On a quiet sunny morning in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Leslie Jamison sits on her favorite orange couch and scoops her newborn baby in her arms. The baby settles into a perfect lump in the crook of her neck, tiny toes tucked up and fists balled, its bum slumped gently into the cup of her hand—in that bouncy way that only brand-new baby bums have. The light-filled room hums with all the comfort of well-worn domesticity: full bookshelves and lightly chipped coffee cups. A green-eyed cat plops lazily at Jamison’s feet, stretching its white paws against the rug and yawning. In the outside world, Jamison’s new book is climbing to the tops of bestseller lists, but inside her peaceful home, the cozy wonder of this scene is lovingly swaddled against intrusion.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath is Jamison’s stunning account of her own experiences with alcohol addiction and recovery. She weaves cultural history and reporting with her own sober story, and the effect is like being carried through a choral arrangement: raw, sparkling, honest. The precision of her insights and the soaring beauty of her prose fly high above the tired old myths that dysfunction is a necessary ingredient of art, or that illness is somehow glamorous. Of course, we know from the works of great writers—Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Marguerite Duras, to name just a few—that drunkenness can be associated with a kind of lyric thinking. But here, Jamison makes the case that we are mistaken to put tormented genius on a pedestal. That the greater service to artists, and to their art, would be to support them through the process of healing and continued growth.
“Falling in love was the only sensation that ever truly rivaled drinking,” Jamison confesses in the book. And here, in her small Brooklyn home, the sentiment is underscored. As precious as the bond with her new child is, as beautiful all the makings of her life, it’s clear how hard-won these prizes are. There is a pulse of anxiety hidden in the careful pauses she takes before answering my questions. And in these pauses, it’s hard not to recall the darker passages of her writing: the suicides of addicts who tried to live and didn’t make it, and the uncertainty with which she herself has offered guidance to the various people who come through AA meetings (all of them in pain). Jamison describes her own experience of sobriety as vastly challenging. To me, this is precisely what is valuable about her book, and why it will attain a lasting place in the genre of alcoholic literature.
The addiction memoir is a popular topic in America because addiction is, itself, a widespread issue. But the recovery memoir—how to wake up every day and face our loved ones, and our own shortcomings, and the hard, winter landscape of the world, without sedation—this, Jamison accomplishes with remarkable courage and grace. About AA meetings she says, “It is recovery held together by earnestness,” and about her own memoir: maybe this is “a book full of apology letters.” She talks about writing as “resurrection,” and how sometimes the scariest part of sobriety is all the boring, empty days. Her new book, however, is full to the brim with beauty. Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, and David Foster Wallace: The skill and admiration with which she illuminates these complicated lives shows how Jamison herself is touched by the same brand of genius, for better or for worse. As a reader, I am grateful.
Jamison was kind enough to give this interview with her baby clung round her neck and hiccupping.
—Rachel Veroff for Guernica
Guernica: You discuss a lot of alcoholic writers in the book, but one of the most compelling is Jean Rhys. Why is Rhys so fascinating?
Leslie Jamison: Jean Rhys was an important figure in the book for a few different reasons. One, she felt like this case study that did illuminate some of the ways I was noticing, both anecdotally and culturally, that female alcoholics get viewed. That similar behaviors—recklessness, unreliability, narcissism, selfishness—traits that get attached to destructive drinking, these seem to be received differently when it’s men exhibiting them rather than women. A trait that can look like charismatic roguishness for a man often looks like the failure to be selfless, or the failure to be a good mother, or the failure to put oneself second—all of these social expectations that often attach to women—as if there is a kind of shame attached to being a drinker, which is different for a woman than for a man.
Rhys’s life was one that bore out some of those sources of shame: The fact that Rhys was often accused of excessive self-pity, and the narrators of her novels are often aware they’re being accused of too much self-pity, that often that excess of self-pity is linked to too much drinking, or getting drunk and crying as the ultimate shameful manifestation of self-pity. It seemed like Rhys’s life was one where some of those gendered accusations around drinking played out. Also: she was not fully present as a mother, in ways that were probably related to a lot of things, but one of them was certainly her drinking. So in a sense, Rhys brought up questions about gender that I was interested in looking at.
I also wanted the book to be full of all different kinds of figures, not just the single model of an artist who got sober and created work from sobriety that somehow looked different from the work they created out of their addictions. I also wanted there to be stories of people who never got sober, or who tried to get sober but it never stuck. I wanted to show how the story could go a bunch of different ways. Rhys was somebody who, as far as I could tell from her biographies and archives, she never really tried to get sober. There was maybe one month where she didn’t drink anything, but the effects of that month were that she was really excited for that first drink back. She was someone who lived out the effects of drinking in a pretty unreformed way for the course of her whole life. Some of the most touching stuff that I ended up finding in her archives came from the records of how much drinking she was doing in her last years, and how her caregivers were navigating her drinking as something they realized they were never going to be able to stop but could maybe try to manage. Some of that material was really heartbreaking.
I was also interested in the ways in which, even though she was never sober and never fully in recovery, that there still seemed to be a part of her that yearned towards what people find valuable in recovery. That’s part of why I was so interested in that trial she wrote, where she’s dramatically staging a courtroom setting, in which she is putting herself on trial, and all the ways in which that imagined trial summoned some of the inventory-taking that’s part of 12-step recovery. Those correspondences were interesting to me.
Guernica: Writing a memoir is like putting yourself on trial too.
Leslie Jamison: There’s a moment in the book where I talk about how 12-step recovery asked me, in a productive way, to approach the act of cataloguing my life in a less verbose, more compressed way; to bottom-line it a little more. That was useful because, as one of my friends likes to say, I am someone who speaks in paragraphs instead of sentences. For some people, I think, telling me to shut up is pretty useful. So the memoir was one of the ways, in addition to putting myself on trial, I could rehydrate some of the things that had been compressed in the recovery version of the narrative, and expand them out again.
Guernica: What are the responsibilities of the memoirist (to the truth, to the reader, etc.) when dealing with addiction?
Leslie Jamison: One thing I’ll say: there is something that happens in recovery culture that illuminates the function of memoir—all memoir, addiction-related or not. There can be a sense from writers, readers, critics, that in order to have the right to, or for it to be a good idea to, write your memoir, or write a personal essay, or turn your lived experience into literature, that there should be something extraordinary or exceptional about what your lived experiences are. Part of what was so fascinating and a little hard to metabolize at first, for me, about the storytelling culture in recovery is the opposite. You don’t have to have lived anything exceptional in order for your story to be useful. It’s actually the opposite that has to be true. We all have to accept that our stories are unexceptional in some way. It’s the unexceptionality that makes them worth sharing.
I like the way that ethos—of course, literature and recovery are different things, and there is no value in arguing that their goal should be the same—but the idea that a story can be meaningful and worth telling, even if it’s not exceptional. A person’s story can be meaningful, evocative, resonant for tons of reasons, and exceptionality is only one of those reasons.
About the responsibilities of the memoirist—I don’t think they are different when the subject is addiction, but it is interesting to think what those responsibilities are. For me, it always comes back to self-interrogation, and the responsibility to keep digging underneath the easier versions of your story, or the shellacked or polished versions of your story, or the neat morals—what I sometimes think of as the “cocktail party anecdote” version of your story, where there’s a little bit of dime-store psychoanalysis, or just a few beats of easy, tidy domino-effect psychologizing. To dig beneath that, and to really be willing to question your own understanding of what you’ve lived, and get to something messier and more complicated underneath. That’s what I think of as the responsibility of the memoirist, and that’s what honesty is. Obviously, honesty also involves not pretending you were in prison for six years if you weren’t. But I think there’s a subtler form of honesty that’s about not taking the easy explanatory route, and really doing the work. For me, that work comes from drafting, revising, and revising again, to find that more complicated story lurking beneath the safer, more familiar version that is most ready at hand.
Guernica: Do you have advice for young memoirists about how to navigate the choices around what potentially vulnerable material to share, and what not to share?
Leslie Jamison: I’m not really a believer in a finite currency version of life experience, where once you tell a story of something you’ve lived, you’ve spent that currency and it’s no longer available to you. The way I write personal experience is less, “I am telling the story of this thing for the sake of the thing.” More often I am telling the story of a certain personal experience so I can investigate this larger question, or think through this larger set of issues. Meghan Daum has a great way of putting it. She says: personal writing is experience deployed in the service of investigation, or experience deployed in the service of meaning-making. You might end up deploying the same experience in the service of a few different questions over the course of your life as a writer. You might narrate something that happened to you once in an essay when you’re 27, and another time in an essay when you’re 42, and another when you’re 63, and the same experience could be part of different projects of illumination. That’s fine and it’s often kind of fascinating to return to the same lived thing in different contexts. I’ve done that. Certainly there are critics who read that as unmitigated narcissism or self-indulgence, like, “You already told that story, why are you telling it again?” But I think there is real meaning that can be found there and interesting things that happen in returning.
Sometimes people get criticized for writing personal narrative too young—either because psychologically you might not be ready, which is a valid question to hold in mind—but also because, somehow, you are not as wise now as you will be ten years in the future. The whole idea of somebody writing a memoir at age 30 seems ridiculous to some people, because it’s like, “How could you even know how to make sense of that experience yet?” But I don’t believe that the human life is this telos-driven project, where you’re just getting wiser and wiser and wiser, and then you’re wisest in the moment right before you die. I think you just have a different perspective on things close to when they happen and further out from when they happen. What you lose in immediacy by writing something 20 years out of the fact, you gain in aerial vision, but what you gain in aerial vision, you lose in immediacy. You have a different perspective at different points along the way. The nearer perspectives are not necessarily less valuable than the ones that come further down the road.
Guernica: What about when it comes to writing about other people?
Leslie Jamison: I did not go into the writing of this book thinking that my relationship with Dave was going to be as large a strand as it ended up becoming. But it ended up feeling on every level that the story of our relationship was this hugely important theater for understanding what my drinking had been, and what recovery meant. For example, the course of how our relationship played out felt like it was instructing me about how recovery was going to work. It wasn’t going to be just this blank check that suddenly paid out all the things that I wanted my life to be, that it was going to be a more complicated process. It was just going to give me a lot more clarity about what I wanted, but clarity isn’t the same thing as wish fulfillment. The course of my relationship with Dave felt like a stage in which that distinction was playing out in really powerful ways.
In terms of that question of regret, I’ve developed over the years a pretty specific practice around writing about other people. It involves doing a lot of first-drafting without much self-censorship at all. But then as I’m revising, and approaching the prospect of publishing something, I always, whenever possible, try to give the other people who show up in my work a chance to read the work before it goes out into the world—and while I still have time to work on it and edit it, rather than being like, “Well this piece is coming out in two days, heads up! Take a look!” To try to be like, “I’m working on this piece. If you want to read it, I want to show it to you and talk about your responses.” The language around that has to be pretty careful. It’s not the same as giving somebody veto power, or saying, “Anything that makes you uncomfortable, I’ll take it out.” It’s more like, “If you want to read it, I would like you to read it, so we can engage about it and talk about it.” Different people have very different responses to that invitation. I should say, it’s not an invitation I offer to everybody. If I’m writing about somebody as a journalist or a reporter, I wouldn’t necessarily show them what I wrote before I publish it. But if it’s somebody who’s in my life.
For example, Dave read the book twice, in very different manuscript forms. We had long conversations about it, that were extremely helpful to me both in terms of trying to be respectful to him, but also in terms of complicating the story in useful ways. He’s an exceptional human being. He’s also an artist and a poet, so he has a sensitivity and an appreciation for the ways in which art and life intersect. It’s a real testament to him that he was willing to engage with the project as much as he was. I know 100 percent it made the book so much better than it would have been if he hadn’t read it, and hadn’t offered his thoughts. It was less about a compromise. I think sometimes people understand the input of others as compromise. Like, “Well, if they look at it, they’ll ask me to take that out, or they’ll say I shouldn’t do this.” With him, it was the opposite. Incorporating his perspective made the story richer and fuller, and prompted me to make him a fuller figure within those pages, rather than just that flatter thing we project others to be, when we’re only thinking about them in relation to our version of the story. I guess all this is a long way of saying, I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all when it comes to writing about other people. There are a variety of ways to invite people to become part of the process. That to me is ethically important. It can also be aesthetically generative, although it works a lot of different ways on that front, too.
Guernica: One person you talk about in the book is Marcia Powell, who was baked to death in an outdoor prison cell in the Arizona desert, near Tent City, in 2009. You outline several reasons why her situation did not need to end this way. Why are race and class an important part of the conversation around addiction recovery?
Leslie Jamison: Such an important question. I write about it in the book, but I could write ten other books about this. One of the questions driving the whole book has to do with this cognitive dissonance that we can often have around addiction, where it’s understood as a kind of crime, and also understood as a kind of disease. It’s understood as a crime in literal ways, insofar as people are put in prison for drug use, and for selling drugs (often the former gets called the latter, and legally deemed the latter). But I think it also gets understood as vice in subtler ways, too. Where people look at addicts in these very judgmental ways, like, “You’re just fucking up. Why do you keep doing this over and over again?” I was interested in that cognitive dissonance. When do we think of addiction as something you’re suffering from, and when do with think of addiction as something you’re responsible for, something you’re perpetrating? When do we fault you for it, and when do we offer you sympathy for it? And of course, any person looking at the history of America in the last hundred years has no choice but to recognize the ways that race and class inflect who we see as a victim, and who we see as a perpetrator or a villain.
The American drug policy has been shaped by systemic racism all along. There’s this criminologist named Drew Humphries who talks about the drug scare narrative, where certain substances get singled out as the new problem, and they’re often pinned on a particular marginalized demographic: Mexican immigrants and marijuana. Chinese immigrants and opium. Cocaine and blacks in the Reconstruction-era South. Obviously, African Americans during Reagan’s war on drugs and the crack wars. Lower-class rural white people and the meth epidemic. These ways that a population gets targeted and demonized are very different from the way in which my own life, as a nice, white, upper-middle-class problem drinker is—certainly not seen as anything I would get arrested for. But more than that, it gets treated as, “This is somebody who’s in pain,” rather than, “This is somebody who needs to be put in jail.”
Part of my book was thinking about not just what addiction is, but also how we tell stories about addiction. How are those stories about addiction part of the process of recovery? That’s one way of thinking about storytelling and addiction. But I want us to think about this other angle, too, in which storytelling shapes how we understand addiction. When do we tell the story of addiction as something that deserves punishment, versus the story of addiction as something that deserves care, or is asking for that kind of response? I’m trying to make the case that we should always be confronting addiction as something that deserves care, requires care, even if that care is not a simple or easy thing to provide.
Guernica: There’s a chapter near the end of the book called “Chorus,” which I love. It seems to suggest a repetition, or a coming together. Is this what you mean when you talk about the link between storytelling and sobriety (and continued sobriety)?
Leslie Jamison: I love that read on “chorus.” I had been thinking about it in terms of a choir, or a chorus-in-the-round—a chorus of different voices. But you’re right, there’s another way in which it’s true, that the chorus of a song is insisting on repetition as something beautiful, rather than something compromised, which is absolutely connected to these ideas in the book, about how interchangeable stories are useful, or telling the same story that’s already been told can be useful. I love that.
In terms of the connection between storytelling and sobriety, or storytelling and recovery, there are a few different ways in which I understand the connection. One has to do with the way that reframing your own life as a story can help you make sense of periods of pain or loss. I think almost everyone who has a problematic relationship to drinking and then gives it up experiences that relinquishment—both in terms of liberation, and, hopefully, relief from all the negative consequences of drinking too much—but there is also a real feeling of loss and pain, and exposure to all the feelings, and relationships, and states that the drinking was numbing you to, or buffering you from encountering fully. Going through the pain—both of having a dysfunctional relationship to drinking, but then, also, everything that’s hard or painful about giving it up—framing that whole process as a narrative, rather than just trying to endure it, can be really psychically useful. It gives the pain a sort of purpose, or a meaning, rather than something standing in the middle of your life demanding to be endured.
Another way in which storytelling and recovery are connected is broader. It’s not just about the relationship between an individual and his life experiences, but also about the relationship between an individual and a larger community. Becoming part of a storytelling community where people are sharing their experiences, whether its related to addiction or something else, can be tremendously saving. Both because you’re hearing other people talk about their own experiences about this difficult thing you’re going through—there’s consolation in that, there’s resonance in that—but also in this very simple way, that listening to other people describe their experiences takes you outside of yourself. That relief from self, or the claustrophobia of self, can feel really freeing in early sobriety and later sobriety. There’s a way in which storytelling can help you relate to your own life, and also relate to the lives of others, in a way that’s both consoling and liberating.
In terms of how it connects to ongoing sobriety, there can be something really useful, when you have a few years of sobriety, in hearing people who are much earlier in the process, because it makes more palpable and visceral and immediate the kind of thrall and the hold and the power of drinking. When you’re a few years removed from it, it can become more abstract. You can get closer to that delusion of not being as subject to it anymore.
Guernica: You criss-cross the country several times over the course of this book, as part of your research but also in your personal life. It reminds me of a term from AA literature, which is “geographics.” Do alcoholics and writers travel differently from non-alcoholics and non-writers?
Leslie Jamison: I never quite thought about it that way. The idea of the “geographic” alludes to this fantasy that if you go to a different place, things might work differently there. In relation to drinking, “pulling a geographic” would mean moving somewhere else and thinking, “Maybe my drinking will happen better here.” In a sense, it’s one of the many pieces of AA, or 12-step wisdom, that is not just applicable to alcoholics. That impulse to pull a geographic, or to think that one could be a different version of oneself or could live a different version of one’s life in a new place, is maybe not universal, but it’s something that I think a lot of people can identify with, and that a lot of people have probably done.
One of the ways in which travel can work is as a sort of micro-function of that. Like, “I’m gonna go to this faraway place, not just to encounter that faraway place, but to encounter the slightly different version of myself that emerges in response to that faraway place.” That was definitely true for me in many of my wanderings. Nicaragua would be a great example, where I was sick of myself, and sick of what had come to feel claustrophobic about my life. I had this idea that there would be a kind of reset button in going to this place I had never been, and living a life that felt pretty unrelated to the life I was leaving behind.
I don’t know if all alcoholics travel differently. Probably part of the way an alcoholic travels is, once you set down roots in a new place, or set up shop in a new place, you’re immediately sussing out: where am I gonna drink? How am I gonna drink? What’s the drinking going to look like? What are my drinking rhythms going to be? Who are my drinking companions going to be? There’s a special pair of goggles that the alcoholic traveler wears, probably, in terms of procurement, and getting what you need. I also think there’s a kind of psychic conversation going on between the re-set fantasy of, “Well, I’m gonna go to a new place and be a new version of myself,” and the minor reset fantasy of getting drunk, which is, for me, at least, “I don’t like the way I feel.” Getting drunk immediately re-set that into a new way of feeling. That’s not the only reason people ever travel, or the only reason people ever drink, but for me there was something shared there, in that fantasy of the clean slate. Whether it was the fantasy of the clean slate of “feeling,” which booze would bring, or the fantasy of “experience,” that showing up in a totally new place might bring.
Guernica: What are you reading right now?
Leslie Jamison: Nothing Good Can Come from This, by Kristi Coulter—which is very much related to everything we’ve been talking about. It comes out in August 2018. It’s a collection of essays around drinking and stopping drinking. She has really interesting things to say about being a woman who drinks, and how there are certain expectations around performing a competent female self all the time, and how drinking can offer a tremendous relief from that. She sent me an early copy of her manuscript that I have been really enjoying.