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The Anonymous People: A misguided attempt to bring addiction out of the closet

The Anonymous People is a feature documentary film about the over 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.

The Anonymous People
Written by
Aaron Cohen, Bud Mikhitarian, Jeff Reilly, Greg D. Williams
Directed by
Greg D. Williams

While it may be true that a movement needs something to move against in order to define itself, the charges levelled at Alcoholics Anonymous – surely one of the most inclusive and unlikely-to-retaliate organizations on the planet – by Greg D. Williams's doc The Anonymous People are so misplaced as to render this otherwise well-meaning full length P.S.A. announcement almost incoherent.

Proceeding from the assumption that A.A. is a liability to government policy and programs around addiction because the tenet of "anonymity" keeps the condition stigmatized, the movie tracks a number of public recovery voices – such as former beauty queen Tara Conner, actress Kristen Johnston and basketball player Chris Herren – as they encourage people to speak up in order to change both public attitudes and policy regarding what now resembles nothing short of a 21st-century epidemic.

With the young, eager and entirely earnest Williams – a recovering addict – as our guide and host, Anonymous People almost instantly gets off on the wrong foot by suggesting that the biggest problem facing recovery-reform policy isn't an intransigent political system, an insatiably sensation-hungry celebrity media, or an especially deep-seated Puritan moralism in American culture, but all those "church basements and books" that Johnson blames for keeping addiction in the closet.

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Really? Quite apart from the fact that the "anonymous" part of A.A. was originally provided as a protection against exposure at a time when alcoholism was considered a moral failing only slightly more forgivable than sexual deviancy, there's the argument that anonymity, the so-called "spiritual foundation" of A.A., is also about humility, equality and unconditional inclusiveness: properties arguably as essential to any long term recovery as abstinence itself.

But there's also the basic presumption here that addiction and recovery are still somehow shameful secrets that need to be "outed" in the first place. If that's the case, how come almost everything said in this movie seems like it's been said so many times elsewhere and before, and how come the very spectacle of 12-step recovery meetings – those church-basement affairs that are charged with being so secretive – has now almost become a cliche of movies and TV? No, the problem isn't that we don't talk enough about recovery but that we don't talk about it enough in the right way: as a perceptual disorder that distorts not just the addict's way of seeing the world, but the way the world understands the addict.

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