The second ‘A’ in AA

Am I the only one who is really underwhelmed with these recent pieces on whether anonymity in AA has been rendered quaint?

To me, they seem to fundamentally misunderstand AA’s anonymity.

There’s plenty of room within AA’s traditions for activism and public education, AA members are just advised not to identify themselves as AA members in the media, avoid presenting themselves as representatives of AA and draw attention themselves.

There is nothing in AA’s traditions that prohibits publicly identifying oneself as an alcoholic in recovery as long as they do not identify as an AA member. The 12th tradition does, however, encourage caution and humility.

I do not find Susan Cheever to be authoritative:

Because A.A. membership is secret and many meetings are not open to those who don’t have a desire to stop drinking, the group has taken on the air of a of cult…

Over the years, a few brave souls have broken their anonymity…

Cult? Brave? Glad she so respects AA.

Further, while it may be “brilliant” writing, the recovery message in Clancy Martin’s essay is very shaky.

“I think it’s extremely healthy that anonymity is fading,” said Clancy Martin

I suppose that’s the problem when handfuls of people begin breaking anonymity—others put them in the position of spokesperson whether they want it or not, especially if they offer an interesting narrative.

It’s not something I worry much about. These things have a way of working themselves out. But I am bothered when controversy is brewed by self/media appointed experts. I suppose that’s one of the reasons for the who anonymity thing in the first place?

10 thoughts on “The second ‘A’ in AA

  1. No, you’re not the only one wondering about it all. I tried to take a balanced view on it recently in my blog, but if truth be told, I remain uncomfortable and I think the discomfort is to do with human frailty.

    If Bill White is right and the 12 Traditions are the reason AA and its sisters survived ‘beyond the founding generation” then we ought to be very careful on this.


    1. I’m with you on this. I have a difficult time seeing how the status quo is a problem.

      There’s nothing to discourage people from being completely open about it in their personal life. And, of course, if someone really wants to break their anonymity, there’s no real penalty for it.


  2. I think “underwhelmed” is a very diplomatic way of putting it. While I do believe 12-step programs can evolve and grow successfully with changing times, I’m pretty cautious about anonymity. My favorite example of the importance of anonymity will always be the controversial, right-wing, mormon Fox news personality. When I first read that he was in AA I was more than ‘underwhelmed.’ If I had not been firmly entrenched in AA already at that point I might have seriously considered never setting foot in a meeting. Now if he relapses it’ll be, “look, AA’s for wingnuts and it doesn’t even work!” Oy vey. I’m pretty sure zero public spokespeople would be better than that.


    1. Anonymity has the effect of making the spotlight brighter on those who break their anonymity. It’s not so difficult to image one or a handful of people becoming the public face of AA. Particularly troubling if they are controversial.


  3. Since you posted this, I’ve seen yet more stuff on the subject. I was thinking that I don’t like the way it’s trending, but then I remind myself that a few public voices on websites, newspapers and blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the majority of members of 12 step groups.


    1. The commentary that bugged me was from Time magazine, where one of their health bloggers called for all health professionals in any position of influence to break their anonymity. The reason?

      The cloak of anonymity makes it hard for people who are seeking treatment to get the lowdown on rehab programs; it’s often hard to determine, for instance, if a program is run by 12-step group members who believe that their way is the only way. Preserving anonymity has also been used as a reason not to conduct research on the effectiveness of 12-step programs — even though research participants in all studies remain anonymous anyway.
      I believe that when people are in positions of power related to addictions — treatment providers, policy makers, etc. — it’s imperative that they be transparent about their associations and connections. It’s fine to be anonymous about your own path to recovery when you are the only one being affected, but it’s not appropriate when you seek to influence public health or policy.

      A cabal of anonymous members are trying to control the world of treatment!

      Do we demand cancer researchers disclose any personal experience with cancer AND the treatments they used?

      Resentment disguised as journalism.


  4. Interesting concept. Should psychiatrists disclose their mental health histories? Should they disclose personality quirks to people with personality disorders or what antidepressant helped them during their depression?

    Perhaps more legitimately, should they disclose to patients to whom they are going to prescribe whether they have benefited from any relationships with pharmaceutical companies in terms of research funding, education, travel, sustenance or other perks?

    Let’s either have a level playing field in terms of disclosures or have a little bit of common sense.


  5. That Time piece was a total hack job – the author clearly has an axe to grind. My favorite part was where she writes something to the effect of, ‘Anonymity allows harmful myths like if 12-steps don’t work for you, you have little hope.’ I’m still trying to figure out the logic of that statement.

    You make an interesting point about anonymity having the effect of making the spotlight brighter on those who break their anonymity – that sounds like an effective argument against it – ?

    I think it’s a completely false argument to say that anonymity conceals what kind of treatment a person might get at a rehab – I’ve perused many rehab websites and most are very upfront about their endorsement of 12-step meetings in addition to counseling.


  6. That had me scratching my head too. (Seems like XA’s anonymity and emphasis on attraction rather than promotion would limit promotion.) That is, until I got to the part about it being so secret that its invisibility is its great weapon in maintaining a monopoly on treatment and recovery in the US.

    I’m pretty tired of her 90% stat:
    More than 90% of addiction and alcoholism treatment programs in the U.S. focus on getting patients to attend 12-step groups
    She implies that 90% of treatment programs are little more than 12-step indoctrination centers. I’ve no doubt that 90% make referrals to 12 step programs, but I suspect most of these are passive referrals in the same way a doctor recommends exercise. I don’t know what percentage actually “focus on getting patients to attend 12-step groups”, but I’m certain it’s nowhere near 90%. I agree with you, the ones that do focus on it generally don’t make any attempt to hide it.

    I’m reading The Emperor of all Maladies. Many of the researchers and advocates had cancer and chose to keep this information private. Was that wrong too?


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