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Why the Eleventh Tradition.

26 January 2014

The eleventh tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “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.” At the link, there’s also a longer-form version that goes into a bit more detail. And for those seeking a comprehensive treatment, read the chapter is “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”. Fundamentally, what the eleventh tradition means is that AA does not promote itself. When I write that AA works, and that I believe in the program’s capacity to change lives, I’m not speaking for AA. I’m not AA’s spokesperson. I might say things here that go counter to AA published material. I also believe that for the purposes of AA, there’s no meaningful difference between pseudonymity and anonymity. I am unaware of AA having a policy on this topic.

As I wrote in my previous post, the reason for anonymity here is twofold. First, it protects me from the disclosure of my alcoholism in venues where I might want it to remain undiscovered. Second, and more important, it protects people who are newcomers, and who would ask me for help. It provides security for people who may be in real jeopardy if their alcoholism is revealed. If I use my real name here, and talk about sponsoring or other people in my life who are alcoholics, even if I don’t identify them, I may make their identities known inadvertently. Just like I  would not list the journals that a pseudonymous scientist I know has published in. Breadcrumbs matter.

But it is especially important that celebrities not identify themselves as members of AA. As alcoholics? Sure, whatever. Say you’re an alcoholic in recovery. That’s great. People may assume whatever they choose. But when Roger Ebert outed himself on his 30th birthday, I was perturbed. Roger Ebert had strong political opinions. AA has none. Roger Ebert was an occasionally polarizing figure. AA seeks to avoid all controversy. Recently, a living celebrity in the early stages of sobriety “came out” as a member of AA. I feel the same, and even more so.

People in very early sobriety often end up on what we call a “pink cloud”. It means feeling wonderful, excited, gloriously sober. We often want to evangelize about AA and pull people into the program. We want everyone to see how we’ve changed. We’re thrilled about our new health and vitality and want to share it widely and loudly. Sponsors should help the newcomers embrace the pink cloud in an emotional sense, and should strongly curtail any evangelistic behavior. Even Bill W and Dr. Bob wanted to evangelize at first. And build AA hospitals. It’s a great, great thing that they saw the trap that leads to: prestige, wealth, politics, infighting, corruption. Things that have derailed essentially every large-scale charity project in human history.

One big reason that celebrities should keep quiet about being in AA is that they (just like the rest of us) often relapse. When public figures relapse and struggle and endure additional humiliations, they show others that getting sober seems impossible. When in fact, we don’t know anything about how the person is truly working a program. Sometimes, people work hard and fail (though in my experience, and in AA’s literature, we see that very rarely). Sometimes, people are going to AA to get courts or spouses or bosses off their back and have no particular interest in recovery. Those people have a harder time. Though even they sometimes recover.

Anonymity in AA is about protecting ourselves, our newcomers, and the program. We don’t promote AA. We simply live our lives, practice the principles, and volunteer to guide those who would seek us out to recover. AA has no lobby. Does not accept outside donations. (Really. Not an AA member? Keep your money. We don’t want it.) Has no formal organizational structure. Has only a single rule for membership. You may be a member of AA if you desire to stop drinking. That’s it.

The program of AA works because those who have recovered protect the program, and newcomers, by not associating our names with the program. We are anonymous. Because we have a disease that is misunderstood by the world. It is seen as a disease of moral failure and personal weakness. Indolence. Depravity. Our disease causes us to behave in shockingly anti-social ways. People who interact with us, while we are active in our disease, are thoroughly justified in choosing not to support us. To disassociate. To divorce us. Even, in the end, to let us die miserably and alone. The blame rests with us, not with our associates and companions. Not with the healthcare system. And not with AA. Accepting that blame is part of our recovery.

AA works because by practicing the program as it is laid out in the book, we can relent from our obsession with alcohol, our drunkenness, our misery. And go on to live productive and healthy lives. And then we share it with those who seek it. And that power, that ability, all of our recovery, rests on the broad beam of our anonymity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Syd permalink
    28 January 2014 10:14

    I don’t like to see celebrities go on and on about their program of recovery in AA. It does break anonymity and some are not good examples IMO of the program. Similarly, I don’t think people ought to ask celebrities who come to meetings for autographs. Another break in the traditions.

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