In a recent interview with The Paris Review, Leslie Jamison described her new book, “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,’’ as follows:
“So much of the book is a fight against exceptionalism. So much of recovery is a fight against exceptionalism — that necessary act of saying, ‘What I’ve lived has been lived before, will be lived again, is nothing special but still holds meaning, still holds truth.’ ’’
All of this must’ve been doubly difficult for Jamison who is prodigiously exceptional. She grew up in a prominent family (her aunt is the author Kay Redfield Jamison, her father an eminent economist and global health expert), earned a B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard, an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, and a PhD in literature from Yale. At only 34, she’s the acclaimed author of a novel, “The Gin Closet,’’ and a best-selling essay collection, “The Empathy Exams.’’ She is also a recovering alcoholic. Here Jamison exposes, with brutal honesty and raw vulnerability, how even as she was jumping through ever-higher hoops, accumulating an abundance of gold stars, and racking up accolades, she was sinking into addiction.
But “The Recovering’’ is no slim and stark, narrowly focused addiction memoir. Coming in at over 500 pages, it’s a distinctive hybrid of memoir, journalism, and cultural and literary criticism. Jamison is committed to making hers only one of a chorus of voices, which include famous — and famously alcoholic — authors like Raymond Carver, David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, John Berryman, Charles Jackson (“The Lost Weekend’’), and Jean Rhys; people she meets in AA meetings; former residents of rehab facilities; addiction experts; and policy makers. Along the way, she offers incisive takes on our culture’s deification of the intoxicated genius, how gender, race, and class shape our attitudes toward addiction, and the nature and value of storytelling.
Despite her anxiety that her experience alone is not sufficiently dramatic or compelling, Jamison’s own story makes for riveting reading. A shy, socially awkward girl, Jamison starves herself, cuts herself, and drinks herself into oblivion. From her first drink at age 12, the buzz of alcohol makes her feel “initiated, aglow.” Later she drinks in the Iowa bars frequented by her literary idols, works on a dissertation exploring the “whiskey-and-ink mythology” that ties wild creativity to drink, gets sober only to relapse in humiliating ways.
Desire and romantic love are major themes, explored with aching vulnerability and unsparing honesty. Jamison’s drinking gets her into head-shaking romantic entanglements and potentially dangerous sexual situations; her craving for alcohol and the precarious sense of self that contributes to that craving undermine her relationship with a kind-hearted, patient poet named Dave. Shadowed by the “fear of disappointing” Dave, driven by the need to continually impress him, Jamison is exhausted by the effort of self-production: “I was afraid Dave would regret the life we’d made together, afraid I couldn’t constantly produce a version of myself that he’d like enough to choose over everyone else — which I believed was a requirement of love.”
Her frenzied quest for excellence in work and love, driven by a haunting fear that her essential self was inadequate and unlovable, left Jamison drained and desperate to escape herself. Drunk at a friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, she breaks a glass that shatters into the food on her dinner plate and thinks that “her true self — clumsy, desperate to be drunker — had shown herself for a moment, like a wild animal peeking out from the underbrush, foolish and fumbling.” Jamison shows us that human animal in all its wildness, its messiness, and its failure. Most crucially, the feral and desperate aspect becomes the point of connection to others across a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Against the temptation to single herself out along a line of likewise exceptional singletons, she orchestrates a multivoiced, universal song of lack, shame, surrender, uncertain and unsentimental redemption.
The primary value of telling a story, Jamison comes to realize, isn’t to impress or dazzle, to woo or win. It is also (as her name-fellow and philosophical homologue William James might put it) about being useful, empathetic, or representative. As Jamison tells her story at an AA meeting, a man cries out: “This is boring!” Here it is, the true negation of the exceptional: the bone-deep dread not only of being bored but of being boring. But then, “the chair of the meeting, put her hand on my arm and said: ‘You just told my story. Thank you.’ ”
How can one believe the reassurance? Loss of originality is an anxiety sufficiently deep to resist many efforts (and many years) of pragmatic edification. Reading a banal manuscript by a formerly brilliant and alcoholic writer seems to confirm these “worst fears about sobriety: that it was destined to force you into a state of plotless abstraction, a string of empty evenings, a life lit by the sallow fluorescence of church-basement bromides rather than the glow of dive-bar neon signs.”
It is a pleasure and feels like a social duty to report that Jamison’s book shines sunlight on these creepy, crepuscular enchantments. Wisdom floods the scene, and genius never flees. Quite on its own terms, “The Recovering’’ is a beautifully told example of the considered and self-aware becoming art.
Intoxication and its Aftermath
By Leslie Jamison
Little, Brown, 534 pp., $30
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Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’