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.
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.
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.)
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.