Leslie Jamison writes in the beginning of The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.” The author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams struggled with alcohol dependence throughout her undergraduate and graduate education.
Accepted into the competitive Iowa Writers’ Workshop at 21, she drank among older writers and the legends of famous writers who drank before them. After losing memories of whole nights to blackouts, she tried to stop drinking on her own and eventually sought the structure and support of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The artistic result of Jamison’s entry into recovery is more than an account of addiction and sobriety—The Recovering is an exploration of narrative itself. Interweaving her personal experience with the lives of those she meets in AA as well as deceased writers and artists who battled their own addictions, Jamison gives shape to the “ongoingness” of recovery.
While questioning the draw of the addiction story, she examines her internal narration as well. “The questions at the heart of the book,” she says, “are about storytelling. What kinds of stories we tell ourselves and what their limits are.”
Whether our culture is preoccupied in a given moment with glorifying or demonizing the artist-addict, it is generally more captivated by “that darker energy of falling apart” than the journey to wellness. But in writing her story and encountering other addicts in person and on the page, Jamison found that stories about recovery can be some of the most interesting, precisely because of the effect sobriety has on perception.
“So much of recovery is about coming into sharper, more acute, more specific emotional awareness, and getting sensitized to the things that make a story interesting in the first place,” Jamison says. “To me, the most compelling stories will always be those investigating the complexity of emotional experience, what it feels like to be alive.”
When Jamison began attending AA meetings, she was humbled to learn her experience wasn’t exceptional. Having striven most of her life to distinguish herself from others, this knowledge came as relief. She was tired of the version of herself that pursued “uniqueness at the expense of a certain kind of self-possession and self-sufficiency,” she says. And she realized that uniqueness and commonality are not mutually exclusive. ”I think everyone is unique and the same at the same time,” she says with a laugh. “Most of our emotional experience is shared, and there’s value in investigating that sharedness.”
The structure of The Recovering illustrates this by supporting a plurality of stories within it. Jamison examines the art and addictions of Raymond Carver, John Berryman, Charles R. Jackson, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, George Cain, David Foster Wallace, and Amy Winehouse. Much of the book is about how these writers and artists do and don’t function creatively through addiction and sobriety. The concept evolved from the roots of her doctoral thesis, and at one point Jamison writes about having to defend the interestingness of her subject—writers writing without the influence of alcohol or drugs—to an advisor more interested in the relationship between addiction and creativity. After the encounter, she reflects on our cultural mythology: “The lie wasn’t that addiction could yield truth; it was that addiction had a monopoly on it.”
For Jamison, sobriety has fueled her writing in many ways. On the physical level, the effects of alcohol no longer impede her daily life and work. On a deeper level, she says, “sobriety is a form of waking up” that impels her to be present for difficulty and nuance, which then shows up in her writing. Her experience has also influenced the kind of work she pursues.
“The attention recovery asks you to pay to the lives of other people was part of what started to inspire my desire to bring other people’s lives into my work” through interviewing and reportage, she says. In addition to exploring the lives of addicts, her research examines the origins of AA, U.S. drug policies, and the racism embedded in policies that determine who is a victim and who is a villain.
Yet writing The Recovering also required that she address her own life in a way she hadn’t before. “The essay provides a lot of room for lateral motion and you can land where you want to land and leave again,” she says. “Drinking was lurking around the edges of The Empathy Exams even though I didn’t label it that way. People in recovery could see recovery in it even though I never talked about it.”
While the memoir form imposed “more pressure to tell a cohesive narrative,” Jamison says, “in a way there was something liberating and exciting about reckoning directly with the subject that had been a guiding force and guiding pressure all along.”
As she writes toward the end of The Recovering, “yearning is our most powerful narrative engine.” Jamison’s desire to tell a story of recovery, and to tell it well, results in a compelling and beautifully crafted book.
Leslie Jamison will read from The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath at New Dominion Bookshop on January 18.