Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Principles above personalities: Anonymity

Anonymity maskMy friend Syd’s recent post on Anonymity has me thinking.

A while ago I posted a column by Roger Ebert about how he got sober… I’ve thought about this column a lot, because it gets a lot of hits, and my opinions on his breaking his own anonymity go back and forth.

Sometimes I agree with Ebert, that he’s working the 12th step and sharing his experience, strength and hope with a view toward helping someone else get sober.

Sometimes I wonder about how it affects him, as an author, to break his own anonymity this way… whether he’s even aware it affects him—ego has a tendency to blind us to its own effects … and whether it affects the fellowship he attends.

This column drew 1,300 comments when it was published. It’s easy to look at a statistic like that (the way I did) and say, “Wow—he’s doing a great service, reaching so many people.” So instead, after reading Syd’s piece, today I did a search on the word “anonymity” among the comments on Ebert’s column, and read a sampling. The ones that mentioned anonymity or talked about Ebert’s violation of the tradition of anonymity amounted to a real argument about the tradition.

I hope you guys will weigh in on this. I really hope people will comment…

Some people thought his column did a service by showing guts and bringing the message to more people.

Good stuff Roger. … As to the personal anonymity question, I don’t see how you “coming out” as an alcoholic in any way could hurt AA. This gives people like me a reminder that great things can be done despite my shortcomings. Thank you.

Others thought he was “pompous and overblown” and only looking for praise for his own struggles.

Roger, Breaking your anonymity breaks AA’s 12th tradition. Reread it. Nowhere in the tradition does it provide exceptions. Even for those with over 30 years. Now that it is broken you cannot unbreak it. AA is a program of attraction not promotion and did not need you to recruit new members. Breaking anonymity is an ego-feeding proposition, in effect you are saying, “Look at me, I’m sober.” Did it occur to you that there may be alcoholics who find your persona pompous and insufferable? Now they will associate AA with you and have another reason to postpone going to a meeting. AA’s green card says that the greatest reward is to do a good deed in secret and have it discovered by accident.

I must say I did not read the column that way the first time… One of the first things that went through my head when I found Ebert’s column was, “Jeez, if Roger Ebert’s a recovering alcoholic, then it can’t be so awful to be an addict—and there might be some hope for me.” Maybe I thought this way only because I “like” Roger Ebert. Which means I might be putting a personality before a principle.

But if I resolutely put the principle before the personality, I can see how it could be read the other way. If there are people who do not “like” Roger Ebert and see him as the “face” of AA, or in any way representing the organization, it could have negative consequences (“another reason to postpone going to a meeting,” as the guy above says).

(Does that mean I should take it down off my site?)


One thing I’ve been thinking about is the issue of “success” in the comments.

Your story is among the best I’ve read about Alcoholics Anonymous and its impact on our lives. I celebrated 38 years of sobriety in February. And like you, I have broken my anonymity. A recently published memoir tells the story of my journey from a curbside on skid row in New Orleans to award-winning reporter and my ten year tenure as Senior Investigative Correspondent for CNN’s Special Assignment Unit. My success in collecting multiples of every major broadcast journalism award, including four Peabody medallions, is intertwined with the principles I learned in the fellowship—foremost being the principle of self-honesty we begin developing from the day we first walk through the doors with “a desire to stop drinking.” I am a hard-nose when it comes to AA Traditions, but there are times when it is necessary to publicly share our stories and success in order to help the still-suffering alcoholic/addict who has not found AA. Thirty-eight years gives me confidence that that the breach will not result in AA police repossessing my chips. Congratulations again on a superb article.

This guy makes a big deal of the program rocketing him out of his disease into a fourth dimension not only of, he says, spiritual awareness and personal integrity but also of professional success. He mentions his “multiple” awards and a memoir and attributes all this experience (helping others? earning money and attention?) to having practiced the principles in all his affairs—the implication being, “YOU CAN HAVE THIS, TOO!” … This is pretty attractive… maybe even seductive. Many of us (including myself) have come to the rooms without jobs, hoping someday to get or make good work for ourselves—work that not only supports ourselves and our families but also enables us to use our gifts to help others and contribute.

Then we have this comment:

Rogert Ebert is pompous, overblown and overrated. Who cares about his struggles. There’s literally thousands of people who have succssfully beat drug and/or alcohol addiction and their stories never make the papers. They just get up everyday and go to work or carry on as best they can. Ebert is seeking admiration and accolades for his problems, only because he is prominent and a celeb…big deal!

This kind of brings it back to the primary purpose: AA is about getting sober and helping others get sober. All the rest is gravy. …

But it also sounds a bit like sour grapes.

Telling one’s story

I think it’s important to tell one’s story. Maybe I feel so strongly about it because it’s second-nature to me. I tell stories. … It’s true that thousands of people get sober every day, and go about their lives—helping others get sober—without putting it in the papers (or on a blog, for that matter). However, there are also many who die, equally or even more obscurely, without getting help. … There’s a misconception out there that the 11th and 12th Traditions dictate that we have to be anonymous in everyday situations. How could this work?—we couldn’t possibly carry a message of hope if we had to remain anonymous in personal situations.

A sponsor once told me that I could never go wrong if I shared my own story in a meeting. … I think I can probably stay within the principles if I share my own story outside a meeting, as long as I:

  • don’t identify myself with one fellowship or another, or
  • don’t reveal my name or face.

Some time ago, for that reason, I changed my picture here to obscure my face.

It’s a problem… I loved Mary Karr’s Lit—she doesn’t mention which fellowship she attends. But I also loved Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, and she mentioned she went to AA.

OK, so now please tell me what you think…


  1. I tell my story in meetings and only twice now have I divulged to someone outside the fellowship that I go to Al-Anon. I think that there are those who think that the “new” AA is superior to the old one. I am not an AA member so can’t comment on that other than to say that I believe in the traditions and one of these state that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking….not drugging or overeating or gambling but drinking. I guess that I am a bit hard core on this in Al-Anon as well. Dilution in many respects can lead to pollution. Thanks for your writing this article. I hope that you get some good feedback.

  2. Someone who uses Roger Ebert as an excuse not to go to a meeting is doing just that – making excuses. Our anonymity is our own to do with as we choose.

  3. Well, the AA literature has a good explanation of why the 11th tradition evolved as it did (“We do have to soberly face the fact that being in the public eye is hazardous, especially for us. By temperament, nearly every one of us had been an irrepressible promoter, and the prospect of a society composed almost entirely of promoters was frightening”

    But the most effective explanation I’ve ever heard is this – what if, for example, Sarah Palin came out as a member of AA? Or porn star Ron Jeremy? Unless you are willing to accept the consequences of the fellowship that saves your and my life everyday being associated in the public mind with the most controversial figures, the best policy is for it not to be associated with anyone, because we can’t pick and choose.

  4. i for one think that anything that breaks down the stigma of addiction and recovery is a good thing. it sounds to me as if people can read into and interpret the steps much like people do the bible. i say do whatever works to get and stay sober.


  5. It’s pretty simple for me: The June 2008 issue of the AAGrapevine published guidelines for anonymity on public web sites. It says in part that

    “Someone using their full name and/or a full-face photograph would be in violation of the Eleventh Tradition ……. our [last] names and pictures as AA members ought not to be broadcast, filmed or publicly printed.”

    Period. Roger Ebert is breaking this tradition. I hope it does more good than harm, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong. The literature tells us, I believe to be as out as possible in real life. Not in the media. Not anyone, not even Mr. Ebert. Our names out not to be publicly printed.

  6. The traditions are there for a reason: this thing has worked for over 75 years, and we want it to be there for the millions of suffering alcoholics who may not have even been born, much less considered getting help. It doesn’t matter how good the motive is, he still broke the 11th tradition – as well as the 1st tradition: ‘personal recovery depends on AA unity’.

    I did enjoy the article, though, LOL.

  7. Would his story under a pen name been as effective as his real identity? If not then it is a personality carrying a message rather than the principle carrying the message.

  8. He clearly violated the 11th tradition. Sounds like typical, not particularly sober, self-will run riot. At least I’m sure he was an alcoholic because of it. It has the isms all over it.

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