The Evolution of Anonymity in 12 Step Fellowships: Does it Still Serve a Purpose?
A controversial topic within the recovery community, anonymity is a principle that varies greatly in its application and personal value. I’m talking specifically about anonymity within the 12 Step community. Ask the question as to whether it has a place within that community today, as opposed to the 1930s – when Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was formed – and you may be met with some impassioned opinions.
Passion aside, does the application of 12 Step anonymity have a place in the wider addiction recovery movement today – given our advocacy to get people the help they need and to fight the stigma attached to addiction? And, in light of its varying application and controversy, is it a principle that is truly understood within the 12 Step community?
The Details of Anonymity in AA
The principle of anonymity was founded within AA, with Bill Wilson (its founding member) speaking of its importance in the Foreword of The First Edition of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. In 1946, the principle was expanded upon within AA’s Twelve Traditions. The two Traditions which refer to anonymity are: Tradition Eleven, which states, “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” And Tradition Twelve, which states: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
Susan Cheever, author and writer, has written about this topic extensively. She explained its concept an article, as: “Anonymity as described in the literature of A.A. has three parts: spirituality, community and personal identity, and public relations. They comprise a balancing act between A.A. members’ responsibility to help other alcoholics and their responsibility to the group and their own sobriety.”
But what exactly does it mean in context today? Confidentiality, anonymity, and privacy are separate concepts. Anonymity related to disclosing membership to a 12 Step fellowship when publicly speaking about recovery and revealing one’s full name; confidentiality is about respecting who you see within a fellowship; privacy is about what you share.
Clarifying the Meaning and Purpose of Anonymity
There is a wide-spread misunderstanding and misapplication of anonymity within 12 Step fellowships, thus placing personalities before principles. I spoke to addictions expert Veronica Valli, who further clarified the meaning and purpose of anonymity and how it has been misapplied. She said:
“Anonymity has long been confused with secrecy. This has come about from a misunderstanding of the 11th tradition from the 12th Step fellowships. What it suggests is that members of Alcoholics Anonymous do not speak publicly about being members of AA. It does not state that we don’t talk openly about alcoholism or our own stories of recovery.”
“However, many members of AA believed it means we keep our alcoholism and recovery secret. This misguided belief has caused unintentional – but no less enormous – damage to the recovery movement. Because of this culture of secrecy, it means we have not been able to advocate for better treatment and resources.”
“Very simply put, you break the tradition when you say in the press, radio, film or internet ‘I’m John Smith. I’m a member of AA, and it saved my life.’ You do not break the tradition when you say ‘I’m John Smith and I’m an alcoholic who has now recovered.’ The difference between these two statements is profound.”
A point echoed in the evolution of AA. Their General Service Organization amended their guidance to this tradition: “AA members may disclose their identity and speak as recovery alcoholics, giving radio, TV and internet interviews, without violating the Traditions – so long as their AA membership is not revealed.”
Different Opinions, Different Views
In spite of this very clear guidance, the impassioned opinions of some members of a 12 Step fellowships vary in understanding of this tradition. Some correctly so (according to the tradition’s intended application); others delivering their understanding with a dose of judgment and shaming.
Some describe those identifying as a member of a 12 Step fellowship and speaking about their recovery on a public platform as self-seeking and self-important; some say that voice comes from a place of ego. Others worry that if someone was open about their recovery and relapsed, it would reflect badly on the fellowship. Many believe that speaking about recovery and identifying as a member of a 12 Step fellowship indirectly makes that member a “spokesperson” for their fellowship. Comments are made that writers who cover recovery are selling their sobriety.
There is a notion that, by everyone remaining anonymous, a sense of uniformity is gained, with no one person appearing more important than the next. There is also an overriding implication that these intended guidelines should be treated like rules.-Olivia Pennelle
There is a notion that, by everyone remaining anonymous, a sense of uniformity is gained, with no one person appearing more important than the next. There is also an overriding implication that these intended guidelines should be treated like rules ,with comments like, “You can’t pick and choose the application of the traditions – you wouldn’t do that with the Steps.”
Yet, that varying application even happened in AA: Bill Wilson testified before Congress both on camera and with an audio recording. It was fully covered by the press. He did this to advance the cause of AA and make help more accessible. Was he called self-seeking and ego-driven?
William Moyers, author, advocate, vice president for Hazelden, and instrumental in the formation of the Faces & Voices movement, believes protecting the anonymity of others is essential. However, someone publicly sharing their own affiliation with an anonymous group, he believes, may not be detrimental. He publicly disclosed his membership with a 12 Step fellowship in his memoir Broken: My Story of Addiction and Redemption. In that publication, he said: “There was no way I could talk about recovery without talking about how I recovered – that it’s not a magic bullet or injection, that it’s a process, and that process is involved. I need people to understand that recovery is hard work, and that hard work is reflected in my program through the 12 steps.”
The Evolution of Traditions
What is clear about the evolution of these traditions is that they were formed when this disease was considered a disgrace, and those seeking help felt great shame. Now, due to the great advocacy work we’ve undertaken to change public policy, overcome the stigma attached to addiction, and improve the provision of treatment resources, we have made great strides, with organizations like I Am Not Anonymous, Faces and Voices of Recovery, and Fighting Addiction changing the conversation and putting a face to recovery. Not to mention the growing number of writers and bloggers who openly share their experiences of recovery. And it’s working; more and more people are feeling less shame and coming out as in recovery and more are seeking help.
Whether we think it is outdated or even unnecessary principle, it should remain a personal choice afforded to anyone in recovery. And that choice, whatever it is, should be respected. When personalities override principles, anonymity becomes weaponized, used to silence those who make others feel uncomfortable with their activism and advocacy. That isn’t about anonymity; it’s about other people’s feelings and judgements.
Anonymity is a necessity within the context of providing a safe space for someone to find recovery and to protect those who work in professions requiring privacy. Confidentiality and privacy, whether you consider to be an arm of anonymity or not, are fundamental to the protection of members of 12 Step fellowships and the fellowship as a whole. Of course if you recover outside of AA, it is not suggested you follow these principles.
When speaking to a reporter about the necessity of anonymity in AA, Susan Cheever said, “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction. AA’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice. When it comes to alcoholism and AA, the problem is very public, but the solution is still veiled in secrecy.”
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