The following article, Why Alcoholics Anonymous is Anonymous, was written by Bill W. and published in the AA Grapevine in January 1955. This article can be found in Language of the Heart, pp 209-218.
As 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.
Nearly 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.”
What has this got to do with anonymity and Alcoholics Anonymous?
We 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 self-sacrifice.”
Our 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.”
Let’s turn to AA’s twenty years of experience and see how we arrived at that belief, now expressed in our Traditions Eleven and Twelve.
At 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.
Were 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.
But even this 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 AA message. We sacrificed time, energy and our own money to do this. We couldn’t keep what we had unless we gave it away.
Did 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.
Thus 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.
When 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 AA as a whole. These sacrifices had to be made or AA couldn’t continue to exist.
Out of these experiences and realizations, the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous began to take shape and substance.
Gradually we saw that the unity, the effectiveness – yes, even the survival – of AA 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 AA’s entire Fellowship.
Viewed in this light, AA’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 AA itself is to stay alive and healthy.
In our Twelve Traditions we have set our faces against nearly every trend in the outside world.
We have denied ourselves personal government, professionalism and the right to say who our members shall be. We have abandoned do-goodism, 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 AA message to the sick alcoholic who wants it.
We 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 AA 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. AA 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.
Now where does anonymity fit into this picture? What is anonymity anyhow? Why do we think it is the greatest single protection that AA can ever have? Why is it our greatest symbol of personal sacrifice, the spiritual key to all our Traditions and to our whole way of life?
The following fragment of AA history will reveal, I deeply hope, the answer we all seek.
Years ago a noted ballplayer sobered up through AA. 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 AA, 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.
Soon 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 AA 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 AA’s number one anonymity breaker.
So I can’t blame any AA who has grabbed the spotlight since. I set the main example myself, years ago.
At 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 the thousands!
Then this fair sky began to be a little overcast. Murmurs were heard from AA 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?”
This 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 AA. But co-founders ought to be exceptions. The public certainly had a right to know who we were.
Real AA 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 AA. 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!
The next anonymity-breaking development looked even rosier. A close AA 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 AA member? Well, why not? By using the name Alcoholics Anonymous she’d get fine publicity for a good brand of alcohol education and for AA too. I thought it an excellent idea and therefore gave my blessing.
AA 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 AA, landed in nearly every large paper in North America. The public understanding of alcoholism increased, the stigma on drunks lessened, and AA got new members. Surely there could be nothing wrong with that.
But there was. For the sake of this short-term benefit, we were taking on a future liability of huge and menacing proportions.
Presently an AA 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 AA member and freely used the AA 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 AA into public controversy, he thought that was exactly where we should be. So he busily used AA’s name to do just that. Of course, he broke his anonymity to help his cherished cause along.
This was followed by a proposal from a liquor-trade association that an AA 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?
The catch was that our AA 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 AA favored “education,” liquor-trade style.
Though 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 AA membership to the whole public, it was in the power of an AA to marry Alcoholics Anonymous to practically any enterprise or controversy at all, good or bad. The more valuable the AA name became, the greater the temptation would be.
Further 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 package.
At AA Headquarters, we read the proposed lectures. They were about 50 percent AA and 50 percent our friend’s personal religious convictions. This could create a false public view of us. Religious prejudice against AA would be aroused. So we objected.
Our 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 AA. And if we didn’t know what was good for us, that was too bad! We and AA’s board of trustees could go plumb to the devil. The lectures were going on the air.
This was a poser. Just by breaking anonymity and so using the AA 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 handsome fee.
Did 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 AA advertising man looking up a commercial sponsor, using the AA name to sell everything from pretzels to prune juice.
Something had to be done. We wrote our friend that AA 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 AA members if the program went on the radio. Our friend abandoned the project.
But our anonymity dike continued to leak. AA members began to take us into politics. They began to tell state legislative committees – publicly, of course – just what AA wanted in the way of rehabilitation, money and enlightened legislation.
Thus, 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 AA and which to jail.
Then came money complications involving broken anonymity. By this time, most members felt we ought to stop soliciting funds publicly for AA 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 AA member and continued to say so, many contributors were confused. They thought AA was in the educational field or else they thought AA itself was raising money when indeed it was not and didn’t want to.
So AA’s name was used to solicit funds at the very moment we were trying to tell people that AA wanted no outside money.
Seeing 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.
This precedent set in motion all sorts of public solicitations by AA’s for money – money for drying-out farms, Twelfth Step enterprises, AA boarding houses, clubs, and the like – powered largely by anonymity breaking.
We 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 AA and, by inference, sober as a judge! AA being popular in his state, he thought it would help him win on election day.
Probably the best story in this class tells how the AA 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 AA. They assumed that both the public and AA 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 AA name could be used for purely personal purposes – this time on a nationwide scale.
The old files at AA Headquarters reveal many scores of such experiences with broken anonymity. Most of them point up the same lessons.
They tell us that we alcoholics are the biggest rationalizers in the world; that fortified with the excuse we are doing great things for AA 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.
So 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 AA, nothing ever can.
Our really great hope lies in the fact that our total experience, as alcoholics and as AA 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.
This 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.
Of course no AA need be 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 semi-public AA meetings, provided press reports reveal first names only.
But 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.
We now fully realize that 100 percent personal anonymity before the public is just as vital to the life of AA as 100 percent sobriety is to the life of each and every member. This is not the counsel of fear; it is the prudent voice of long experience. I am sure that we are going to listen; that we shall make every needed sacrifice. Indeed, we have been listening. Today only a handful of anonymity breakers remain.
I 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 that 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 AA, nothing short of our very best will be good enough.
We want to maintain 100 percent 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.
For many years, news channels all over the world have showered AA 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 AA is complete. The very foundation of that high confidence is, they say, our continual insistence on personal anonymity at the press level.
Never 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 AA is on the square, that nobody has an angle.
This, they tell us, is the prime reason for their great goodwill. This is why, in season and out, they continue to carry the AA message of recovery to the whole world.
If, 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. Alcoholics Anonymous would not then be getting more good publicity; it would be getting less and worse. Therefore the handwriting on the wall is clear. Because most of us can already see it, and because the rest of us soon will, I’m fully confident that no such dark day will ever fall upon our Society.
For 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 folks?”
Last 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?
For one, I don’t think so. I think that this great and final example of self-effacement will prove of more permanent worth to AA than could any spectacular public notoriety or fine mausoleum.
We 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 AA. Let us look again at its true inscription – one word only, which we AA’s have written. That word is sacrifice.