Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated, I've been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for some time now but recently something happened at one that I'd never encountered before: a man admitted to hitting his partner earlier that day. He was clearly embarrassed and ashamed of his actions, and said he had apologized and that the partner hadn't accepted (which I was glad to hear) and that he was working on his anger issues, though obviously his account needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I've spoken to a fellow AA (as we call each other) who's a social worker and she said that because it involves adults there's really nothing I can do, and even if there was something a) I only know the man's first name and nothing about his partner, and b) it's not clear what would be ethical given the importance of anonymity in AA and that meetings need to be safe places for people to talk about messed up stuff they've done. But I think it's one thing to talk about things you did months or years ago and another to speak about violence that happened hours ago within the context of an on-going relationship. Knowing that this guy is out there possibly physically abusing his partner is making me crazy even a week later. So is there something I could('ve) do(ne)? If not, how do I stop ruminating and let this go? And what do I do if I see this man again?
To start, let's ease your mind a bit: Your social worker friend was right that there was very little you could have realistically done for your fellow AA member's victim in terms of that one crime. The deliberate anonymity that is a part of AA—which is actually intended to help hold people accountable to themselves, their God and their fellow members for their actions—means you didn't know his last name, or that of his partner, where either of them lives, how badly he hurt the partner or what happened when he got home or saw the partner next. Had you gone to the police, you would've been able to say, "A man in AA today said he hit his partner," and the police officer or receptionist to whom you spoke would've listened, possibly politely, and sent you on your way.
That said, the twelve steps ask that each member take a moral inventory, make amends and continue to do so throughout their life. "Amends" could include an apology—though, as you note, when it comes to domestic violence, there's often a lot of apologizing that isn't really about amends-making as much as it is about victim-retention—but making amends means that you're supposed to try to make things right, and often a simple apology doesn't cover that. You clearly don't feel an apology counts as amends, his partner (by not accepting the apology) seemingly felt that it didn't count as amends, and the fact that you say his account to the meeting needs "to be taken with a grain of salt" indicates that you're not even sure he's keeping the promise of "a searching and fearless moral inventory."
While the dynamics of each meeting is different, and it sounds as though one of you isn't a regular member (or else you would've likely run into him again by now), you might have been able to ask him if he and his partner thought an apology was enough amends, effectively calling his behavior out on AA's own terms (if confrontation was something you felt comfortable with and if it didn't endanger you as well).
Alternately, if you were in a situation where you were better acquainted with the other member, you might have been able to speak with his sponsor about the difference between apologizing and making amends, and the ways in which apologies often don't serve as amends-making in the context of domestic violence—and encourage the sponsor to talk to the abuser about it. Going to the police yourself, especially in this context, is not the only way to have done something or to do something, though (in many contexts) it can be the best option to stop or end abuse. And if you see him again, both of those former options are still on the table for you.
That said, let's dispel some misunderstandings about how AA—as a whole, though not necessarily your meeting—deals with anonymity. According to the guidelines of the General Services Office, anonymity is for members from a wider public—i.e., "press, radio, television, and films" as well as the "Internet and digital technologies." The anonymity of AA isn't actually universal and sacrosanct, and it doesn't make any member into a priest charged with maintaining the confidentiality of another's confessions at the behest of God. In fact, the GSO says this on the subject of public discussions (which are, again, not defined as discussions with the police):
An A.A. member may, for various reasons, "break anonymity" deliberately at the public level. Since this is a matter of individual choice and conscience, the Fellowship as a whole obviously has no control over such deviations from tradition. It is clear, however, that such individuals do not have the approval of the overwhelming majority of members.
In other words, your adherence to the community norms of anonymity are and must remain up to your own conscience and are not supposed to be enforced by (and deviations from it should probably not, in the interests of your own continued sobriety, be punished by) your meeting. I spoke to several AA members from around the country and while each of them said that anonymity was an important part of the process, some meetings specifically exempt acts of violence against others from the anonymity process. Other folks felt, like your social worker colleague, that it would be controversial to break anonymity but that the safety and well-being of another person would cause them to take that step with a clear conscience. It is, after all, your conscience with which you have to live every day. But: just because something sits right with your conscience doesn't mean that other people have to (or will) like it. The folks in your regular meeting could find out about it (or you could tell them) and have differing points of view. They could choose not to trust you, ask you to find another meeting, or be cold when you do come. Unfortunately, doing the right thing doesn't mean receiving just treatment from those affected by it, and it's important to understand and make your peace with that so that you do not undermine your own (important!) sobriety.
But all of these are things you could bring up at your own meeting: your discomfort with the idea that anonymity and confidentiality meant giving a pass to (possibly ongoing) criminal activity that is actively harming another person, how that's affected your own conscience, mental health and effort to stay sober and what your own meeting's boundaries are both explicitly and implicitly. If you have a therapist, you can talk about it in therapy. And, as the guidelines of AA offer, continue to take your own moral inventory, contemplate how to act out what you think is right and make amends where you can.
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Anonymity guaranteed. Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com