I often say that my wife saved my life by making me go to AA. However, my real saviour was the good publicity that made her aware of AA in the first place and the high public regard for our Fellowship that gave her the confidence to send me there. A little later, when I had recovered from alcoholism by taking the 12 steps with the help of a sponsor, I wanted to tell everyone that I was sober in AA. But part of my desire to tell all and sundry was to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ Using my AA membership for self-aggrandising purposes is something I still have to guard against. What, though, about my genuine desire to let people know about this wonderful programme? With the guidance of my sponsor I became comfortable with quietly disclosing my AA membership to friends and work colleagues. By these means a number of 12th step calls have come my way. However, even though AA had been going 60 years by the time I pitched up, such ‘quiet disclosures’ would never have been enough to transmit the AA message to my wife’s consciousness. No, a far more widespread and far-reaching means of communication has been necessary.
The early AAs knew that they had to harness the ‘colossus of modern communications’ if AA was to make anything more than the most faltering progress. Many well-meaning AA members (Bill W included) therefore set about publicising AA by appearing on radio programmes, and in newspaper articles, using their full names as members of Alcoholics Anonymous. This worked, initially, especially when famous people also broke their personal anonymity in the media – more and more people were therefore being drawn to AA by these personalities rather than by the spiritual principles of the 12 steps. The problem with this is that the same, ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ tendencies were inevitably present as they were (and can still be) with me. This ‘big-shot-ism’ began to run amok as AA members left, right and centre broke their anonymity at the public level, all for the good of AA of course.
The thing is, this Fellowship doesn’t need that kind of help. What if the personality or famous AA gets drunk and mires the good name of Alcoholics Anonymous? What about those who declare their AA membership at the top public level, while at the same time promoting various different causes? Outside organisations naturally wanted to harness the good name of AA and often hired AA members to bang the drum for political causes or for such things as ‘responsible drinking’ messages from the alcohol trade. A sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous would be bound to lend considerable weight to such causes among the general public. The difficulty with this is that given enough anonymity breaks the public and the press would start to wonder whether AA stood for this cause or that cause; that political stance or some other. Consequently AA would be drawn into public controversy, our unity would suffer and our ability to carry the AA message severely compromised. If allowed to persist AA would eventually collapse, and it doesn’t get more serious than that! We needed to protect our society from ourselves, from our natural desires for power and prestige, which can still lead AA members to declare their membership on TV, the radio or in magazine articles whereby the AA name then becomes associated with these personalities in the public eye regardless of what the individual does or says that can potentially put us in a bad light.
The solution turned out to be in Traditions 11 and 12, which suggests no breaking of anonymity at the level of press, radio, TV and films; that we should place our principles before our personalities. At the core of these traditions is humility and sacrifice. We sacrifice our desire to say ‘Look at me, aren’t I special?’ and we sacrifice our desire for short-term publicity based on someone well-known declaring publicly their AA membership. Blanket anonymity at this level prevents controversy and a loss of public confidence in AA and from many internal wranglings that could also threaten our treasured unity. Indeed sacrifice for the common good of AA does me good, it keeps me right sized and humble enough to be a servant of AA rather than rising above it. And sacrifice at the public level, demonstrated by anonymity, is good for our society because the public, the media and newcomers know that we are humble enough to know our place, that they can have confidence in our principles of recovery – ‘This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us, that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.’