Being Outed

Editor’s Note:   Readers will recognized “Matthew J. Raphael” as the pen name of well-known literary scholar who authored the outstanding biography Bill W. and Mr. Wilson; he recently reviewed the documentary Bill W. for Points.  Here he muses on the poor fit between academic values, Amazon.com, and AA’s 11th Tradition.

U. Mass Press, 2000

When Bill W. and Mr. Wilson appeared in 2000, it was featured by the Chronicle of Higher Education, largely because of its pseudonymous authorship – so rare an anomaly for this journal that it begged explanation. It seemed eccentric, if not vegetarian, for me to be renouncing explicit recognition for anything within academe’s carnivorous realm, where clawing for visibility names the game. The Chronicle reporter wondered earnestly whether or not the book would appear on my updated CV. If not, would I forfeit a salary bump for meritorious work?

I explained the AA tradition of anonymity at the level of press, radio, and film (later expanded to other public media). I added that the tradition did not preclude revealing my identity, if I pleased, under less public circumstances, such as submitting my CV.

In 2000, there was no great mystery, below the public level, about who had written Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, particularly among those in the incipient field of Alcohol and Addiction Studies. I think my authorship has since become more or less common knowledge, although “Matthew J. Raphael” remains the author when the book appears in the bibliographies of related studies; and it is not placed among my other publications at, say, Amazon.com. More on that presently.

I had originally regarded Bill Wilson skeptically:  as a braggart and egoist, quick on the draw in promoting himself. My first impression was confirmed to a degree. For instance, one early AA member, speaking at a Founder’s Day celebration in Akron, recalled her first meeting with Wilson. As desk clerk at a Canadian hotel, she got curious about the New York license plates on somebody’s car. When she asked its owner about himself, the man, never at a loss for impressing women, presented himself (with tactical exaggeration) as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. The young woman was duly dazzled. But then she emphasized, however, that later, after she had joined AA herself and Bill W. had become her sponsor – there was a dearth of females in AA at the time — he never again exhibited any such vanity. He modestly saved her life, she asserted.

Wilson often called the alcoholic an egomaniac in disguise: a loser posing as a winner. This notion ultimately derived from psychoanalysis, but not from Freudian or Jungian sources. The concept came instead from Alfred Adler, purged from the movement as a “heretic” for postulating the Inferiority Complex and its compensatory twin, the Superiority Complex. Bill’s own mother, indeed, became an Adlerian therapist.

In the course of writing my book, in short, I revised my perception of Wilson as I discovered how rigorously he had taken his personal inventory and how thoroughly he recognized his defects of character. With great tenacity, Bill W. never ceased to fight his exhibitionist inclinations, despite succumbing to them now and again. I did not scant Wilson’s imperfections in Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, and I resisted the advocacy so common in earlier books. I wanted to cut through the public legend of Bill W. to reach some truth about the private man.  But I did express admiration for the growth of Wilson’s wisdom, especially for his insight that humility at depth is essential not only to sustaining individual sobriety, but also to securing AA’s survival as an institution. It was in this spirit, as reflected in AA’s tradition of anonymity, that I used a pen name: as a small but important (to me) gesture of humility.

Mentioning my book in that film review prompted me to revisit, for the first time in a decade, the initial reception of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson in the opinions available at Amazon.com.

Read All About It

There were a few old ones, split evenly between lovers and haters of the book. (I did better in print reviews.) What shocked me, however, was the belated addition, in 2005, of a new statement, in which the author blew my anonymity and outed me as author of several other books about drinking issued under my real name. In effect, this review nullified what I had meant to do by electing anonymous publication.

Throughout the review, its author affected the knowing tone of an insider, as if someone with special authority in the field and thus privy to the real dope on Matthew J. Raphael. The outing, in fact, occupied more space than the review itself, which at first feinted approval and then retracted it with snidely oblique misrepresentations. The bottom line: Don’t be fooled by this fraudulent book; it covertly sucks up to Wilson by reframing the same old-same old adulation of Bill W. To mask the book’s worshipful tone and to divert notice of its mediocrity, so the review continues, its author performs a deceptive high wire act (the reviewer’s metaphor) that any surpassingly shrewd reader, such as me myself, will easily see through.

At first I had no clue about this reviewer, whose first name (and thus whose gender) was cloaked behind an initial. This seemed to be someone I didn’t know and had never met – which turned out to be true when I finally remembered that around 2005, when the review appeared on Amazon, a person had submitted an alcohol-related book to the university press then preeminent in the field. I was asked to be an outside reader: a task I had often performed for this publisher and several others.

My copy of that report recently perished in a basement flood, and so I can’t be certain that I signed it, as it has been my regular practice to do. But I do recall its substance. The book’s author, in any event, could easily have inferred my identity from some of my reservations, in particular those that remarked the author’s oddly combative stance toward my own work: a blend of largely unacknowledged indebtedness with supercilious claims to superiority. The author also slandered me as a crypto-sexist for ignoring alcoholic women writers — somehow overlooking both my close attention to one of them and also my overriding thesis about the exclusively male gendering of alcoholism at a certain historical moment. My thesis, if construed more generously, seemed to invite rather than preclude an equally valid study that would explore later shifts in the gendering of alcoholism that pertained to women.

In my opinion, the submitted book unfortunately failed to advance the field in this or in any other significant way. It struck me as pedestrian overall, thus falling below the standards for publication by this press. My report also forthrightly acknowledged the possibility of bias, since I perceived the author as being aggressively ambitious at my own expense. I described feeling as if the author were standing on my shoulders, while pretending not to do so, and then jumping up and down on them, as if to pile-drive my work into a pulp that would serve as a pulpit for self-promotion. Of course, dissing one’s intellectual forebears is a tiresomely commonplace tactic among young scholars on the make. But the rhetoric in this instance exceeded, I thought, reasonable limits of toleration.

Was I too biased to have any say at all? Was there a conflict of interest because my bloated ego had seemingly been wounded? Perhaps. But I certainly offered the publisher the option of disqualifying my report if its integrity was in doubt. And if I had recused myself as reader, my withdrawal itself would likely have inflicted the same damage in the publisher’s eyes as any specific criticisms I might voice. Given the obvious weaknesses of the book, I also doubted that any other competent reader in the field would draw conclusions much different from mine. (If this book was later published by another venue, I am not aware of it.)

Adler was a Complex Man

I inferred, therefore, that the belated review at Amazon of Bill W. and Mr. Wilson was a retaliatory hatchet job, in which an old grudge was being “settled” by means of a stealth attack. Perhaps it all boiled down to an unwitting demonstration of Adler’s theory: someone with a keen sense of inferiority flipping that over into an obnoxious superiority complex. In any event, the reviewer seized a golden opportunity to exact the especially sleazy revenge of outing me maliciously.

The dubiously “democratic” ethos of Amazon reviews, I believe, invites such abusive and dirty tricks. But my quarrel with this reviewer, after all, has far less to do with feeling victimized – I have long been inured to the slings and arrows invited by putting one’s thoughts into print – but with the seriousness of the assault on anonymity itself, which to my mind is both legitimate and precious both for those who choose to practice it, often in accord with AA traditions, and for those who don’t. Debasing anonymity amounts to undermining the disciplined humility that Bill Wilson and so many others have painstakingly cultivated as a worthy, moral endeavor.

Any form of sneak attack, furthermore, erodes the trust I believe is indispensable to scholarship at its best, which prospers when colleagues share and share alike, when they generously affirm the work of others when it’s good, when they express criticism of potentially good work with the positive intention of fostering its improvement, and, yes, even when they uphold standards honestly and unflinchingly when work simply fails to measure up.

19 thoughts on “Being Outed

  1. I think this is all quite fun, marvelous entertainment for us Points fans. It will certainly encourage my longevity as I very slowly turn my head over the next five years so as to not miss the next swing in the volley.

    I find it particularly amusing that AA members publishing anonymously seem to hold a childlike faith that tradition 11 shall be imposed upon all mankind.

    Behind my lack of genuine concern over all this is an audacious belief that these old timers no longer need AA membership to prevent them from swallowing alcohol.

    • The “being outed” terminology, I think, is apt here. It’s not a matter of tradition 11 being “imposed”, but of respecting people’s boundaries.

      This is a common debate in the LGBT community: shall we “out” celebrities, because we think it benefits us all when everyone sees positive role models; or shall we respect their boundaries and let them decide when and whether they want the life-changing experience – which is not always positive, and often not entirely positive – of “coming out”?

      In that community, the consensus has been to allow people the choice to disclose only what they are comfortable with; from a community perspective, it’s beneficial not to live in fear that other people will expose intimate details about your sexual/romantic life, for one thing, and to have a community that respects your boundaries.

      Obviously there are major differences within AA and other 12-step fellowships. For many people, there will be less stigma, less risk of rejection by family, less creepy investigation by strangers in the press, and so on, to be “outed” as a member of a particular 12-step program rather than as someone who is LGBT. Then, on the other hand, the “outing” is potentially damaging to their community rather than potentially positive.

      But the core issue is the same: not “Should people abide by a guideline from a program they’re not in, which they may see as outdated or just plain in their way?”, but “Should people respect other people’s boundaries?”

      Obviously there are always people who won’t. That doesn’t mean, though, that people shouldn’t have boundaries, or that the expectation that one’s boundaries will be respected is childlike and ridiculous.

      • Let’s say one or both of the actors in Brokeback Mountain decided “Hey, public, you really ought to respect my privacy about my actual sexual preference, and if anyone finds out it shouldn’t be put in the public realm.” Or say there’s an author that publicly portends expertise on homosexuality and says the same thing. I think that also shows a childlike faith in such an expectation.

      • I was quite aware of the parallel issues with the LGBT community — and also of the admirable sensitivity toward them, as exemplified by this comment.

    • (And a perhaps minor detail: It’s not AA membership that keeps its members sober. It’s working the steps – for old timers, specifically the daily practice of the tenth and eleventh steps, not to mention the twelfth step practice of helping others learn the same. The meetings are a great tool, but they’re not the program itself – I’d argue that they’re not even part of the program, they’re just something that makes it easier.)

      • To clarify, my audacious belief is that if many of these old timers were to phase out of doing any twelve step activities, they would still decide never to drink again. I guess I hope that to be the case because I imagine the alternative to be a more dismal prospect, on both the micro and macro societal level.

    • Trippel’s remarks speak for themselves and speak for themselves and speak for themselves . . . . I’m sure glad he was entertained.

  2. I am a recovering woman 27 years sober who has spent my professional life in recovery working to provide effective recovery services for women and families seeking recovery from trauma and addiction. I am also a life long scholar working my way currently towards my PhD in Philosophy and Religion. I have read, researched and written about the impacts for women seeking recovery of AA’s gendered history and current reality, role in the treatment industrial complex that emerged from it, and its early leaders. I am quite aware that Bill W. and Dr. Bob were the founders, and I view them as inspired in their passion, creation and perseverance in founding AA. I’ve been to hundreds of AA meetings, read lots of books and articles and am grateful for my own sobriety which is founded on my experiences of AA. I know AA’s creation story intimately.

    However I don’t limit my narrative regarding AA’s early years to stories of the founders. Precisely due to the gendered nature of the founder’s societal milieu in 1935 and still today, the origin stories typically erase the critical role of the women leaders during the early years. Particularly the role of Marty Mann, who deserves at least equal credit to Bill Wilson in terms of the explosive growth of AA during the 1940s and 50s and the eventual treatment industrial complex it spawned. Mann, after a long and devastating battle with alcoholism, got sober in 1939 after meeting Bill W. She then made it her mission to change the public’s understanding of alcoholism and alcoholics. She founded as her platform the National Council on Alcoholism (NCA) which is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), a nationwide system of education and public awareness. Her relentless efforts to educate doctors in particular led to the AMA/s eventual acknowledgement of alcoholism as a disease and the eventual medicalization of recovery and the treatment industrial complex.

    So my origin story of AA includes the important women who facilitated its success, especially Marty Mann, wh0 incidentally, was also a lesbian. Check out Sally and David Brown’s biography Mrs. Marty Mann: First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s very well researched and sourced, yet quite accessable to a wide readership.🙂

    • The Browns wrote a fine biography of Marty Mann, many of whose professional papers I have examined myself. Ernest Kurtz reports that Henrietta Seiberling, at whose home Bill W. met Dr. Bob, placed herself among the FOUR founders of AA, the other one being Anne Smith. I would be inclined to substitute Mary Mann for Seiberling, whose claim seems a bit tenuous. That Mann was a lesbian is more than “incidental”: it bears heavily on both the dealings of AA with those other than middleclass white men, an issue that is far from resolved, and on Mann’s complex negotiations between her personal life and her very public role as a “former lady alcoholic” (as she was once introduced: to which she retorted that she was still a lady!), and as founder of the National Council on Alcoholism. Anyone interested in Mann’s failed efforts to bring an educational show about alcoholism to early television — “Fork in the Road,” for which she commissioned sample scripts from William Inge and Charles Jackson — might check out my essays in DIONYSOS 8 (Winter 1998): 15-22 and SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY ASSOCIATES COURIER 32 (1997): 35-63.

      • I was fortunate to meet the Browns when they participated in a small day-long conference I produces in 2001. Their passion for the importance of Mann’s work was infectious and they were well received by the attendees.

        It could be argued that Seiberling facilitated the first AA meeting when she introduced Bill and Bob, but I’m unaware of ongoing activities on her part…There was also the admitting nurse at the Akron General Hospital who helped get detoxing drunks get in for “treatment” with them. Seems Lois Wilson could also be seen as a founder, to the degree that Bill allowed…

  3. Although I regret Raphael being outed by an Amazon review, I should point out that in our Internet age such secrets rarely remain secret. It did not take an Anonymous hacker, just 90 seconds on Google to find his real name. I apologize for looking.

    • You know? David? You could be right. John C. may not have wanted his blog post above to be further researched by the likes of us academic and lay historians. Who, us? Researchers? So, I apologize, too, for looking.

  4. I was just reading John Crowleys Obituary. JOHN W. CROWLEY (Age 92) Passed away peacefully at his home on August 19, 2011. Looks like he had a good life we all will miss him. I did not read anything about English or his writing any books. (grin)

  5. is M St George of the Amazon Review the same writer of the manuscript Fitting Quotation?? (about the Herbert Spencer “contempt prior to investigation quote–now attributed to Paley)
    looks like he only wrote the one review.

    • Having used another name online myself, out of concern that saying unpopular things might make the “real me” a target of hostility, I am a poor example. On the other hand, M. StGeorge sounds like someone I exchanged emails with for some time, and I think I corresponded with him long enough to get a reasonable impression of his character. I believe that Matthew Raphael is being unfair.

      The M. StGeorge I remember shared my concern that the AA interpretation of anonymity often served purposes other than humility. Certainly no one at that time had compared it with the expectations we have of privacy involving sexuality. If someone were to make the case that US tax dollars should go to Catholic Social Services specifically because they save souls, and not because they provide services of the same type and caliber as non-spiritual organizations, would it truly be no one’s business whether that person was Catholic? Or whether they attributed their very lives to their membership in that particular church and no other? Yet in the case of AA, members of a spiritual fellowship have to be Secret Squirrel. Even, especially, when praising the non-voluntary branch of “recovery culture.”

      That wasn’t, of course, at all what Matthew Raphael was doing in using a different name for one of his books. He was doing things the right way. The other book of his that I have read (and it was news to me that they are by the same author) doesn’t push AA, to my recollection. In writing one that did contain some evidence of loyalty, he made sure he could be comfortably honest about his commitments. I like that, but if his identity was an open secret at the time the book came out, what does it matter that someone points it out later? Apparently it was an open secret only with the right sort of people? I have to wonder, also, whether Raphael’s insistence that maintaining intellectual standards was the only thing causing him to trash the manuscript. If a spiritual fellowship is everything to you, it might be difficult to review something critical of it.

      • Although I was careful NOT to identify the reviewer as either male or female, the one in question was a woman and thus not the person mentioned here.

  6. The situation makes me uncomfortable, as you can tell, and the question to which I will never get an answer is: How do we know that the Amazon review was written by the same person as the manuscript? It seems there are now two people involved, neither of whom deserve the Alfred Adler treatment.

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