The significance and richness of the practice of spiritual anonymity among members of Alcoholics Anonymous is not well understood. At a basic level, this practice means protecting a safe space for honest sharing, by carefully guarding the privacy of all members. If someone publicly announces their membership, they may inadvertently compromise other members by association. Anonymity also means that individuals cannot ‘speak for’ their fellowship. This means that no individual can hijack the agenda or risk their personal behaviour bringing their fellowship into disrepute. Spiritual anonymity also means not taking credit for one’s own recovery. The Twelve-Step model, albeit controversially, argues that individuals recover through drawing on a power greater than themselves. This may simply mean an acknowledgement that they couldn’t remain abstinent without the help of others. While members may celebrate their time in abstinent recovery, they will also be quick to attribute the source of their achievement to a power other than their own will-power. The achievement therefore drives the cultivation of gratitude and humility, rather than pride.
It would run counter to the commitment to anonymity for a member to appear in the media without their identity being disguised. In the past this has meant members have been filmed from behind, their faces pixelated, and their voices distorted. These media practices have contributed to the impression that Alcoholics Anonymous is a secret, or even shady, organisation, and that being in recovery is a source of shame.
In 2022, the BBC made a ground-breaking documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous using cutting-edge, deep-fake technology to present a more human face of the fellowship, while also respecting and observing spiritual anonymity. Dr Wendy Dossett from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, who has researched the spiritual practices of fellowship members for the last decade, was an expert contributor to the programme.
Wendy said, ‘I was honoured to take part in this creative project to offer the public a significantly greater insight into the way AA works than has hitherto been possible. The programme makers showed great sensitivity and respect for the values and traditions of AA. It was truly amazing to see deep-fake technology, so often used for malign purposes, being used for good. The programme challenged some of the myths about AA that prevent people from accessing this free, community-based, mutual aid resource that helps thousands of people every year overcome their problems with addiction. In doing so, it also challenged the stigma associated with seeking help for addiction issues. Since the programme first aired on December 7th 2022, I have heard numerous accounts of people reaching out for help by phone or email, and even finding the courage to attend a meeting in order to investigate whether AA might be helpful to them.’
The programme ‘I’m an Alcoholic: Inside AA’ is available on BBC iPlayer.
For other help with alcohol or other addictions see https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/addiction-support/addiction-what-is-it/