Once you feel the desperate urge to be drunk, Leslie Jamison meditates in The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, the mode doesn’t matter so much.
“It could be boxed wine if that’s cheaper,” she told me as we stood in her Park Slope apartment. Her oldest brother, a liquor connoisseur who collects scotch, was struck by this as he read her new book; one of the first things he told her after reading it was that “it really made him realize how much he wasn’t an alcoholic.”
I’d just spent an hour sitting on her low, cat-scratched couch. Jamison stood nearby, bouncing her napping baby while we talked about the memoir weeks ahead of publication. The book, an amalgam of addiction memoir, literary criticism, biography and cultural history, grapples with alcoholism and rehabilitation in large part through the lens of her own experience.
Her brother’s comment seemed, I thought, an odd thing to say to someone in recovery.
Jamison saw it differently. “I actually really like that as a way of articulating a reading experience,” she said, “because it’s so different from that thing we hear more frequently, which is, ‘Oh, this part really resonated,’ or, ‘This is really where I found myself.’
“He was like, ‘Part of what was interesting to me was how much this totally was not me in any way.’”
Jamison’s thinking often goes back to this essential question: What is shared between two people or things, and what sets them apart? She tests her answers against firm poles. In conversation, she often pins down her statements with “certainly” and “of course,” clear beliefs that she then gently qualifies, counters or reshapes. Often, as in her latest book, these explorations are guided by her personal experience; her life provides grist for the constant churn of questions.
Jamison is one of the current doyennes of the personal essay; her collection The Empathy Exams became a surprise best-seller in 2014. She has released The Recovering, a book that both questions and unselfconsciously embraces memoir, into a literary world that seems more skeptical than ever of confessional writing.
Many critics today are rightly suspicious of the profusion of undercooked, self-aggrandizing personal essays that are long on details and opinions but short on introspection and insight. New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino declared the genre passé last year, pointing to the dwindling presence of confessional writing in digital media. She critiqued these essays as a form of navel-gazing that the 2016 election revealed as frivolous distractions from the real stories to be found in hard news.
Not long after, critic Merve Emre, a onetime classmate of Jamison’s, blasted a particular type of personal essayist working today for producing nothing but “one, big messy outpouring of repurposed clichés about love and life and pain and joy and men and women and whatever other themes readers of these essayists are, by now, primed to receive as universal human concerns.”
For Jamison, the personal essay remains a powerful way of shaping one’s thoughts. And though, she emphasized, not every personal essay is good, she blames that on the execution, not the subject matter.
“I do believe there is something interesting to say about anyone’s life,” she told me. “I don’t think that that means that however you say it, it’s interesting. But I think of any life, if you ask rigorous questions and keep following them into more and more layers of nuance and complexity, I think you can arrive at any number of interesting insights.”
“I really believe in personal narrative,” she said.
Jamison also treats the form with some skepticism. “Of course any act, I think, for almost everyone, of writing about your own experiences is attended by a thousand questions and doubts,” she said, “and all of those voices in your head being like, ‘Why are you so self-obsessed, why does your story matter, why would anybody care about this, why can’t you get over yourself?’”
When people write about themselves, narcissism is an easy charge. But it can’t be denied that we like reading what people write about themselves.
Jamison recalled a conversation she once had with Kristin Dombek, author of “The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism,” in which they discussed the popularity of memoir. The idea that this genre’s prominence reveals a rise in narcissism is flawed, she recalls Dombek saying: If memoir is popular, it’s largely because readers are passionately interested in other people’s stories.
Then again, we often read about other people because we see ourselves in them, or because we relate to their experiences. So, I asked Jamison, can’t reading memoir also be an act of narcissism?
“I don’t see it necessarily as: What we might want to frame as genuine interest in otherness is, in fact, totally polluted by this horrible thing that is self-interest and narcissism,” she countered. Jamison views it more as “acknowledging that, yes, this is what it means to be a consciousness engaging with other consciousnesses. That part of what you’re always on the lookout for is, what do we share? Where do we diverge?”
In this framing, narcissism and selflessness no longer appear contradictory; instead, they’re simply two unavoidable human impulses that nearly always exist in tandem.
This all might sound wishy-washy, a way of waving away the distinctions between good and bad, selfish and generous, thoughtful and thoughtless. For Jamison, it’s a challenge: Write honestly, acknowledging your biases and self-interest, rather than pretending they don’t exist.
“I think there can be something really exciting about interrogating what you’re doing as you’re doing it,” she explained. “And so often part of the act of personal narrative for me is questioning, ‘Why am I telling this story in a particular way?’ or, ‘Is there another way I could be telling it?’ In a way, that can just up the volume on the self-absorption, because there’s just more of you in there, questioning yourself. But I also think that there’s a lot of richness that gets opened up.”
The Recovering doesn’t spend as much time experimenting with method as The Empathy Exams (which features a “Rashomon”-like essay that retells a story about having her nose broken in a mugging from a series of different vantage points). Instead, she puts herself in dialogue with other alcoholics, the better to highlight the small, ugly and solipsistic parts of the story. Memoir lies at the book’s heart, as Jamison picks apart her own struggle with alcoholism and recovery. But next to her story are other stories, stories drawn from reporting, from the lives of literary figures like Elizabeth Bishop and Raymond Carver, from their art, and from the history of health policy and public messaging around addiction.
It’s packed with what are referred to in Alcoholics Anonymous as drunkalogs ― one man drank away his paychecks, leaving his wife and six children hungry; poet John Berryman fell down a staircase; Jean Rhys got drunk on champagne while her infant son was dying of pneumonia in the hospital; Jamison picked fights with her boyfriend, then drank alone while he slept.
It’s also full of recoveries, relapses and more recoveries. None of this is tender or wholesome. Even the recoveries are written with raw, bleak determination, urgent despite the repetitious nature of healthy living.
Jamison has long been fascinated by suffering. In her first book, a novel called The Gin Closet, she tells the story of a broken family and a reclusive alcoholic. The Empathy Exams prods at this fascination; she explores how we write about pain and violence, how we try to understand it, how we experience it. The Recovering is about healing, but that’s just another way of saying that it’s about being hurt.
Finding another way of saying things, of course, is Jamison’s metier. Each of her books draws heavily from her own life, and often it’s the same stories that she turns over in her hands, carefully, holding different facets up to the light. In The Recovering, as she reflects on her own addiction to alcohol, there are mirror flashes to The Gin Closet’s fictionalized representation of alcoholism and family strife; as she examines how alcohol led her into injury, heartbreak and misadventure, anecdotes familiar from The Empathy Exams emerge ― getting punched in the nose in Nicaragua, wearing a heart monitor, getting an abortion.
“I certainly believe that experience is pretty infinite,” she told me. “I believe that pretty much any experience can be revisited and probably re-narrated in very different ways depending on a couple of things: What are the questions you’re asking of the experience, and what are the larger explorations you’re fitting that experience into?”
This time, in The Recovering, the guiding questions Jamison uses to interrogate her experiences are about drinking, and stopping drinking, and, by extension, how to live an interesting life without hurting yourself. Throughout the book, Jamison is consumed by the last question. Having long idealized the tragic romance of hard-drinking geniuses like Berryman, Denis Johnson and Carver, and the gripping art that arose from their self-destruction, she struggles to see how her writing could continue after giving up drinking. Isn’t a life in recovery a dull one?
“Suffering is interesting but so is getting better,” she wrote in the Empathy Exams essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Recalling the line, she told me, “That’s very much a gauntlet I felt I was throwing down to myself.” In The Recovering, she finally attempts to prove that thesis, asking, “how can you actually tell the story of getting better in a way that doesn’t lose narrative velocity, lose that momentum?”
In the book, Jamison repeatedly confronts her longing to be like the artists who hurt, and who hurt themselves, and who wrote from that unpredictable pain. She always wanted to have the most interesting story.
“When I looked back at what my drinking had been,” she wrote, “I saw someone hurling herself at the world ― asking it to give her back to herself with some edges.”
In The Recovering, she tries to shake off this imperative to become interesting for her writing. In the book, she recalls standing up to tell her story in a meeting for the first time, poised to accept praise for her exceptionally well-told tale. Instead, halfway through, a man started to shout, “This is boring!” In the clichéd, timeworn stories of her fellow AA members, she gains a new appreciation for a story that offers insight through its universality, rather than its uniqueness. They find solace in each others’ stories not because they are original, but because they are all the same.
In the literary world, this quality remains suspect.
“I think most of the suspicion around the form of the personal essay often comes back to … well, all these people who write personal essays are deluded in thinking their story matters, and nobody cares. Or that you have to have there be something special about your story in order for somebody to care,” Jamison explained. “I really don’t believe that writing your story is predicated on believing that your story is extraordinary.”
“There’s that line in the book,” she added, paraphrasing, “You use the nail in your drawer not because you think it’s the best fucking nail ever made, but because it’s the one that was in your drawer.”
“I really do feel that way about personal narrative,” she told me, “that it’s the nail in my drawer, because it’s what I’ve lived.”
For Jamison, the material itself matters less than the mode of delivery. Your life might be uneventful on its face, but can you ask rigorous, unflinching questions about it? Can you closely interrogate your choices as a human and as a narrator?
Her faith in personal narrative is not, she told me, “a blank check written to anyone to write about their lives however they want. … It’s more the idea that if you take intellectual rigor, emotional rigor, and apply it to any life, you’ll find something worth saying there.” As a writer, this may even be a more rigorous standard than mere interestingness: There’s no hiding your failings of craft and insight behind a wild story.
I really don’t believe that writing your story is predicated on believing that your story is extraordinary. Leslie Jamison
While getting sober, Jamison worked as an application reader for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, of which she is an alumna. Her job was simply to read the submissions and rate them on a scale. “But [AA] meetings were teaching me to listen to everyone,” she writes. “I started to lose my bearings. I would read something trite and second-guess myself. Was it trite? Who was I to say?” After a lifetime spent in highly literary and academic circles, where originality is all, she had found a way to value something else.
But that doesn’t mean that, thanks to recovery, Jamison no longer believes in literary critique. Instead, she told me, she came to see storytelling as belonging to different spheres ― personal, political, literary ― with different ways of assessing value.
“I believe we can make demands of literary narratives that I wouldn’t feel comfortable making of narratives told in a recovery meeting,” she said.
So, a newspaper filled with confessional essays might be falling down on the job of informing readers about broader political and social realities. But that doesn’t mean those essays don’t have literary value. One person’s account of their life might be dull to read, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have personal value.
Throughout The Recovering, Jamison pushes against the demands of her recovery stories with her literary expectations, then pushes against the demands of her literary work with the new standards she’s learned for recovery narratives. “Part of what was interesting to me about putting those two spheres in the same book was … they spoke back to each other in interesting ways, even if I didn’t leave my evaluation of them wanting to conflate them,” she explained.
Discovering these two spheres, holding them up against each other, asking how they might be the same and how they might be different, allowed her to see the purpose of each more clearly.
“I think there really is a difference between the human value of a story and the literary value of a story,” she said. “I believe that everybody should spend their lives being able to narrate their lives, and make sense of their lives through those narratives, and share those narratives with other people who are important to them. And none of those things mean that they should publish a book, or get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.”