The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath
(Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
“The first time I ever felt it—the buzz—I was almost thirteen,” writes Leslie Jamison in the opening of her memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. From there, Jamison’s story unfolds, and we begin to see the ways in which addiction takes a hold of her life. She takes us through her college years, onto grad school (an MFA and a PhD from top schools), and beyond, grappling with the idea that alcohol and creative work are inherently linked. Through her beautiful prose, with sentences like, “Drinking had been the honeyed twilight sun falling over every late afternoon, softening everything to amber,” Jamison brings the reader into her world as a high-functioning alcoholic, allowing us to get a sense of what addiction was like for her.
For years, there has been the trope of writer as a drunk, with so many famous writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver romanticized for their alcoholism. The myth that addiction enables creative work becomes a theme in Jamison’s writing. The first time she sobers up, she finds herself unable to focus on anything except wanting to drink again, and as a result, she fears an inability to produce compelling writing. Thus, she relapses for a period of time before becoming sober once again.
Jamison’s story is a familiar one. She self-destructs through blackouts, cutting, and disordered eating, and she attempts to hide her alcoholism from those closest to her, creating tension in her relationships. Despite the familiarity of the addiction plot, though, her writing remains compelling throughout. Jamison shifts seamlessly between her own narrative and narratives of others facing similar struggles.
The Recovering features the stories of those Jamison met in Alcoholics Anonymous (with their names changed for privacy), the stories of famous writers and artists like Marguerite Duras and Billie Holiday, and the stories of other addicts that have suffered before her. Jamison takes a journalistic approach to her writing, conducting interviews and parsing through dense research on alcoholism and the steps and history of recovery and rehabilitation. While this is technically a memoir about her own struggle with alcoholism, The Recovering actually examines addiction and the ways society has treated addicts throughout the years. Jamison looks at the history of AA and the institutional racism tied to narratives of addiction. She attempts to break down the stereotype of the “addict,” pointing to herself as a prime example—a privileged white woman who graduated from Ivy League institutions.
The Recovering finishes at 534 pages, with the last 50+ pages dedicated to an index and a series of research notes. No doubt, after the success and critical acclaim of her last book, The Empathy Exams (2014), Jamison has earned all 534 pages, but at times I found myself wishing the narrative were slightly shorter. However, it’s difficult to say what, if anything, could be cut. While other reviewers have critiqued the memoir for its length, the number of pages, in many ways, seems necessary. A review in Slate writes, “Recovery programs demand humility from their participants, but how can a 500-page memoir be anything less than assertion of ego, especially when so many other recovery memoirs precede it?” However, this reviewer fails to grasp the intricacies of Jamison’s work, and I question whether they understood the memoir at all. The Recovering isn’t like the “so many other recovery memoirs” that exist. This one is research-based and introspective in new ways. The Slate review goes on to critique “drunks” and their “drunken behavior,” which misses the point of Jamison’s work entirely. In her memoir, Jamison attempts and succeeds at humanizing the addict and dismantling stereotypes. She also shows through the stories of other artists that much of the romanticism around alcohol and art is a myth.
The memoir ends on a note of hope, as Jamison finally moves forward with her own sobriety. She tells an earnest story of driving around Vegas looking for a onesie for her friend’s baby. As the search becomes futile, her companion that night says, “This isn’t done,” and they keep looking. Jamison writes, “I loved him for saying that, for saying our night wasn’t over. For me, it meant nights weren’t over.” In this moment, we can’t help but feel for Jamison in this small moment that means so much more. She writes, “For me, recovery wasn’t creative death; but it wasn’t instant propulsion. It didn’t deliver the New Creativity like a telegram. It was more like a series of generative formal constraints: finding stories in the world and trying to map their contours.” Creativity, Jamison argues, still exists in sobriety, but it is a new kind of creativity that she must discover day by day.