In 2014, Leslie Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams, propelled the then-31-year-old to the dizzying heights of both commercial and critical success when she became a New York Times bestseller and one of America’s most promising voices. Since then, the world has been waiting to see what would come next and now it has arrived.
The Recovering: Intoxication And Its Aftermath is a meditation on alcohol, sobriety and how they both make and break human life and creativity. Part-memoir, part-literary criticism, Jamison’s own story of alcoholism sits alongside the lives, works and addictions of literary giants like Raymond Carver, John Berryman and Jean Rhys, as well as members of the numerous AA groups she attended, trying to get sober. The result is a patchwork of addiction stories – fictional characters and their creators, iconic writers and ordinary, everyday strangers, dancing around one another in a hall of mirrors, where everyone's narrative is an echo of someone else's. And she presents this through a kaleidoscopic lens, creating dazzling images, be it of a desperate, destructive Jean Rhys or her own spiral of booze and sex before facing a life of sobriety.
Speaking to me from New York, where she lives with her husband and two children, Jamison is pensive and kind, generously offering me links to essays and books by other writers to read in her answers to my questions. She is a high-achieving Californian, who grew up in the shadow of what she believed was her even more brilliant academic family, constantly craving the attention of her ever-travelling father and her lofty, demi-god elder brothers. Despite her acceptance into institutions like Harvard and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jamison’s self-worth is as limp and lifeless as her body becomes when she stops eating for a year at college and starts taking a razor blade to her ankles, picking food out of a bin in the horror show of self-loathing and destruction.
I really had to step back and realise how many of the authors I had worshipped as I’d come of age as a writer were men
Arriving in Iowa, she began to visit the bars that the writers she “idolised” had once drunk in. The romance of intoxication, of whisky and genius, of great conversation in dark dens, was one she could take a set tour of every evening. Intoxicated on the writing coming from the hearts and minds of great drunk men, she follows their lead, filling red paper cups with eight shots of liquor or driving to motels to evaporate into as much alcohol as her body would let her.
Over Skype from her home in Brooklyn, I can see her three-month-old baby attached to her chest. Jamison's ability to highly function has been noted by the critics and is evident in her book. Her alcoholism co-existed with her life: she worked in a bakery, she taught, was successful academically, she travelled, wrote a novel. She was even successful in her ability to stop drinking, relapsing only once. And that’s not to say that’s where her story ends, but more to say that she is routinely impressive in the grips of the “claustrophobic booze-driven life”, where her thoughts solely “consisted of when and how I could have another drink”. And the book is equally as impressive. It’s ambitious both structurally and thematically, with the notion of addiction framed by politics, science and psychology, but it is also ambitious in terms of Jamieson’s sense of urgency. The pace of the writing, especially about her own failed relationships with men, suggests this was a story she had to tell. “It’s raw,” she says.
It is – she is frank about her sad search for male validation. “There was definitely a moment of reckoning near the beginning of the process of writing the book,” she says, “when I really had to step back and realise how many of the literary figures I was engaging with were men and how many of the authors I had worshipped as I’d come of age as a writer were men... And, at some point, I did look at that and say, ‘What does that say about other men I have idolised in my life and how is my ambition to be in conversation with them related to the part of me that wanted to be in conversation with my father and my brothers around the dinner table when I was five or six?’” And, for Jamison, this “ambition” took solace in drinking: “I would become sick of this feeling of dependence on male affirmation... and drinking became a way to depend on something else… I could get those external supplements from the booze instead of the man.”
While The Recovering may fit neatly into the genre of addiction memoirs, there’s something bigger in Jamison's landscape that makes this book a very human one outside of the stories of extreme alcoholism and drug abuse. The Recovering bears witness to the unmistakable but often inexplicable malfunctioning of humans who are just trying to get by. “My childhood was easier than most, and I ended up drinking anyway,” she writes. “It seemed shameful that my sadness had no extraordinary source,” she writes in another chapter. There is nothing exceptional about her experience, just human. From Brooklyn, she tells me: “I say at one point in the book, ‘You use the nail in your drawer not because it’s the best one ever made but because it is the nail in your drawer.’” At another point, she writes, “Drinking promised a version of consciousness that didn't mean endless twisting and turning in the bedsheets of myself, tangled and restless, aching for dreams.” Her lyrical sentences speak to a restlessness we all feel, but perhaps a mind like Jamison's feels everything more acutely, like a razor blade across an ankle.
Jamison is keen to reiterate to me that telling one’s own story isn’t an inherently selfish act – an expression of our “selfie” culture. Referring to Kristin Dombek’s essay, The Selfishness Of Others, she says, “The essay is basically about the culture of narcissism. Dombek says that so often memoir is read as systematic, cultural narcissism, but if you look at its popularity it’s testament to the opposite. All [memoirs] have readers who are interested in someone else’s life.”
Jamison is right. Other people’s lives are fascinating, which is why her 450-page book, for the most part, is pacy and gripping, but I think there’s something she has missed that is evident in her own work. We are enthralled by other stories not just because they are about someone more intriguing, someone more interesting or someone more addicted, but because of what they tell us about ourselves. In Jamison's hall of mirrors, not only will you examine the lives of strangers – the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, wives, daughters, sons and husbands, all tangled up in themselves – but you'll find yourself looking for an image that looks a bit like you, too.
The Recovering: Intoxication And Its Aftermath is published by Granta