Ms. Opinionated: All the Advice You Asked For, and Some You Didn't

Megan Carpentier
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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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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Victim's Safety

I agree with this advice by and large, but want to add one more consideration. Rather than focusing exclusively on whether it's correct to 'out' this perpetrator, the letter writer needs to consider the implications of 'outing' the victim. I work in a shelter and we take great pains to avoid taking any action to out clients both out of respect for their confidentiality and privacy, and out of care for their safety. In situations of DV it's often the case that when an abuser learns that a victim has sought help, either via police involvement or social services, they feel that their power over that victim is threatened and they escalate violence. Some clients work with us for an extended period of time getting ready to leave an abuser as safely as possible, without anyone else in their lives knowing that they're a victim or that they've sought help. We are trained to be very careful to help clients to avoid accidental disclosures, safety planning around whether we can call them, how they can save our numbers in their phones, and how we will answer the phone when our hotline is called.

This is all to say that by calling the police in a case like this without any consultation with the victim could put that person in greater danger.

Using the Discourse Arrangement

It seems to me that this guy might have been using the anonymity of AA to his advantage--he can gain a bit of absolution by confessing without actually having to do penance, or jail time. If this is the case, he is still in the manipulative mode of soone who uses others as objects--punching bag, teddy bear, diary--and thereby leaves them with the emotional baggage of his actions. In such a case, it may be worthwhile to turn the comment back around to talk about how it makes one feel to feel be emotionally manipulated in what should be a safe space for emotional vulnerability. Yes, his partner is a primary concern, but his violation of the ethic of the group--if that's what he was doing--should not go unnoticed.

yes and no...

while i agree with you that he may be getting the relief of confession within the group and that it might be unfair to the group as a whole, it is not AA tradition to "turn the comment back around." in a meeting, people share and others do not "crosstalk," or comment on someone's share.

i'm wondering if maybe there can be a business meeting before or after the next meeting to take a group conscience and perhaps find this man's sponsor to let him know what's going on.

i definitely hope his partner gets away from him and that they both get the help they need.

just my two cents.

btw - i thought the response to this question was fantastic and accurate to what i've experienced in AA. thanks for doing your research, megan. :)

Support Group or Confessional?

Having been in any number of groups that function in a supportive manner, from prayer groups to mom support groups, to Parents Anonymous, I've discovered the following to be true across the board: many people use these groups as a confessional, as a way to get what seems to be an unbearable situation off their chests and get initial feedback.

I cannot tell you the number of times that a random person has shown up (sometimes I've wondered how they've even discovered these groups, as most of them do not have the sense of permanence that most AA groups have), only to completely STUN the rest of the members with a story that defies description, whether he or she is the perpetrator, or the victim. Sometimes, after revealing this troubling tale of woe, she or he leaves abruptly.

As a newcomer to groups, I was initially, and rightfully, dismayed, wondering what would happen, what were we to do? Nothing. As other comments and Ms. Opinionated herself mentions, the very anonymity of the group makes it possible for this to happen. Now I know better. There's nothing to be done. And very likely, the person will not return.

I always hope for the best. But there's really nothing to be done. That's sad, but that's the way it is.

Ms. Opinionated is by far my

Ms. Opinionated is by far my favorite column on this site. This is another really great one. Thanks!

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