CULTURE & ARTS
06/08/2018 05:45 am ET

Sobriety Doesn't Kill Great Art. Sobriety Kills Artifice.

Leslie Jamison's "The Recovering," reviewed by a recovering alcoholic.
Gabriela Landazuri/HuffPost; Photos: Beowulf Sheehan/Getty images

My first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the winter of 1998. I was 19. I went because my mom asked me to go. Nine months earlier, she and my dad had to intervene during my freshman year of college at UCLA, when my roommates, with justifiable concern, reported to them that I was drunk all the time and maybe suicidal. My folks drove up from Orange County to rescue me a week before finals. I took a semester off, started seeing a therapist, started taking antidepressants, stopped cutting myself, started eating (I had stopped eating). A few months later I transferred to NYU, and so as a favor to my mom, who bravely stepped aside as I moved across the country, I took her suggestion and went to a meeting. It took place on Prospect Park West, in a tony brownstone lined with bookshelves, and the only other things I remember are a bunch of eager strangers giving me their phone numbers and my decision to never, ever set foot in one of those rooms again.

I would revisit that decision many times over the next 20 years, as my drinking followed the standard trajectory of addictions the world over: Fun! Fun with consequences. Mainly consequences. Every now and then, sometimes as a “favor” to a friend, but more often after an obscenely long bender that might’ve included showing up drunk to work or skipping work entirely to deal with withdrawal-induced panic attacks, I’d drag myself to a meeting, though I don’t think I ever considered it anything more than a specific kind of penance, a knuckle-rapping I’d obligated myself to before I could return to my pleasure island of dive bars and blackouts.

I’m glossing over a lot here, but there’s only so much space on the internet (put it this way: I once threw up on my dog). My adventures in alcoholism lasted until January 2017. By the time I Came In to the first of what’s now been a long string of meetings and, as of this writing, 500 days and four hours sober, I’d been reduced to a kind of humanoid sci-fi cliché, a transactional unit that traded nominal functionality for the continued uptake of substance. As someone in one of the rooms recently put it, I might have looked fine on the outside, but my insides felt like they’d been scooped out.

There are a lot of reasons for that meeting being the first of many as opposed to the last for who knows how long: My health was deteriorating; my marriage was deteriorating; the country was deteriorating. You could argue these were all external, though, no more influential than the countless life changes addicts make all the time — changing cities, changing jobs, changing partners — hoping they’ll break the cycle. No, what made the difference on that Monday I came in was that I did something I’d never done in a meeting before: I raised my hand and told my story.

* * *

Addicts are by definition some of the most self-absorbed people extant. A large chunk of 12-step work involves learning to set aside one’s own obsessive proclivities in order to free up the mental energy to help others; to borrow a maxim from Infinite Jest, “You give it up to get it back to give it away.” Ironically, AA’s primary prescription for renouncing narcissism is to talk about it. You sit and you talk and you listen and you talk and you do it over and over and over again.

This kind of professional-grade logorrhea is immensely therapeutic for reasons we will soon explore, but it has the potential to bore the pants off readers, not to mention the gatekeepers of the literary firmament who represent them. Hell, it’s likely a large number of you dropped off mid-second-graf above, having already read your share of treacly addiction confessionals. What to do!?

This tension lives at the heart of Leslie Jamison’s much-discussed new book The Recovering. Jamison is a bestselling writer and highly credentialed academic who also happens to be a recovering drunk. Her book is a magisterial survey of recovery literature and a beautifully written memoir in its own right, but it’s undermined by a narcissistic tendency to constantly double back on itself. Let’s talk about how clichéd it is to be talking about clichés. This is recovery logic. I’m embarrassed to be sharing, and I can’t believe I’m embarrassed, and I’m embarrassed by the fact that I’m embarrassed.

The problem for those of us who think about storytelling for a living is that recovery storytelling is not very good storytelling.

Of course, most people’s primary association with AA isn’t that it’s all about talking — it’s that it’s all about God. This, to me, is something of a misconception, and one of many, which is perhaps not so hard to fathom given AA’s status as a decentralized anarchic collective comprising anonymous cells whose aversion to press is a foundational operating principle. So like, for example, not all meetings feature shitty coffee; I’ve actually never been to a meeting where terrible Mr. Coffee-type coffee was on offer. And not all meetings take place in church basements — I once went to a meeting on a beach in Phuket, Thailand.

And then, yeah, also: It’s not all about God. Certainly, it’s about self-discovery and spiritual growth, but those are just things that happen if you can stay sober and Keep Coming Back, which is why some of us in the rooms joke that God is just an acronym for Group of Drunks. Indeed, prefiguring the God stuff are the simple group dynamics of AA, and central to that is storytelling. Telling your story to a roomful of drunks and listening to their stories is the exercise that strengthens the muscle of sobriety. This becomes evident to anyone with some time in the program, but it’s also right there in the mythology: AA founder Bill Wilson got sober in a hospital following a belladonna-induced spiritual epiphany, but AA didn’t actually start until Wilson helped a guy named Dr. Bob get sober — theirs were the first meetings, the first rooms, the first recovery stories exchanged.

So storytelling is the secret sauce of AA. I know this, Bill Wilson knew this, and Jamison knows this. The problem for those of us who think about storytelling for a living, a group that most definitely includes Jamison — acclaimed author, alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, owner of a PhD in literature from Yale — is that recovery storytelling is not very good storytelling. It is by its nature repetitive, the same story told over and over, by amateurs (!), who rather than reject clichés like good MFAs, construct entire belief systems around them: One day at a time; it works if you work it; my best thinking got me here.

Squaring the contradictory notions that clichés can be both life-saving palliatives and career-ending dross is the task Jamison sets for herself in her book. To aid her in her quest, she recruits a football team’s worth of writers and artists who came before her, many of whom spent their personal and professional lives contemplating this exact same dilemma, and contemplates their contemplations. She intercuts this critical survey with scenes from her own recovery story, which unfolds on the campuses of Iowa and Yale, with a lively detour through Nicaragua, where, in addition to passing “an afternoon in hammocks by the Laguna de Apoyo, with cold beers and a warm breeze, eating whole fish roasted over flames, swimming in a volcanic basin with ribbons of chilly water and hot water swirled together like scarves,” Jamison is also date-raped and has her nose punched in by a mugger in a dark alley.

Alongside her personal story, Jamison includes a potted history of AA, reports on a fascinating place called the “Narco Farm,” recounts the sobriety stories of a handful of AA’s anonymous adherents, and delves deeply and affectingly into the socio-economic factors — mostly racism — that determine whether an addict is treated like a societal scourge or a poor little lamb that’s wandered away from the flock. (Jamison, to her credit, knows where she falls on this spectrum: “I am precisely the kind of upper-middle class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable — a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than punishment.”) The book includes an index, a bibliography and 50 pages of endnotes. At once a memoir and a work of careful scholarship, it has appeared variously in the cultural studies and memoir and self-help sections of the bookstores I frequent. The book’s abstruse subtitle — “Intoxication and Its Aftermath” — is a feint: It does not want to be pinned down.

* * *

Having begun as Jamison’s doctoral thesis, The Recovering is the result of her eight-year quest to grapple with how addiction affects one very small but inordinately famous subset of addicts, the species known as writers. Jamison is an ordained member of this cohort. Both a writer and a drunk, she got hammered in the same Iowa City bars as such esteemed drunk writers as Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Denis Johnson, who haunt these pages like a trio of besotted Banquos.

They’re joined by many others, both famous and less so: Great American poet John Berryman, who threw himself off the Washington Avenue Bridge after many failed attempts to get sober; Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, who poisoned himself before he could finish that book’s more hopeful sequel; Amy Winehouse, who died with a blood alcohol content of 0.416 percent; Billie Holiday, who died handcuffed to a hospital bed; Jean Rhys, the hard-drinking novelist most famous for writing Wide Sargasso Sea, who somehow didn’t die until the ripe old age of 88; and David Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest contains some of the most incisive and least concise descriptions of AA extant, and who hanged himself at the age of 46.

The size and scope and fervor of Jamison’s ambition to join this exceedingly cheery group is not just apparent in her credentialing. It’s something she very self-consciously and with no little humor makes zero bones about. “When I first got into AA,” she writes, “I had been told to choose a sponsor who ‘had what I wanted.’ I sensed this didn’t mean a Pulitzer Prize.”

This is funny! It’s also, now, quite plausible: The collision of pathos and erudition that runs throughout this book is catnip to awards judges. And Jamison, steeped in her years of workshops and dissertations, takes care to outflank her potential critics. Her trick is to acknowledge and then indulge recovery writing’s cliches, and to chronicle the life and work of other writers who likewise both acknowledged and indulged them. The originality of the endeavor and its literary merits become the book’s central preoccupation.

“I was moving between the worlds of graduate school and recovery,” she writes, “straddling the powerful rifts between their conflicting imperatives: Think harder. Don’t overthink it. Say something new. You can’t say anything new. Interrogate simplicity. Keep it simple. Be loved because you’re smart. Be loved because you are.”

Jamison never quite gets off the fence when it comes to these two modes, and she’d prefer we not give her a hard time about it. A classic overachiever, she dazzles us with feats of scholarship, which is quite effective, especially for inquisitive addicts like myself, who fetishize this kind of information. Did you know, for example, that the original commission of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was a man named Harry J. Anslinger, and that Anslinger pursued a personal vendetta against Billie Holiday even as he placed friendly phone calls to Judy Garland to coach her through her addiction? Did you know Anslinger’s protégé is none other than “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio? Did you know Raymond Carver still smoked grass after he got sober?

Still, though, The Recovering is at times laughably sprawling and discursive. In a single page, Jamison cuts between alcohol’s effect on the prefrontal cortex, a Jean Rhys character reflecting on inebriation (“When I’m drunk, it’s alright”) and Jamison’s own reflection on her date-rape in Nicaragua (“consent when you’re drunk means something I still don’t have a good language for”). The sheer immensity of the book is noteworthy, considering the central question Jamison is trying to answer: Can a writer still conjure electric prose in recovery? Absent access to “the white logic,” as Jack London referred to intoxication’s epiphanic alchemy, is it possible to enthrall a reader, lead them to profound and unexpected conclusions, etc.? Jamison’s own elaborate and often gorgeous prose exertions over this question are somewhat undermined by the fact that she just published over 500 pages answering it.

 

LITTLE BROWN AND COMPANY

“Googling the phrase ‘just another addiction memoir’ yields several pages of results,” Jamison writes at one point. Indeed, as a literary insider, she’s keenly aware that recovery memoirs are career kryptonite, that the hackneyed wisdom gleaned in the rooms is the stuff of both personal salvation and career suicide. “But,” she continues, “the accusation of sameness, just another addiction memoir, gets turned on its head by recovery — where a story’s sameness is precisely why it should be told. Your story is only useful because others have lived it and will live it again.”

Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson were at their best and most prolific after they got clean. David Foster Wallace was able to transform the hoary clichés of AA — “not just uninteresting, but anti-interesting” — into one of the most acclaimed novels of the last 100 years. Sobriety doesn’t kill Great Art. Jamison clearly knows this, and the fact that she knows this makes the central question at the heart of this otherwise exhaustively researched and beautifully written book feel like something of a straw man.

* * *

The meeting I walked into over a year ago took place at 2 p.m. on a Monday in a halfway house in San Francisco’s Castro district. I was coming off my umpteenth bender, and I’d spent the morning crying desperate tears to a wife who was justifiably sick of the routine. There were maybe a dozen people in the room. Following the reading of the AA preamble and 12 steps and a round of introductions — “My name’s Garrett and I’m an alcoholic,” the first time I ever said it out loud — that day’s speaker shared his story, and then the meeting was opened up for group discussion. That’s when I raised my hand.

Having no idea what I was going to say, I ended up mumbling something about having gone to meetings before but this being my first one in a very long time, about how I wasn’t really sure how this worked but I was feeling as if I was in a very desperate place, and thought that maybe if I just raised my hand and said something it’d make a difference this time, somehow. My share wasn’t anything I’d consider substantive or profound, but then here’s the thing: It turns out that some variation on this confused/hopeful spiel is what every newcomer says the first time they raise their hand — it’s a total, utter cliché, and one that turns out to illustrate exactly why these big, dumb, truthful clichés matter.

What happened after I blathered my hapless share is that people clapped for me, and what happened after that, once the meeting concluded, is that a man came up to me and handed me a little gold coin that said “24 hours” on it, and explained that he’d been carrying it around for years and that my share reminded him of what he felt like when he first came in. What happened after that is that I came back, and I kept coming back, and I kept raising my hand.

Because it turns out that once you find yourself trying to fill three or five or 10 minutes telling your story, your true story, not the one you put on job applications or broadcast out onto a feed, but the story of the person who fell in love with a substance to the exclusion of all else, including life itself — once you tell that story, which is the only story you can ever really tell in the rooms, you start to finally reconnect with the humanity you lost at some point. Among all the many other things, addiction is an elaborate system of obfuscation — it is layers of chemically induced rationalizations, of reward systems gone haywire. It is the buildup of self-deception, a plaque that decays the soul.

To Come In is to admit that you’ve been in some horrible accident, one that unfolded not in an instant but over years and years. In this story, you happen to be the protagonist, but that’s about the only thing you can really be sure of. The cause of the accident and the clues that will lead you to it are all obscured, and the motivations of the supporting characters are complicated at best, because you were likely less than totally truthful with most of them. Added to this, the narrator — you — is completely unreliable, since, among other things, he or she was literally blacked out for some of the most consequential parts.

Your job in recovery is to solve this mystery, and while the rooms provide one very particular setting for doing so, the task itself — the solving — very much transcends drinking and drugging and fucking and stealing and whatever else you most associate with your addiction. To solve the mystery is to (re)discover and come to terms with your unobscured self, and while this task becomes both focused and highly urgent in late-stage addiction, it’s certainly not exclusive to it — lives are falling apart all around us, and only a fraction of those involve substances.

Telling and retelling (and retelling) your story is one method of finding your way back to a version of yourself that feels true, the one that predates the arrival of the substance (or whatever else broke you). In many of our cases, this version of ourselves isn’t the cheeriest place to be; it’s just a true place, worthy of our trust and self-respect, and, perhaps more importantly, worthy of the trust of others. Finding the unobscured self: This is the work of recovery. This is the work of literature, too.

Leslie Jamison, the accomplished scholar and venerated essayist, has written a great book. But it’s unsettling, to me at least, that Leslie Jamison the recovering addict felt compelled to work so hard to justify this kind of storytelling. It’s the simplest, most useful kind of storytelling there is, and the kind least in need of justification.

Garrett Kamps is a writer, editor and friend of Bill. He’s the cofounder and executive editor of Third Bridge Creative, and his work has appeared in places like Deadspin, Gawker, Billboard and the Village Voice. He lives in San Francisco.

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