When Leslie Jamison went before the university board to present her dissertation topic, a dissertation that would form the basis of her new memoir/critical study The Recovering, one of the faculty members gave her a hard time. Jamison’s thesis posited a link between sobriety and creativity, delving into the post-addiction work of alcoholic writers like Raymond Carver and Charles Jackson, to show that the myths of the booze-addled genius are, at the least, severely overstated. But, as the professor’s response showed, those myths still loom very large indeed.
“What about the relationship between addiction and creativity?” he asked Jamison, and although, in her account of the incident, she doesn’t describe his tone or manner, we can easily picture the man oozing condescension. “Don’t certain obsessions also produce experiment and variation?”
Because, at this point, Jamison was relatively new to both her own sobriety and her path as a writer, she needed to believe that the connection she was looking for was genuine. And as someone who had struggled with alcohol abuse, she knew that addiction was neither as glamorous nor as interesting as it seemed. And yet, in retrospect, she had to admit that the professor was at least partially right. “I’d been so eager to dismiss the myths of whiskey and ink,” she writes, “that it took me a while to stomach their truths—that yearning is our most powerful narrative engine, and addiction is one of its dialects; that addiction is a primal and compelling story, structured by irony and hinged by betrayal, the fantasy of escape colliding with the body in ruin.”
Throughout The Recovering, Jamison is obsessed by narrative. She is obsessed by the narratives of recovery, and (unlike in her proposed dissertation) by the narratives of addiction as well. She is obsessed with narratives that lie, that simplify the truth into a graspable arc, and by those that bring understanding. She is as interested in the narratives of others, whether fellow writers or simply fellow people, as she is in telling her own story. She is seduced by the myth of certain stories, and she is skeptical of these same stories, and she has faith in the power of other ones.
When she goes to Iowa City in her early twenties to study at the Writer’s Workshop, she hears stories. She hears stories of great writers who drank, whose drinking was inseparable from their greatness, either because it fueled their work or because it provided the necessary respite from the dark depths they had to delve into to produce their genius output. As a young writer, Jamison embraces these myths before starting to look at them askance. Why, she begins to wonder, already well on her way as both a drinker and a writer, is it only certain type of addicts that get praised? “Alcoholics are tortured geniuses,” she muses, ironically repeating the received double-standard wisdom. “Drug addicts are deviant zombies. Male drunks are thrilling. Female drunks are bad moms. White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of color get punished.”
Jamison is here to puncture myths, but she’s here, more importantly, to consider the tangled history of the literature of addiction, a body of work that conceals and reveals in equal measure and one that shapes public perception and thus public policy. She is also here to add her own story to the mix, not because it is an exceptional story but because it is an ordinary one and she views narrative as a tool for resonating with and helping others. Throughout the book, her personal story alternates with her critical survey of other people’s stories, both creating a continuum between centuries of writing about alcoholism and offering the reader a rubric for evaluating her own narrative.
“When I decided to write a book about recovery,” Jamison tells us, “I didn’t want to make it singular. Nothing about recovery had been singular. I needed the first-person plural, because recovery had been about immersion in the lives of others.” She’s referring specifically to her experience in Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that comes to assume a central place in the book. Her decision to begin going to AA, though, not only makes her recovery possible, it initiates a narrative crisis which she spends the entire book working through.
For Jamison, the core feature of the meeting, the “drunkalog,” is one full of contradictory impulses. The whole point of people sharing their stories is “resonance,” the idea that those listening can find common ground with the speaker and thus feel comforted by communality. But the speaker is also a performer, trying to shape her narrative for the listener in a way that is gripping and thus capable of soliciting a flattering response. The first time that Jamison addresses a meeting, an old man shouts out, “This is boring,” and although the man is ill, losing his mind, his admonition sticks with her, as she continues to feel self-conscious about the possibility that her stories may fail to spark the listener’s imagination.
It’s a concern that extends to her larger recovery narrative, the one we’re reading, and whose possible failures she’s quick to address. “When I decided to write a book about recovery,” she tells us, “I worried about… trotting out the tired tropes of the addictive spiral, and… [about] the tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulation of a redemption story.” When she would tell her friends about her project, their eyes would glaze over. She would then explain to these friends that her book was “about that glazed look in their eyes,” it was about “the ways in which addiction is a hard story to tell, because addiction is always a story that has already been told.”
The question then remains: Why then tell a story that has already been told? Jamison writes, “In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always [heard] about stories, that they had to be unique… Our stories were valuable because of [their] redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” All this is very good for an AA meeting, but what about for a book? Is Jamison’s point that she doesn’t need to tell a compelling story because she’s after resonance and not artistic achievement?
In fact, Jamison seems to have it both ways, which is not so much a criticism, as a signifier of her inability to escape her own artistry. While her personal narrative is not always as compelling as we might expect an addiction narrative to be (although her less showy portrait of alcoholism is a welcome narrative subversion in its own right), Jamison’s continued skepticism keeps the book from descending anywhere near the level of banality that she hints tend to characterize the typical AA monologue. Even as she embraces the organization’s methodology, she can’t switch off her aversion to the meetings’ constant barrage of clichéd rhetoric. Similarly, when she turns to the literature of recovery, she finds that it is often not as interesting as the writing about what came before. As she realizes when she looks back on her dissertation presentation, “the possibility of writing from addiction was more than an alluring lie; it was also genuine alchemy.”
As a sober person, this alchemy is no longer be available to her, one source of creative inspiration dried up for good. There are indeed other sources, and Jamison has learned, after a long struggle, to mine them, largely by writing about people other than herself. But, it’s finally a testament to her honesty that she is willing to acknowledge that, in embracing sobriety, something fundamental about herself, as a person, as a writer, may be lost as well.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
by Leslie Jamison
Little Brown and Company; 544 p.