Leslie Jamison’s 500-page exploration of recovery gets trapped in the thin tropes of the addiction memoir.
When reviewing a book, I use a critic’s trick I picked up from C.S. Lewis: For quick reference, I scrawl a few words across the tops of pages to flag, say, the part where the heroine moves to Dallas or the author describes the causes of the Vietnam War. Lewis called this “indexing.” A distilled version of my index for Leslie Jamison’s new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, would read something like this: “self-cutting,” “eating disorder,” “hypochondria,” “philandering father,” “parents’ divorce,” “blackouts,” “dying grandmother,” “heart surgery,” “tropical parasite,” “bad breakup,” “Nicaraguan face punch” (a mugging Jamison has recounted several times before), “borderline rape.” Nevertheless, through the scrim of this litany of ordeals, the alert reader can detect another possible and very different index, one made of features that Jamison chooses not to emphasize: “had a cool, accomplished, loving mom,” “Harvard undergrad,” “Iowa Writers’ Workshop at age 21,” “summer in Italy,” “Ph.D. from Yale,” “published first novel at age 27.” And even though the time period recounted in The Recovering does not include them, an informed reader could add a few more highlights: “New York Times best-seller at age 31” (2014’s The Empathy Exams) and “director of the nonfiction program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.”
Whether Jamison’s life has been cursed or charmed is a question of storytelling, of which events and experiences the teller chooses to foreground and which she chooses to mention only in passing. Stories are the subject of The Recovering; the memoir chronicles the way 12-step programs use them to stanch the self-destructive, out-of-control desires of addicts. The program is not a cure, exactly, but a way of restructuring the addict’s life by directing her focus away from the incessant lure of abusable substances and toward the act of telling and listening to the testimonials of other addicts.
According to Jamison, achieving this shift required that she let go of a lifelong fear that “I had to earn affection and love by being interesting.” Her ur-self, an image that pops up multiple times in The Recovering, is a little girl struggling for the attention and approval of her brilliant parents and older brothers, “trying to figure out what to say at the dinner table, especially on French nights—when everyone was practicing a language I couldn’t speak.” Alcoholics Anonymous, by contrast, does not sparkle with witticisms and learning. It leans on banal mottos like “One day at a time” and “Easy does it.” The point of getting up to tell your story in a meeting isn’t to impress everyone else with your eloquence and insights—or with your hair-raising boozy exploits. “Your story,” Jamison soon learned, “is probably pretty ordinary. This doesn’t mean it can’t be useful,” but only as one story among many. Instead of demanding that she perform a virtuosic solo, recovery asks Jamison to become part of a chorus of unremarkable equals. The Recovering is her heartfelt but haphazard, repetitive, and frequently exasperating attempt to represent that change.
Recovery programs demand humility from their participants, but how can a 500-page memoir be anything less than an assertion of ego, especially when so many other recovery memoirs precede it? Jamison Googled the phrase “just another addiction memoir” and received several dispiriting pages of results. To make matters worse, she was convinced that drunken escapades make for better stories than the dull “flatline” of sobriety. In meetings, Jamison loved what 12-steppers call “drunkalogs,” tales of misbehavior and catastrophe committed under the influence, preferring them to accounts of the daily restraint of abstinence. Reading the unpublished manuscript for the novel that Malcolm Lowry hoped would be a glorious follow-up to his alcoholic masterpiece, Under the Volcano, Jamison felt guilty that she kept hoping the main character would relapse. Her boredom confirmed her fear that “this story would never be as interesting as the story of getting drunk.”
Perhaps you have to be an alcoholic to believe that sobriety is inherently dull (as opposed to dull in the eyes of a drunk), but then perhaps you have to have spent your formative years surrounded by alcoholics to realize just how big a load of crap that notion is. In the midst of her drinking years, Jamison writes, she “craved luminosity—the glimmering constellation points of a life told in anecdotes.” This hankering was tangled up with romantic notions of creative genius and personal dysfunction. Studying writing at Iowa, she inhaled the “legends” of the revered authors who had gone before: Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, John Cheever—drunks to a man, who frequently wrote about drunks. The students at Iowa flocked worshipfully to the same bars frequented by the past masters and to the diner where “Richard Yates spent his hungover mornings.” Carver was the drunkest, the most tragic of them all, and Jamison pictured him “in terms of hijinks and love triangles, petty theft and seductions, ash falling unnoticed from the tip of his cigarette as he sat engrossed at his typewriter, riding the comet’s tail of a bender into its ruthless wisdom.” She feared that if she ever stopped drinking her own inspiration would dry up.
Drunks think their drunken behavior is exciting, impressive, or creative—in short, “interesting”—for the same reason they believe themselves to be suddenly more clever, more attractive, and more indestructible: because their judgment is impaired by drink. The sober witness knows otherwise (and some of us all too well). To the clear-headed, alcoholics in their cups are tedious, their melodramas thin, maudlin, and maddeningly repetitive—when they aren’t outright violent and scary. The Recovering is overlong—a better book seems entombed within it by a surplus of at least 100 pages—partly because Jamison still has a hard time distinguishing excess from essence, actual problems from the dramas and messes, often involving her relationships to men, that she once ginned up to make her life feel more thrilling and vital. This is, among other things, a narrative disorder; like many alcoholics, she mistook anecdote (the misadventures, however colorful, of a drunk) for sinews of story (the struggle of a soul to overcome its own worst inclinations). Jamison reports that the short stories she wrote while studying at Iowa got called “character-driven,” because they never had plots. Her characters were passive to a degree that even she found suspect: “They suffered from diseases; they suffered assaults; their dogs got heartworms. … I sent them into suffering because I was sure that suffering was gravity, and gravity was all I wanted. My work followed pain like a heat-seeking missile.” Despite the insight and even the tinge of humor in this passage, this remains a fair description of much of Jamison’s writing.
Jamison believes that in the recovery movement she’s found sincerity and simplicity after a lifetime of chasing after personal distinction and pursuing a cynical intellectualism fixated on complexity. But at the root of Jamison’s own grandiosity is not smarty-pants pretension; it’s a craving for emotional intensity that takes the form of an infatuation with pain. In “The Devil’s Bait,” a reported piece included in The Empathy Exams, Jamison interviewed people who believe themselves to have Morgellons disease, a strange skin malady that physicians regard as imaginary. Jamison herself insists that she’s less interested in whether Morgellons disease is “real” than in “what kinds of reality are considered prerequisites for compassion.” In another essay from the same collection, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” she writes of the moment when she realized that “causeless pain—inexplicable and seemingly intractable—was my true subject. It was frustrating. It couldn’t be pinned to any trauma; no one could be blamed for it.” This pain, traditionally associated with feminine passivity, is subject to suspicion and contempt, partly because of misogyny, but also (the reader can’t help but think) because the world is full of pain with detectable causes about which something can be done. Even Jamison herself seems prone to this judgment: I suspect one of the reasons she keeps returning to the Nicaraguan mugging story over and over is because it’s one of the few items in her own long list of sufferings that cannot be in any way construed as self-inflicted.
Why alcoholics drink is less a mystery than an equation that changes from one individual to another. Physical dependency is part of it, and so are circumstances, like landing in an MFA program that fetishizes drunken writers and organizes its social life around bars. There is probably a genetic factor. Sarah Hepola, in her witty, winning memoir Blackout, recalls her mystification when her high school girlfriends complained about the taste of beer. From the age of 7, she’d been stealing ecstatic sips from opened cans left in the fridge: “The taste for beer was embroidered on my DNA.” The protean nature of alcoholism makes it capable of serving a spectrum of psychological needs: for relaxation, for the unleashing of rage, for courage or oblivion or for pain itself, if that’s what you want. To combat it, 12-step programs have adopted a method that’s just as flexible. The program meets many needs, from the simple alleviation of loneliness and boredom to an outlet for excess energy. For Jamison, it is a forum where suffering can be contemplated and talked about without limit, gravity on tap, and where every life’s story is an inventory of its pain.
What The Recovering falls short of articulating is the ironic paradox at the heart of AA: its ability to turn the alcoholic’s grandiosity against itself. Like a martial art that redirects the enemy’s strength to defeat him, the 12-step method transforms the dismantling of the addict’s narcissism into a heroic task appealing to that very same narcissism—all while providing it with an appreciative audience. The program replaces the grand narrative of the alcoholic’s drunken delusions with the grand narrative of renouncing drinking, complete with the ritualized self-abasement that comes with all renunciation stories. This works (when it works) because getting sober is also genuinely heroic, the hardest thing that an addict—that almost anyone—will ever do.