Challenging the Second ‘A’ in A.A.

In modern recovery, anonymity is viewed as harking to a time when alcoholism was seen as a disgrace.

By DAVID COLMAN
Published: May 6, 2011

I’M David Colman, and I’m an alcoholic.

In the 15 years since I quit drinking, I’ve neither spoken nor written those words, and now, in doing so, I have more or less violated the first-name-only tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous, the grass-roots organization whose meetings have helped me (and millions of others) quit drinking. As A.A.’s 11th Tradition states, “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”

Of course, in the meetings I’ve attended over the years, anonymity has always been a kind of collective fiction. Before and after sessions, I find myself talking to people I know from work: greeting an artist I’ve interviewed or a fashion designer I want to; hashing over logistics with a P.R. guy or a magazine editor. At one of these, a big Sunday meeting in Greenwich Village, I’ve been surprised to see well-known actors and authors up on the dais to share their stories — often, I’ve noticed, when they have something to promote, as if it’s just another a stop on the press tour. Frequently, I find friends introducing me to others in the group by my full name, “You know David Colman, don’t you?”

More and more, anonymity is seeming like an anachronistic vestige of the Great Depression, when A.A. got its start and when alcoholism was seen as not just a weakness but a disgrace.

Over the past few years, so many memoirs about recovery have been released that they constitute a genre unto itself. (Kick Lit?) Moreover, many of them share a format that comes from A.A. itself: most 12-step meetings revolve loosely around what is called a “qualification” — an informal monologue by one member about his or her battle with the bottle. The last few years have brought us fleshed-out qualifications by Augusten Burroughs (“Dry”), Mary Karr (“Lit”), Nikki Sixx (“The Heroin Diaries”), Eric Clapton (“Clapton: The Autobiography”), Nic Sheff (“Tweak”) and James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces,” fabricated, in part, though it was), as well as hundreds of other blurry, cautionary tales of debauchery and redemption. Somewhere, their patron saint — Augustine of Hippo, whose “Confessions” inaugurated the sinner-cum-saint format in A.D. 398 — is smiling. With precious few exceptions, like Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” in 1822 and Lillian Roth’s “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” in 1954, the form barely existed 20 years ago.

People seeking help from any number of addictions can find public role models — the quitterati, if you will — like Eminem (the album “Recovery”), Pink (the song “Sober”), and Russell Brand, in the remake of “Arthur” (if they were among the few moviegoers who actually saw it), which seemed in many ways to echo the now-abandoned life he wrote about in “My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up.”

“I think it’s extremely healthy that anonymity is fading,” said Clancy Martin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. Mr. Martin broke his anonymity in a 9,000-word essay he wrote in the January issue of Harper’s Magazine detailing his experience getting sober in A.A. and his frustrations with the resistance he met in meetings when trying to talk openly about the psychiatric medications that he, like many recovering addicts, took.

But not everyone is happy about this turn toward openness, chief among them A.A. itself, which last year issued an expanded statement on anonymity that has been read at some meetings, adding language about the importance of discretion on social networking Web sites, hoping to ward off breaches both purposeful and accidental.

Some people have posted pictures taken at A.A. meetings on their Facebook pages, said a spokeswoman for A.A. who asked not to be identified. In some cases, they may have involuntarily outed other attendees. “We don’t have the wherewithal to deal with the complaints,” she added. “It’s literally in the thousands now.”

IN the world of recovery — encompassing the greater community of recovering addicts, which overlaps mightily but not officially with A.A. and its alphabet soup of sister groups — anonymity is a concept that, even if it doesn’t feel bit old-fashioned, can be self-defeating.

“Having to deny your own participation in a program that is helping your life doesn’t make sense to me,” said Maer Roshan, the editor of The Fix, a new, hip-feeling Web magazine aimed at the recovery world. “You could be focusing light on something that will make it better and more honest and more helpful.”

The idea for The Fix — a mixture of serious journalism, reviews of rehab programs and irreverent features (like one about the “most irritating” 12-step slogans) — came to Mr. Roshan about 18 months ago, when he was living in Los Angeles and out of rehab for alcohol and drug use. Newly exposed to the realm of recovery, Mr. Roshan was struck by how little solid and comprehensive information there was about it.

“There are hundreds of books and millions of Web articles, but it’s hard to discern what’s real and what’s agenda,” he said. “It’s so weird. With Yelp, you can find out everything about the pizza place on the corner, but there’s no good, unfiltered, reported information on most rehabs — and this is something you could be spending $100,000 on.”

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