“You’ve always wanted to turn yourself into a story,” the narrator of Leslie Jamison’s debut novel, from 2011, is told. “I knew it would get you in trouble one day.” When Jamison wrote that line in The Gin Closet, about a young woman and her alcoholic aunt, she was still in denial about her own drinking. But it named her core problem, and her enduring writerly preoccupation: how the hunger for story can lead the teller astray.
Her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath recounts how Jamison got sober and confronted her narrative thirst. Unfolding in fifteen chapters (gauzily titled “Wonder,” “Abandon,” “Lack”), zigzagging from memoir to criticism to history lesson, it asks: What made alcohol so alluring, and could sobriety fuel a creative life?
Via fifth-act flashback to a repressed incident from childhood, The Gin Closet had suggested that addiction could be traced back to the taproot of trauma. More sophisticated now, less callow — or less avoidant — Jamison here takes up a whole tangle of possible causes for her alcoholism. Her history of self-harm, including anorexia and cutting. Family history (both genetic and enacted). Brain chemistry. An intense grad school relationship. Late capitalism. A fistful of longings — for admiration, for care, for a sense of abandon.
Jamison outs herself early on as “precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable” — the daughter of a global health expert and health economist who raised her in the Pacific Palisades and seemed to have instilled a taste for international service trips. She got her schooling at places overdetermined with literary meaning where getting sloshed got elevated into an artistic activity. At Harvard, “college simmered into myth” and she had her first blackout in the lit mag’s basement. At Iowa’s fiction program (where “the myths of Iowa City Drinking ran like subterranean rivers”), genius drunks like Denis Johnson and Richard Yates were campus legend. She internalized the idea that “Things got dark, and you wrote from that darkness. Heartbreak could become the beginning of a career.” Inner depths were measured in downward spirals.
Alcoholics Anonymous offered an almost opposite storytelling ethos — one “not about glory but survival.” Its sharing rituals provided her with endless narrative interest; other members’ experiences felt like a refuge. Still, Jamison confesses, at first she could barely stifle her inner critic. “Clichés were one of the hardest parts of my early days in recovery,” she recalls. “I cringed at their singsong cadences.” Convinced that her life and her writing had grown sluggish, she resumed drinking. Recovery is always messy and never assured. “Part of proving that you’re truly ready to recover — in drug court, in meeting, in a memoir — involves admitting that you don’t know if you can recover at all,” she writes. “Part of getting into the right narrative involves admitting you can’t see the end of it.”
In her celebrated collection The Empathy Exams, each essay presented a variation on a fundamental dilemma: whether it is possible to honorably represent her subject’s experience. The book took in a Morgellons disease conference, a profile of a pen pal incarcerated in West Virginia, and Frida Kahlo and her plaster corsets, always circling around the question of whether Jamison was sharing, or merely leeching off, other people’s wounds. By dissecting the difficulties of the writing process, naming its sins, her writing made itself good — both masterful and moral. The Recovering carapaces its events in a similar meta-plot: how to write about binges and bottoming-out without glamor; how to make abstention entertaining to the reader.
Neatly, Jamison cuts through both narrative binds. She grounds the memories of intoxication in those of a turbulent romance with a poet, Dave — a relationship whose all-caps extremes, complete with separations and relapses, provides a safe outlet for storytelling dramatics. The drinking that soaked into their life, dully eroding it, feels repetitive compared to their knock-down, drag-out fights (mostly about her jealousy of other women). By contrast, the scenes of Jamison trying not to drink feel taut and immediate. She stays up all night in a converted tofu factory where she’s supposed to be on an artist’s retreat, watching a BBC miniseries set in nineteenth-century Manchester; she drives with a fellow AA member to a raptor center.
Sobriety eventually stuck because it released her from the unattainable: the burden of having to tell a singular, extraordinary tale. Through AA, she realized, “I wasn’t supposed to tell my story because it was better than anyone else’s, or worse than anyone else’s, or even that different from anyone else’s, but because it was the story I had — the same way you might use a nail not because you thought it was the best nail ever made, but simply because it was the one lying in your drawer.” It’s hard not to take this as the underlying premise of her book: that it need not be original or brilliant, only helpful — maybe curative.
Faced with this framework, it seems small to evaluate, much less criticize, the artistic merits of The Recovering. Yet it’s clear that Jamison aims beyond such a narrow claim of utility: she wants totality. (It’s unsurprising to learn that the book was adapted from her Yale dissertation — only an academic drive to be comprehensive could explain her book’s heft and sprawl.) To that end, she gathers up a “chorus” of voices to join her own. Most come to her through reading. There’s Raymond Carver, who wrote hopeful stories in recovery that were rendered unrecognizable by Gordon Lish’s edits. There’s David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest, which she turns to, defiantly, for the comforts of its “single-entendre truth.” There’s John Berryman, who dreamed of publishing a novel that could serve as a Twelfth Step for readers; he thought he’d donate half the royalties to local AA chapters. Jamison’s account of how she investigated this literary lineage, diving into papers and half-drafted manuscripts, visiting homes and graves, hoping for guidance, is unexpectedly poignant. But the resulting lit crit — the constant churn of all these lives and pages, and the eddies of other critics and biographers — often leaves the reader becalmed.
The drive to write something definitive leads Jamison to unfamiliar ground: other kinds of substance abuse, and subjects who are neither white nor wealthy. She delves into the biographies of Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse, gives a brief history of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and analyzes the “crack mother” trope. “Sobriety offered relief from my own plotline,” Jamison says — and these detours seem similarly geared to get her outside of her privilege. Is this inclusion, or conscription? All this effort might feel more trustworthy had she not drawn one especially dubious parallel and forced it into convergence. Four hundred pages in, Jamison notes that when she first quit drinking, news broke of a meth addict who died of exposure in an outdoor holding cell in Arizona while serving time for prostitution. Her takeaway, ludicrous in its lyricism, is that “Marcia Powell’s death in the desert is another glitch in the song of my pain as private.” This has the ring of a declaration of solidarity. Mostly, though, it sounds like self-justification — as if marshaling this tragedy in defense of her memoir’s existence.
Toward the end of the book, Jamison makes a kind of pilgrimage to a Maryland fishing motel-turned-rehab called Seneca House, and collects the stories of its guests and caretakers. “What’s a meeting?” she asks. “It takes you from one life to another — easy as that, with a raised hand, no segue or apology necessary.” That might describe the leap from a bad party in Iowa, to George Cain’s literary career being overtaken by heroin, from her best short story to the War on Drugs. Jamison lacks control over her material. I think she would view that as a compliment.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
by Leslie Jamison
Little, Brown and Company