Book Review: Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering”

By: Heather Scott Partington

Leslie Jamison wasn’t a stereotypical drunk. She wasn’t a stereotypical student, either. Even at the peak of her alcoholism, Jamison held down a job, published a novel, and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Yale, and Harvard without hitting a conventional bottom. If you read Jamison’s 2014 essay collection, The Empathy Exams, you know her unique voice, her elegant syntax, her capacity for listening to another’s pain and rendering it on the page as something unnervingly fresh. The Recovering is the story of Jamison’s journey to get sober, told through the filter of her research about the lives of other artists and writers.

Through the use of outside source material and interrogations of standard addiction narratives, Jamison seeks to make her memoir, The Recovering, an anti-recovery memoir, one that confronts (ahead of time, almost) the nagging voice of any reader who might challenge aspects of the author’s recovery story or, perhaps, the value of recovery stories in general. However, in addition to the author’s efforts to carve out a new type of recovery genre, Jamison’s memoir snags a little in the territory of her own exceptionalism: I am special, the author’s tone suggests over and over in her 500-plus-page memoir. The minutia of my graduate school romance was unique. I am too smart for AA. I am not like other academics. I am not like other drunks.

Image via The New York Times

In her first time speaking at an AA meeting, Jamison is heckled by a person who “often sounded like our collective id, saying things that never got said aloud in meetings: I don’t care; this is tedious; I’ve heard this before.” The implication is that her heckler is all of us, too. “I was writing a book about that glazed look in [your] eyes,” Jamison writes, “about the way an addiction story can make you think, I’ve heard that story before, before you’ve even heard it.” But in her effort to preempt the reader’s skepticism, Jamison doesn’t challenge herself enough by asking why she’s had it so easy.

The extent to which Jamison is willing to acknowledge the doors that have opened for her is limited. In fact, when she juxtaposes her story with the stories of other addicts—particularly those of color—it’s hard to reconcile her “high bottom” with her acceptance of her own privilege. It’s not that the reader wishes her to have failed on a greater scale, but she never really moves to interrogate this privilege beyond mentions of her skin color. “My skin is the right color to permit my intoxication,” she writes. “When it comes to addiction, the abstraction of privilege is ultimately a question of what type of story gets told about your body.” Though Jamison directly confronts the realities of systemic racism in the sections of her book related to her research—she mentions the inherent shame of programs like Just Say No, the statistics of drug-related crimes and imprisonment, and the tragic life story of Billie Holiday—it’s unfortunate that considerations of privilege don’t cross over as much into the portions of the book dealing with her own story. These discussions of privilege do not permeate much into the bubble of her memoir. Ultimately, she shies away from difficult questions or implications about what she’s been entitled to in her life, including an easier academic path, an easier work history, an easier drinking life, and even an easier recovery.

Jamison folds much of her graduate thesis research into her own story, aiming to make her book a chorus of voices, much like an AA meeting. She writes about authors such as John Berryman, Jean Rhys, and Denis Johnson and how their alcoholism affected their work. Her research is focused not on alcohol as a creative stimulant, but sobriety as a catalyst for an artistic life. She calls this “my unsexy case for the relationship between sobriety and creativity.”

When I started visiting the archives of writers who had gotten drunk and gotten sober, I was looking for the underbelly of the whiskey-and-ink mythology—for the blood and sweat and vomit of what their drinking had been, and also for what their sobriety had made possible. Finding their voices in the archives reminded me of being at a meeting: all those savage losses lurking under the ways strangers composed themselves.

Whereas the tortured artist trope is familiar, Jamison seeks historical context for herself among artists who got clean and used their recovery to ignite their art. Her research is reminiscent of her writing in The Empathy Exams. As her memoir unfolds alongside it, we see how Jamison, hungry for justification of both her addiction and her creative endeavors, relies on a strict biographical interpretation of alcoholic authors’ work to create a mythology that elevates her own writing. “In Rhys,” she says, “I recognized a woman trying to write an origin myth for her own despair, trying to build a house in which it might live, a logic or a narrative by which it might be justified.” At times, though, the shift between her research or discussion of national drug policy and her own memoir is jarring.

Eventually, Jamison’s drinking becomes problematic enough that she begins to attend AA meetings. Her relationship with AA is complicated. At first, she celebrates the strengths of the program, discovering its usefulness like a new convert in church:

I began to realize why it was important to have a script, a set of motions you followed: First we’ll say this invocation. Then we’ll read from this book. Then we’ll raise hands. It meant you didn’t have to build the rituals of fellowship from scratch. You lived in the caves and hollows of what had worked before. You weren’t responsible for what got said, because you were all parts of a machine bigger than any one of you, and older than anyone’s sobriety. Clichés were the dialect of that machine, its ancient tongue: Feelings aren’t facts. Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem. Maybe stopping drinking didn’t have anything to do with introspection but paying attention to everything else.

Yet, multiple times, Jamison asserts how different she is from those in AA, even when the program begins to help her. She’s smarter than those other people who need the meetings. She looks down on their sad foods in their sad basements. She fixates on the clichés. She reads David Foster Wallace and rejoices when she finds him to be of like mind. She congratulates herself even when she decides she will get past her own decision not to be too smart for AA (a kind of arrogance in itself):

The idea of being ‘too smart for AA’ immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple. But I was also aware that being ‘too smart for AA’ could become its own siren call to the ego: consider yourself the exception to the common story, exempt from every aphorism—with a consciousness too complicated to have much in common with anyone else. I was even aware that my rejection of that ego trip was, in its way, also a revision of it: I was proud that I didn’t feel too smart for AA, as if I deserved a gold star for resisting the arrogance.

Despite admirable self-awareness, Jamison’s elitism, which is not eradicated by the fact of her acknowledging it, stands in contrast to the empathetic paradigm she adopts in The Empathy Exams. In that book, she did what she purports to do here: listen and allow the voices of others to be heard.

Part of this comes down to editing. At 544 pages, self-indulgence that may have otherwise slipped by, instead, reaches a critical mass. Jamison’s book becomes a slog through many of the same fights, the same scenes with her boyfriend, and, most importantly, the same conversations with herself about how a writer is particularly unsuited to the banality of AA. The effect of these musings is often condescending. She vacillates between wanting human connection (“our stories have common hinges” and needing to separate herself from those who are unlike her:

I was moving between the worlds of graduate school and recovery, straddling the powerful rifts between their conflicting imperatives: Think harder. Don’t overthink it. Say something new. You can’t say anything new. Interrogate simplicity. Keep it simple. Be loved because you are smart. Be loved because you are. 

What is implied in the tone of every passage like the one above is her disdain for the those who are able to find meaning in a script. When she says that she is too smart for AA, she is also saying that there are many, many others who are not:

I was never persuaded that clichés held the Full Truth of My Experience or anyone else’s. I’m not sure that anyone else was, either. But submitting myself to the clichés of recovery was another way of submitting to its rituals—gathering in basements, holding hands in circles. Saying This applies to me too started to seem necessary and tonic. There was something illuminating, something even like prayer, in accepting truths that seemed too simple to contain me. They weren’t revelations, but reminders, safeguards against the alibis of exceptionality that masqueraded as self-knowledge.

Even as Jamison briefly accepts cliché or the rituals of a meeting, she equivocates, backtracking and explaining how it doesn’t represent a truer value system than she was taught: a writerly value system that is somehow inherently more righteous. She is desperate to prove to the reader how she trusts only original thought, original sentiment, original sharing. No one would begrudge Jamison, a talented author, the originality of her work or emotion. But her constant degradation of cliché and ritual make for weary reading, especially when people have used ritual and recitation to find both meaning and fellowship since the dawn of humanity.

“We love our drunk heroes intoxicated,” Jamison says. “We don’t want to watch them get sober.” Is that true? Addiction and recovery memoirs are certainly en vogue and don’t seem to be going anywhere. Jamison’s story is definitely worth telling. It’s unfortunate that she does so at the expense of the recovering addicts whose stories she claims to celebrate alongside her own.