Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Keeping the Lid On

June 25th, 2010 · 4 Comments


When I started working on the AA piece for Wired, I assumed that the nascent organization insisted on anonymity because of a 1930s stigma against alcoholism. But as it turns out, Bill Wilson created the policy for a more pragmatic reason, which he explained thusly:

[In the past], alcoholics who talked too much on public platforms were likely to become inflated and get drunk again. Our principle of anonymity, so far as the general public is concerned, partly corrects this difficulty by preventing any individual receiving a lot of newspaper or magazine publicity, then collapsing and discrediting AA.

It’s not totally clear which “public platforms” Wilson was referring to, but it’s likely that he was familiar with the curious case of the Washingtonian movement, a mid-19th century precursor to AA. An early draft of my article contained a snippet about the Washingtonians’ fabulous early success, and then their incredibly swift collapse:

In the early 1840s, a group called the Washingtonian Society formed around the idea that drunkards could help each other kick the liquor habit. The Washingtonians held massive public meetings at which recovered alcoholics told their stories of redemption, in order to inspire audience members to quit drinking, too. The movement quickly attracted 400,000 followers, then completely disintegrated before the decade was through. Widespread charges of hypocrisy played a big role in the Washingtonians’ rapid demise: Many of the movement’s most famous speakers would lift thousands of hearts at a meeting one day, only to be discovered dead drunk on a tavern floor the next.

The Washingtonians’ other big organizational mistake was getting too cozy with the temperance movement, to the point that it became more political than therapeutic. Wilson made sure that AA avoided this pitfall, too, by insisting that the organization remain neutral in all outside matters. By refusing to take public sides on social issues, AA has ensured that its “tent” is as big as possible—a pretty important asset, given the organization’s extremely high attrition rate.

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