On Thursday, Oct. 25, West Chester University screened a moving documentary as part of the “Film for Thought” series at Sykes Theater entitled “The Anonymous People,” a film highlighting the 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
The 2013 feature-length documentary, directed by Greg Williams, explores the deeply entrenched social stigma that those who live in silent rehabilitation endure, recovering voices subdued and faces nonexistent from public eye for decades.
Williams explores the realities hidden beneath the supposedly helpful belief of addiction anonymity, an archaic trend, as Williams claims, in addiction therapy where those seeking help are encouraged to remain anonymous and cease from speaking publicly about their addiction. This practice is most commonly attributed to and initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous, and was adopted by many other drug rehabilitation programs.
The anonymous nature of recovery programs often inspires guilt and a perpetuation of shame attached to the addiction. Williams narrates how he would like to live in a world where addiction stories and struggles can be told “somewhere other than in a circle of strangers in a church basement.” His preference, it seems, would include an integration of condition in everyday life, as opposed to some stark separation.
Though not dismissive of the invaluable help Alcoholics Anonymous has provided to millions since its inception in 1935, favoring the group’s focus on community as “the backbone of the recovery moment,” Williams challenges the organization’s foundational anonymity tenet as enabling the unintended consequences of taboo.
“I’m not supposed to tell you about my addiction,” he narrates in the film. “I’m not supposed to want to tell you. I’m supposed to be nervous about what you’ll think, and how you’ll judge me and how you’ll treat me.”
Everything from the alleviation of anonymity to the mere usage of how addiction can and should be described lifts the weighted feelings of stigma off those in recovery who carry the addiction around with them. “I’m a person in long-term recovery” is a preferred way of describing the illness to Williams, a more compassionate alternative to AA’s “I’m an alcoholic.”
“The Anonymous People” provides useful information on the developing addiction perspectives throughout history. The former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy notes how science ascertains that addiction is “a chronic disease of the brain and it can be treated.”
In other words, addiction isn’t necessarily a moral failing on the part of the individual, but rather a genetic predisposition.
In fact, this proven perspective has long existed and been championed by individuals such as Senator Harold Hughes, who diligently worked in the 1960s and 1970s promoting the view that addiction is an illness and not a character flaw.
The demonization of drugs users in the 1980s drastically repressed this perspective, encouraging users to keep their struggle private as the War on Drugs came to fruition.
The drastically misguided hand of the War on Drugs culminated throughout the years, arriving to today’s current paradigm, which favors a criminal justice system that incarcerates users over treating them. Coupled with the media’s consistent obsession and reportage of frenzied, drug-fueled celebrity meltdowns whilst ignoring positive stories of the rehabilitated, Williams claims these instances allow addiction to be America’s most underfinanced public health problem.
Actress Kristen Johnson notes during a public reading of her memoir “Guts” that “shame and secrecy are just as deadly as the disease itself.”
The secrecy imbedded in addiction may dissuade people from seeking help out of fear of being chastised and isolated in public life. Those who do seek help may feel privately insulated from the outside world, disallowing their recovery to coexist with the world “out there” and instead lead a life behind closed doors in escape of judicial and interpersonal persecution.
In an interview with rehabilitation organization Phoenix House, Williams shares how he came to see the destructive nature of public addiction shaming.
“I was going to all these funerals for friends who had died of this illness, and I would watch people whispering to one another that the parents must have done something wrong to deserve this,” he said. “This public shaming infuriated me, and I felt the need to tell the real story.”
In order to combat public perception and policy regarding addiction and perspectives of lacking self-worth from persons in long-term recovery, the veil of stigma must be lifted to enable the truth of individuals’ stories to collectively rise and be heard by the many.
Towards the end of the film, Johnson notes that the “best slogan when it comes to addiction isn’t found in some church basement or in some book.”
In “Silence Equals Death,” she unabashedly cites to her audience during a reading, echoing the ACT UP slogan coined by LGBT activists in 1987 during the AIDS crisis.
It was, after all, the refusal to be silenced that allowed the LGBT community to grow into a tremendous force committed to change via uproarious voices tired of chastisement and living in the shadows.
The film, though lacking cohesive information and statistics, is an emotional plea to the the recovery community, policymakers and individuals alike to reposition our understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous and its tradition of anonymity.
To take action and become a part of the solution, visit ManyFaces1Voice.org and make your voice be heard.
On Thursday, Mar. 17 at 7:30 p.m., Sykes Theater will screen the next installment of the “Film for Thought” series entitled “He Named Me Malala.” This documentary depicts an intimate portrait of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a young woman whose advocacy for education and women’s rights spurred an international movement following her survival from a Taliban targeting. This led her to a hospitalization after she was wounded from a bullet.
The “Film for Thought” series here at WCU is a wonderful, enriching break from the all-too-common Hollywood films we’re guilty of endlessly consuming. These films take a stance, say something important to be heard and have the potential to further and deepen our understanding of a myriad of issues facing people and the world today.
Dimitri Kandilanaftis is a third-year student majoring in communication studies with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at DK838967@wcupa.edu.