Brad Pitt is on top of his game, professionally, with two major films out this awards season. Emotionally, he also seems to be in a good place, opening up in interviews about how his bitter, high-profile divorce from Angelina Jolie forced him to stop drinking.
In his latest interview with the New York Times, Pitt goes a bit further in describing his recovery process. The star of “Ad Astra” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” discloses that he “spent a year and a half” in Alcoholic Anonymous, where he was part of an all-male recovery group that helped him learn to better process his feelings and be more authentic with himself and others.
“You had all these men sitting around being open and honest in a way I have never heard,” 55-year-old Pitt told the New York Times. “It was this safe space where there was little judgment, and therefore little judgment of yourself.”
Pitt’s work on himself sounds admirable. So does his willingness to let his fans know that his glamorous movie star life wasn’t always so great — that he had a common problem shared by millions of regular people, and that he took steps to address it.
But anyone familiar with the basic tenets of AA will wonder if the “Fight Club” star opened up a bit too much — by saying he was in AA.
The international recovery fellowship has “anonymous” in its title for a reason. The 11th of its 12 traditions states: “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.”
For members, especially celebrities, this usually means that it’s OK to talk publicly about overcoming an addiction or being in recovery — but they should avoid affiliating themselves with Alcoholics Anonymous.
The 11th tradition isn’t a hard-and-fast rule — and AA won’t kick Pitt out for violating it — but those writing in the comments section of the Times profile felt the actor needed a reminder that another tradition says: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions.”
“Great that Brad wants to share his story of recovery (and he seems like a sincere person), but he is violating a basic tenet of AA here,” one commenter wrote. “Members are specifically asked to maintain anonymity at the level of ‘press, radio, or film.’ It’s a fundamental spiritual principle that helps the program function. Thanks for sharing, buddy.”
Co-founder Bill Wilson wrote in 1946 how anonymity is a concept that goes beyond maintaining the confidentiality of people one encounters in meetings — a practice that no doubt relieved Pitt of the fear that his personal secrets would wind up in the tabloids.
Anonymity also is a way for people in recovery to check the ego and arrogance that kept them drinking self-destructively, Wilson said. Staying anonymous encourages humility, a necessary component for recovery, he added.
“The word ‘anonymous’ has for us an immense spiritual significance,” Wilson wrote. “Subtly but powerfully, it reminds us that we are always to place principles before personalities; that we have renounced personal glorification in public; that our movement not only preaches but actually practices a true humility.”
This is a message that should be heeded by newly sober people who want “oodles of accolades simply because they’ve stopped self-destructing,” a writer, using a pseudonym, said in a 2015 post for the recovery site The Fix. The post asked, “What the Heck Does Anonymity Mean?”
An AA member told The Fix: “I don’t resent celebrities who declare their recoveries in AA publicly, but I do think it’s a foolish thing to do. They position themselves as the representatives of AA, so that when they relapse (as so many of them do), they may give some people the impression that AA doesn’t work.”
The late film critic Roger Ebert, a longtime AA member, weighed in on the tradition in a famous 2009 blog post: “A.A. is anonymous not because of shame but because of prudence. People who go public with their newly-found sobriety have an alarming tendency to relapse. Case studies: those pathetic celebrities who check into rehab and hold a press conference.”
Ebert outed himself as an AA member with this post, titled “I’m Roger and I’m an Alcoholic.” He acknowledged that he was violating the group’s public relations policy, but he also said that he was at a point in his life when he didn’t think he was at risk of an embarrassing and self-destructive relapse.
“I haven’t taken a drink for 30 years, and this is God’s truth: Since the first A.A. meeting I attended, I have never wanted to,” Ebert wrote.
Ebert, who died in 2013, also pointed out that a 2006 surgery, for cancer of the jaw, made it impossible for him to take a drink. He said he wrote the post as an exercise in AA’s 12th step, which he said means sharing the program with others. He said he hoped that someone reading his post would “take steps toward sobriety.”
As Ebert expected, his post revived an ongoing debate in AA circles about the value of anonymity. In the debate, some said the tradition is outdated and adds to the stigma and shame surrounding addiction.
Indeed, many thanked Ebert for his post and agreed that he had done a service by letting people know that AA helped him. One person wrote in the comments section: “This is Ebert’s best piece ever. I think it might be time to try to get on that wagon again.”
People similarly praised Pitt for opening up about his struggles, but only a few thanked him for referencing AA.
“As doctors we often dismiss AA as a treatment for addiction/alcoholism,” one commenter wrote on the New York Times profile. “But here Pitt was just another man in his all male recovery group and was able to show vulnerability.”
But more than a few argued why Pitt erred in breaking anonymity. “It is great, really great, when celebrities share their story of recovery,” another person wrote. “However, claiming membership in A.A. runs counter to an extremely vital component of A.A.’s traditions.”
This person and others also expressed concern about Pitt saying he had attended AA meetings for a year and a half — as if to say he was better and didn’t need the program anymore. Those in AA regard recovery as “a life-long process.”
“No, it doesn’t work like that,” a third person wrote. “I have heard from a friend that an alcoholic puts their sobriety at severe risk if they deem themselves ‘done.’”
“This is why anonymity is so important,” another wrote. “Because one person’s experience does not represent the program. It’s tricky, spreading the word is great, but then there are risks of attributing the whole thing to one person’s stated experience.”
Did Brad Pitt break the first rule of AA — by talking about AA?