“An Anthology Held Together by Earnestness”: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison

April 30, 2018   •   By Denise Grollmus

IN HER LATEST BOOK, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison writes “‘addiction’ has always been two things at once: a set of disrupted neurotransmitters and a series of stories we’ve told about disruption.” In many ways, The Recovering acts as its own sort of disruption of how those stories are told. Not only does Jamison bring together a variety of disparate perspectives on addiction and recovery — articulations that are often kept apart from each other — but she does so in a way that transgresses both the boundaries of genre and competing sensibilities about what makes a story worthwhile.

Anchored in the personal narrative of Jamison’s own experience with alcoholism and recovery, The Recovering places Jamison’s story in conversation with those of literary figures whose work — drenched in the mythos of “whiskey and ink” — inspired her, as well as those of ordinary strangers she encounters both in her reportage and in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the larger social history of how addiction was pathologized, criminalized, and racialized throughout the 20th century. As a patchwork of memoir, reportage, literary criticism, and cultural analysis, The Recovering also draws attention to how Jamison’s training as a creative writer, literary scholar, and AA member informs her story in ways that productively challenge how stories are differently constructed, interpreted, and valued in those contexts.

I spoke to Jamison about the various conceptual, stylistic, and discursive bridges she attempts to construct throughout the book, as well as what it was like to translate her story from the rooms of AA into a dissertation on narratives of addiction and, ultimately, into a work of popular nonfiction.


DENISE GROLLMUS: The Recovering draws its energy from the tension that exists between the competing narratives we tell about addiction. There’s your personal story, the stories told by and about literary figures, the cultural history of race and addiction, the stories you encounter in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, stories you collected from other rehabilitation institutions, the psychoanalytic discourse, the medical discourse. Your book gestures to how the discourse of addiction is as profuse and conflicted as the need it attempts to describe. How did you manage your way through that profusion and not get overwhelmed by it?

LESLIE JAMISON: The most honest answer is that pretty early on I had to completely surrender the fantasy or the delusion of comprehensiveness on many levels. Like on a very basic level, when I told anyone about my dissertation or about this book, they would immediately ask, “Are you writing about this book? Are you writing about this novel? Or this author? Are you writing about the opioid crisis?” When you bring up the subject of addiction, the subject moves in 10 thousand different directions, and almost always, my answer was going to be, “No, I’m not writing about that” or, “Oh! I left that out.” And the immediate impulse for me was to feel a sense of shame, in the same way as when someone asks, “Have you read this book?” and I haven’t, because some part of me feels like I should have read everything and have something to say about everything. At a certain point I just had to say: This is a book about addiction, it’s not the book about addiction, so there’s going to be a lot that it doesn’t cover.

That said, through revising different drafts, I definitely did bring in discourses that had been absent from earlier drafts. Like, in the earlier drafts, I didn’t discuss at all medical definitions of addiction, or what addiction looks like in the brain, or what a doctor might say about addiction. But early readers also really encourage me to think about how literary accounts of addiction looked next to how medical science tries to illuminate addiction, or to consider what a doctor would say about how a 12-step program tries to respond to addiction. The goal was to try and bring in those modes of understanding addiction, even in fleeting ways, just to see how they could be in conversation with each other.

How did you end up choosing the discourses and stories you did include alongside your own?

Some of it had to do with the question of who the important people and the important voices were to me as a reader and as a person trying to get sober, especially in terms of the authors and artists I included. So, to some extent, it is unapologetically subjective and arbitrary in the sense that these are voices that happened to matter to me. But that basic architecture of the book also evolved. At another stage, I started to feel incredibly claustrophobic about the book simply being my story engaging with the stories of creative people whose work had been important to me, which is what motivated the choice to bring in the larger social history and the racialized nature of how addiction has been understood and prosecuted. I also wanted the book to work structurally in a way that was somehow akin to a meeting, but I didn’t want the stories that were populating that meeting to simply be the stories of famous writers. So, I wanted to include the stories of ordinary strangers, but I also didn’t want to include the stories of people I had met through recovery in a very detailed biographical way. I knew that I needed fully developed stories of strangers and I needed them to be people I met and approached as a writer, where the contract was clear that I was talking to them about their lives, because I wanted to put their lives in a book and make sure that they were comfortable with that exchange. That emerged from my desire to create a chorus of strangers in a way that wasn’t just me relating to people through their archives, but also me relating to other human beings that I was encountering. That was what motivated the turn to the Seneca House stories.

One particular tension that really struck me was how the pathos of your personal story is so sharply juxtaposed with the reportage style of the social history that you tell about the racist evolution of the drug scare narrative in 20th-century America. Though these two threads and their competing styles become more integrated toward the end of the book, the way they initially sit next to and apart from each other highlights how race, class, and gender inform whose pain is made visible, what that pain is allowed to look like, and how that pain is treated with compassion or not.

The truth is I felt a tremendous amount of anxiety about how these various stories were going to integrate. A few years into writing the book, I realized that I needed to contend with how the ways I had been allowed, encouraged, and given the means by which to articulate my own pain lived alongside racialized, punitive responses to addiction throughout 20th-century America. I very much didn’t want to just feel that cognitive dissonance and then write a book that was about myself and some other white people whose work I had read. I wanted to somehow allow that cognitive dissonance to become the content of the book itself and to trouble the surface of the book. One of my most important teachers, Charlie D’Ambrosio, always used to tell me that the problem with an essay can become its subject. One of the ways that advice bore out for me in this book was taking the way I felt troubled by my privilege and the ways in which my privilege had inflected how I’d experienced and narrated my addiction and make it a problem that didn’t simply haunt the margins of this book, but could be something the book was wrestling with explicitly.

For so long we’ve lived in a narrative landscape in which a certain type of drinking story is told over here, like in a memoir, and a certain kind of story is told over here, like in a discussion about policy or the opioid crisis. I just wanted to bring those very different stories together. I also wanted to address how that same sort of discomfort also lives in meetings, where people from incredibly different backgrounds are coming together under the belief that they can somehow gain something from listening to each other’s stories, even though those stories are often marked by vastly different levels of privilege and vastly different ways in which people have been allowed to express their pain or have their pain witnessed. So, the way in which I would feel uncomfortable in meetings about why anyone would want to hear what I have to say when people in this room have been through so much more, that same anxiety became part of the writing of the book itself.

Aside from the tensions between these different stories, you also touch on the tensions between the competing ways you were trained to be a reader and writer in different institutions, from the MFA program at Iowa and the PhD program at Yale, to the storytelling practices in the program of AA. As someone who is also in recovery and is also working on an academic project about narratives of addiction, I very much related to your description of straddling the huge rift between academia and recovery, largely because of how reading practices in the academy are so heavily dominated by the hermeneutics of suspicion, while the approach in AA is so inherently and necessarily reparative. A lot of literary scholarship reads the narratives that addicts tell about themselves as one Foucauldian nightmare after another, which is so antithetical to the way we interpret our stories in a space like AA. How did you bridge that divide while working on the iteration of The Recovering that was your dissertation? And how did that inform the current iteration?

That all really resonates, especially since I was basically trained as a close reader and didn’t particularly come from any theoretical background, so by the time I arrived at my PhD program, I was sort of like an idiot savant. I didn’t know anything about theory, and I hadn’t really spent time thinking about textual history as a way of coming at literature. It was sort of an embarrassment to me how much I didn’t know, but also a revelation to start spending time in archives and to realize how much I loved both investigating textual production in a very concrete and visceral way. I also became fascinated by the conversation between texts and institutions, and between texts and the larger contexts they came from. That fascination played out in the dissertation, where each chapter was a conversation between a literary text and then some sort of institution or set of institutional texts.

My advisors also ended up being a wonderful set of counterweights for me, because each one of them had a certain kind of suspicion that they brought to the table. For [Caleb Smith], one of my advisors, Foucault shapes a lot of how he thinks about the world and about texts. He does a lot of research and writing about prisons, and the way that prison has shaped the American imagination, so he’s pretty suspicious of institutions, and he was like this godsend for me. Where I’m predisposed to affirm or find something constitutive or saving, his whole approach to something like AA is filled with suspicion about what sort of behavior or narrative is being coerced by this social pressure. Far from feeling like these more suspicious modes of thinking or reading were obstacles, I felt like I was getting tremendous amounts of useful pressure to clarify and interrogate what I was thinking, so there was something so great about the process of incubating a lot of ideas and certainly conducting a lot of archival research under the auspices of my dissertation.

But at a certain point, I also knew that I wasn’t invested in the text of the dissertation. I knew I didn’t want to become a scholar or publish a monograph. I knew I wanted to write this crazy, hyper book, and I wanted one of its strands to be literary criticism and archival research. My dissertation was really a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I wanted to use all of that research, but I wanted to rearticulate it in what felt to me was a more natural writing voice, rather than an academic writing voice. I wanted to use that work to sustain and feed this bigger, more nebulous project that I felt more committed to.

There was no part of your personal narrative in your dissertation, then?

Not at all. My dissertation was definitely pretty far on a continuum in terms of what the Yale English Department was willing to tolerate. To write something that was verging into personal narrative would have been beyond its upper limits, I think. And by the time I submitted my dissertation, I knew that it would feed this other book, so I didn’t feel any need or desire to put my personal narrative into the dissertation, because I was already sculpting this other book, where I knew it would have a place.

In the book, you express an anxiety about writing “another” addiction memoir, or even worse, you say, a work that would be described as “not just another addiction memoir.” And even though you do describe it as a chorus or “an anthology held together by earnestness,” the personal narrative really anchors the book. What were the stakes of including your personal narrative? Why not write a cultural history of addiction based in the stories of others? What was generative or crucial about including yourself despite your apprehension?

It’s an important question. For me, some of it has do with how my own creative desires are connected to narrative and specificity and the sort of creative writing I’ve always wanted to do. For years, I just wanted to be a fiction writer and I only wrote fiction, and I was so drawn to the idea of bringing a reader along on a story and making that story as lushly habitable as possible, to have it full of the granularity and viscerality of lived experience. And that’s always how I wrote. My writing was always full of sensory details and small moments of observation. That kind of granularity was always the kind of writing that was exciting for me to do. In nonfiction, there are lots of ways to access that sort of granularity, and certainly reporting, if you are taking notes and doing your job right, you can collect that specificity. But I felt that my own story was the story I had the best access to on a really crude level. That’s not to say that we have perfect access to our own lives, because I think self-delusion and imperfect self-knowledge are real, and we’re always questing to understand our own lives, rather than existing in some a priori state of understanding our own lives. But I was excited by the idea of anchoring the book with a spine of personal narrative, because I did want the book to have the momentum of a good yarn, of a narrative that was unfolding where you wanted to know what happened next, where you had all that specificity and the mess and grit of life, and my life was the life that felt the most readily available to use to anchor it and be that spine.

The choice to place that story so centrally among the other research also seems to speak to how the addict was also once the expert of her own experience. Like in the 1820s, before the consolidation of the medical field, Thomas De Quincey was being invited to speak at medical conferences, and his personal account of opium addiction wasn’t just an object to be studied, but it was accepted as a rigorous study of addiction in and of itself. And then, less than 20 years later, doctors start dismissing his accounts as little more than the unscientific, literary musings of a junkie. The addict becomes someone to study, not someone who can do the studying.

I hadn’t known that about De Quincey, but it really resonates with something that became really interesting to me, which was tracking [the founder of AA] Bill Wilson’s story as he told it in different contexts and what he chose to accentuate depending on what audience he was speaking to — like what he put in his autobiography or his story in the Big Book versus what he chose to include when he published his story in the New England Journal of Medicine. He definitely toned down “the great clean wind of a mountain top” rhetoric to present himself in a way that spoke to authority. And the fact that the New England Journal of Medicine was publishing his story said something about what they considered an authority or a voice worth representing. But he also felt like he had to skew his story in a particular way to make it credible in that context. And I also think there’s a pretty inherent traction and siren call to hearing the story of a particular individual. That’s not to say there aren’t all kinds of things that are compelling about stories on larger scales or social stories or the larger story of how Americans have understood addiction in completely schizophrenic ways throughout the 20th century. But there’s something about returning to the scale of the individual life that speaks to something pretty basic about human curiosity and what people are compelled by, enchanted by, and captivated by. It also speaks to how the logic of an AA meeting works. A meeting is a room full of experts on their own lives who are simultaneously being taught that they aren’t fully experts on their lives.

But in the rooms of AA, expertise is often collaboratively constructed. Nobody has all the answers. Instead, you come to a discussion meeting, for example, and you say, “I’m having this problem,” and then 20 other people offer their own iteration and approach and by the end of the meeting, the group conscience, or the chorus, as you call it, becomes the expert, really.

Yup, yup, yup. and I think that’s part of the reparative work I was trying to do with clichés in the book. I was trying to suggest that, for the super self-conscious, hyper self-aware person, part of what the cliché can do is disrupt that sense of expertise. Or to suggest that perhaps this simpler explanation that feels far too interchangeable to apply to you actually has something to teach you about your own life that you might not already understand.

I’m intrigued by what happens when the stories we tell in the rooms of AA become literary memoirs and AA clichés are embedded in literary language, which is supposed to be evacuated of cliché. Part of me revels in the transgression, while the other part of me — the part also trained in an MFA program — wants to scream: “lazy writing!” That move, which you see in works like Mary Karr’s Lit, for example, challenges aesthetic value in generative ways. What are some of your favorite AA clichés?

One of the things I think is lovely about how expansive the AA network is that I’m never quite sure what is an AA cliché or just a cliché. I always love the one, “sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem,” because it is such a useful antidote to my natural impulse to solve a problem by thinking about it hard enough or thinking about it intelligently enough. This idea that maybe the answer to the problem was getting coffee with a stranger, instead of analyzing my own life ad nauseam, was so useful. I also like “feelings aren’t facts,” although I also speak about them endlessly. And “one day at a time” is basic, but the number of times I’ve had to invoke it to help me through the moment is infinite. Then, there’s this one, I don’t know exactly how it was formulated, but this one man always used to say it at meetings: “Things don’t always get better, but they always get different.”


Denise Grollmus is a writer, teacher, and literary scholar based in Seattle. She is currently working on a PhD at the University of Washington, exploring how narratives of addiction use religious discourses and concepts in order to complicate medical and popular models of addiction.