Moral Rearmament with Frank Buchman
still at the head of it - with a purpose to bring the nations
of the world together by strictly peaceful means.
1939, AA and the changing Oxford Group drifted apart. But
in talking later about AA's infancy, Bill said of the Oxford
Group: "They had clearly shown us what to do [and]
we also learned from them what not to do so far as alcoholics
were concerned - too authoritarian, aggressive evangelism,
absolute concepts, which were frequently too much for drunks,
dependence upon the use of prominent names (mighty hazardous
for us). Because of the stigma (at that time) of alcoholism,
most alcoholics wanted to be anonymous."
on this still further, Bill said: "Anonymity was not
born of confidence: the bare hint of publicity shocked us
. . . we were afraid of developing erratic public characters
who. . . might get drunk in public and so destroy confidence
in us. . . ."
look at anonymity as practiced by AA can be truly complete
without including the question: is it possible for an AA
member to be too anonymous? Too anonymous for the good of
the individual and the Fellowship? The answer is "yes."
And there are more than a few examples of this: members
who feel they must not tell their families or their friends
or co-workers or doctors or ministers or lawyers that they
are members of AA.
have even been instances when members have sent requests
for information to the General Service Office in New York
and not included a last name or have sent checks to GSO
is indeed such a thing as an AA member being too anonymous:
where it can mean failure to extend the helping hand when
the need arises; where it can mean failure to correct misconceptions
about AA both inside and outside the Fellowship; and where
it can stifle - even stop - the flow of AA knowledge and
sobriety from one person to another.
is anonymity at the personal level and can indeed be carried
too far - in Bill's words - to "the point of real absurdity."
Anonymity at the public level, however, is another matter
and no member of the AA Fellowship has shown the genuine
humility to practice anonymity at the public level more
dramatically and in a more truly self-sacrificing manner
than our co founders, Bill and Dr. Bob.
quoted Bill a lot in this article because he was a prolific
writer. Dr. Bob also provided us with many illustrations
of living the Tradition of anonymity. The example I cite
took place soon after his wife Anne had died and nearly
a year after he learned he had terminal cancer. It is from
his biography, Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers.
was at a time when AA members were thinking about a monument
for Anne and Bob. In fact, a collection had been started.
Hearing this, Dr. Bob promptly asked that the money be given
back and declared against the Fellowship's erecting for
Anne and himself any tangible memorials or monuments. He
told Bill, 'Let's you and I get buried just like other folks.'
Later, while shopping for a stone for Anne's grave, he was
asked, 'Surely you're going to have something on it about
AA?' He replied, 'Mercy, no!" '
example: in his farewell to the Fellowship at AA's first
International Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 1950,
Dr. Bob said: "I get a big thrill out of looking over
a vast sea of faces like this with a feeling that possibly
some small thing I did a number of years ago played an infinitely
small part in making this meeting possible." This from
a co founder of what some have called the greatest social
and spiritual movement, the most far-reaching crusade for
health and mental well being, of the twentieth century -
an organization with a couple million alcoholics who have
lived or died sober as a direct result of Dr. Bob's and
Bill's determination and dedication. This is humility. This
the size of today's AA population, the number of public
anonymity breaks - discomforting when they do occur and
sometimes potentially dangerous - are comparatively few
and infrequent. This may be because as AA matures, its members
more fully understand the value to themselves for anonymity
at the public level. It may also be because of Bill's remarkably
powerful example of personal sacrifice for the good of all.
As a demonstration of anonymity in action, this is for all
discouraged any Nobel Prize possibility for himself.
declined awards from several colleges (suggesting they be
offered instead to the Fellowship itself).
turned down the inclusion of his name and a brief personal
history in "Who's Who in America."
said thanks but no thanks to an honorary degree from Yale
rejected a Time magazine story that would have included
his picture on the cover.
refused the Lasker Award (which was given to AA instead).
posthumously (through his wife Lois), he declined a degree
from his old school, Vermont's Norwich University.
Bill died, his anonymity was broken by the press (as was
Dr. Bob's at the time of his earlier death). Yet both Bill
and Dr. Bob were buried without fanfare and, as they wished,
there is no mention on their tombstones of their great indelible
contributions to Alcoholics Anonymous.
New York, New York
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., December 1990
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