THE FIRST TIME Leslie Jamison goes to an AA meeting, in a church basement, in the dead of an Iowa winter, she imagines one thing she doesn’t need to worry about is the group circle, where each member sips on burnt coffee and takes a turn telling the story of their addiction. After all, she is a professional writer, with an MFA from the most prestigious writing program in the country and a published novel under her belt. She tells stories for a living. But in the middle of rehearsing her tale, one old-time circle member blurts out: “This is boring!” She is chastened, but the challenge implied in the insult — how do we tell the story of addiction and recovery? Is it possible, or even desirable, to tell it well? — becomes the seed around which she will, eventually, layer the pearl of her stunning new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath.
The Recovering recounts Jamison’s tangle with addiction, from the first warm tingle of champagne as an adolescent, through rite-of-passage college blackouts, through the textbook subterfuges of the practiced addict: putting her empties in the neighbor’s trash; brushing her teeth and gums bloody so she doesn’t smell like gin when her boyfriend comes home. But threaded throughout her personal story of recovery is a patient, luminous, encyclopedic exploration of a simple thesis: addiction is inseparable from storytelling — both the stories we get written into against our will, as well as the ones we freely choose. For Jamison, recovery hinges not only on reimagining the narratives she lives by but accepting the limits of narrative itself as a means of salvation.
It is as a young MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that Jamison begins to hitch her nascent drinking habit to the myth of the artist-alcoholic-genius, all the “white scribes and their epic troubles” in whose hallowed footsteps she and her Iowa cohort follow: John Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Denis Johnson. These men drank themselves silly, bloody, bawling, cracked; drank until they seeped from all their orifices, until their livers bloated, visible beneath the skin of their tender bellies. And yet they prized their descent into darkness as the price to be paid for coming face-to-face with the abyss — awful, baleful, sacred — whose truths they carried back like treasures from the deep to their more timid, earth-bound fellows. They were “diplomat[s] from the bleakest reaches of their own wrecked lives,” bearing “glorious vision[s] of what it meant to be broken.” Steeped in such mythology, wellness could only savor of bourgeois anti-climax. “What role could sobriety possibly play in that glorious arc of blaze and rot?” Jamison wonders.
Nor was it only writers who were attracted by “the allure of the tortured artist spinning darkness into gold.” Literary critics, professors, editors demanded it, as well. Jamison recounts that in 1967, Life magazine ran a profile of Berryman entitled “Whiskey and Ink.” The article featured images of the grizzled poet dispensing wisdom from behind a frothy beer mug in Dublin pubs. “Whiskey and ink,” the text ran, “These are the fluids John Berryman needs […] to survive and describe the thing that sets him apart from other men and even from other poets: his uncommonly, almost maddeningly penetrating awareness of the fact of human mortality.” When Raymond Carver finally got sober in 1977, he started writing stories that included not only the wreckage of drink but, tentatively, gestures toward empathy, hope, second chances. But when he sent the stories to his editor Gordon Lish in 1980, Lish edited out fully half of the prose. It smacked of sentimentality, lacked the signature “bleakness” of Carver’s pre-sobriety oeuvre, he complained.
The truth of addiction, Jamison comes to know — and as every addict, in her more honest moments, knows — is that it is quite simply boring, frequently buffoonish. Addiction “grinds down […] to the same demolished and reductive and recycled core: Desire. Use. Repeat.” Anyone who believes that orphic wisdom is somehow a by-product of the cycle, she notes dryly, clearly “hasn’t spent years telling the same lies to liquor-store clerks.” She cites as confirmation Carole Angier, Jean Rhys’s biographer. A historian practiced in the art of finding narrative arcs, even Angier eventually had to admit defeat in tracing the peripatetic, drunken course of her subject’s life. “Jean’s life […] really did seem to be the same few scenes re-enacted over and over,” she concedes.
Jamison learns to reject the sham logic of endlessly generative, creative addiction. Still, when she finally decides to get sober, everything about the AA meetings chafes against her artist’s sensibility; is reminiscent, in an odd way, of the monotony of addiction itself. AA has its own way of fetishizing the recycled with its attachment to cliché (“Take it one day at a time”; “We have to quit playing God”), the unadorned ordinariness and sameness of the stories. Both in its lived experience and as a foundation for art, sobriety is brittle and tedious. It substitutes a narrative flat-line for the breathless plot pivots of inebriation. As she struggles to stay dry, Jamison sets out on the trail of addict writers turned sober, rifling through archives to find in their life stories — as well as the stories they committed to paper — the narrative potential of recovery. A kind of displaced thirst.
Often, she is disappointed. Sober writing can be bad writing — abstract, or didactic, or sentimental. During one of his many attempts at getting clean, John Berryman began sketching the outlines of a new novel tentatively entitled Recovery. In the margins of an AA pamphlet Jamison unearths in Berryman’s archive, next to the question, “What is the real importance of me among 500,000 AAs?” Berryman had scribbled: “1/500,000th.” The notes for Recovery, not surprisingly, follow its addict protagonist Dr. Severance in his quest to climb outside of his ego, to imagine himself, “as one tiny numerator, a blocked self, above the larger denominator of a community,” as Jamison glosses it. The result is saccharine. When Severance manages to convince a fellow addict to give up his self-loathing obsession with having disappointed his dead father, Berryman sketches the scene: “Cheers from everybody, general exultation, universal relief and joy. Severance felt triumphant.” In the end, Berryman was never able to finish the book. He relapsed, and finally, on January 7, 1972, jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge at the University of Minnesota.
Jamison eventually finds better models for her own experience of recovery, which is messier than Berryman’s fictional “cheers and exultation.” In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Jamison is relieved to find a story that finally makes her “thrill toward wellness,” rather than rooting for the hero to get drunk again. Don Gately’s sobriety in the novel wasn’t “stolid or pedantic; it was palpable and crackling and absurd.” Similarly, she finds that Lee Stringer’s Grand Central Winter “resists the burden of providing a seamless arc,” making room for stammering and relapse. In fact, Stringer relapsed while writing the book, proof if ever it were needed that “his story won’t be over, even after it gets told.” Part of getting ready for recovery, Jamison concludes, is “admitting that you can’t see the end of it.”
This ruthless, patient questioning of the narrative structures by which we make sense of the experience of suffering — where story arcs fall short, where they substitute false certainty for mystery, where they act as cover for more unpalatable or unspeakable truths — is ultimately the most important contribution of Jamison’s memoir, and deepens themes first explored in her earlier, celebrated book of essays, The Empathy Exams. One of the most searing pieces in that collection is “Devil’s Bait,” a reported essay about patients suffering from Morgellons disease. Morgellons is a mystery illness whose signature symptom is “formication,” or the sensation of crawling insects under the skin, and the periodic eruption of what sufferers describe as “fibers” from their sores. Yet mainstream medicine and the CDC have not found objective evidence of the disease. Morgellons patients (or “Morgies,” as they call themselves) suffer doubly as their symptoms are dismissed by the medical establishment as “nothing”: fabrication, mental illness, hypochondria.
Jamison attends the Morgellons Conference in Austin, Texas, where sufferers gather annually to swap medical tips and leads, and to simply share their stories. She finds its denizens pocked and scarred not so much by the disease they believe they have, as by their persistent efforts to try — but unsuccessfully — excavate the wriggling evidence of pain from their bodies. As one attendee tells Jamison, “Some of these things I’m trying to get out, it’s like they move away from me.”
Jamison can relate. While on a trip to Bolivia, she is bitten on the ankle by a botfly, which lays eggs in its host. The wriggling she feels under her skin is finally validated when, weeks later, a doctor pulls a worm — “the size of a fingernail clipping and the color of dirty snow, covered with tiny black teeth that looked like fuzz” out of her flesh. In the days afterward she continues to feel a phantom wriggling; spends hours poking and prodding her wound, scouring “its ragged edges and possible traces of parasitic life.” But where her affliction is stamped as real — she has the tweezed-out larva to prove it — “morgies” lack the objective evidence to support their claim to suffering.
“Devil’s Bait” thus offers a study-in-miniature of themes Jamison develops more fully in her memoir: that narratives (in this case, medical diagnoses) offer containment and closure, and that these narratives also routinely fail or betray the suffering that begs to be told. The Morgellons diagnosis, Jamison observes, “offers an explanation, a container, and a community,” granting “some shape or substance to a discontent that might otherwise feel endless.” And yet the disease lacks a cure, or even official medical recognition, which merely substitutes one open-endedness for another. Once you “know” what you “are,” where do you go from there? “The trouble,” Jamison concludes, “ends up feeling endless either way.”
Jamison circles back to the metaphor of the botfly in The Recovering, now repurposed to reflect on the pain of addiction. The psychiatric-medical drive to find the sources of addiction in brain chemistry, or childhood trauma, or genotype can constitute its own form of wishful storytelling, one that reduces the complexity of causality. It holds out hope for recovering something tangible to isolate under the microscope as a cause — when in fact what we are often stuck with are the rippling effects of an initial cause that may or may not actually be “there.” And even supposing one does dig back into the past — of one’s cells, of one’s childhood — to uncover the source of the malady, knowing doesn’t cure it. “I’d parsed my motivations in a thousand sincere conversations,” Jamison notes, “and all my self-understanding hadn’t granted me any release from compulsion.”
Respect for this unknown x is ultimately what Jamison comes to prize in recovery narratives, and she recognizes herself most clearly in those stories — whether literary or medical — that reject the “syllogisms of cause,” the pretension that one might “source the fabric of the poison coat.” There is no before/after, no “If I do x, I get y,” or “If I find x, then I know y.” In place of the closed-book satisfaction of what she calls “contract logic,” she finds instead the openness of an ongoing story: the endlessness, maddening, and yet ultimately grounding AA mantra one day at a time. In the back pages of Berryman’s notebook for Recovery, Jamison discovers a fairy tale he wrote with his daughter, entitled “The Hunter in the Forest.” A hunter gets lost in the woods; he is captured by two hungry bears and locked in a cage, where he falls asleep. Berryman and his daughter wrote three alternative endings for the story, each offering some form of narrative closure: the hunter breaks out and kills the bears; or he feels remorse for trying to kill them; or he befriends them. But the fourth ending, annotated in the child’s scrawl as “Real Ending,” is much more ambiguous: “The hunter awakened and said, ‘Well?’”
The open-endedness of narrative is one lesson Jamison takes away from recovery. Another is the way each story of personal pain is never truly private, but always inscribed into the wider sphere of public meaning: the gendered, classed, and racialized social narratives that determine in advance whose pain counts, and whose doesn’t. Part of the reason Jamison is able to tear herself away from the idea of art as the product of “beautiful wreckage” is that the protagonists in this age-old story are so relentlessly male. Where drunk male writers are scripted as stoic and selfless, “rogue silhouettes,” their drunk female peers are cast as messy, sad, failed mothers (generating words, a spurious substitute for children).
Jamison devotes a good portion of the book’s early chapters to excavating the intertwined medical and legal history of addiction in the United States, and the ambivalence with which it has been treated: addicts are alternatively ill or criminal, victims or perpetrators, sometimes both. Most often, the placement of an addiction on the spectrum from regrettable illness to criminal deviance is determined by skin color. “It took me years to understand that my interior had never been interior — that my relationship to my own pain, a relationship that felt essentially private, was not private at all,” she writes. “It owed its existence to narratives that made it very possible for a white girl to hurt,” casting her addiction as “benign, pitiable,” even “interesting.” She contrasts this narrative leisure with the constraints of the poor or the person of color, whose addiction has always been cast as nefarious, from the specter of “oriental” opium dens in the early part of the century, through the explicitly raced crack moms and baseheads of Reagan’s War on Drugs, through our modern epoch’s mass incarceration fueled by drug convictions. She cites a 1995 survey in which respondents were asked to close their eyes, “envision a drug user,” and then give a description; ninety-five percent pictured someone black. “This hypothetical drug user was the product of decades of effective storytelling,” Jamison notes.
The story of Billie Holiday floats through the pages of Jamison’s memoir like a recurring blue note, an emblem for the way the addict’s life — especially if she is poor and black — is scripted by forces outside her control. Holiday was lauded by New York’s literati for her astonishing ability to alchemize pain into beauty; New York Review of Books essayist Elizabeth Hardwick confessed herself enchanted by the singer’s “luminous self-destruction.” At the very same time, Holiday became a prime target for Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Narcotics Bureau in the 1940s, who saw her as a perfect black addict-villain for his anti-drug crusade. He had her tracked and arrested on several occasions, including a 1947 conviction that sent her to prison for one year. Billie Holliday’s story is a brutal reminder of the prison-house of narrative, quite literally. When she was checked into New York’s Metropolitan Hospital at the age of 44, dying from cirrhosis of the liver, Anslinger’s narcotics agents were still on her trail. “You watch, baby,” she confided to a friend. “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.” And they did: they handcuffed her to the headboard where, six weeks later, she died.
In the end, it is by articulating a collective “we” that, without reducing suffering to sameness, Jamison discovers an adequate narrative form for the story she has to tell, a tunnel out of “the claustrophobic crawl space of the self.” She had been looking for a very specific kind of beauty in the art of addiction and recovery, a beauty modeled on the modernist obsession with autonomy (“art for art’s sake”) and originality (“Make it new!”). But the narrative work done in AA meetings turns this model on its head: sameness, or what members call the “resonance” between stories, is precisely the point. In AA, she learns that “a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again. Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite of it.” AA stories are not necessarily beautiful, but that doesn’t mean they do not, in their own way, perform a function often attributed to art: to alchemize pain into healing. Jamison suggests that perhaps there can be beauty in chorus, in the mundane but also transcendence of repetition. That anonymity — that most antithetical of values in the modernist canon — can shine with its own species of beauty. What matters is less the particularities of each individual voice and more the polyphony of the voices combined to hold one another up, and to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
The irony is, of course, that Jamison’s 500-page narrative is nothing if not classically beautiful: implausibly so, almost ludicrously consistent in its fierce freshness and poetry from page to page to page. Her language manages somehow to be simultaneously lush and piercing. It is richly imaged, delighting the senses with its descriptive texture. Jamison describes her time in a Nicaraguan market, threading her way through “street vendors selling fried dough and dishwashers from tarp-covered stalls clustered in a system of old storm drains, hawking tubs of lizard-skinned custard apples and pale and salty cheese in sweating blocks the size of dollhouses.” But just as the enumerative descriptive bounty of her prose seems that it might flood the narrative, she pivots to an ongoing debate about Jean Rhys, about whether her “monstrous” life was worth the art she produced. Cutting through the rich street scene with the steely tip of a perfectly turned philosophical observation, hard and compact as an aphorism, Jamison writes, “Her life was. The work is. We can’t trade either back. There’s no objective metric for how much brilliance might be required to redeem a life of damage — and no ratio that justifies the conversion.”
There is some repetition and overlap in the weave of the narrative, its rowdy and eclectic cast of characters, from narc agents to jazz singers to psychiatrists to gin-blind poets, popping in and out at unexpected intervals. A story line is taken up, dropped, then revisited again just when the reader had begun to let it go. But if this ruminative, polyphonic mode may be cited by some as a weakness of the book, it is also necessarily its greatest strength. It embodies the aesthetic of resonance, of echo and call and response, that Jamison finds best fits the collective story of addiction. It mimics the rhythms of recovery itself: two steps forward, one step back; recovery and relapse; commitment and abandonment, then commitment (again?) again.
Ellen Wayland-Smith is an author and associate professor of Writing at The University of Southern California. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Signature Reads, Catapult, The Millions, and Longreads.