Three ways to be Anonymous: the original purpose of the anonymity tradition, and how it has come to be practiced.


You can’t just say that anonymity is a great thing. Selfless anonymity is indeed exactly that. But there are other kinds of anonymity that are not so good, and some kinds that are just plain bad. A member of any Twelve Step Fellowship owes it to himself to be aware of how and why he is being anonymous.

Bob E., until his death in 1984, was the senior living member of Alcoholics Anonymous in length of sobriety. He was the eleventh man to join the fellowship. His home was in Akron, Ohio, where he joined his first AA group back in 1936. Back then “anonymity” was commonly understood to mean “without names”. Today, with the current understanding of “anonymity,” it may be more properly called “anofaciety” or “without faces”.

Shortly, before his death, Bob E. shared with some members of the Upstate Group of All Addicts Anonymous, the following recollection of what AA was like when he first joined:

I never led meetings (neither did Dr. Bob*) or talked into a microphone. Nobody led our meetings in the very early days. We all just sat around in a circle. After the opening prayer and a short text from the Bible, we had quiet time, silently praying for guidance about what to say. Then each person in turn said something, asking for any help he wanted, bringing up anything that was troubling him or just whatever was on his mind. After everyone was through, there were announcements and we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. There was no clapping. At that kind of a meeting, clapping would have seen out of place.

There was no levity either. We all had our sense of humor, but for us recovery was a life-and-death matter. We were all businessmen, but we had reached our bottom and wanted to restore ourselves to our previous place in business and society.

For the first five years we met in someone’s home every night. It was serious business, and we hung on to each other for dear life. We could not afford any failures and so we grew very slowly at first. But we proved that an alcoholic on this program can help another alcoholic as no one else can.

Many AA meetings are very different now, but in the beginning it was absolutely necessary for us to be strict and serious. That is the way Dr. Bob was, gruff and tough. He always put the program on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Dr. Bob and his wife Annie were both wonderful people. (Annie died in 1949. Bob died in 1950 of cancer.  He knew for years that he had it.) He was a great student of the Bible, which he read every night till the wee hours. In that first group, Dr. Bob selected the readings and made all the appointments and all the major decisions. (I was the first secretary of the group and the following year became chairman.) Everyone had to make a complete surrender to join in the first place, and so we had no reservations; we worked the whole program, 100 percent.

Great emphasis was laid on the daily plan of checking ourselves on the Four Absolutes: absolute honest, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love. The Twelve Steps came from the Absolutes. (The Four Absolutes are very popular to this day in Akron AA. They are mentioned more often than the steps.)

We did not tell our drinking histories at the meetings back then. We did not need to. A man’s sponsor and Dr. Bob knew the details. Frankly, we did not think it was anybody else’s business. We were anonymous and so was our life. Besides, we already knew how to drink. What we wanted to learn was how to get sober and stay sober.

Bill Wilson was in favor of having at least fifty percent of an AA member’s talk at a meeting consist of “qualifying” or telling the story of how he became an alcoholic. Bill himself had a warm, friendly disposition, and this idea of his did attract people and enable the movement to grow to a size where it had helped thousands of people all over the world. For that we must be grateful.

But when the “qualifying” business first began, it took some getting used to on our part. I remember one time when we were meeting at King School; some people came in from Cleveland, and most of the qualifying they did was really very bad. They clapped and made a lot of noise. To us it seemed strange and offensive. Gradually we opened up under Bill’s persuasive influence. But we still did not care for it when people would get carried away by their own voice and make their stories too sensational and repulsive.

 When Alcoholics Anonymous, the AA Big Book, was printed, we had no money to get the books out of the warehouse in New York. Jack Alexander’s article in the Saturday Evening Post (March 1941) got the Big Book into circulation in a hurry, and that was when the term Alcoholics Anonymous became the accepted name for the movement. Up till then we had simply been called “a Christian fellowship.”

One thing stands out above all else in this account of AA’s beginnings: no-nonsense spirituality, stressing the subordination of all personalities to the recovery principles.

The Twelfth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous tells us that “anonymity is the spiritual foundation of our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” The Eleventh Tradition specifies that “ . . . we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” And beyond that, AA people are expected to protect the anonymity of members by not disclosing the fact of their alcoholism or their AA association to anyone outside the fellowship. The tradition of anonymity does not preclude us from talking with anyone we choose to about our own alcoholism or AA membership, provided that the conversation never appears in print or other media with our full names attached to it. It is acceptable to publish AA-related material if you identify yourself only with your first name and the first initial of your last name, as we have done in the case of Bob E.

This is how anonymity is generally understood throughout the AA movement today. But what is the why behind the tradition of anonymity? What are the reasons for all the stress on it?

Bob E.’s story suggests the first and most obvious function of anonymity. It gives protection to the newcomer who is ashamed of his past and uncertain as to his future – whether he will get sober for good, or not. He  can come to AA meetings and talk openly about his troubles without fear of having his disclosures leaked to the less understanding and often condemnatory non-alcoholic citizens of the area.

In his discussion of the Twelfth Tradition in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson said: “ . . . in the  beginning, anonymity was not born of confidence; it was the child of our early fears. Our first nameless groups of alcoholics were secret societies.” But Bill went on to add: “Our growth made it plain that we couldn’t be a secret society . . .”

And there is more to AA’s not remaining stuck in a “secret society” interpretation of anonymity than the mere factor of growth. AA experience has proved that there exists an additional and a far higher basis in principle for the practice of anonymity. Fear may rule the new person’s desire to be anonymous. But it is humility — the refusal to take personal credit for the results of God’s mercy — that should guide the successfully recovered AA member in his determination to remain anonymous.

The fear of disclosure is understandable in those whose recovery is new and shaky, and the AA movement has shown both wisdom and compassion in insisting on the right of its members to enjoy the privilege of anonymity even when they take refuge in it from motives no higher than anxiety and guilt.

But as an AA recovery gains in stability or (to say the same thing in different words) as the sober members becomes wider awake spiritually, fear should become less and less a moving force behind his anonymity. It is not a good sign if someone after a year or more of sobriety is still unwilling to talk freely and openly about his recovery for fear that his past failures will be “ found out” by family, friends, or business associates. When anonymity crystallizes out into a more-or-less permanent cloak-and-dagger act, the alcoholic sets himself apart from the rest of humanity in a way that unfits him for full service and relationship. And he cuts himself off from the joys of a more mature practice of anonymity.

Anonymity becomes a truly altruistic and spiritual principle only when consciously used by a spiritually awakened person as a means of self-denial, as a policy of putting God first and keeping ego subordinated. It is this kind of anonymity that keeps a sobered-up alcoholic from taking personal credit for his recovery. It discourages showing off and bragging — those faults that in the old, pre-AA days so often preceded an inglorious relapse into drunkenness. And this higher type of anonymity works therapeutically against the temptation, never absent from any organization, to place upon personalities — founder figures, charismatic figures, or governor figures — the reliance which by rights should be reserved for God alone.

Anonymity born of the desire to place principles before personalities has had a wealth of precedent throughout the ages in the universal spiritual traditions of mankind. The inspired craftsmen who designed and built the great cathedrals of medieval Europe remained for the most part anonymous. So did the ancient Egyptians whose genius conceived and led to the construction of the Sphinx and the great pyramids.

There are endless scholarly debates about the authorship of much of the greatest spiritual literature produced by humanity – the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the book of Tao, the biblical Wisdom Books, the Gospels, the Pauline epistles, and even the works of William Shakespeare.

These arguments, though futile in themselves speak eloquently about the authors who have been their subject. All of them were so totally absorbed in the transmission of God’s truth that they had no smallest reserve of concern for the maintenance of their personal identity in connection with the masterworks they turned out.

It is probably a good bet that Shakespeare really wrote his own stuff, that a man named Homer actually was responsible for the Iliad and the Odyssey, that the Gospel bearing John’s name was in fact written by Christ’s beloved apostle, and so on. But the point is that no one is likely ever to prove or disprove any of these contentions purely on the basis of historical research, for the simple reason that the authors involved were all tending toward anonymity. They were dedicated to the communication of spiritual principles and not in the least interested in leaving any mark as personalities.

One of the most important spiritual books of the modern era was written anonymously. The Way of a Pilgrim is an indispensable manual on repetitive prayer, the prayer which spiritual teachers in both East and West have said to be uniquely suited to the conditions of modern life. This work first appeared on Mount Athos a little less than a century ago. Its author was a Russian religious pilgrim who chose to remain nameless.

The early history of Alcoholics Anonymous reflects this same combination of deep commitment to the work of God and disregard for ego-considerations. The pioneering members of AA were so completely taken up in the carrying of their message of hope to other suffering alcoholics that it took them several years to get around to finding a name for their movement!

There is actually more to the concept of anonymity than is at first apparent. There exists three distinct and quite dissimilar types of anonymity: the anonymity of inferiority, the anonymity of mediocrity, and the anonymity of excellence. Two of these are involved in the AA tradition of anonymity and one is not.

The anonymity of inferiority is no trick at all to cultivate. Anyone who has ever done anything he was afterward ashamed of naturally experiences a desire to be anonymous with regard to that piece of misbehavior. It is this type of anonymity which is so valued by nervous prospects making their initial contact with AA; and that is well and good. But at the same time in needs to be acknowledged that the anonymity of inferiority also has an ugly and totally unacceptable side to it. It can, and frequently does, serve as a cover for lawlessness and violence. Robbers, looters, terrorists, rapists, and murderers often wear masks, or otherwise seek to avoid identification, in order to escape the just punishment of their destructive actions. Anonymity of this stripe is obviously an offense against humanity, and there is nothing to be said in its favor.

There is no such potential for evil in the anonymity of mediocrity, but neither is there anything to recommend it in a positive way. This anonymity is the lot of a great portion of mankind, whether they like it or not. Those whose lives are the medium, neither for much good nor for much evil, are generally destined to live and die unknown outside their immediate circle of family and friends. AA relationship to this second kind of anonymity is limited, as most people who arrive at AA’s doorstep have already sunk below the level of mediocrity in life.

The anonymity of excellence is a rare and precious option, a blissful state known only by those in whom extraordinarily good things have come to pass, and who have elected to forego the personal recognition they would have every right to expect by ordinary worldly reckoning. This was the state of the great spiritual artists who chose to remain anonymous. It is the anonymity practiced by Bill Wilson when he refused to accept university degrees offered him for his service to humanity. It has been the state of a vast but nameless company throughout the ages who have known God by direct experience but who have lived their lives in obscurity. (The saints who have become famous in the world are said to be a small minority within this whole group of God’s favored children, specially called by the Father to be bridge-builders with ordinary humanity.)

The anonymity of excellence is also open to one other, rather improbable, class of people: those of inferior life who have undergone spiritual conversion. In biblical times this group included publicans, prostitutes, and demoniacs. And in our times it includes every hopeless slave to any compulsion who has recovered by the practice of spiritual principles.

It is the anonymity of excellence, and only this particular type of anonymity, which has the power to consecrate people’s lives. It facilitates spiritual awakenings and increases conscious contact with God.

It keeps self off center stage, allowing God to occupy his rightful place there. And self, in its properly subordinate role in the wings, can then rejoice in the ascendancy of its creator, and happily do its given work of service, freed from the terrible bondage of “me” and “mine” and from the sapping efforts of self-assertion.

This highest form of anonymity is a priceless part of our heritage in AA. As such it needs to be guarded carefully by us, and that requires more than just keeping our names secret. Even within the fellowship, and without any question arising about “press, radio, and films,” it is possible to break the tradition of anonymity by letting our personalities take precedence over the recovery principles.

Speaker-type meetings are a case in point. Such meetings certainly serve a vital function in AA. When a sober AA member stands up before a group and recaps his drinking history, he forms a healing bond of identity between himself and his alcoholic listeners.

But there is a temptation for speakers — especially gifted ones — to overemphasize the drinking history solely for its entertainment value and to underemphasize the Four Absolutes and the Twelve Steps, the principles which are the All Addicts Anonymous way of life. By the same token, there is a temptation for members of the “audience” to become so fascinated by the speeches of others that they neglect discussion of their own life difficulties and how the recovery principles might help in overcoming them.

Particularly susceptible to these abuses are AA conventions, those super-speaker meetings which have become so popular in the movement in the past fifty years. The AA conventions doubtless have a valid role as affirmers of AA strength and solidarity. But AA convention speakers whose stock-in-trade is exciting or amusing “war stories” rather than helpful talk about the recovery principles can hardly avoid having their personalities steal the limelight from the principles, to their own detriment and that of all their listeners. When this happens the spirit of anonymity is violated and the whole fellowship suffers.

The qualifying of our sobriety as individual All Addicts Anonymous members, and the spiritual health of the Anonymous Fellowships movement as a whole, depend on our continuing to be guided by the early demonstration of AA’s first group. Seventy plus years ago these people proved that the critical work of recovery and life transformation is best done in small, anonymous groups of men and women sincerely and earnestly seeking to apply the principles embodied in the Four Absolutes and the Twelve Steps.

* The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous were Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith who are now deceased and whose names may therefore appear in print without breach of the tradition of anonymity.

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