Alcoholics Anonymous is Anonymous
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1955
never before the struggle for power, importance, and wealth
is tearing civilization apart. Man against man, family
against family, group against group, nation against nation.
all those engaged in this fierce competition declare that
their aim is peace and justice for themselves, their neighbors,
and their nations: give us power and we shall have justice;
give us fame and we shall set a great example; give us
money and we shall be comfortable and happy. People throughout
the world deeply believe that, and act accordingly. On
this appalling dry bender, society seems to be staggering
down a dead-end road. The stop sign is clearly marked.
It says "Disaster."
has this got to do with anonymity and Alcoholics Anonymous?
of AA ought to know. Nearly every one of us has traversed
this identical dead-end path. Powered by alcohol and self
justification, many of us have pursued the phantoms of
self-importance and money right up to the disaster stop
sign. Then came AA. We faced about and found ourselves
on a new high road where the direction signs said never
a word about power, fame, or wealth. The new sign read,
"This way to sanity and serenity -- the price is
new book, "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,"
states that "Anonymity is the greatest protection
our Society can ever have." It says also that "The
spiritual substance of anonymity is sacrifice."
turn to A.A.'s twenty years of experience and see how
we arrived at that belief, now expressed in our Traditions
Eleven and Twelve.
the beginning we sacrificed alcohol. We had to, or it
would have killed us. But we couldn't get rid of alcohol
unless we made other sacrifices. Big shot-ism and phony
thinking had to go. We had to toss self-justification,
self-pity, and anger right out the window. We had to quit
the crazy contest for personal prestige and big bank balances.
We had to take personal responsibility for our sorry state
and quit blaming others for it.
these sacrifices? Yes, they were. To gain enough humility
and self-respect to stay alive at all we had to give up
what had really been our dearest possession - our ambitions
and our illegitimate pride.
even (his was not enough. Sacrifice had to go much further.
Other people had to benefit too. So we took on some Twelfth
Step work; we began to carry the A.A. message. We sacrificed
time, energy and our own money to do this. We couldn't
keep what we had unless we gave it away.
we demand that our new prospects give us anything? Were
we asking them for power, over their lives, for fame for
our good work or for a cent of their money? No, we were
not. We found that if we demanded any of these things
our Twelfth Step work went flat. So these natural desires
had to be sacrificed; otherwise, our prospects received
little or no sobriety. Nor, indeed, did we.
we learned that sacrifice had to bring a double benefit,
or else little at all. We began to know about the kind
of giving of ourselves that had no price tag on it.
the first A.A. group took form, we soon learned a lot
more of this. We found that each of us had to make willing
sacrifices for the group itself, sacrifices for the common
welfare. The group, in turn, found that it had to give
up many of its own rights for the protection and welfare
of each member, and for A.A. as a whole. These sacrifices
had to be made or A.A. couldn't continue to exist.
of these experiences and realizations, the Twelve Traditions
of Alcoholics Anonymous began to take shape and substance.
we saw that the unity, the effectiveness, even the survival
A.A. would always depend upon our continued willingness
to sacrifice our personal ambitions and desires for the
common safety and welfare. Just as sacrifice meant survival
for the individual, so did sacrifice mean unity and survival
for the group and for A.A.'s entire Fellowship.
in this light, A.A.'s Twelve Traditions are little else
than a list of sacrifices which the experience of twenty
years has taught us that we must make, individually and
collectively, if A.A. itself is to stay alive arid healthy.
our Twelve Traditions we have set our faces against nearly
every trend in the outside world.
have denied ourselves personal government, professionalism
and the right to say who our members shall be. We have
abandoned do-good ism, reform and paternalism. We refuse
charitable money and prefer to pay our own way. We will
cooperate with practically everybody, yet we decline to
marry our Society to anyone: We abstain from public controversy
and will not quarrel among ourselves about those things
that so rip society asunder-religion, politics and reform.
We have but one purpose: to carry the A.A. message to
the sick alcoholic who wants it.
take these attitudes not at all because we claim special
virtue or wisdom; we do these things because hard experience
has told us that we must-if A.A. is to survive in the
distraught world of today. We also give up rights and
make sacrifices because we ought to - and, better 'yet,
because we want to. A.A. is a power greater than any of
us; it must go on living or else uncounted thousands of
our kind will surely die. This we know.
where does anonymity fit into this picture? What is anonymity
anyhow? Why do we think it is the greatest single protection
that A.A. can ever have? Why is ii our greatest symbol
of personal sacrifice, the spiritual key to all our Traditions
and to our whole way of life?
following fragment of A.A. history will reveal, I deeply
hope, the answer we all seek.
ago a noted ballplayer sobered up through A.A. Because
his comeback was so spectacular, he got a tremendous personal
ovation in the press and Alcoholics Anonymous got much
of the credit, His full name and picture, as a member
of were seen by millions of fans. It did us plenty of
good; alcoholics flocked in. We loved this. I was specially
excited because it gave me ideas.
I was on the road, happily handing out personal interviews
and pictures. To my delight, I found I could hit the front
pages, just as he could. Besides, he couldn't hold his
publicity pace, but I could hold mine. I only needed to
keep traveling and talking. The local A.A. groups and
newspapers did the rest. I was astonished when recently
I looked at those old newspaper stories. For two or three
years I guess I was A.A.'s number one anonymity-breaker.
I can't blame any A.A. who has grabbed the spotlight since.
I set the main example myself, years ago.
the time, this looked like the thing to do, Thus justified,
I ate it up. What a bang it gave me when I read those
two column spreads about "Bill the Broker,"
full name and picture, the guy who was saving drunks by
this fair sky began to be a little overcast. Murmurs were
heard from A.A. skeptics who said, "This guy Bill
is hogging the big time. Dr. Bob isn't getting his share."
Or, again, "Suppose all this publicity goes to Bill's
head and he gets drunk on us?"
stung. How could they persecute me when I was doing so
much good? I told my critics that this was America and
didn't they know I had the right of free speech? And wasn't
this country and every other run by big-name leaders?
Anonymity was maybe okay for the average A.A. But co-founders
ought to be exceptions. The public certainly had a right
to know who we were.
A.A. power-drivers (prestige-hungry people, folks just
like me) weren't long in catching on. They were going
to be exceptions too. They said that anonymity before
the general public was just for timid people: all the
braver and bolder souls, like themselves, should stand
right up before the flashbulbs and be counted. This kind
of courage would soon do away with the stigma on alcoholics.
The public would right away see what fine citizens recovered
drunks could make. So more and more members broke their
anonymity, all for the good of A.A. What if a drunk was
photographed with the Governor? Both he and the Governor
deserved the honor, didn't they? Thus we zoomed along,
down the dead end road!
next anonymity breaking development looked even rosier.
A close A.A. friend of mine wanted to go in for alcohol
education. A department of a great university interested
in alcoholism wanted her to go out and tell the general
public that alcoholics were sick people, and that plenty
could be done about it. My friend was a crack public speaker
and writer. Could she tell the general public that she
was an A.A. member? Well, why not? By using the name Alcoholics
Anonymous she'd get fine publicity for a good brand of
alcohol education and for A.A. too. I thought it an excellent
idea and therefore gave my blessing.
was already getting to be a famous and valuable name.
Backed by our name and her own great ability, the results
were immediate. In nothing flat her own full name and
picture, plus excellent accounts of her educational project,
and of A.A., landed in nearly every large paper in North
America. The public understanding of alcoholism increased,
the stigma on drunks lessened, and A.A. got new members.
Surely there could be nothing wrong with that.
there was. For the sake of this short-term benefit, we
were taking on a future liability of huge and menacing
an A.A. member began to publish a crusading magazine devoted
to the cause of Prohibition. He thought Alcoholics Anonymous
ought to help make the world bone-dry. He disclosed himself
as an A.A. member and freely used the A.A. name to attack
the evils of whiskey and those who made it and drank it.
He pointed out that he too was an "educator,"
and that his brand of education was the "right kind."
As for putting A.A. into public controversy, he thought
that was exactly where we should be. So he busily used
A.A.'s name to do just that. Of course, he broke his anonymity
to help his cherished cause along.
was followed by a proposal from a liquor-trade association
that an A.A. member take on a job of "education."
People were to be told that too much alcohol was bad for
anyone and that certain people - the alcoholics - shouldn't
drink at all, What could be the matter with this?
catch was that our A.A. friend had to break his anonymity;
every piece of publicity and literature was to carry his
full name as a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. This of
course would be bound to create the definite public impression
that A.A. favored "education," liquor-trade
these two developments never happened to get far, their
implications were nevertheless terrific. They spelled
it right out for us. By hiring Out to another cause, and
then declaring his A.A. membership to the whole public,
it was in the power of an A.A. to marry Alcoholics Anonymous
to practically any enterprise or controversy at all, good
or bad. The more valuable the A.A. name became, the greater
the temptation would be.
proof of this was not long in showing up. Another member
started to put us into the advertising business. He had
been commissioned by a life insurance company to deliver
a series of twelve "lectures" on Alcoholics
Anonymous over a national radio hookup. This would of
course advertise life insurance and Alcoholics Anonymous
- and naturally our friend himself - all in one good-looking
A.A. Headquarters, we read the proposed lectures. They
were about 50% A.A. and 50% our friend's personal religious
conviction. This could create a false public view of us.
Religious prejudice against A.A. would be aroused. So
friend shot back a hot letter saying that he felt "inspired"
to give these lectures, and that we had no business to
interfere with his right of free speech. Even though he
was going to get a fee for his work, he had nothing in
mind except the welfare of A.A. And if we didn't know
what was good for us, that was too bad! We and A.A.'s
Board of Trustees could go plumb to the devil. The lectures
were going on the air.
was a poser. Just by breaking anonymity and so using the
A.A. name for his own purposes, our friend could take
over our public relations, get us into religious trouble,
put us into the advertising business and, for all these
good works, the insurance company would pay him a hand-some
this mean that any misguided member could thus endanger
our Society any time or any place simply by breaking anonymity
and telling himself how much good he was going to do for
us? We envisioned every A.A. advertising man looking up
a commercial sponsor, using the A.A. name (0 sell everything
from pretzels to prune juice.
had to be done. We wrote our friend that A.A. had a right
to free speech too. We wouldn't oppose him publicly, but
we could and would guarantee that his sponsor would receive
several thousand letters of objection from A.A. members
if the program went on (he radio. Our friend abandoned
our anonymity dike continued to leak. A.A. members began
to take us into politics. They began to tell state legislative
committee publicly, of course-just what A.A. wanted in
the way of rehabilitation, money and enlightened legislation.
by full name and often by pictures, some of us became
lobbyists. Other members sat on benches with police court
judges, advising which drunks in the lineup should go
to A.A. and which to jail.
came money complications involving broken anonymity. By
this time, most members felt we ought to stop soliciting
funds publicly for A.A. purposes. But the educational
enterprise of my university-sponsored friend had meanwhile
mushroomed. She had a perfectly proper and legitimate
need for money and plenty of it. Therefore, she asked
the public for it, putting on drives to this end. Since
she was an A.A. member and continued to say so, many contributors
were confused. They thought A.A. was in the educational
field or else they thought A.A. itself was raising money
when indeed it was not and didn't want to.
A.A.'s name was used to solicit funds at the very moment
we were trying to tell people that A.A. wanted no outside
what happened, my friend, wonderful member that she is,
tried to resume her anonymity. Because she had been so
thoroughly publicized, this has been a hard job. It has
taken her years. But she has made the sacrifice, and I
here want to record my deep thanks on behalf of us all.
precedent set in motion all sorts of public solicitations
by A.A.'s for money-money for drying out farms, Twelfth
Step enterprises, A.A. boardinghouses, clubs, and the
like-powered largely by anonymity-breaking.
were next startled to learn that we had been drawn into
partisan politics, this time for the benefit of a single
individual. Running for public office, a member splashed
his political advertising with the fact that he was an
A.A. and, by inference, sober as a judge! A.A. being popular
in his state, he thought it would help him win on election
die best story in this clan tells how the A.A. name was
used to back up a libel lawsuit. A member, whose name
and professional attainments are known on three continents,
got hold of a letter which she thought damaged her professional
reputation. She felt something should be done about this
and so did her lawyer, also an A.A. They assumed that
both the public and A.A. would be rightfully angry if
the facts were known. Forthwith, several newspapers headlined
how Alcoholics Anonymous was rooting for one of its lady
members - name in full, of course - to win her suit for
libel. Shortly after this, a noted radio commentator told
a listening audience, estimated at twelve million people,
the same thing. This again proved that the A.A. name could
be used for purely personal purposes . . - this time on
a nationwide scale.
old files at A.A. Headquarters reveal many scores of such
experiences with broken anonymity. Most of them point
up the same lessons.
tell us that we alcoholics are the biggest rationalized
in the world; that fortified with the excuse we are doing
great things for A.A. we can, through broken anonymity,
resume our old and disastrous pursuit of personal power
and prestige, public honors, and money-the same implacable
urges that when frustrated once caused us to drink; the
same forces that are today ripping the globe apart at
its seams. Moreover, they make clear that enough spectacular
anonymity-breakers could someday carry our whole Society
down into that ruinous dead end with them.
we are certain that if such forces ever rule our Fellowship,
we will perish too, just as other societies have perished
throughout human history. Let us not suppose for a moment
that we recovered alcoholics are so much better or stronger
than other folks; or that, because in twenty years nothing
has ever happened to A.A., nothing ever can.
really great hope lies in the fact that our total experience,
as alcoholics and as A.A. members, has at last taught
us the immense power of these forces for self-destruction.
These hard-won lessons have made us entirely willing to
undertake every personal sacrifice necessary for the preservation
of our treasured Fellowship.
is why we see anonymity at the general public level as
our chief protection against ourselves, the guardian of
all our Traditions and the greatest symbol of self-sacrifice
that we know.
course no A.A. need he anonymous to family, friends, or
neighbors. Disclosure there is usually right and good.
Nor is there any special danger when we speak at group
or semipublic A.A. meetings, provided press reports reveal
first names only.
before the general public-press. radio, films, television
and the like-the revelation of full names and pictures
is the point of peril. This is the main escape hatch for
the fearful destructive forces that still lie latent in
us all. Here the lid can and must stay down.
now fully realize that 100% personal anonymity before
the public is just as vital to the life of A.A. as 100%
sobriety is to the life of each and every member.
say all this with what earnestness I can; I say this because
I know what the temptation of fame and money really is.
I can say this because I was once a breaker of anonymity
myself. I thank God that years ago the voice of experience
and the urging of wise friends took me out of the perilous
path into which I might have led our entire Society. Thus
I learned that the temporary or seeming good can often
be the deadly enemy of the permanent best. When it comes
to survival for A.A., nothing short of our very best will
be good enough.
want to maintain 100% anonymity for still another potent
reason, one often overlooked. Instead of securing us more
publicity, repeated self-serving anonymity breaks could
severely damage the wonderful relation we now enjoy with
press and public alike. We could wind up with a poor press
and little public confidence at all.
many years, news channels all over the world have showered
A.A. with enthusiastic publicity, a never-ending stream
of it, far out of proportion to the news values involved.
Editors tell us why this is. They give us extra space
and time because their confidence in A.A. is complete.
The very foundation of that high confidence is. They say,
our continual insistence on personal anonymity at the
before had news outlets and public relations experts heard
of a society that absolutely refused personally to advertise
its leaders or members. To them, this strange and refreshing
novelty has always been proof positive that A.A. is on
the square: that nobody has an angle.
they tell us, is the prime reason for their great goodwill.
This is why, in season and out, they continue to carry
the A.A. message of recovery to the whole world.
through enough anonymity lapses, we finally caused the
press, the public and our alcoholic prospects themselves
to wonder about our motives, we'd surely lose this priceless
asset and, along with it, countless prospective members.
a long time now, both Dr. Bob and I have done everything
possible to maintain the Tradition of anonymity. Just
before he died, some of Dr. Bob's friends suggested that
there should be a suitable monument or mausoleum erected
in honor of him and his wife, Anne, something befitting
a founder. Dr. Bob declined, with thanks. Telling me about
this a little later, he grinned and said, "For heaven's
sake, Bill, why don't you and I get buried like other
summer I visited the Akron cemetery where Bob and Anne
lie. Their simple stone says never a word about Alcoholics
Anonymous. This made me so glad I cried. Did this wonderful
couple carry personal anonymity too far when they so firmly
refused to use the words "Alcoholics Anonymous,"
even on their own burial stone?
one, I don't think so. I think that this great and final
example of self-effacement will prove of more permanent
worth to A.A. than could any spectacular public notoriety
or fine mausoleum.
don't have to go to Akron, Ohio, to see Dr. Bob's memorial.
Dr. Bob's real monument is visible throughout the length
and breadth of A.A. Let us look again at its true inscription
. . . one word only, which we A.A.'s have written. That
word is "sacrifice."
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1955
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