Best of Spring

Leslie Jamison’s Road to “Recovering”

"It's a book you think you've read before, or a book you think you'll be bored by," says the author. "But it's neither.”


Leslie Jamison
Leslie Jamison

At the end of another marathon night of drinking in the fall of 2009, Leslie Jamison holed herself up in her office, clutching a red Solo Cup full of roughly eight shots of bourbon. When her boyfriend Dave entered the room — they lived together in that second-story apartment in Iowa City — she hastily hid the cup behind the futon. But then something shifted. Jamison pulled the cup back out, putting the evidence on full display.

After coming clean with Dave, Jamison began her first formal attempt at sobriety, in which she began attending AA meetings. “It was like taking an insurance policy against the version of myself…who would miss the drinking so much she’d say: I want to try again,” she writes in her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.

Later, during a relapse, she repeated this scene — this time, hiding away with the whole bottle of bourbon.

“There was not one single ‘bottom,’ ” Jamison tells me. “Those nights…drinking by myself, feeling shame…those were bottoms. It was more the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Jamison, 34, grew up in the Pacific Palisades, one of Los Angeles’s wealthiest zip codes. Her father, Dean Jamison, is an economist who works on global development. Her mother, Joanne Leslie, is a nutritionist and former public health professor. And her aunt, author and psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, is known as an authority on mood disorders. Jamison followed in these academic footprints, attending Harvard for her undergraduate degree, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for her MFA straight after that, and then on to her Ph.D. at Yale, where she wrote a dissertation on sobriety and creativity that comprises a large chunk of The Recovering. Now an assistant professor of nonfiction at Columbia University’s MFA Writing Program, Jamison lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her novelist husband, Charles Bock, her nine-year-old stepdaughter, Lily, and her baby, Ione Bird, who was born in February.

Jamison’s privileged path — both a product of her background and her intellect and drive — is difficult to ignore, and can be hard not to envy. Jamison acknowledges privilege lightly. She plays up the days spent rising at dawn for her shift at a bakery in Iowa, and downplays her romantic journeys to places like the Ligurian coast of Italy, where, she writes, she frittered away her fellowship checks drinking wine from pitchers. Professionally, Jamison has never been too far below high-functioning, high accomplishment. At 26, she published her first novel, The Gin Closet (2010), a story about the relationships between two generations of women, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Jamison had written the book in the years leading up to her Iowa City awakening, still deep in addiction. “I was taking certain things that were happening inside of me and following them to these more extreme spaces,” Jamison told the Daily Iowan. “It was both an act of self-expression and an act of imagination into otherness.”

The Recovering has been one of the most anticipated books of the year, and one that has received extensive media attention. Jamison’s long list of accomplishments has earned her a bit of a reputation as a “golden child” — a reputation that often plays into the coverage of the book: retroactive schadenfreude mixed with disappointment that Jamison’s proverbial “bottom” wasn’t sufficiently low.

For fun, I asked Jamison how she would defend The Recovering to a skeptic. “It’s a book you think you’ve read before, or a book you think you’ll be bored by,” she says. “But it’s neither.”

She’s right. The Recovering is not simply Jamison’s personal story; it is interwoven with mini-profiles of literary heavyweights like Charles Jackson, Raymond Carver, and John Berryman, whose lives and creative work reflected struggles with addiction, as well as the stories of a series of ordinary addicts, including some of her fellow AA members. It’s full of insights and exposes vulnerability; it’s hefty and meticulously researched — in other words, not your standard addiction memoir.

The Recovering is driven by yearning, which Jamison tells me “is our most important narrative engine.” Yearning — for passion, for acceptance, for creativity — is the seed that blooms into a reckoning with desires that drinking appeared to fulfill, and the raw feelings she grappled with when she quit drinking.

Yearning for control is another underpinning of Jamison’s addiction. “I was always obsessed with not seeming out of control,” she tells me. “So much of the time I was drunk, I was trying to act less drunk. Especially after I’d declared myself as an alcoholic, gotten sober, and then decided to start drinking again. I was wanting so badly for it to not look dysfunctional.” At a party she threw in Iowa, she had to “lock myself in our bedroom and slap myself — hard, across the cheek — to get myself undrunk again,” she writes. “It didn’t work.” During her relapse, Jamison writes, “I spent long chunks of time in my hot apartment trying to tell myself I had the drinking figured out.”

“A lot of my drinking practice was around disguise,” Jamison continues. And, in fact, many of the book’s most affecting moments present the small lies she tells during her everyday quest to hide her drinking — like buying a case of wine and telling the liquor store clerk it was for a dinner party she was throwing, or brushing her teeth so hard her gums bled to hide the smell of the gin she’d drink between the end of her shift at the bakery and when Dave would arrive home to their apartment. On her way to pick Dave up from the airport, she made a stop at the dump to discard her empty bottles. For the most part, Jamison was successful in hiding her drinking. Her friend Rachel Fagnant-Fassler told a Vulture reporter that “with Leslie, it didn’t look like dysfunction.” As Jamison describes it to me, “There was drinking before the social occasion and after the social occasion, so the drinking that was happening was a normal amount of drinking embedded in an abnormal amount of drinking.”

Jamison describes alcohol and men as filling a similar void — she yearns for love. She got together with Dave, a graduate student, after beginning her doctoral program at Yale, and moved to Iowa with him (five years after her own program ended) in 2009. Their relationship, a central focus of the book, was “corroded by my drinking,” she shares with me. “It was a necessary illustration of what the drinking’s price had been.”

Jamison began to write The Recovering in 2010, after she’d finally quit drinking, and as the product of a sober mind, it could be seen as a prime example of the clearheaded creativity Jamison seeks. It could also be viewed as a way of coming clean. The immediacy of drinking that Jamison’s words evoke comes from diaries she kept while drinking and from everyday material such as her Gmail archives. She describes a Thanksgiving evening, for instance, when she almost drank a whole bottle of wine before noon, although she told her host she’d just had one glass. Some of her most vivid descriptions come from the difficult period of her life after her initial entry into AA in the winter of 2009–10. This could be because it was freshest in her mind at the time of writing, Jamison tells me. She writes of her complicated feelings during this first stage of recovery, when she was plagued by dreams of relapsing. “Sobriety had disappointed me in almost every way I could imagine,” she writes. She was still struggling in her relationship with Dave, her writing (although reading this work, partly composed during this period, I question how much her writing was “lifeless and effortful”), and in having the energy to socialize.

“I was writing about that raw-nerved feeling of early sobriety partially as a way to keep myself from going crazy,” she confides. While the writing may have been, at first, a way to cope with sobriety, the material ended up landing her a book deal for The Recovering — initially titled Archive Lush — four years later, in 2014.

It’s also impossible not to wonder whether the book itself serves a function in her recovery — or, at least her perception of her own role as a writer after drinking has been removed from the equation. Chapter VI, “Surrender,” is Step 2 of the 12-step program — the entire book, it could be argued, serves the mandate for the taking of inventory that Step 10 requires. “The book is my attempt to write a story about getting well, the struggle back into stability, that is as compelling as the story of dysfunction,” she says. She achieves her goal — some of the richest parts of her story are, in fact, the mental games she plays with herself before and after relapsing, trying to convince herself that she has gotten the problem under control.

Jamison observes that some writers “seemed to be understanding their sober writing in terms of a kind of asceticism or deprivation.” For instance, in The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson’s gritty, realistic novel about alcoholism that he wrote after seven years of sobriety, “the idea was for the story to be plain and simple,” Jamison says. (Jackson subsequently relapsed and committed suicide in 1968.) In contrast, David Foster Wallace was “the opposite of the minimalist” — and, therefore, a source of inspiration. “I very much responded to [Wallace’s] idea of sober writing as expansion,” she tells me. “I wanted my book to lean into the possibilities of sobriety-inspired writing, plentitude and fullness, in terms of my own evolution as a writer.”

Sobriety, Jamison says, has given her a new lens through which to appreciate the stories of others. “I really do experience a link between my life in recovery and my relationship to reportage,” she asserts. “The sense of awe at other people’s stories — that there’s so much there — was really cultivated in meetings. Hearing people talk about their lives with a certain intensity. Holding eye contact. That built up muscles that were of use to me as a reporter.”

Jamison admits that the structure — shifting from her personal narrative to the stories of others — risked “alienating a reader by getting them invested in your story and then slowly leaving your own story behind.” In fact, the book’s structure is both an important achievement — what makes it unique and ambitious — and its Achilles’ heel. I found myself eager to turn the pages of Jamison’s own narrative, then becoming frustrated when the multitude of new stories interrupted that trajectory.

Regardless, Jamison has earned a high status in literary circles. The Recovering, her third, is the first half of a two-book deal, reportedly worth seven figures. Jamison’s next book, which was recently submitted, is a collection “linking ideas like haunting and obsession,” she says. It is concerned with “how we are constituted by things we can’t ever fully have,” and explores how things like memories play into our desires. And in an interview for Electric Literature, Jamison shared that she’s “secretly working on another novel.”

But success, she acknowledges, can be a mixed blessing for writers. At times it “propels you into, or deepens, some sense of self-obsession or self-focus, where you become obsessed with securing more success, shoring it up, stabilizing it,” she says. “The success becomes the thing that makes you feel whole, makes you feel comfortable in your own skin.”

Jamison met her husband, Bock, after she’d been sober for three and a half years. “This relationship feels very defined by sobriety,” she says. “The kind of self that sobriety made possible for me has been really important in this relationship.” When her editor suggested including this relationship in the book, Jamison felt that “there’s such an entanglement in the book between relationships and use” in the book already, and “it felt important not to end the story with a marriage plot–style resolution.”

In The Recovering, Jamison writes that she used to wonder whether she could find “anything that will feel as good as drinking.” I ask her how she feels now, nearly eight years into her recovery.

“Nothing feels good in exactly the same way as drinking felt good,” Jamison admits. “You fantasize about, ‘What would a glass of wine be like?’ or ‘What would a martini be like?’ ” Yet drinking doesn’t occupy nearly as much space in Jamison’s mind, partly by virtue of “leaning into, or living, a life that’s not about that anymore.” In large part, this is due to the around-the-clock nature of caring for a newborn.

When she does crave alcohol — a feeling she tells me “never stops” — the clichés of recovery culture often serve an important purpose. In particular, the phrase “playing the tape all the way through” helps her remember what would happen if she started drinking again. “It doesn’t mean I’ll end up vomiting into my hair…more that I’d want it again the next night,” she says. “And the next night. And I’d start wishing my daughter would fucking go to sleep at 6 so I could have it the next night.”

Still, Jamison experiences moments of pure pleasure in sobriety. She recalls turning 30 and skinny-dipping with one of her best friends. “I felt this sense of total connection to her, total connection to my own body in that moment,” she says.

“A sense of being awake and aware.”


The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.