“Addiction is always a story that has already been told,” writes Leslie Jamison. Her memoir, a wide-ranging exploration of drinking and sobriety, makes it fresh. In this massive book, she takes that centuries-old plotline — getting hooked, getting wrecked, getting back — and gives it a new spin.
The Recovering has high ambitions, attempting to dismantle the myths that surround drinking and addiction. Many recovering alcoholics are, like Jamison herself, high-functioning over-achievers who juggled the demands of addictions alongside equally demanding careers, contrary to the belief that addicts are always gutter drunks. She also partly succeeds in challenging the myth of the destructive but creative drinker by suggesting most of them worked better when sober.
At 35, Jamison has a dazzling record as a writer. She went to the Iowa Writing Workshop when she was just 21, wrote her first novel The Gin Closet (2010) at 27, and, at 35, became a bestselling essayist with The Empathy Exams. It’s an understatement to classify her as a high-functioning alcoholic.
But she was also an overachiever as a drinker. At 13, she felt the buzz with her first drink: “ . . . the crackle of champagne, its hot pine needles down my throat”. By 15, she began to drink in secret. “With a good feeling, it was always: More. Again. Forever.” At Iowa, she read about writers who, like her, spent much of their time blackout drunk. “I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones.” Her sharings become the handrail that leads readers through the brutal, often racist history of addiction treatment in America, and through the lives and the inflated legends that accrete around writers and artists who drink.
This memoir is not about the train wrecks. Despite one harrowing relapse, she herself found sobriety in 2010. Jamison stopped before suffering some of the worst losses, the kind of irreparable physical and mental damage that others shared in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Still, there was sufficient damage. Jamison spiralled into blackouts and the spin cycle of broken relationships and dangerous encounters. One bleak story ends with the shattering sentence: “It happened because I was drunk, and because he didn’t stop.”
The chapters are titled “Wonder”, “Abandon”, “Blame”, “Surrender”, “Thirst” and so on. One of the most moving is “Salvage” — a tender account of the changes in the first, awkward year of recovery, the arc of a writer finding power and strength in the uncrafted storytelling of the AA community. “When I started visiting the archives of writers who had gotten drunk and gotten sober, I was looking for the underbelly of the whiskey-and-ink mythology,” she writes. She finds enough evidence to nail her worst nightmare, that sobriety sucks the creative juices out of the artist.
Jamison’s tone is earnest, but touched with flashes of beauty and humour. She offers the coin of depth and intensity rather than epiphanies. “You can reclaim some things once you’re ready; they’ve been waiting for you patiently. But some things are just lost for good,” she writes in the last chapter, “Homecoming”.
It’s sobering, but as the dedication to The Recovering says, simply, “For anyone addiction has touched.” That means most of us. There are very few who don’t know of someone in their circle of family, friends, colleagues, who started with just one, and fell through the cracks. Jamison made that journey to hell and back, and her readers are fortunate that she lived to tell that tale.
The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, by Leslie Jamison, Granta £20/Little, Brown $30, 544 pages
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