Leslie Jamison’s memoir The Recovering embodies the pragmatic and community-oriented principles of Alcoholics Anonymous – the program that ushered Jamison toward sobriety and changed her understanding of narrative.
Less than two weeks after it was published in April 2014, Leslie Jamison’s debut collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, entered its sixth printing. A New York Times bestseller, the book ultimately sold 80,000 copies, prompting enthusiastic speculation about the health of indie publishing and confessional writing both.Her earnest, searching essays struck a chord, and it became nearly impossible to see the book – about abortion, empathy, her own pain and others’ – separate from the blunt force of its success. “My confessions elicited responses,” Jamison wrote in an essay for The Guardian just a few months later. “They coaxed chorus like a brushfire.” Over email and at readings, often with a mixture of awed respect and a tinge of desperation, countless fans began approaching Jamison with their own confessions. Strangers on crutches, women with chronic lupus, and professors with headaches all needed the “empathy expert” to know that they were hurting, too, and that she had given them “permission to talk about what hurt.” The sheer number of these little offerings soon convinced her that “confession could be the opposite of solipsism,” a way of converting private pain into human connection. In Jamison’s formulation, generous readers transformed self-indulgence into public service. She ends the essay with a direct appeal to her readers: “thank you for making my confession larger than itself.”
In her memoir The Recovering, about her alcoholism and recovery, Jamison stakes her art on just such a chorus. The book embodies the pragmatic and community-oriented principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, the program that ushered Jamison toward sobriety and changed her understanding of narrative. “In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been told about stories – that they had to be unique – suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again.” AA meetings are all about sharing testimony, rehashing the same struggles and hopes over and over again. As long as you’re humble, there’s no such thing as a good or bad story. Jamison structures the 500-page memoir like just such a meeting, intertwining her story with a series of reflections on famous alcoholic writers and the myths that romanticize them; the origins and implications of American drug policy; and the ways her fellow alcoholics have found to stay sober. “When I decided to write a book about recovery, I didn’t want to make it singular,” Jamison writes. “Nothing about recovery had been singular.” She also needs to find a new form for the addiction memoir, a calcified genre so familiar and well-trodden that acquaintances’ eyes glaze over when she tells them about her new project. “Oh, that book, they seemed to say, I’ve already read that book.” Jamison’s choral structure, then, does heavy lifting as an organizing principle: She bends her personal philosophy into an aesthetic one.
The philosophy of AA proves a useful corrective to Jamison’s long held belief that self-destruction signaled a deeper connection to the truth. “Booze helped you see, then it helped you survive the sight,” she writes, echoing the ideas of writers like Jack London and John Berryman (neither of whom lived to see their sixties). As Jamison points out, such ideas were comforting and self-serving, swaddling her addiction in a layer of superiority. She first begins to suspect her addiction might have no special meaning when she can’t tell a story about why she drinks. How do you tell a story without cause and effect? “My drinking had something to do with my family,” she writes, “and something to do with my brain, and something to do with the values I was raised to worship: excellence, enchantment, superlative everything.”
Looking for a cause, she uncovers little more than a delicate line of pain running through her life like a tripwire. As a kid desperate for attention from her much older brothers (serious, bilingual) and father (a frequent-flier economist), she learns to think, and think again, before speaking at family meals. As a teenager she starts cutting herself, drawn to the “physical and irrefutable” proof of inner suffering left on her skin by plastic picnic cups. Her freshman year at Harvard she stops eating, and learns from another girl in her dorm to drink mugs of hot water at dinner in the dining hall. This is a trick she picks up from afar, unable to overcome her crippling shyness: “My loneliness was a full-time job.” She soon falls in with the lit mag crowd, who haze her one night with screwdrivers and a pair of handcuffs. She wakes up in her room with a scribbled note from her editor, twelve hours lost. “I spent months telling people I’d been roofied,” she says. “Then someone told me about blackouts.” She ends the semester 25 pounds lighter but a little less lonely.
“Drinking felt like the opposite of restriction,” Jamison writes. “It was like finally going on vacation somewhere beautiful without having to pose for photographs the whole time.” Not that she doesn’t still pose for the visions of others. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she enrolls right after college, Jamison thinks she might actually find bar graffiti left behind by Raymond Carver. She does coke the way she’s seen it done in the movies. She’s 21 and soon collecting experiences as codified by male artists and the stories they tell about themselves: “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones.” With all its “buzz and glint,” drinking becomes a way of staving off self-loathing, or else of glorifying it. “I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather,” she writes. Reading Denis Johnson, she starts to think of suffering as generative: “Something got made, like a jewel or a hatched bird, when people hurt.” The combination of a bad breakup and a studio apartment give Jamison the push to truly start drinking alone. When she goes out with friends, she can wait “patiently for everyone else to finish their first or second round, because I was already on my fourth or fifth.” She gets over the breakup after a while, but not before fashioning it into her first successful short story. “It confirmed my hunch,” which was that “things got dark, and you wrote from that darkness.”
Unusually for a drunk, she has no horror of mornings. For all the reader knows, she has never overslept or missed a deadline. Perhaps wary of titillating, Jamison mostly elides abjection: there are few hangovers, little vomit, no pissed beds. You get the sense that what allowed her drinking to flourish was its amenability, bound in politely between responsibilities and achievements. While living with her dying grandmother after Iowa, she wakes early every morning, even after drinking herself to sleep with her nightly bottle of warm Chardonnay, to write her novel. After her death, Jamison spends a few lost, despairing months in Nicaragua before returning to reason: a doctoral program at Yale, and “only clear liquor, which seemed purer when I imagined it traveling through me.” Later, when she and her new “whip-smart Henry James acolyte” boyfriend realize they’ve been drinking too much, they designate Mondays for drying out. Then they forget.
Jamison never misses an opportunity to admonish her younger self and the illusions she nurtured. She points out her mistakes with the vigor of a tour guide, afraid the reader might miss them unless alerted to their presence. “[Projecting] happiness and social ease” onto her college peers was actually “a stingy refusal to share the state of insecurity with others”; Later she sees herself as “consumed by self-pity that had come to seem grossly self-indulgent.”
But without any catastrophes, consequences, missed opportunities or even minor degradations, the only failures Jamison is left with are moral ones. “My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing – to fetishize its relationship to genius – was a privilege of having never really suffered,” she proclaims, and you start to wonder if she thinks she became an alcoholic because she was tempted by an insidious and comforting mythology.“Every addiction story wants a villain,” and she may have found one in narrative itself. Jamison points out that mainstream addiction narratives suit political ends, which is how alcoholics like John Berryman and Raymond Carver get called “tortured geniuses” while “addicts of color get punished.” Because Jamison fell under the sway of these stories, she feels complicit in perpetuating them. She writes at length about the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the waning days of Prohibition, and the subsequent ways in which “the American legal system would polarize alcohol and drug addictions into separate categories in the public imagination: the former a disease, the latter a crime.” How could she have glamorized the disease that left so many fearful, incarcerated, dead? She was too self-obsessed. “It took me years to understand that my interior had never been interior,” Jamison writes, “that my relationship to my own pain, a relationship that felt essentially private, was not private at all.” Realizing that her identity, like all identities, has been shaped by social forces, Jamison turns away from herself with distrust. She seeks redemption in others, in stories without a single, fallible author.
Underlying The Recovering’s high-flying ambition is Jamison’s deep and unshakeable shame. The book’s forays into recycled history and writers’ biographies seem designed to convince the reader that Jamison is interested in more than just herself. But even as these strains distract from Jamison’s compelling personal narrative – her drunken fights, flails toward freedom, and catalog of jealousies and insecurities that prove much more vital than the obligatory attention she pays to other people and other struggles – they sag under the weight of her gaze. These subjects, often filtered through Jamison’s own self-recrimination, rarely come into focus. It’s as if, afraid to simply talk about herself, Jamison tries to strike a compromise by reading her own experiences into those of others. Occasionally she admits as much. In the first months of her sobriety, Jamison travels to Tennessee to report on a legendarily brutal ultramarathon and the people it attracts (her essay is later collected in The Empathy Exams). “What community was made possible by a shared confrontation with pain?” she wonders before realizing “even this attempt at reportage was turning into autobiography.” Other times, the fixation on empathy animating Jamison’s work reads like another means of self-flagellation, a recasting of older anxieties about being smart or worthy enough. While reading applications to the writers’ workshop, she begins writing down something she likes from every single application as a way “to honor each applicant, even if she would never get admitted.” Jamison undergoes a profound transformation over the course of the book, but the one thing that seems unchanged in her sobriety is her belief in her own deficiency.
It’s back in Iowa City, ground zero of idealized suffering, that Jamison gets sober. She comes back with another Yale boyfriend, an extroverted poet whose flirtatiousness lights her up with jealousy. After a seemingly endless litany of drunken fights and ruined parties, Jamison finally goes to AA. Without alcohol, “the thing that had made consciousness seem possible,” life wobbles somewhere between numbing and overwhelming. The winter light was “hard, expansive, exposing,” and her “breath curled into a sky so cold it felt like an insult.” Without the comforting buffer of alcohol, watching her boyfriend talk to girls at parties was “like waking up during a surgery I was supposed to stay unconscious for.” At meetings in clapboard houses and church basements, the pain of sobriety gets ordered: members might read aloud from the Big Book, or take turns telling their story. Farmers and housewives talk about their first taste of alcohol, their memories coming out “like a eulogy for a bully.” Jamison loves hearing tales of drunkest days, known in AA parlance as “drunkalogs,” even though she knows she shouldn’t: “they were like getting dessert before dinner.”
The program’s emphasis on testimony comes with a cost: self-aggrandizement is a scourge to be stamped out. Reading AA co-founder Bill Wilson’s memoir, a series of transcribed conversations he had with a friend, Jamison finds a passage in which he suffers from a “narrative relapse.” In a moment of weakness while talking about his past as a Wall Street speculator, Wilson starts bragging. “It is all too clear that I reverted to type,” he writes. “The whole tone of the thing sounds like I was in a barroom pounding on the bar, talking big deals.” Jamison diagnoses Wilson’s transgression as what happens when “self-exposure lapses into its dark alter-ego: self-promotion.” But “by confessing that his old drunk ego has momentarily hijacked the story, he trusts he can reclaim it.” It’s also Jamison’s fear of self-promotion that keeps her from investigating the central contradiction of her journey to sobriety: how was she able to achieve so much? How might her life have been different if she wasn’t an alcoholic? Posing such questions risks affirming a link between creativity and self-destruction or else affirming a belief in her own power. Jamison glosses over this tension, insisting she’s just like everyone else. “I’d grown suspicious of my own narrative tendencies: my desire for drama; my tenacious, futile pursuit of originality; my resistance to clichés.” But, she wonders, “perhaps this resistance to cliché was just one symptom of my refusal to accept the commonality of my own interior life.”
It’s hard to blame her. She is someone who can no longer risk telling the wrong story about herself. If Jamison was led astray by the wrong narratives, beliefs that inflated her ego and sense of woundedness, that means she can find her way to redemption by inverting the story: what was private and alienating becomes public and endearing. But continuing to think of herself as unique would seem to lead inexorably back into the horrors of addiction. These are not abstract debates without stakes. “Giving up on singularity was like giving up on the edges of my own body,” Jamison writes of her initiation into AA’s philosophy. “What would I be, if I wasn’t singular? What was identity if it wasn’t fundamentally a question of difference?” A chorus of indistinct and interchangeable voices can’t tell us.