If You Break AA's 11th Tradition, Expect an Email from Headquarters

If You Break AA’s 11th Tradition, Expect an Email from Headquarters

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writeaboutaaemailI’ve written plenty of articles on Alcoholics Anonymous, as have many writers for this site. If you’re a firm believer in the importance of the 11th Tradition, then you might think we writers who blow our anonymity are a pack of defiant jerks who would be better off using pseudonyms than putting our own interests before the group. This may be so, but guess what? We are legally entitled to write about AA publicly until our fingerprints wear off.

For those of you who might be unschooled in the 11th Tradition, it reads: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we must always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and film.”

Since my articles are particularly snarky and elucidate my personal conflicts with AA, I, unlike other writers who share openly about their experience in AA on AfterPartyMagazine, received a very creepy email from the AA General Service Office a few weeks back, an email reminding me to not use my full name when writing about the program. The entire letter can be found in my post on Medium (I posted it about 30 minutes after they sent it to me).

It took a while to sort through what exactly was being said in the letter, since much of it was shrouded in tangential and patronizing language, including, “First, let us express our deep gratitude to you. From the beginning of A.A. in 1935, its members have recognized that word-of-mouth is not sufficient by itself to carry the program’s message of hope and recovery to the many people still suffering from alcoholism.”

In reality, I’ve done nothing for the program as a writer in the media, so I couldn’t help but feel that whoever had penned the email had some passive-aggressive tendencies. But more important than the passive-aggression is the reality that AA thinks it’s okay to personally contact media professionals who are or who have been AA members. Though I’d like to make an eloquent and nuanced conclusion about this behavior, the first words that come to mind are simply “So not cool.”

Not cool. It is just not in any way appropriate to track down the personal emails of journalists or writers—someone took the time to get my email address, probably by visiting my website, since it’s not listed on any publication I write for—to slap them on the wrists and tell them to keep their mouths shut. Even if my posts were not critical of Alcoholics Anonymous, AA has no right to try to police what members do or do not say, write or post, even if they use their real names. After all, isn’t the entire program just a bunch of “suggestions”? The powers that be in AA have overstepped big time, and in the process they’ve attempted to rob me, and whomever else they sent that email to, of one of my most basic constitutional rights—freedom of speech. And let’s not forget freedom of the press, too.

The sentence that disturbed me the most in the email was: “In addition, and perhaps less understood, our tradition of anonymity acts as a restraint on A.A. members, reminding us that we are a program of principles, not personalities, and that no individual A.A. member may presume to act as a spokesman or leader of our fellowship” (emphasis mine).

The idea that AA is trying to “restrain” members in any way, shape or form, violates the notion that the traditions are “but suggestions.” The reality that General Service reached out in an effort to restrain me is, in my opinion, kinda culty. I wouldn’t go so far as to label AA a cult, especially since one of my pals is a former member of the Church of Scientology and has shared with me the horrors that go down in the church. Still, this former Scientologist (and if I dare drop his name they’ll hunt him down and likely draw up a lawsuit against him for libel and bleed him of all his savings) did see my email from AA email and say, “That’s something Scientology would do.”

Because I have not believed AA to be a cult, despite my issues with the program, I really cringed when that email hit my inbox. I’ve defended AA, even after leaving, saying essentially that though it’s kind of culty at times, it’s no way is it an actual cult. But this email left me sad, disappointed and forced to reconsider my stance.

My friend pointed out that since I am a writer and one with an axe to grind about the program, AA probably made a mistake sending me the letter. “Did it not occur to them that you’ll just turn around and put them on blast?” he asked, dumbfounded. “Common sense just isn’t common enough.”

What most people in AA bring up when discussing anonymity in the media boils down to this: “What if someone goes public that they’re in AA and then they relapse? Then no one will come to AA and they’ll conclude that it doesn’t work!” So yeah, if all those celebrities in AA come out vocally about the program but then relapse, all of a sudden AA’s reputation loses its sacredness. The program might lose influence, steam and perhaps even dwindle.

But anyone who’s participated in the program knows relapsing happens to countless members—it’s even proven through AA’s self studies, in addition to others performed by third-parties. So trying to shield the public from the reality that yes people in AA relapse seems absurd. Because people do. What’s wrong with some transparency?

And if AA doesn’t have a 100% recovery rate, why are they so eager to cover it up? Why not accept that it doesn’t always work and be like, “Hey, our program isn’t perfect. If it doesn’t work for you, why don’t you try SMART or Refuge Recovery or something else entirely that might work better for you?”

You know how many times I’ve heard a sponsor say that? Zero.

The reason is, of course, that according to AA doctrine, the program will work for you as long as you’re doing everything properly. In their mind, the “failures” are people who were “constitutionally incapable of being honest.”

Here I must add that no, I do not think AA is useless. There are people who swear by it, and if it helps keeps them sober, then of course it’s a good thing. But policing members for breaking their anonymity is simply not acceptable, whether the tsk-tsk is coming from other members or General Service. That email I received simply reminded me why I left the program in the first place. I’ve written for countless publications on countless different topics and never have I received an unsolicited email from any person, group, business or organization trying to coerce me to shut up or not use my real name. The point of being a journalist is to write the truth, and in doing so people can become informed and the world can become more transparent.

Freedom of speech is my right—it is the right of every American citizen. Freedom of the press is every journalist’s right. If you don’t agree—well, no need to send me an email about it.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.