Has COVID-19 Killed AA Anonymity?

by Christopher Dale

As we pass the one-year anniversary of widespread COVID-19 lockdowns, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year has been the adaptability of Alcoholics Anonymous. As in-person gatherings shuttered seemingly overnight, the deft digital pivot to online meetings performed by dedicated AA members around the world has helped keep millions engaged, involved and most importantly sober.

As I’ve shared in this space, I see Zoom rooms as an emergency stopgap measure that should largely recede in parallel with the pandemic. As society reopens, so must in-person AA meetings. Still, Zoom rooms have introduced facets worth carrying into post-COVID life; while by no means should they become the new normal, their click-button convenience and location agnosticism make online meetings useful supplements to the IRL recovery we all knew before 2020.

So with its hand forced during an unprecedented public health crisis, AA forged a best-possible format for a worst-case scenario – good enough, in fact, that components of online recovery will outlive COVID. This invention by necessity begs an intriguing question for an historically (and understandably) slow-to-change organization:  

What else might COVID help reinvent in AA? Besides Internet-age accessibility, what other issue has the protracted pandemic most affected throughout AA?  For me, the answer involves one of the program’s most longstanding and ill-defined traditions. Let’s explore how COVID could and perhaps should contribute to AA’s ever-nebulous stance on anonymity.  

One Principle, Many Interpretations 

Before pondering AA anonymity’s future, we must first examine its past. AA has been struggling with both the condition and confines of anonymity since its very inception. Its value, of course, is twofold: it both prevents members for outing others as alcoholics (and therefore potentially damaging their public reputation), and protects the organization from a would-be sober egomaniac intent on positioning his personal beliefs as AA canon. Some of this was indeed an issue in AA’s early days, prompting Bill Wilson & Co. to directly address anonymity in one of the 12 Traditions, devised in the late 1940s: 

“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.”

A literal reading of this tradition, the 11th, makes the following sentence unsuitable for publication: “My name is Christopher Dale, and I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.” An argument can be made – a good one – that I’ve been violating this tradition throughout my tenure as a writer in recovery. Leonard Buschel, founder of Writers in Treatment and the publisher of this e-newsletter[CD1] , came to the same self-cancelling conclusion. He suggests, reasonably, that strict adherence to the 11th Tradition yields unnecessary – and, so far as the primary purpose of helping others get sober is concerned, potentially limiting and harmful – self-censorship. At its most conservative interpretation, the 11th Tradition hamstrings writers with the best intentions from potentially helping others through their pens.  However, when the now-canon 12 Steps & 12 Traditions was published in 1952, this anonymity tradition became one of the most confusing, seemingly contradictory passages Bill Wilson ever authored. Following the text of the tradition, the chapter opens as follows: Without its legions of well-wishers, A.A. could never have grown as it has. Throughout the world, immense and favorable publicity of every description has been the principal means of bringing alcoholics into our Fellowship. So basically, Wilson is admitting that members writing articles and giving interviews helped launch and grow the organization… then arbitrarily determines that a cutoff point has been reached.His reasoning – and it’s a strong one – is that AA had grown to the point where some rules of the road were required to safeguard AA’s public-facing image. Over a brief four-page chapter, Wilson arrives at the idea of attraction rather than promotion – the notion that AA members should neither assume to speak for the organization nor seek to build notoriety or fortune through AA membership. 

In the ensuing decades, letter-of-the-law 11th Traditionists have tacked onto Wilson’s argument a rationale for strict anonymity that he simply didn’t address in the 12 & 12 chapter. They insist that a key reason for anonymity is that, should someone talk to the press about his AA membership and then relapse, the result would besmirch AA’s reputation.

If that was on Wilson’s mind, it certainly isn’t reflected in his expansion on the 11th Tradition. And importantly, it must be recognized that Wilson wrote this in the early 1950s – when fewer AA members and fewer media outlets meant individuals breaking anonymity had a far larger impact than any AA member could have in today’s recovery-educated, media-fragmented society. 

The logical next question: Is personal anonymity obsolete?  More importantly for an organization that rightly prioritizes newcomers: are strict interpretations of anonymity protecting AA from looking foolish, or simply constraining it from its full potential for attraction?  

Anonymity: Helping or Hurting? 

Regardless of whether I – Christopher Dale, AA member – am continuing to break the 11th Tradition with …each… and… every… word… I… type, it is undeniable that many people who’ve recovered through AA and dared to discuss it have had a tremendously positive impact on others’ recovery. In his aforementioned article on anonymity, Buschel gave an apt example: A well-known criminal attorney and frequent guest on CNN related that when he had a few months sober, he was having some doubts about continuing what he felt was a monk’s way of life. He was at a local market about to purchase some vodka and OJ. While waiting in line, thumbing through a celebrity magazine, he read that Rob Lowe had quit drinking and was in a Twelve Step program for alcoholics. Lowe flouting the 11th Tradition had a profound and positive impact. Buschel writes: The attorney put down the bottle of vodka and the magazine, paid for the OJ and went directly to an AA meeting. He has not had a drink in twelve years. If Rob Lowe had kept his recovery on the down-low and secretive, Los Angeles would be minus one powerfully effective criminal attorney and a very handsome pundit.  I am in my early 40s and approaching a decade of recovery through AA. I also had a Rob Lowe. His name is Marshall Mathers – better known as rapper Eminem. Brash, insulting and inventive (like me!), Eminem dropped three of the best rap albums ever recorded before releasing two of the worst. Something was wrong, and that something was drugs. Eminem got clean and sober, literally followed up an album titled “Relapse” with one titled “Recovery,” and returned to his previous stature as a Grammy-winning wordsmith. Eminem has 12 years of AA/NA-centric sobriety. And if you don’t think his recovery continues to inspire drunks and junkies to drop the bottles and baggies… well, I suggest you read this. It is no exaggeration to opine that A-list celebrities like Lowe and Eminem – let’s add Russell Brand, Robert Downey Jr. and the late Robin Williams to that list – can literally save lives by breaking the 11th Tradition. And in a society that has had nearly a century to warm up to Alcoholics Anonymous as the most prolific recovery organization in the world, does anyone really think AA would get a black eye should Lowe relapse? The point is that the importance of personal anonymity has been extremely diluted since the tradition’s mid-20th Century inception. Swelling membership, a segmented media landscape and widespread knowledge and acceptance of addiction and recovery have rendered Wilson’s gag order largely moot. 

That brings us to the final factor: COVID.  

“Anonymity” and “Zoom” are Oxymorons.  

With COVID-caused Zoom rooms, the erosion of personal anonymity’s value has intersected with its increasing impossibility. Online meetings and conventional concepts of anonymity have too many misalignments to be considered compatible.  

Most prominently, meeting attendees’ full names are often displayed under their video stream. Sometimes this is by choice; often, though, it is simply a function of not knowing how to change the relevant setting. Other ways in which Zoom rooms clash with anonymity are inherent to the platform’s very nature: a tech-enabled gathering of physically separated people. It’s too easy to snap a screen shot, conduct a quick Google search, or find and troll a random attendee’s social media account for reasons far removed from recovery. And of course, non-members crashing closed meetings – a direct violation of AA members’ anonymity – is easier than ever in Zoom rooms, where unfamiliar customs and faces abound. Let’s get real here: anyone who still vehemently insists on a strict interpretation of the 11th Tradition – that members mustn’t publicly reveal their association with AA – can hardly justify the program’s current cyber-setup, necessary or not. And since neither Zoom nor social media nor technology is going anywhere, it’s reasonable – even obvious – to question whether we should reconsider, redefine or clarify what anonymity means in a modern world and a modernized AA. Let me be clear about two things: First, the primary principles of AA anonymity are and must always remain unwavering. They are (1) I have absolutely no right – ever – to publicly out a fellow AA member, and (2) I have no right to claim that my views represent AA at large.

Second, this is not about me – about a writer placing passion over program. For years I have been, depending on individual opinion, either toeing the 11th Tradition’s line or unapologetically flouting it. I will continue to do so regardless of any highly unlikely sea change in AA’s stance on personal anonymity. Further, any discussion this piece prompts does not benefit me; if anything, I’m encouraging competition – inviting others to join me in abandoning an anonymity that, in 2021, is typically neither necessary nor helpful.If I relapse, anyone who blames AA – an organization without which I’d be dead or incarcerated – simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And the notion that I’m important enough for my failure to disprove AA’s effectiveness in the eyes of anyone is naïve at best, egomaniacal at worst. I’m just a sober schlub with a laptop, folks.  But maybe, just maybe, some lucky line I write might nudge someone on the fence to experience an AA meeting rather than their next – and possibly last – drink or drug. That is why I write about my recovery through AA. 

It is my opinion that a writer’s – or a filmmaker’s, or a radio host’s, or a social media influencer’s – broken anonymity has the potential for more good than harm. Abandoning dialogue at the altar of rigidly-read tradition is not the answer. This is a program of attraction and, in an increasingly interconnected and interactive media landscape, that attraction is more limited by anonymity than assisted by it.