In the first few pages of Leslie Jamison’s new book The Recovering (Little Brown), she presents a fundamental dilemma of the addiction memoir: “If addiction stories run on the fuel of darkness—the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis—then recovery is often seen as the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze.” In other words, she asks, why are we so much more invested in the trainwreck than the rebuilding? In The Recovering, this question takes on moral as well as personal implications. Jamison unwinds the narratives we tell about addiction and recovery, tracing the threads through literature, recovery communities, drug policy, and her own biography. By showing how mythologies are selectively constructed, she suggests that they can warp our perception of reality, occasionally resulting in violent consequences. In the process, she proposes a new ethos for storytelling, one that values gritty complexity and resonance over originality. I spoke to Leslie on an unseasonably warm February day in her living home in Park Slope, surrounded by bookshelves with titles from David Foster Wallace, Jean Rhys, and John Berryman—writers whose narratives are woven into The Recovering. As we talked, I had the feeling that their stories were in the room alongside us.
Julia Bosson When I first approached you about an interview, I mentioned I was interested in how narrative functions in stories of addiction. I didn’t realize how much of the book was actually about storytelling and narrative. Were you surprised by how much addiction and recovery mirrored storytelling? Or was this something you knew from the beginning?
Leslie Jamison I knew that I wanted to write a book that looked at how narrative value is conceived of differently in literary and recovery spheres. I realized there were certain ways that I had come to value narrative in my literary life: in terms of originality, in terms of excitement, in terms of beauty, in terms of arriving at an insight that had never been arrived at before. Even if you knew those were impossible things to achieve, the distinction was what you were after.
One of the things that was simultaneously inspiring and destabilizing about encountering storytelling culture in recovery was that it inverted a lot of those metrics of value. A story was valuable insofar as it was interchangeable. A story was valuable insofar as it was unoriginal. The point of telling stories wasn’t about being a great storyteller, it was about being of use to the other people in the room. I spent my whole life in storytelling communities where I had put so much pressure on myself to be the best storyteller I could. At I had also wondered, why do these stories matter? When I entered recovery, there was a sense that our survival depended on the telling of our stories. I had never seen the value of stories so urgently expressed or so urgently felt.
I knew that narrative was the thing that linked together the vocational profiles of the writers and the act of telling my own story across the course of the book. But I also ended up following narrative to a bunch of ideas I didn’t necessarily conceive of from the outset. The book thinks about the political consequences of storytelling, which is one of the ways the war on drugs has been critiqued. It wasn’t a pro forma choice that I had to address race and class in this book. It was more the question of how does narrative shape the way that we conceive of what addiction is? These are two very different narratives: something you’re responsible for and should be punished for, and something you suffer from and should get treated. How those narratives have been deployed means that the consequences of addiction have played out in different ways for different communities.
JB The ethos you find in the recovery community seems to go against much of what we conventionally teach student writers about creative nonfiction: to plunge inwards, to mine the quirks of the character in order to present a unique version of the self, and to never tell stories about your grandmother.
LJ I’ve always been interested in the ways in which storytelling is valued in different ways and I was attuned to how the writers I was researching navigated that. Charles Jackson, for example, is very anxious about what his literary friends will think of his life as a twelve-stepper and sees the world of recovery as blander than that of his literary circles. But I was also aware of the fact that even within the sphere of recovery there were still aspects of storytelling I had always loved as a reader or aspired to as a writer. Any student I’ve ever had gets sick of me talking about the value of specificity. Even though a lot of recovery storytelling is anti-specificity, in so far as it is about saying things that other people could identify with, the truth is, I love specifics in people’s stories of addiction just as I love specifics in other stories. I still deeply believe that specificity and resonance are collaborators rather than antagonists. It invites people into the texture of your own experience which potentially opens up all kinds of feelings with universal resonance.
JB In its investigation of the value of first-person storytelling, this book is also a retort against the accusation that so often gets thrown at essayists—self-absorption.
LJ The expectation that rigor, or selflessness, or outward attention, has to involve total exclusion of the self or complete self-abnegation is limiting aesthetically and interpersonally. Which isn’t to say that self-absorption isn’t possible—obviously it’s more than possible. But the idea that the only way to be attentive is to forget the self, either in a narrative or a conceptual sense, feels reductive to me. In the accusations that get leveled against the overuse of the I or the narcissism of the first person, we forget how the first-person narrative can make a reader feel heard. Telling your stories can be an offering.
JB Recovery also helped you appreciate the value of the cliché.
LJ Clichés are interesting. In lots of ways, I’ve come to value clichés. They are a pushback against the alibis of exceptionality in that they return you to a recognition of the ways in which your life is non-unique. I think that is really important. Does that mean I aspire to writing that is full of clichés or endorse writing that is full of clichés? Not quite. I see clichés as anchoring truths. The specificity of experience might evoke them or refer back to them, but there is still always going to be more subtlety and richness in telling the ragged unfolding version of a thing rather than trying to tie it up with a cliché. I believe in clichés as prompts or beginnings rather than conclusions. I would never want them to be the entirety of a story or the entirety of how something is told.
JB While reading your book, I thought a lot about Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse. One of her concerns is the way in which we tend to overstate harm as a way receiving acknowledgment of our suffering. Rather than doing the difficult task of working through challenging situations, we tend to say that we have been wronged as a way to demand attention for our pain. This might be the result of a society that denies us resources or care unless we overstate the amount that we are experiencing. You suggest that pain can be pain without something attached to it, and that we can accept that without attempting to explain or quantify it.
LJ That idea of exaggerating the harm in order to have one’s experience recognized is a generous way to read James Frey’s distortions. I wasn’t interested in reading him to make the argument that what he did was okay, but I was interested in investigating why his memoir included distortions in a different framework than an ethical judgment. I identified with something that maybe I projected onto him: you want to exaggerate what happened in order to make a tighter correspondence between how it felt and how other people perceive it. You might desire to make the thing objectively larger so that people see it at the same proportion to how you feel it. That doesn’t make it right to lie, but Frey’s desire is intuitive and understandable to me, as opposed to the distorters whose articulations of pain are super right-sized. There has been a glut in the market in the genre of the addiction memoir. In order for something to seem like it merits our attention, the tendency has been to make the drama even bigger and louder.
JB Perhaps the hunt to find the root of the pain is sometimes more damaging than the pain itself.
LJ So many self-destructive behaviors, in so far as they are attempts to give pain a shape, also end up inflicting more damage.
JB I’m not even going to begin to scratch the surface of what I want to ask you.
LJ Which is part of what’s humbling and exciting about any book. It definitely feels true with this book. For everything it already holds or contains, it is also a possible prompt or instigator to a thousand more conversations. I’m interested in the idea of its incompleteness, not as a flaw, but both as an inevitable condition of any book and a potential source of strength. When you are writing a book about addiction, sometimes you get the rolled eyes or the glazed-over look: another one of those? But more often, people ask, are you going to write about this? Are you going to write about Burroughs? Are you going to write about Cheever? Are you going to write about Yeats? There is so much material there. At a certain point, I had to reframe it for myself. The fact that this book only contains a fraction of what it could just means that when people read it they can put it in conversation with whatever they’re bringing, with their own lives, other texts, other writers, other pieces of history, other aspects of policy.
JB In terms of writing, failure is underrated in the sense that it’s such a rich imaginative site where there is so much to explore that doesn’t necessarily get manifested in other places. The addiction memoir might be the largest subgenre in that category. It might be the only kind of book in which we actively root for our narrators and protagonists to fail.
LJ So many of the reasons I also think failure is a generative subject have to do with the opportunity for reevaluation. There is something about failure that is inherently never done. That not-doneness is a narrative and intellectual engine. The mission that I had in the book was to write a version of a familiar genre that did something that generally didn’t seem true to me. So often in that kind of book, the recovery material is less interesting. It is clearly seen by the author as something that has to be dispatched with, you give it the requisite last chapter after eight chapters of dysfunction.
There is a way in which the prose can be almost apologetic: I know that this isn’t the interesting part of the story but I have to give it to you. I really wanted to turn that around and to write recovery itself as a way that is just as compelling. Maybe I’m saying this because I’ve been watching a lot of the winter Olympics at three in the morning while I’m up nursing, but it’s like I had designed a free skate with difficult moves. I had to bring all of the prowess I could summon as a writer in order to write the recovery part in a way that was going to bear out the hopes that I’d had for it. I gave myself a technically difficult program and had to find a way to make it work.
JB One way that you confront this is to stake out space for complexity, the freedom to contradict. In asking why the recovery narrative has typically not been as successful, the inquisition itself becomes the narrative thread.
LJ One of the purposes of the book is to push back against the kind of overly simple narrative that often gets applied to addiction: it got really bad, there was a turning point, and then it got better. This is a descendant of the conversion narrative. I wanted to complicate it by letting my own story be messy and by having the book contain many stories. If you’re looking at a chorus, you can see commonalities but it’s harder to come away with a cookie cutter model because you’re seeing all the different ways something can play out.
There are stories of people who get sober and get really creative, there are stories of people who never get sober, there are stories of people who get sober and commit suicide. I wanted that to be a structural way of resisting the formula. It connects to things that I believe about nonfiction more broadly, that willingness and determination to keep questioning and turning over the insight and seeing what’s underneath. It is the difference between writing that feels stitched together by epiphanies and writing that feels really revelatory and live and dynamic. The refusal to settle, the constant state of questioning—that is part of the difference.
JB The relationship between you and your boyfriend is a central thread throughout the book. It reads as an argument against the impulse to light our lives on fire. To find a way to sit with the banality of familiarity, the unromantic work of repairing ourselves. This seems to have much larger implications.
LJ Fighting the impulse to light our lives on fire! That’s a decent definition for recovery itself. And yes, this book—among other things—is making an argument for the kind of beauty that arises from just showing up in a continuous way. You’re right about the larger implications of that argument—it’s not just about riding out dull patches in romantic relationships, understanding life as more than the sum of its own highlights reel, or showing up to twelve-step meeting to absorb their unglamorous clichés, waking up each day to do the next right thing; it’s also about the social imagination of recovery. The unromantic work of repair—helping addicts through relapses, endorsing a model of treatment rather than incarceration—is an alternative to the slash-and-burn approach to addiction that America has implicitly and explicitly endorsed for much of the twentieth century: turning addicts into villains and putting them in prison.
JB This also ties into a mistrust of emotion, the “heat-seeking missile” that follows pain. Pathos can be a way of concealing the substance of what is actually there.
LJ Privileging of pain as the most rarified feeling state is problematic. Also, I’ve totally been complicit in it.
JB This is an incredibly generous book. Not only do you share a tremendous amount of your story, but you were incredibly kind to your younger self as well as to the writers you looked at in close-readings of their language, biographies, and desires. And, beyond that, even though every story needs a villain, you never villainize alcohol or the desire for drinking.
LJ I am really struck by the idea that self-destructive or pathological behaviors are filling some sort of need. To simply dismiss them in terms of their destructive properties is to miss what the more generous reading might be able to see, which is the need that the behavior was trying to fill. The first time I ever heard that idea was from a therapist who was treating me for an eating disorder. She encouraged me to think about the eating disorder in terms of what I wanted to get from it rather than what harm it was causing me. She wasn’t glorifying the disorder, but it was a more productive way to think about it. Unless you think about the need something is fulfilling, you will never figure out how to live without it.
In the context of addiction, it is useful to really be honest about how good substances feel. The central paradox of addiction is that you keep doing the thing that harms you. Any attempt to illuminate that paradox that isn’t honest about how good it feels is going to miss part of the picture. That’s why a lot of writing in the book is dedicated to trying to evoke that flush of intoxication. At one point, I quote my dad, who says that the problem of drug education is that they never talk about how good the drugs feel. I thought that observation was really smart. I wanted to evoke the siren call, which is tricky business because you don’t want to give the nostalgic sepia-toned account that can also enable the self-destructive behavior. But I wanted it to be part of the story.
JB That’s why you have that moment 100 pages in which you admit “during the years I spent writing this book, about my own drinking…. I sometimes sank into the old memories as if they were a comfortable couch.”
LJ I love that phrase from Bill Wilson’s transcribed autobiography where he talks about how in telling the story about being a successful stockbroker, he found himself reverting back to a certain psychological state that was prideful. I call it a narrative relapse, where you fall back into the self that you were. The process of writing this book was full of narrative relapses. That is not to say that they were pathological or something had gone wrong, but rather to acknowledge that in part of the process you get re-enchanted by certain things as you’re trying to describe their enchantments.