In this series, we’ve been trying to accomplish three things. First, we wanted to introduce newly recovering addicts and alcoholics to the Twelve Traditions, the foundational principles of 12 step recovery programs. As for any readers with a bit of time under their belts, we wanted to provide them with a chance to reflect on these traditions and what they mean. This carried into our second goal, which was to provide readers with multiple interpretations of the text. Finally, we wanted readers to walk away with some ideas regarding how they might apply these principles to their own personal recovery. With the Eleventh Tradition, the last goal might be a bit harder to fulfill.
To be fair, the last goal is actually easy to meet in a broad sense. We might apply the Eleventh Tradition to our lives in much the same fashion we apply Tradition Ten. In fact, the two are quite similar in a few ways. They both pertain to anonymity, not only that of individuals but of the groups as well. Applying anonymity to our own lives should be a cinch. So the problem with the last goal isn’t whether or not it’s achievable wherein Tradition Eleven is concerned. The problem instead lies in the question of whether or not most addicts and alcoholics would ever be given the opportunity to break the Eleventh Tradition in the first place.
We never know where life may take us next. For this reason, it is important that we understand the Eleventh Tradition, even if we feel we may never encounter it in real life. Because if the opportunity to break this tradition does happen to arise, we must be prepared to do the right thing. Otherwise, we risk doing great (and potentially irreparable) harm to the recovery community.
What Is Tradition Eleven?
If you look at the corresponding chapter in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (also known as the 12&12), you’ll find the Eleventh Tradition defined thusly:
“Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.”
It’s hard for most of us to imagine that this issue would even come up. Perhaps some of us wish to work in these fields, but not the vast majority. And as for the rest of us, what are the odds of somebody randomly approaching us for an interview?
At this point, we must remind ourselves that the Twelve Traditions apply to the groups and the organization as a whole. The Eleventh Tradition speaks not necessarily to AA and NA members, but rather AA and NA themselves. Rather than engaging in self-promotion, the groups are expected to run on their own. They shouldn’t be putting out television ads or getting billboards made. These measures might boost their attendance, but would also cause them to come across as insincere. Instead, AA and NA groups should allow the history of the program to do all of their promoting for them.
There’s certainly no shortage of third-party promotion. We see AA and NA appear in movies such as Flight and television shows such as Mom. Doctors and psychiatrists recommend the Twelve Steps to those who engage in chronic substance abuse. A few positive press articles on recovery programs might hit our Facebook feed from time to time. Even without self-promotion, AA has cemented itself in the public eye. Most people know that the program exists long before they ever suspect that they themselves might one day need its help. In this light, self-promotion would not only be egotistical but potentially a waste of time and resources as well. There’s no need to advertise an organization that most people already know about.
Of course, things get a little more complicated when we try to apply the Eleventh Tradition to our personal lives. We’ve met many recovering addicts and alcoholics who think that their lives would make a good subject for a book. But what if they were to actually sit down and write their autobiography today? Could they talk about AA, or would that violate Tradition Eleven? Surely many authors have written about their recovery experience in the past. Did they violate the Twelve Traditions in doing so? Well, that might be a complicated question. The short answer is that it depends on who you ask.
A while back, we covered an extensive list of sober celebrities. We referenced celebrated musicians such as Steven Tyler, who says that he needs a meeting every day if he is to stay sober. Even if he doesn’t say “AA” at any point, most people will be able to guess at what he’s talking about. Should he be chastised for violating the Eleventh Tradition? There are a couple of different schools of thought on this particular issue. We’ll begin with those who do not perceive a violation.
Unfortunately, we can’t always control our anonymity. And when a person gets famous, it seems that every little fact about their personal lives usually becomes public record at one point or another. Those who defend sober celebrities from claims of Eleventh Tradition violations might point to this likelihood. The assumption is that these celebrities would eventually be outed as addicts and alcoholics anyway, so they may as well steer into the skid and embrace their recovery for all to see. Besides, some of these celebrities might be role models to others who struggle with alcoholism and addiction. When these fans hear a cherished icon talk about meetings, they might be influenced to seek recovery for themselves. From this perspective, violating the Eleventh Tradition seems to do a lot of good.
Now, let’s look at things from the perspective of AA’s stricter adherents. These individuals see no reason to justify breaking the Eleventh Tradition. Yes, doing so might achieve some good in a few random cases. But what if the celebrity in question relapses? If everyone knows that AA was their primary means of recovery, AA’s critics will latch onto the story in a heartbeat. Instead of seeing a person who needed to work harder on their recovery, people will choose to see a celebrity who was failed by the program. This damages AA, the treatment community, and everyone who might have sought treatment before seeing the negative press. Taking this possibility into account, Eleventh Tradition violations suddenly look a lot less benign.
It’s not our job to chastise or defend celebrities, so we won’t offer an opinion one way or the other. Anyone given a chance to speak publicly about their recovery should think about both of the arguments above. Decide for yourself whether or not you run the risk of breaking Tradition Eleven. No matter how you choose to proceed, we will offer a few last pieces of advice that might make your decision easier.
Following the Eleventh Tradition
Before making your decision, consider this last section from the Eleventh Tradition chapter of the 12&12:
“To us…[Tradition Eleven] represents far more than a sound public relations policy. It is more than a denial of self-seeking. This Tradition is a constant and practical reminder that personal ambition has no place in A.A. In it, each member becomes an active guardian of our Fellowship.”
If you consider writing a book or giving an interview just to get your name out there, then you can’t claim that you’re also doing it to help people. Perhaps you might achieve both, but you likely care about one more than the other. If you really feel that you must discuss AA in such mediums, you should consider doing so anonymously. Otherwise, you might want to leave the program out of your story.
Anonymity allows us to tell our stories in a way that lends to the Eleventh Tradition policy of attraction without self-promotion. You aren’t promoting yourself if you do an anonymous interview about the Twelve Steps and how they work for you. As long as you stay focused on your own experiences instead of trying to “sell” the program, few are likely to see much of a problem with speaking anonymously to the press. Furthermore, nothing in the Eleventh Tradition appears to brand such a practice as unacceptable.
Still, while anonymity might prevent direct violations of the Eleventh Tradition, we must be careful. There’s a reason that we say we should focus on our experiences rather than our opinions. Think of it another way. Have you ever read a negative movie review that actually made you want to see the film? How about a positive review that made you decide not to see a film? Perhaps you didn’t trust the reviewer’s opinion because they failed you in the past. Maybe their opinion didn’t match your perception of the film’s content. Likewise, we can’t expect people to seek recovery because of testimonials alone. They need to gain an understanding of the program and what it entails. Anecdotal evidence provides this understanding much better than a self-centered opinion piece—no matter how enthusiastic that opinion might be.
The Eleventh Tradition exists to protect the program from ego. In order to practice it in our personal lives, we must learn to assess our own intentions. Do we wish to tell our stories in order to help others? Or are we doing so out of little more than selfish ambition? In the latter case, we might not help as many people as we hurt. And feeding our ego wouldn’t do much to benefit our own recovery, either. Sobriety is life-saving and should be regarded as a serious matter. Don’t risk throwing it away just because you might get five minutes of fame in the process. Your life isn’t worth such a petty gamble.