A. A.'s Anonymity Keeps Focus On Cause

Tradition more about protecting movement than those who fear exposure

By Paula Schleis, Beacon Journal staff writer 

Rob, Gail, Bob, Jay and Harmon make no secret they are alcoholics, and the fact that you won't find their last names or photos with this story has nothing to do with shyness or shame.

As volunteers with this weekend's Founders Day activities -- the annual celebration of the forming of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 -- their faces and phone numbers will circulate widely.

But A.A. takes the ``anonymous'' part of its name very seriously -- and not just for the reasons you might think.

While a promise of confidentiality is critical in reaching people who fear exposure, A.A.'s strict tradition of anonymity is more about protecting the reputation of a movement that millions depend on.

"You sacrifice your last name for the good of the whole,'' Gail said.

By keeping names and images out of the media, A.A. can't be exploited for personal power or gain, said Rob, as he sat around a table discussing the subject with his peers.

Within reach was a stack of black ``Lone Ranger'' masks, just in case a photographer showed up wanting a picture.

As a matter of fact, only a non-alcoholic can be elected as the national chairman because of the exposure that job requires. Elaine McDowell, elected to the post in 2001, can face the cameras head-on and use her name in legal and public venues.

As A.A. co-founder Bill W. once explained: ``A.A. had to become known somehow, so we resorted to the idea that it would be far better to let our (non-alcoholic) friends do it for us.''

The tradition of anonymity also has helped A.A. avoid being stereotyped. It is not the image of a male or female, a Democrat or Republican, factory worker or business owner, Protestant or Jew, gay or straight.

"People need to feel that A.A. is for people just like them,'' said Jay.

From beginning

The tradition of not using last names goes back to the very beginning, when Akron physician Dr. Robert Smith and New York businessman William Wilson began working out the details of their 12-step program.

The co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous called themselves Dr. Bob and Bill W.

Gail, archivist for the Akron Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous, said there is some evidence Dr. Bob and Bill W. gave up their last names partly out of concern their phones would never stop ringing as word of their efforts spread.

"There were too few of them to handle all the requests,'' Gail said.

Bill W. might also have been influenced by the Oxford Group to which he belonged. In that religious movement, anonymity was a way of showing humility.

And that reason still melds perfectly with the 12-step program, Harmon said.

"Until the alcoholic surrenders his ego, he can't get better,'' he said.

The concept of stressing anonymity as a way to protect the work of the organization can be traced to 1939, when a well-known Cleveland Indians catcher went public with his ties to an A.A. group in Akron.

The catcher was making a spectacular comeback, and the media lavished attention on his successful struggle with alcoholism. At first, Dr. Bob and Bill W. didn't balk at the attention.

But when other members began coming out, the pair began to wonder what it would mean for A.A. if those celebrities started falling off the wagon. Would there be a public perception that A.A. had failed them? Would that make others reluctant to try it?

In 1950, an A.A. convention in Cleveland unanimously accepted a list known as the 12 traditions.

The 12th tradition is this: ``Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.''

Avoid controversy

Anonymity extends to the organization itself.

A.A. will not take an official stance on any outside issue, Rob said. That way, it can avoid public controversy and avoid alienating someone who needs help but disagrees with an opinion.

For the same reason, local A.A. groups have to be self-supporting.

A.A.'s adherence to anonymity can lead to some complicated situations.

In 1951, Bill W. agonized over whether A.A. should accept a prestigious national award. He finally agreed to, though he admitted that merely being on hand to accept it forced him to be a celebrity for the day.

A decade later, however, he cited anonymity in declining a request by Time magazine to put a picture of the back of his head on the cover.

More recently, the Akron group struggled with the issue when Good Morning America expressed interest in doing a story on A.A.'s roots.

After speaking to members throughout the country, it was clear such publicity would lend a celebrity image to Akron.

"We told them no,'' Gail said. ``We can only have one purpose in A.A. -- to maintain sobriety and help others.''

No reprimands

Privately, A.A. members do not have to maintain anonymity, and indeed, it would be impossible to operate that way, Rob explained.

"How would anybody reach me? You can't look in the phone book under `Rob,' '' he said.

But the organization is mindful when last names and images show up in the paper, on TV or film, or on the Internet.

"There is no punishment or reprimand,'' Rob said, ``but a delegate will usually approach the member and remind them politely of the tradition.''

The head office in New York usually will swing into action, too, contacting the media outlet that revealed an identity to ask for cooperation in the future.

And even though the identities and images of A. A.'s co-founders were revealed long ago, members still commonly call them simply Dr. Bob and Bill W.

"They would tell you that they were just instruments,'' Gail said. ``We're all just instruments.''

@ Beacon Journal   Fri, Jun. 11, 2004

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