Last Sunday’s New York Times carried a provocative article, “Challenging the second “A” in A.A.” by David Colman who described himself as an active member of AA.

When A.A. began in 1935 with Bill W. and Dr. Bob, anonymity was a key part of the 12-step program.  It was meant to shield those struggling to become sober from the stigma of being an alchoholic, a stigma far more marked 75 years ago when there was little research on alcoholism as a medical condition over which its sufferers had little control.

Now that alcoholism has beeen identified as an illness there is far less urgency in protecting from shame.

And the most sacred institutions sometimes modify their teaching.  For centuries the Catholic church taught that limbo was where little unbaptized babies went.  The Church has now dropped that teaching.

Now, considering new medical information and changing attitudes, couldn’t A.A. drop its anonymity plank?

But, hold on.  Wait a minute.  Suppose some celebrity gets on TV and announces that he is an alcoholic.  The media report six weeks later that he has fallen off the  wagon and is back in the sauce.  Who does that help ?  Same thing with an author who writes a book about her alcoholism and then goes back to the booze.

I have a personal angle on this.  Back in the sixties I had a drinking problem.  I checked out several recovery routes including AA.  Many years later I wrote a memoir called “The Inside Story.”   How should I handle my addiction problem in the book?  After a good deal of thought, I decided to describe my drinking in full but not to mention AA.

Now in 2011 the arguments for ditching anonymity are even stronger.  More and more it seems like an anachronistic vestige of the Great Depression, when AA got its start and when alcoholism was seen  as not just a weakness but a disgrace.

Does denying one’s participation in a program that is helping your life make any sense?

If staying anonymous is not aan outdated (and sometimes absurd) technicality, is it at least a CHOICE thaty everyone should have?

As the writer, Ms Cheever, put it:  “This dancing around and hedging, figuring out ways of saying it that aren’t really saying it, so that people in recovery know what I am talking about — all the code words.  I am sure this is not what Bill W. intended?

Should A.A. drop the second “A”?

What do you think?


  1. 1

    I think if you out yourself, then you can no longer claim anonymity. And if you brag about it (as Colman did), you’re just seeking headlines.

    I have a good friend who is AA. She’s very matter-of-fact about it if it comes up in conversation, but she doesn’t bring it up herself, and she does not dwell on it unless someone wants to ask specific questions for specifc reasons — like they’re looking to join, themselves. It’s her own thing. It has nothing to do with anyone else.

    It’s not about secrecy to hide any “shame” — as you say, there is no “shame” attached to it. It’s about privacy regarding personal issues. If someone decides to take it out of the personal closet and hold it up to the light so everyone else can see it, that’s their own choice, and so are the consequences and fallout, should they fail to meet their now-public expectations.

  2. 2
    Neil McKenty Says:

    I guess what you are saying is that AA is pro-choice. If a person wants to break his anonymity or not – thathis his business. But under no circumstances should he break the anonymity of another person.

  3. 3

    “Pro-choice” is not the term I’d use, Neil. That term has connotations that do not belong.

    But otherwise, essentially, yes.

  4. 4
    Gunnar Says:

    I am Gunnar and i am an alchoholic. The anonymity principle made sense when bill wrote it down. At that time admitting to alcoholism was often reason to be fired and worse. There was indeed shame attached to it. There still is in many places. I choose to talk about my alcoholism the way other people talk about their cancer, diabetes or depression. To share when to do so feels right. It can help others who are asking themselves about their own drinking but who do not feel ready to seek help. Yes, I agree absolutely one should never bring up other people’s illness no matter what illness unless that a person is open about his or condition. One final thing for A.A. friends: I have never understood why anonymity should be considered the foundation of our spirituality. To me honesty and admission of powerlessness over alcohol are far more fundamental in the recovery process – spiritual and physical.

  5. 5
    Neil McKenty Says:


    I am inclined to agree with you in this sense — a desire to stop drinking is more fundamental than anonymity.

  6. 6
    jim Says:

    Originally, anonymity was intended to keep AA away from public opinion and politics which made it more credible because there was no agenda, except to be available to all – from outcast to national leadership. Each individual must find their own road to recovery, AA only facilitates this process. Members who claim to rightously speak or write on behalf of the membership, are speaking out of turn. They are also the same people who improperly give advice, without being asked, and rant on themes that are self-serving. What each member can count on is what they were like before; what caused them to seek and remain in recovery; and, what their lives are like now as a result of cleaning themselves up in every area. Anonymity is a very important axiom for anyone seeking relief. Some practice using it for a few years and then sobriety will guide them from then on. People like the author think they are “different”. He wants to change AA. Doesn’t he realize that the old-fashioned program that saved his life may not have worked for him if the program had been different and if anonymity hadn’t been emphasized. Why has it not occured to him that he cannot compete with AA’s 76 years of experience. He should let AA change him, rather than try to change it. It was right then and it is right now. Sponsors say it’s OK to be free to be open, regarding membership, to friends, loved ones, peers, or colleagues, but not the public. It is also OK to open up when calling on a drunk.When one gets down to the nitty-gritty, all one has to share is their experience, strength, and hope. Nothing else really matters. The reason for not revealing one’s identity and membership in AA to the media is twofold. The first is to protect and practice humility on a personal level, the second is to protect AA from one’s particular character defects.(not that AA needs protecting in this day and age).
    OK let’s drop the second “A”. Now where would one go, if one of the requirements for one to go, is to have the knowledge that his attendance and identity at an alcoholic recovery group would be protected? There are plenty of other alcoholic groups that would meet the writer’s requirement, which is a group not promoting anonymity. What sort of an ego does it take for one to join the Club, then benefits from membership in the Club and then wants to change the rules, so that drunks following him into the club, years later won’t be able receive the same benefits. Beware of these neophytes, they try to destroy from within.

  7. 7
    Neil McKenty Says:


    You make a strong case.

  8. 8
    zeusiswatching Says:

    We want our medical issues and treatments to be generally private. Yes, we might talk about some of them (my latest blog entry does), but generally, we should expect our treatments to be ours to disclose when we feel it is appropriate.

  9. 9

    “I am inclined to agree with you in this sense — a desire to stop drinking is more fundamental than anonymity.”

    You’re missing the point, Neil. Sometimes they need to go together or the desire to stop drinking will not mature. Stop thinking about it as some kind of secrecy, and start thinking of it as privacy. Or would you be okay with emptying your bladder and bowels in full view of everyone you know, and even those you don’t?

  10. 10
    4/22/91 Says:

    “we need always maintain anonymity at the level of press,radio and films”
    where is the difficulty in reading and understanding that??,,,,how can you rationalize and make yourself an exception to the rule??

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