There is an eerie sameness to addiction memoirs, which tend to follow the same basic structure. In the beginning, there is some immense and unassuageable pain, followed by the discovery of one substance or another that dulls some of that pain. Then comes the dawning realisation that this anaesthetising substance is itself causing more pain than it relieves – to oneself, to society, and to those about whom one cares about most. The next act is the attempt to live without the substance, and to gain a new relation to the pain that caused the addiction in the first place.
Though the details differ considerably, this structure holds for the majority of addiction memoirs. In broad terms, it’s also true of Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. Yet what makes Jamison’s book such a remarkable and original contribution to the genre is the sheer intellectual firepower she brings to her subject matter, and the hybrid form she invents in order to present it. The book is eccentric and uncategorisable – in equal parts a personal history of addiction and recovery, a complex argument about the broader history of addiction narratives in US culture, and an exploration of literary representations of alcoholism in American letters. Jamison applies a rigorous and disciplined intellect to all three strands, crafting a compelling narrative that shows many of the intersections between her own experiences and larger cultural forces.
Jamison is particularly sharp, for instance, on revealing how gender, race, and class interact with our cultural templates around addiction. She shows precisely how certain insidious tropes are activated in our responses to addiction, as well as the dramatic impacts these tropes have on actual lives. Whether writing on the first ‘war on drugs’ in the 1960s, the later iterations of this same war, or the federal narcotics policies of earlier years, Jamison is alive to the various addiction narratives that are mobilised by policy-makers and public. There is the ‘ultimate bad mother’ trope she finds in accounts of so-called ‘crack mothers’ of the 1980s, for instance, or the ‘familiar narrative dioramas about moral deviance, reality avoidance, and epidemic irresponsibility’ that serve as archetypes of addicts throughout US culture. These and other tropes have immense power and reach within the culture; one of the book’s goals is to ask whether we can come up with a more nuanced collective understanding of addiction.
On the more personal side, Jamieson candidly tells us about the ways that alcoholism destroyed affected different aspects of her life, and the tolls it exacted on her own sense of self. There is an air of self-reckoning and even self-flagellation in many of these narratives: she tells us about her own relational infidelities as an adult, her acts of self-harm as a teenager, and of repeatedly driving while drunk during her late twenties. She pulls no punches in characterising her own failure to care adequately for a dying grandmother, and in describing the ingenious ways she lied to herself and others about the seriousness of her own addiction. In doing so, she presents herself unsympathetically in ways that can be both endearing and grating. She mercilessly dredges up grim episodes of her life as an alcoholic, some of which feel like naked pleas for forgiveness, while others seem sensationalised and needlessly hurtful to still-living friends, ex-partners, and relations. At times, the feeling while reading is of being trapped in a room with someone who has just enough self-awareness to see that her problems are self-inflicted and overblown, but not enough to make a genuine effort to solve them. And yet her insights and hard-won knowledge are often enough to sustain the reader: there is a lovely passage, for instance, on the nature of self-inflicted pain that casts much of the earlier material in a new light. ‘Self-pity doesn’t mean the pain isn’t also real,’ Jamison tells us, ‘and pain isn’t less painful for being self-inflicted.’
Alongside these socio-political and personal histories, Jamison also gives us countless portraits of alcoholic writers and the literary creations with which they worked through their addictions. Such as Jean Rhys, for instance, who used her female characters as private ‘hair shirts’, and John Berryman, whose poems dramatise a grand struggle between the sober and addicted aspects of his self. Malcolm Lowry, Ernest Hemingway, William Burroughs, Jack London, George Cain, and Denis Johnson all receive eloquent analysis, as does Charles Jackson, with whose approach to demystifying certain noxious tropes and narratives around alcohol Jamison feels a particular affinity. She also writes of being effectively ‘Twelfth-Stepped’ by David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which modelled a new way of being in the world and preemptively addressed many of her misgivings about twelve-step recovery programs.
Such guides eventually lead her to find comfort in ‘the rituals of fellowship’ offered by such programs, and the book ends as a kind of love letter to Alcoholics Anonymous: Jamison writes lovingly of its rituals and community, and the way it redeemed her own life of addiction. More than anything else, she values AA’s emphasis on ‘identification and fellowship’ as a substitute for grand narratives about the causes of addiction. That these are also literary virtues is something not lost on Jamison, who traces many US writers (most notably Raymond Carver) whose work was informed by their involvement in twelve-step communities. Though the book ends on a somewhat predictable note, it nonetheless offers an insightful, compelling, and moving account of addiction.