An Excerpt on How A.A. Pioneer Bob E. Described Early A.A.
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.