Harvey Freedenberg

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It takes a talented writer to seamlessly blend memoir, biography, literary criticism, psychology and sociology into a meaningful whole. Add in the writer’s own battle with alcoholism, and the accomplishment becomes even more impressive.

That’s what Leslie Jamison, author of the highly regarded 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, has done in her deeply felt new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. In a recent telephone call to her home in Brooklyn, she was eager to discuss the legendary, often romanticized connection between addiction and creativity.

“I knew from the very beginning that I didn’t want to write a straight memoir,” she explains. “I wanted to write about recovery. . . . Part of what’s always felt so central to the experience of recovery to me is the idea of opening outward and connecting to the lives of other people and finding resonance. . . . The idea of putting my life into a much larger chorus is part of what recovery felt like.”

The genesis of The Recovering was in fragments Jamison wrote in 2010, the year her current sobriety began. She continued working on the book after garnering her Ph.D. in English Literature at Yale, after which she cultivated a flourishing writing career and gave birth to her first child. Her goal in the book, she says, is to present “a complicated excavation of the messy truth that I see of the tortured alcoholic or addict artist, both honoring the difficulty of the lives that produced that art and honoring the creative possibilities of the other side of addiction, of what sort of generative possibilities lie in recovery.”

In The Recovering, Jamison offers insight into the lives of a group of writers—some well known, others less so—and their struggles with addiction and recovery. In sympathetic profiles of authors like Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson, which are gracefully woven into her own narrative, Jamison provides “models who found sobriety and recovery incredibly generative.” Many of the creatives that Jamison profiles experienced more nuanced addiction narratives than the one in which, as she says, “sobriety swoops in and is a creative fairy godmother and gives you a new creative life.” In writing about the tragic career of poet John Berryman, whose agonizing and embarrassingly public battle with alcoholism ended with a leap from a Minneapolis bridge in 1972, she describes a man who wrestled with an unfinished novel about recovery while trying and failing to stay sober.

But as Jamison explains, in shaping the book from a journalist’s perspective, it was also important to avoid confining her attention only to creatives. In addition to deep archival research into the lives of her artist subjects, she spent more than a year interviewing former patients at a rehabilitation facility known as Seneca House, which was established in the early 1970s near the Potomac River in Maryland.

“I wanted there to be stories of recovery in the book that weren’t about famous people, people for whom recovery had been transformative,” she says. These revelatory accounts introduce ordinary people who “had turned both their addicted lives and their sober lives into stories that made sense to them.”

“The idea of putting my life into a much larger chorus is part of what recovery felt like.”

For all of The Recovering’s biographical depth and literary sophistication, Jamison’s vividly rendered account of her own addiction and recovery is exceptionally engaging. Without solipsism or self-pity, she spares few details of her behavior, which features staggering quantities of alcohol, frequent blackouts and dangerous misadventures in places as far-flung as Nicaragua. Through each episode, the memoir has the immersive feel of compelling fiction.

The irresistible quality of that candor stems in part from what Jamison admits is nostalgia for “those early days of falling in love with the drinking, when intoxication still felt intoxicating.” That attraction emerged despite the physical and emotional ravages of her drinking days and all their “demoralizing or shameful or brutal or secretive” moments. She spares little mercy for herself in describing her disastrous relapse, an abortion and persistent conflict in the life she shared with her poet boyfriend, Dave, as sober a counterpart to Jamison as one could imagine. In telling her own story so unsparingly, Jamison hopes to “humanize the process that’s at the core of addiction,” one that can “look so inscrutable and deeply frustrating from the outside, and show what it looks like to crave something that’s destroying you.”

Also central to Jamison’s recovery story was Alcoholics Anonymous. In one of the book’s lighter scenes, she recalls the jarring moment when a meeting participant bellowed, “This is boring!” as she shared the tale of her alcoholism for the first time. That incident and others reveal the theme of storytelling at the heart the book: “I think it’s hard to stay mired in self-pity or obsessive attention to your own life when you’re just literally sitting in a room listening to other people talk about what they’re going through.”

It’s in that spirit of shared storytelling that Jamison prepares to embark on a 14-city, coast-to-coast book tour this spring. Among other things, she’s hopeful that The Recovering can be part of the urgently needed conversation about the problem of opioid addiction in the United States. “People are hungry for ways of talking about the addiction crisis that aren’t just policy talk, that are story-based,” she says. “There’s something about personal narrative that gives us a way into those questions.”

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Author photo credit Beowulf Sheehan.

It takes a talented writer to seamlessly blend memoir, biography, literary criticism, psychology and sociology into a meaningful whole. Add in the writer’s own battle with alcoholism, and the accomplishment becomes even more impressive.

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Of the many issues that define the social and political landscape of 21st-century America, none is more vexing than that of race.

Though race penetrates the consciousness of many white Americans only in times of crisis (like Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 or Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017), it cuts deeply across the daily lives of African Americans and other people of color. Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s enlightening new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the challenging and painful interactions that surround issues of prejudice and racial bias.

In a call to her home in Palo Alto, California, Dr. Eberhardt eagerly explains her desire to write about racial bias for the general reader. After winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2014 for her work in this field, she felt the weight of added responsibility. She says she wanted “to share my work in a way that could be useful to people and could potentially have an impact with a broader audience.” 

“There weren’t a lot of books out there that focused on the science behind implicit bias.”

Motivated by the fact that “there weren’t a lot of books out there that focused on the science behind implicit bias,” Eberhardt sought to produce a work that would treat this subject in a comprehensive fashion. “I wanted to take this one aspect of bias and look at how we’re grappling with it in different spaces—in neighborhoods, in schools, in the workplace and in the criminal justice system,” she says, “to really give people a view of how it shows up and how it can affect them in all these different ways.”

Asked to define implicit bias, Eberhardt offers a succinct explanation: “the beliefs and the attitudes that we have about social groups that can be triggered unconsciously, or without our awareness, and that can go on to affect our decision-making and our behavior.”

Biased features an assortment of troubling studies through which Eberhardt shows how these attitudes—unexpressed and typically deeply suppressed—can be responsible for almost instantaneous, and often invidious, judgments. Results of one study reveal that job applicants with black-sounding names are 50 percent less likely to get a callback than their white counterparts, and another shows that people primed with photographs of African American men will more quickly identify disguised photographs of guns and knives.

Eberhardt’s perspective on the subject of implicit bias has been strongly influenced by her work with the Oakland, California, police department. In 2014, she was appointed to a federal oversight team to monitor Oakland’s policing after a settlement of litigation that alleged a pattern of racist misconduct within the department. Through training programs developed by Eberhardt and her team, she has helped Oakland’s officers become more conscious of the triggers, fueled by unconscious bias, that can arise during traffic stops and other encounters with African American residents of the city, before they lead to catastrophic violence. 

But Eberhardt has also been gratified by her work outside the context of law-enforcement. Two examples of her constructive consultations with well-known businesses include the neighborhood social network Nextdoor and the home-sharing service Airbnb. Both online platforms became concerned about racial bias among their users, with the former experiencing a high percentage of “crime and safety” posts with racist overtones, and the latter encountering serious evidence of discrimination in its rental process. Eberhardt’s discussions with management, she says, enabled businesses to “actually engage with the research and solve a problem.”

Biased is also enriched by Eberhardt’s candor in drawing on her own experiences as a black woman and mother of three sons. Among the most vivid of these stories is her account of moving to a nearly all-white suburb of Cleveland at age 12, in which she highlights the difficulty she encountered when she was “confronted with a mass of white faces that I could not distinguish from one another” (a phenomenon known as the “other-race effect”), and the disturbing story of her baseless arrest during a traffic stop the day before she was scheduled to receive her Ph.D. in 1993. 

While Eberhardt is a strong advocate of training to raise awareness and begin the process of changing behavior influenced by implicit bias, she acknowledges that some of the enthusiasm for that proposed remedy “has really taken off before people have had the opportunity to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work so well.” She cautions that those involved in providing training may be motivated by their own bias to report favorable outcomes. 

Even as she recognizes that it’s more realistic to manage implicit bias than to erase it, Eberhardt concludes the conversation on an optimistic note: “In addition to people taking away a good understanding of racial bias—how it works and how it is studied—I would like them to take away hope. Hope that we can do better and be better. In fact, one of the key ingredients to addressing racial bias, as it turns out, is a belief that change is possible. In simply writing the book and talking to people in different environments—from schools to courtrooms, from prisons to workplaces—I found myself changed and inspired.”

Stanford University social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt’s enlightening new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the challenging and painful interactions that surround issues of prejudice and racial bias.

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We talked to Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler about her extraordinary new memoir, Stray—why it was difficult to write, which memories haunted her and how it changed her perspective on motherhood.


What was the genesis of Stray and how long did it take you to write it?
I didn’t know that I was working on Stray when I moved back to California in the fall of 2015 and started to write about my father. A piece I wrote for Vogue that came out in February of 2016 was the beginning of me even considering writing about such personal material. Then it took another year before I wrote a piece for the Sewanee Review, and that piece was supposed to be about California and not about my family. But once I wrote that piece, I saw that the two were connected—being back in California, remembering things that I hadn’t thought about in over a decade and reckoning with my parents and myself. At that point I knew there was a book in that world.

That was 2016, and I didn’t sit down at a desk to write the first draft of this book until May of 2019. I had been collecting memories on notecards and notebooks, things that came to me that felt tender and hurt a bit to recall. And I figured that if I kept collecting those, a story would eventually present itself—which it did by the time I sat down to write. I wrote the first draft very quickly, in nine weeks, and had to go through multiple drafts after that. But I had been thinking about it for such a long time at that point, it really came out quickly. It had some urgency.

Why did you turn to memoir for this work? With the success of Sweetbitter, did you consider telling this story in a fictionalized form?
I did, all the time. Especially when I was scared, I would want to turn it into a novel. But at a certain point I committed to nonfiction because it felt really important to me that, if you’re going to say hurtful things about people you love—and not hurtful as in mean-spirited; hurtful because they are true and secrets—then I think you owe it to the reader and to the parties involved to tell the truth, and for the reader not to have any question of whether I added this scene where my mother hit me in order to heighten the tension. The material I was dealing with didn’t need any embellishment. However, it would have been a lot less painful to write it as a novel, I think.

What were the challenges in making the transition from fiction to memoir?
Being bound by the facts is really hard. Making a satisfying story out of something as chaotic as lived experience is really challenging. When you’re writing a book, you are creating a world, and when you’re writing nonfiction, that world is yourself; you are the foundation of that world, and it makes you feel vulnerable pretty much all of the time. I didn’t get that feeling of control that I have in fiction writing.

With Sweetbitter, I wanted to write about big abstract things. I wanted to write a subversive female coming of age, and I wanted to write about being 22, and I wanted to write about family and the workplace, and with Stray, I couldn’t even think in the abstract. I was just trying to tell my story sentence by sentence. I still don’t even know what Stray is about really, in an overarching way—but that might just be me. That might not be the case for all nonfiction writers.

I hope that I can just tell my story and through my story say that you can change your life.

In Stray, you write, “I want to stop writing things I’ve only said out loud to a handful of people, most of them paid professionals.” How hard was it to write this book?
It was very hard. I think initially it was hard because children of alcoholics are trained from birth to be secret keepers. I had a lot of pride in my ability to keep secrets, as evidenced by the love story in this book about an affair I had with a married man. And I took a lot of pride in being able to stoically bear my pain, and pride in my coping mechanisms. And so to me, telling my story was weakness. It was complaining. It was navel-gazing and self-absorption. I went through a long period of time when I thought the story wasn’t worth anything, that it wasn’t bad enough—that the abuse wasn’t bad enough, that the neglect wasn’t bad enough. All of that is really, really common in adult children of alcoholics.

The next part that was really hard was spending time writing about such a dark period in my life and such dark memories while having a newborn. I would come out of the office to nurse and feel like I wasn’t there—like I was still in 2015 or in high school—and I would look at this miraculous baby and this life that I created for myself and think, well this isn’t possible because the woman in that book is about to self-destruct. She could never have these things. And so the day to day, the actual writing, was really hard. I remember reading an interview with Mary Karr where she said that when she was writing The Liars’ Club, she would nap on the floor in the middle of writing sessions like a trucker. I had a very small child, so I wasn’t able to nap in the same way, but that level of exhaustion and despair was really hard to live with.

Stray has a distinctly episodic structure. What led you to organize the book in that fashion, rather than a more linear narrative?
I think that memory works in an episodic, emerging-from-the-unconscious fashion. We don’t remember our lives linearly. Sometimes when we tell a story at the dinner table, we will make it into something linear because that’s the easiest way for people to digest it. But when I was back in California, having all these memories come back and haunt me, they weren’t haunting me in a particular order, per se. And I wanted to reflect that in the form. I’m also really drawn to this imagistic structure, in which I try to expose a moment as completely as possible and then move away from it, which is something that poets do so beautifully. There is a way to tell this story linearly, but I don’t think that you would feel the impact of it in quite the same way.

One of the most impressive aspects of the book is its atmosphere, especially the scenes in nature in California. How important was it to you to evoke that atmosphere?
Such a huge part of returning home was rediscovering this state as an adult and feeling like there were traces of my own personal trauma embedded all over, sort of like landmines. But there was also so much I didn’t know. Part of meeting the Love Interest in the book (my now-husband, Matt) was seeing California through a new set of eyes. Growing up, I always believed that the desert was ugly. But being taken there by someone who has a different lens on the world, who isn’t troubled by his past or trauma, and seeing the desert with new eyes—that is why I live here. That transition that I go through in the book is how I discovered my home again and made some peace with it. I also think there’s a volatility to Southern California that’s embedded in me—a sort of distrust and fear or awareness of the natural world, and I didn’t realize that this is where it came from. It came from this environment.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Stray.


For a variety of reasons (including your mother’s brain aneurysm that left her disabled), your parents were unreliable sources. How did you approach that problem from a narrative standpoint?
The entire book was always going to be about my experiences and not about trying to imagine their lives. I love memoirs that do that—Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance comes to mind—but I didn’t want to investigate. I could have called all of my aunts, all of my cousins, any living grandparents, my mother’s ex-boyfriends, and really tried to figure out who they were. But the book is more concerned with their absence. It’s about grieving them and accepting the loss of them and accepting in some ways the loss of the potential to know them. In my mother’s case, she changed so drastically after her brain aneurysm and lost her memory. And in my father’s case, he hasn’t earned the privilege of us knowing each other yet. So I didn’t need to piece together who they were, but I do wonder throughout the book what were their joys, and what were their private conversations, and what did they want when they were my age, and what was it like for my mother to become a mother. The fact that those things are not available is very common. A lot of people never get that from their parents, whether because their parents pass or because they simply aren’t capable of sharing these things. So that felt truer to the book.

At one point you write, “God, how I envy my mother’s lack of memory.” That’s a striking statement for a memoirist. Can you comment on the irony of that statement?
Later in the book, my sister and I wonder if our mother is happy, and I reflect that states like being happy or sad are sort of ancillary, or unnecessarily existential, because she just is. She just is. The days are the same to her. She has little frustrations, and she has little moments of victory like all of us do, but she doesn’t want anything anymore, and she’s not living in the past or the future. There's something about that that really appeals to me—that seems much more peaceful than the extremely heady, neurotic existence that I’m currently in. I’m not saying that I would prefer to be brain damaged, but I do think that memory sometimes is a hindrance. The stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of doing can limit us in the present. I think that’s what I meant when I wrote that line.

Did your perspective on your family’s predicament evolve over the course of writing this book?
Yes. Having Julian, my son, and starting the memoir so shortly after he was born, my view on my mother naturally changed. As I thought about my mother’s hope and all of her expectations as she married my father and did what she had been told since childhood she was supposed to do, which is get married and have children, and being 24 years old and not really knowing herself and then being a single mother of two kids by the time she was 28—I don’t know how she did it. I don’t know that I’m capable of that level of sacrifice. I don’t know that it wouldn’t make me as angry as it made her. So I think the easiest way to put it is that I have more empathy for her—but it’s not even empathy, because I can’t imagine it. It widened this misunderstanding between us because, God willing, I will never be able to imagine that life. And even if for some reason I did end up a single mother, I would have started when I was 35 and not 24. I can’t know how she kept going.

I’m constantly learning. The best part of being a writer is getting to read.

What did you learn about yourself from writing this book?
I learned first that I’m not my parents—which has been haunting me since I was fairly young, that I would become them. But I’m not an alcoholic or a crystal meth addict. I don’t plan on becoming either one of those things.

I also learned that the mistakes I will make as a mother and as a partner and as a friend and a writer will be new and my own. It won’t be their mistakes. When I look at my son, there are certain things that I’m very relieved he won’t have to experience, but then again . . . to be determined what his journey will be. In a way, it’s not up to me. You can give your kids absolutely everything and sacrifice your life for them and still not get to be in control of their story, which is terrifying. But there’s a certain amount of relief to have arrived at motherhood and be able to say, OK, I’m not going to make those mistakes that my parents made—at least not those specific ones.

Stray will not be easy reading for anyone with a family member who’s an addict. What do you hope such readers will take away from your book?
I don’t have a takeaway. And I think that’s part of the reason I never wanted to write a memoir, because they often have really cathartic turning points that are prescriptive—and I love that, I need that, please tell me how to live—but I don’t have that for readers. Instead, I hope that I can just tell my story and through my story say that you can change your life. It is possible.

When it comes to nonfiction, who are some of your literary role models?
I was thinking a lot about people who do both—people who write novels and write nonfiction and do both well. The obvious choices are Joan Didion and James Baldwin in the 20th century. Those are the titans that really mastered both forms. I really admire Dani Shapiro, who is also able to do both, and Carmen Maria Machado, who is a brilliant fiction writer and maybe an even more brilliant nonfiction writer. I loved her book In the Dream HouseRachel Cusk does both really well. There are so many. I’m constantly learning. The best part of being a writer is getting to read.

What’s your next project?
Before the world fell apart via Covid, I was working on a novel. I find it very hard to sustain that focus right now. And happily I have a lot of work to do promoting Stray and pivoting from a tangible, physical tour to thinking instead about what we can do in the digital space and how I can connect with my readers. So that’s the perfect kind of work for this time because it’s busy work and it feels vaguely productive. I also have some scripts I’m working on. I always have many projects going at once, which I think you have to if you’re going to make a living as an artist. So I’m excited. I think if my brain can get there, I would be excited to go back to working on that novel.

 

Author photo credit Emily Knecht

We talked to Sweetbitter author Stephanie Danler about her extraordinary new memoir Stray—why it was difficult to write, which memories haunted her and how it changed her perspective on motherhood.

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