Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Anonymity: Outing and Inning

A book review in this week's New York Observer observes that there is a rash of books now hitting the market in which more-or-less prominent people out themselves as AA members. Source. Cases in point: reporter Tom Sykes, Hazelden exec William Cope Moyers (son of the media icon Bill Moyers), reporter Jason Leopold, author Augusten Burroughs, and a number of others who are, in reviewer Choire Sicha's phrase, alcoholics who are "anonymous no more."

Sicha astutely observes that this small deluge of addict memoirs comes in the wake of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a work that was not flattering to AA or to the AA-based treatment industry. Frey's blockbuster stayed on the bestseller lists for a long time despite (or because of) Frey's grudging admission that some key points were fictitious. (Remember, "there's no such thing as bad publicity.")

Sicha sees no connection between the negative impact of Frey's bestseller and the current crop of pro-AA testimonials. He thinks the books just respond to a perceived public thirst for more addiction memoirs. He naively quotes Bill W. 's bromides about anonymity and humility, as if these had anything to do with how AA really operates. It doesn't occur to Sicha that this crop of promotionals might be a kind of P.R. campaign to counteract the shadow that Frey's book cast over some sacred cows of American recovery.

If you're a lovable celebrity, and you got sober in AA, AA itself will "out" you. You will be invited to speak at openly or covertly AA events, the press will be there, and you will be quoted about your successful recovery from alcoholism thanks to a 12-step recovery organization that you can't identify but whose abbreviated name has two identical letters which happen to fall at the beginning of the alphabet. And since there might be readers who still don't get it, you might as well, in your memoirs, name its name. As long as you remain a lovable celebrity, you will get no static from AA for bending your anonymity into a pretzel, or breaking it outright. On the contrary, you'll be lionized and in demand on the AA speaker circuit, and Hazelden may publish you.

"Outing" is a useful word. We also need a word for the opposite process, namely cloaking someone's AA affiliation after they've stopped being a lovable celebrity and become a big ugly public embarrassment. Will "inning" or "re-closeting" work? The most recent case in point is Mel Gibson, who had been attending AA religiously since 1991, and used to be a big lovable celebrity whose AA membership was a matter of public knowledge. All that changed when Gibson was caught on Aug. 28 driving drunk and spouting sexist, anti-Semitic, arrogant, belligerent and obscene remarks. Definitely not lovable. Suddenly the American press stopped referring to him as an AA member, and his story was reframed as if AA participation would be a New Thing for him and would Make a Difference. I've written about this case earlier here and here.

Anonymity? Humility? Those are only for the losers. Sicha's book review is that of an acolyte who can't or doesn't want to see through the cloud of spiritual smoke in the cathedral. Shouldn't journalists writing about others who break anonymity come out of the closet themselves?

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