SOME YEARS ago, I wrote an article for
a small-circulation magazine, identifying myself as
a recovered alcoholic but not mentioning AA. Nevertheless,
I received letters from AA members and others who readily
recognized that I belonged to the Fellowship. No great
harm was done, but I did learn that anonymity can be
technically maintained while it is being violated in
can happen because anonymity is a guiding principle
at both the practical and the spiritual levels.
Observing anonymity at the practical level is a bit
like following a rulebook; it covers most situations,
but eventually something comes up that the rules don't
quite explain. I think we find the right answers, however,
if we also have an understanding of the spirit
of anonymity, the thing that's summed up in AA's Twelfth
first, what is practical anonymity? It's largely
covered by the Eleventh Tradition. Maintain anonymity
at the public media level, and, of course, respect the
other person's anonymity at every level. Just
don't come out in the newspapers or on television as
an AA member, and you're observing anonymity at the
practical level. And don't tell anybody that your friend
John Doe is an AA member, or reveal anything you know
of his personal problems.
I proved, to my own regret, that you can stay within
the Eleventh Tradition and still let the printed message
say that you belong to AA. It's easy to play games with
this Tradition. For example, I saw one member appear
as a recovered alcoholic on a national television show
presenting full face, full name, but no actual mention
of AA affiliation. Then, this person went on to talk
knowledgeably about the effectiveness and operations
of AA, leaving no doubt about the AA connection. This
was hardly a case of maintaining real anonymity.
On another occasion, I heard a member
discuss another member's sex problems in a talk at a
large anniversary meeting. He did not give the other
person's name, but he revealed so many facts that I
was able to identify the man. This was certainly a violation
of confidence, as well as anonymity.
examples, in my opinion, were cases of coyly staying
within the requirements of anonymity while distorting
its purpose. Perhaps recognizing this problem, the authors
of the AA Traditions went further. In Tradition Twelve,
they talked about the spiritual practice of
anonymity. It is the spiritual basis of anonymity that
gives direction and sense to the practical side of it.
At the spiritual level, anonymity becomes
a guiding principle for the AA way of life. Tradition
Twelve makes the startling claim that "anonymity
is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever
reminding us to place principles before personalities."
What does that mean? Well, we talk a
lot about putting "principles before personalities,"
but it's often only a defense against strong-willed
individuals who attempt to dominate a group. Or it can
be a way of putting down a person who has become a self-appointed
authority. Used more wisely, it can be a reminder that
one should never pose as a final AA authority or become
too dependent on other members, because all of us have
But what really stands out in this Tradition
is the suggestion that anonymity is a "spiritual
foundation." According to AA co-founder Bill W.,
anonymity at the spiritual level demands the greatest
discipline of which we are capable. It involves sacrifice,
and the practice that must be sacrificed is using AA
to obtain money, power, and prestige. This does not
mean that AA members are not entitled to pursue any
of these in their own ways; it suggests only that such
pursuit can be harmful to the member and the Fellowship
if one's AA membership is exploited for this purpose.
Why should AA be one of the few societies
to suggest such a discipline for its members? One reason
is that AA is a society of very simplified purpose:
As a society, we exist only to help the alcoholic recover,
not to use AA as a means of becoming rich, famous, or
powerful. We are best able to help the alcoholic when
we do so out of genuine need and desire to help; but
our efforts are blunted if we have self-seeking, base
motives. An ancient book put the spiritual idea of anonymity
very well: "Take heed that ye do not your alms
before men, to be seen of them; otherwise ye have no
reward of your Father which is in heaven. . . . When
thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee.
. . . That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father
which seeth in secret Himself shall reward thee openly."
We don't "do alms" in AA,
but what's meant here is doing good. We do good when
we carry the AA message of recovery to alcoholics. If
it's done in the right way, this action of carrying
the message brings an unusual reward that can be appreciated
only by those who grasp its meaning. And it is really
not a form of sacrifice at all; rather, it is a case
of giving up a poorer thing in order to obtain something
better. It is not sour grapes or rationalization to
say that the thing we are seeking far surpasses wealth,
power, or prestige. It is the pearl of great price.
Remember, many alcoholics already have wealth and prestige
but have not been able to attain sobriety. The thing
we're reaching for is no respecter of persons, and in
this AA quest for spiritual understanding, the poor
or obscure person has equal opportunity with everybody.
But why couldn't AA serve many purposes
for specific individuals and still carry out its mission
of helping alcoholics? There are many useful movements
that have also served as vehicles to make certain people
rich and famous. Yet this has not destroyed the effectiveness
of these organizations.
The answer, for me, is that AA probably
could carry on for a time even if both the letter and
the spirit of anonymity were lost, but we would gradually
become less effective, and the high purposes of the
Fellowship would be diluted. We are particularly sensitive
to such problems as pride, resentment, and jealousy--all
the character defects that flourish among competitive,
self-serving people. From time to time, I have felt
surges of resentment and jealousy toward the few people
who have apparently reaped rather handsome rewards in
money and publicity as a result of dropping their anonymity.
I shudder to think what would happen to AA if this sort
of thing became commonplace.
There is also another practical side
to anonymity. Many of us, in our personal lives, do
not live up to the ideals expressed in the AA program.
Though sober, we often find ourselves short-tempered
or wallowing in self-pity. At such times in my own life,
I've been rather grateful that the community doesn't
know I'm on a dry drunk. Thanks to the anonymity Tradition,
my personality quirks and opinions are held against
me but not against the Fellowship of AA.
I am also inclined to think that anonymity
breaks would be particularly troublesome in small communities.
Most discussions of anonymity-breaking are about well-publicized
individuals who have been identified as AA members in
national publications or on network television. But
anonymity breaks could be very harmful in small communities
where individual AA members might be well known and
would be under constant scrutiny. Who needs or can live
up to the responsibility of being "Mister AA"
in a small town?
If we choose to understand and practice
anonymity, we should also face up to current practices
that may tend to nibble away at it. Even seemingly harmless
practices should be questioned. For example, many AA
members use auto bumper stickers carrying the AA slogans
"Easy Does It" and "One Day at a Time."
I confess that I purchased such a bumper sticker for
our trip out to the 1975 AA International Convention
in Denver. We took some pleasure in being noticed on
the highways by other AA members en route to the same
event. But we also discovered that non-AAs understand
the significance of the bumper sticker--that it really
says, "I belong to AA." In thinking it over,
I've decided that no useful purpose is served by carrying
such a bumper sticker and that it violates the spirit
of anonymity. One of the things we should sacrifice
in AA is exhibitionism and showing off, so I've given
up the bumper sticker habit. I do not really help myself
or others stay sober by honking at them on the highway,
and it's not necessary or desirable to use a device
that publicly identifies me as an AA member.
Still, it's of little value to discuss
such matters if individual AA members do not feel a
great personal responsibility for the Fellowship, and
do not sense the spirit of anonymity. AA is truly a
fellowship that can never "give as the world giveth."
If the practice and spirit of anonymity fade, we will
certainly be diverted from our primary purpose of helping
alcoholics. Individual members who are ready to drop
their own anonymity will, of course, declare that their
purpose is to help alcoholics, for alcoholics are experts
in self-justification. Nevertheless, the short-term
benefits of power, prestige, and money--which will come
only to the few--will bring a long-term liability for
AA as a whole.
We should never believe that we have
outgrown the need for anonymity or that changing times
and conditions have made anonymity obsolete. Back in
1955, AA co-founder Bill W. observed that civilization
was being torn apart by the struggle for power, importance,
and wealth, man against man, family against family,
group against group, nation against nation. The struggle
was an appalling dry bender, he wrote, that was taking
society down a dead-end road toward a stop sign marked
Twenty-two years later, civilization
is now almost within crashing distance of that stop
sign. Nobody in pursuit of the gods of power, importance,
and wealth is capable of showing the self-restraint
and sacrificial spirit that could still save the day.
We see all around us the clear evidence that the ways
of the world don't really work very well. All the more
reason, then, to stay on the course that was so wisely
chosen for us. AA sobriety is a pearl of great price
that would be worth the exchange of any worldly position
or possession. Those of us who inherited this blessing
are under a debt of honor. We should pass it on, perfect
and unblemished, to the oncoming generations of alcoholics
who need and deserve AA at its best.
Why settle for less when we already