What the Heck Does Anonymity Mean?

aa-privateThe Fix talks to a cross-section of AA members on the meaning of anonymity and their 11th Tradition.

Unlike civilians, sober alcoholics want oodles of accolades simply because they’ve stopped self-destructing. Co-founder Bill Wilson, whose arrogance has been well documented, demonstrated that drunks have enormous egos.

I know from experience that we boozers can pass out on a barstool, get home in a blackout, and wake up feeling superior. I used to see a Bowery bum and point, saying, “See, I’m fine. That guy really has a problem.”

I’ve been thinking about anonymity a lot lately. I hear so many conflicting opinions about it—what it is, why it’s important, and whether or not we need it anymore. I decided to look it up to see if I think it still matters.

In 1946, Bill W. wrote: “The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance. Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.”

Humility is a word I never came near before AA. It sounded too much like humiliation, and I’d had too much of that. When you Google humility synonyms, you’ll find some that support that definition of it: lowlihood, mortification, sheepishness. But in 1988, when I was a newbie, my home group explained the synonyms that AA literature is talking about: modesty, unpretentiousness, courtesy.

Humility is one of the most powerful tools in AA. Liquor sucks up any drunk’s energy even after we’ve quit drinking. The rate of relapse is high, and there never comes a time for a sober drunk to coast. The nagging thought, “I can have just one,” pops up at parties, family gatherings, when I’m happy, sad, or bored. Diligence is the only way for me to win the day.

If I had things my way, everywhere I go, people would stand up and applaud me for my sobriety. They’d talk about me at dinnertime and quote me. Everyone would know my name. Thankfully, I have a wise sponsor to remind me, year after year, that serenity comes from generosity of spirit, not self-obsession.

Instead of thinking about me all the time, I can focus on somebody else. Offering help to someone is still the best way for me to get out of a bad mood.

I interviewed a cross section of AA members and asked what they thought anonymity means and how they feel about Tradition 11: “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.”


I don’t resent celebrities who declare their recoveries in AA publicly, but I do think it’s a foolish thing to do. They position themselves as the representatives of AA, so that when they relapse (as so many of them do), they may give some people the impression that AA doesn’t work. Indeed, AA doesn’t work for everyone, particularly for people whose egos propel them into the spotlight to announce their supposed recoveries in total disregard for the 12th tradition. People who don’t stay anonymous at that level are putting their own recoveries in danger as well as possibly harming AA. But I can’t control what celebrities do or say any more than I can control the misleading statements that some psychologists and other researchers publish about AA. As for kids believing that celebrity per se is a reason to look up to someone, that may be a bigger problem for them than anything that a specific celebrity says.


When I first got sober at a Manhattan meeting on the Upper East Side, I was really in bad shape. I thought I was a nobody. I had self-hatred, self-loathing, all of that. When I went to that meeting, there were three very famous people there. I felt like if they were there, then maybe I was okay and wasn’t with a bunch of losers. There is a part of me that thinks when celebrities talk about their recovery and AA, and you see them at meetings, it helps us feel like we’re all the same.

On the other side of it, there are actors, actresses, famous people that get sober and don’t stay sober, and it makes it look like, “Oh it’s just a lot of crap. They just say they’re sober and then AA doesn’t work.” So I have two views on it. But in general, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone saying they’re in recovery. Read more “the fix”…

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