In April 2012, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) General Service Conference in New York carried the theme, Anonymity: Our Spiritual Responsibility in the Digital Age. The purpose of this theme was to drive home to our worldwide society both the awareness of the shifting aspects of anonymity in the 21st century, and how vital an underpinning anonymity is to Alcoholics Anonymous.
When asked to write on this topic – especially in the “recovery Mecca” of Prescott which has 1,200 recovery “beds” and growing at last count – I cringed, but at the same time gladly accepted the task. As a member blessed to serve for about twelve years at the General Service Representative level and beyond (or below, considering our quirky upside-down triangle where the groups are the boss), I witnessed the principle of anonymity in action; I saw the discussion of anonymity come alive both for the good and the “Oh, my gosh, get me OUT of here!”
I avoid sharing my opinion on topics as precious as our traditions and concepts of World Service; instead, I speak and write from both the dual focus of my experience with our three legacies of Unity, Recovery and Service, and the principles our co-founders and current trusted servants have found helpful in keeping our tradition of anonymity thriving and relevant.
Alongside any meaningful exchange on this hot topic, we are wise to reflect on our Preamble, published in our AA Grapevine and read at nearly all of our meetings. It reads in part, “AA is not allied with any … politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy …” That statement brings us to the question, what constitutes a break of anonymity at the public level? It is the only kind of break that is of grave concern and has the potential to threaten the foundation and future of this sober society.
I marvel at how, nearly 80 years ago, the Higher Power brought together such a yin and yang, polar-opposite couple of drunks to launch our program! Bill W. was the sales-driven stockbroker zooming around the country on his motorcycle with his long-suffering wife beside him. Dr. Bob was the reflective physician for whom sobriety did not arrive in a flash of brilliant and mysterious light, but instead arrived educationally and gradually. Dr. Bob more easily embraced humility, sacrifice and the necessity of anonymity for the survival of our early and struggling fellowship.
Box 4-5-9 (Vol. 58, No. 3, Fall 2012), published quarterly by our General Service Office (GSO), led with an article entitled When is Breaking your Anonymity not an Anonymity Break?, in which the staff shared a number of examples of typical exchanges fielded by GSO on this oft misunderstood subject. A bit of Dr. Bob’s quiet wisdom is offered in response to a member wanting to know how he and his group should approach a newly-relocated fellow who insisted on giving his last name when sharing in the meeting:
“Since our Tradition on anonymity designates the exact level* where the line should be held, it must be obvious to everyone who can read and understand the English language that to maintain anonymity at any other level is definitely a violation of this Tradition. The A.A. who hides his identity from his fellow A.A. by using only a given name violates the Tradition just as much as the A.A. who permits his name to appear in the press in connection with matters pertaining to A.A.* The former is maintaining his anonymity above the level of press, radio and films, and the latter is maintaining his anonymity below the level of press, radio, and films whereas the Tradition states that we should maintain our anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, pp. 264-65) [*emphasis added]
(A sidebar: I am again reminded how I treasure our enormous library of Conference-approved literature and our two publishing arms, AA World Services and AA Grapevine. In nearly 22 years of living in recovery, I have yet to come up with a question that isn’t addressed in our literature. This assumes I make the time to do a dispassionate, agenda-free bit of research, of course!)
That brings me to my own byline for this piece to be published by In Recovery Magazine. Since I am writing at the public level in a magazine that is accessible in print and online by anyone with a subscription and internet access, I haven’t used my last name and no photo will appear. Furthermore, the magazine maintains a social media site. Most of us with any experience with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and countless other wide-open access e-outlets are well aware of how much we can learn about relative strangers in just a few clicks!
On the other hand, if I am sharing in a meeting of AA, even an open meeting – let’s face it, there are at least ten times more open meetings than closed – you knowing my last name, my telephone number, and my email address is the appropriate level of anonymity. If I don’t disclose my details on the phone list maintained by the group’s secretary or share it with you after the meeting or at lunch or coffee at the “after-meeting”, how will you find me and connect? Without a last name or a phone number, how can I follow up with a newcomer named Mary within a group of 60 or 70 members, four of whom are named Mary? Unfortunately, we’ve all had the experience of desperately wanting to support an AA member with a visit, a call, card or gift when he or she is hospitalized or in some other institutional environment, only to realize we have three guys in the group named Tom; and we don’t even recall our stricken member’s last initial!
Similarly, when engaged in service to the AA fellowship at the group level and beyond, last names are always used from the microphone on the floor or on the dais and included in password-protected or selectively distributed reports of proceedings. When that report is placed in the public domain, particularly via electronic media, last names are redacted (think National Security). This is for the protection of our fellowship, to keep us out of public controversy, as well as to guard against my ever-present tendency to play the “big shot” with all the answers or to be identified as an AA expert.
A public relations policy based on attraction rather than promotion makes AA an odd duck in a world where status is frequently based on the number of Facebook friends someone has or how many others are following him or her on Twitter! The long form of the Eleventh Tradition ends with, “There is never a need to praise ourselves. We feel better to let our friends recommend us.”
Are you rolling your eyes? Are you wondering if I’ve used the Internet, chat rooms, blogs, websites, Facebook and e-books, or if I’m still partying like it is 1991? Rest assured, I have been online from the beginning, and have delighted in being able to communicate with AAs around Arizona, the rest of the US, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and Australia. I am grateful technology has given us so many ways to carry our message to the alcoholic who still suffers, whether it be a virtual meeting room or face-to-face with overly-strong coffee, powdered creamer and Styrofoam cups.
Let’s return to another edition of Box 4-5-9 (Vol. 59, No. 1, Spring 2013), where a member’s query “How do we guard anonymity online?” and GSO’s response is discussed:
“An A.A. Web site is a public medium, which has the potential for reaching the broadest possible audience and, therefore, requires the same safeguards that we use at the level of press, radio and film. When we use digital media, we are responsible for our own anonymity and that of others.* When we post, text, or blog, we should assume that we are publishing at the public level. When we break our anonymity in these forums, we may inadvertently break the anonymity of others.”* [*emphasis added] (A.A. Guidelines on Internet)
Our General Service Conference laid the foundation to revise the pamphlet, Understanding Anonymity, first published in 1981, to reflect the impact e-communications of all sorts have had on our fellowship and its place in an increasingly connected world. Thirty years later, Bill W.’s 1946 comment on anonymity is included, where he reminds us how vital that word anonymous is to our recovery in AA. We are to place principles before personalities, “to renounce personal glorification in public”, and to preach and practice a true humility.
I am deeply grateful for my own powerful lessons and ego-flattening adventures during those years in General Service. I listened, learned and shared as electronic media was making its presence felt. Our Arizona Area set up a website and began distributing its newsletter via email. Instead of a webmaster, the position was named Webservant (think, trusted servant) and within the last two years was renamed Technology Coordinator.
None of that progress and expanded outreach will ever remotely inspire me as much as listening to the words of the long form of Tradition Twelve read from the podium as a hush fell over the Assembly floor. What? There is a long form of the traditions? Absolutely, and I cannot encourage any member enough to dive into them as soon as he finishes reading this issue of In Recovery Magazine!
I heard, “… we are to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.” (© AA World Service, Inc.). This reminds me that if I strive for public acclaim, power or notoriety, no matter how well-meaning my intentions are behind breaking my anonymity at the public level, our spiritual unity, so essential to the work of helping fellow alcoholics, will soon be lost. The AA Preamble reminds us that this is our primary purpose. While we have more choices than ever in how we carry AA’s lifesaving message, we behave unwisely when we disregard the principles upon which our fellowship was created.