The Recovering: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

By John McMillian 04/24/18

Jamison intertwines her personal disclosures with vivid inquiries into the work and lives of alcoholic writers before her such as Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Charles Jackson, Jean Rhys, and more.

Book cover for The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
"...all my self-understanding hadn’t granted me any release from compulsion.”

Recently I had the pleasure of engaging in an email correspondence with author Leslie Jamison. Her previous book, The Empathy Exams—an unlikely New York Times bestseller, published when she was just 30 years old—earned her comparisons to some of the most accomplished essayists in all of 20th century American literature, including (most frequently) Susan Sontag.

Her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, is more ambitiously structured. At its heart, it is a recovery memoir, chronicling events that transpired between the time she took her first illicit drink, at 13, and the beginning of her (second, more enduring) sobriety, which commenced when she started attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Iowa City, at age 27.

But part of what makes The Recovering so very much worth reading—even for those who are tired of, or impatient with, recovery narrative clichés—is the way she broadens the book’s scope beyond her own experiences. One way she does this is by intertwining her vivid personal disclosures with analytical inquiries into of the work and lives of alcoholic writers before her—people like Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Charles Jackson, Jean Rhys, and John Berryman, to name a few. Refreshingly, Jamison is less interested in rehashing their dysfunctional antics than she is in exploring their hard-won attempts to find creativity, and fulfillment, in sobriety.

In other sections of the book, Jamison explores the experiences of regular people who have battled with addiction, and she examines how addiction gets narrated in the larger culture. (Scoop: It’s usually narrated pejoratively.) In the hands of a lesser writer, a book with all of these agendas could come off as sprawling, or disordered. But The Recovering—a work of memoir, criticism, reportage, and advocacy—is nimbly structured and beautifully executed.

I told Jamison how much I tend to enjoy recovery memoirs, despite the fact that they often follow the same predictable narrative arcs. And I wondered: Is this, in fact, part of their appeal? Do we turn to recovery literature in order to hear stories that are isomorphic to our own?

“There’s an aside [in The Recovering] about Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story; that book was really important to me,” she replied. “I read it in a single sitting, on the floor of a bookstore, and I felt so deeply spoken to. ... I can still remember certain sensory particulars: how she sliced her green apples into a bunch of thin slivers during her anorexia, to extend the act of eating them; how she obsessed over the beaded moisture on a cold glass of white wine. Those particulars haunted me, and I felt this incredible kinship with them: This is a woman obsessed like I am obsessed. In any case, I love recovery memoirs both because of the role they’ve played in my own recovery but also for the sheer compulsive interest—the same way I love drunkalogs in meetings—all the fuck-ups and affairs and blackout nights—the part of me that is simultaneously relieved not to be leading it anymore but still drawn to the old groove of the memories.”

Alcoholics Anonymous greatly helped to facilitate Jamison’s recovery, and I told her I’ve been trying to understand how A.A. “works” (or seems to work, some of the time). After all, its mechanisms can seem enigmatic, and capricious. And so I was intrigued by certain passages of The Recovering, which explore the deeper meanings of AA platitudes (like, for instance, “fake it till you make it”).

Most interesting in this regard was Jamison’s discussion of regular prayer. Previously, Jamison’s agnosticism caused her to feel awkward while receiving blessings at the Episcopal Church she’d occasionally attended with her mother. “The more you had to make yourself believe,” it seemed to her, “the more false your belief was.”

“Years later,” she wrote, “recovery turned this notion upside down—it made me start to believe that I could to do things until I believed in them. ... Action could coax belief, rather than testifying to it. ... For a long time, I’d believed that sincerity was all about actions lining up with belief: knowing myself and acting accordingly. But when it came to drinking, I’d parsed my motivations in a thousand sincere conversations—with friends, with therapists, with my mother, with my boyfriends—and all my self-understanding hadn’t granted me any release from compulsion.”

I asked her to discuss her relationship to AA today, compared to years ago, when she was less settled in her sobriety.

“My earliest days in AA were no struggle,” she says. “The sense of relief at hearing other people talk about their compulsion to drink was absolute. ... It was a few months afterward that I started to get irritated—by clichés, by jargon, by a sort of rote faith—but I think that was partly a function of my literary sensibilities, and partially a function of my deep-seated desire to drink (looking for ways out of this new social contract I’d found myself entangled in). ... Meetings are still an important part of my life, though not with the frequency or centrality” of before.

Jamison says that lessons she’s learned in AA, however, have continued to prove helpful, even in ways she did not initially anticipate. Jamison is married to the novelist Charles Bock, with whom she has a stepdaughter and an infant daughter, and she talked about normal headaches of parenting: nursing, sleeplessness, trying to soothe crying children, and so on. But “the idea of just simply showing up—day after day, month after month, year after year—and doing the ‘next right thing,’ whether you feel like it or not”—this has been a “lifesaver,” Jamison says. “It has been incredibly helpful to have a model [in AA] for what it means to trust in a process even through moments of frustration or difficulty.”

Currently, Jamison directs the graduate nonfiction writing program at Columbia University, and she’s galvanized a series of ongoing writing sessions—led by her MFA students—with women at Marian House, an organization that provides transitional housing and addiction treatment in Baltimore. Has she contemplated taking an even more active, or visible, role in the recovery advocacy movement?

“I would love to be a voice encouraging people and legislators to see people with substance dependence as people in need of treatment, rather than punishment,” she said. “I’ve found 12-step recovery transformative in my own life, but [I’m] very committed to talking about treatment in pluralistic terms, insisting on harm-reduction and medication-assisted treatment as part of any responsible picture.”

And what about hearing from other alcoholics? Given the release of The Recovering, and the buzz surrounding it, I was curious whether Jamison was prepared to hear from large numbers of readers who may feel a kinship with her, or who may want to compare notes, and share experiences about their own vexing relationships with addiction, relapse, and recovery. Jamison answered that of course she greatly enjoys reader feedback. “There’s nothing I love more than hearing from people—where and how the work has reached them, what their own journeys have been.” But it can be stressful if she senses readers are hoping for something she can’t provide: “salvation, a cure, even friendship.”

Boundary setting has not always come easily to her, she says, but she’s getting better at it, and this offers yet another example of a way that that recovery enriched her life, beyond lifting her compulsion to drink. After all, AA meetings are models for “how to engage in connection without needing it to be total connection.”

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John McMillian is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, in Atlanta. His most recent book is Beatles Vs. Stones (Simon & Schuster, 2013).