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.”
Author photo credit Beowulf Sheehan.