Ambitious and absorbing, Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath expands the possibilities of what a well-written recovery memoir can be.
Leslie Jamison’s latest work reinvents the traditional recovery narrative in a direct challenge to the dominant understanding of addiction as an apolitical and private experience. Jamison juxtaposes several genres against each other, without mixing them together; her book is a collage of memoir, biography, literary analysis, and cultural history. Each chapter jumps from topic to topic, even as it revolves around a central theme, lending the text a sprawling but cohesive quality. The standout third chapter, “Blame,” examines the origins of Jamison’s substance abuse through the lens of her family’s history of alcoholism, while it also recounts the history of the War on Drugs in America as well as the addictions of famous writers and musicians. The sixth chapter and start of the book’s second half, “Surrender,” places Jamison’s first real attempt at recovery in conversation with that of Alcoholic Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. The themes of The Recovering‘s fourteen chapters roughly align with the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that figures prominently in the book’s second half. Throughout the book, though, Jamison expresses her ambivalence toward the history and practices of A.A., and in an afterward, the author makes clear her feeling that the organization is valuable primarily for the sense of community it offers and that, as such, other types of treatment should be pursued as well:
This book devotes much of its attention to Alcoholics Anonymous, a singularly valuable grassroots organization that has become an important part of sobriety for many people. But twelve-step recovery isn’t the only approach to substance dependence, and it’s certainly not sufficient, or even helpful, for everyone. [. . .] Any ethically responsible vision of treatment needs to include a much broader array of options, including medications like buprenorphine and methadone, as well as therapeutic approaches including cognitive-behavioral and motivational-enhancement therapy. (449)
The author’s wide-ranging scope affords her the chance to flesh out her claim that addiction always is social, not just personal, by placing her experience of recovery as a wealthy white woman against the backdrop of American attitudes toward substance (ab)use in general. Jamison early on declares, “Nothing about recovery had been singular” (9), and her inclusion of many kinds of experience highlights the importance of community to the recovery process and affords her the chance to orchestrate grand arguments about the nation’s unequal treatment of addicts on the basis of race and gender. Especially of note is how the author frames the ways in which America has mythologized the figure of the intoxicated white male genius as inextricable from those in which it has criminalized and demonized Black and Latinx addiction:
The crack mother was the negative image of the addict genius: She wasn’t someone whose dependence fueled her creative powers. She was someone whose dependence meant she’d failed to create the way she was supposed to. (95)
Also rather fascinating is Jamison’s suggestion, put forth in the second chapter’s discussion of novelist Jean Rhys’s alcoholism, that American culture typically has construed white female self-destruction as a grotesque spectacle. The work of the white woman artist, the author implies, is reduced to her private pain, which is never celebrated but always censured:
Rhys never understood herself as a rogue genius, like the drunk male writers of her generation. She was always forced to understand herself as a failed mother instead. The “traditional beliefs” that deemed her intoxication a badge of shame, a failure of control, might tell the story like this: When Rhys drank, she was taking. She was greedy for relief or escape. When she wrote or mothered, she was giving. She was creating art, or sustaining life. But the sadness that fueled her work often made her pull her care away. She wanted to be loved. She wanted to be alone. (45)
In her substantial engagement with issues of privilege and power, Jamison saves her book from reading as the navel gazing of a Harvard-educated writer whose livelihood was not seriously endangered by her alcoholism. The writer’s steady stream of accomplishments has never ceased to flow, in spite of the emotional toll her alcoholism took upon her life. Several readers online have taken issue with this, implying or outright saying that Jamison’s substance abuse wasn’t severe enough to merit a memoir. These reviewers, sometimes intentionally, draw attention to the fact that the underrepresented voices to whom Jamison refers still lack many opportunities to tell their stories themselves. But they also somehow miss the writer’s belabored point that there is neither a singular experience of addiction nor a definite threshold of self-abuse that must be passed in order for a recovery narrative to deserve to be told.
At its best, The Recovering is highly engaging: Jamison’s prose is eminently readable, her portrait of herself multifaceted, and her thesis provocative. But the brilliance isn’t consistent. The close readings of the literature of addiction become increasingly uninspired, the profiles of famous writers and artists tedious, the reportage sparse, the autobiography sloppily structured. The flaws aren’t so egregious that they make The Recovering not worth reading, but the book definitely would have benefitted from tighter editing.