Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?
As I emerged from alcoholism, I had to face down a terrifying question.
By Leslie Jamison
March 13, 2018
The first time I felt it — the buzz — I was almost 13. I didn’t vomit or black out or even embarrass myself. I just loved it. I loved the crackle of Champagne, its hot pine needles down my throat. We were celebrating my brother’s college graduation, and I wore a long muslin dress that made me feel like a child, until I felt something else: initiated, aglow. The whole world stood accused: You never told me it felt this good.
The first time I drank in secret, I was 15. My mom was out of town. My friends and I spread a blanket across the living-room hardwood and drank whatever we could find in the fridge, the chardonnay wedged between the orange juice and the mayonnaise. We were giddy from the sense of trespass.
The first time I got high, I was smoking pot on a stranger’s couch, dampening the joint between fingers dripping with pool water. A friend of a friend had invited me to a swimming party. My hair smelled like chlorine, and my body quivered against my damp bikini. Strange little animals blossomed through my elbows and shoulders, where the parts of me bent and connected. I thought: What is this? And how can it keep being this? With a good feeling, it was always: More. Again. Forever.
The first time I drank with a boy, I let him put his hands under my shirt on the wooden balcony of a lifeguard station. Dark waves shushed the sand below our dangling feet. My first boyfriend: He liked to get high. He liked to get his cat high. We used to make out in his mother’s minivan. He came to a family meal at my house fully wired on speed. “So talkative!” said my grandma, deeply smitten. At Disneyland, he broke open a baggie of withered mushroom caps and started breathing fast and shallow in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, sweating through his shirt, pawing at the orange rocks of the fake frontier.
If I had to say where my drinking began — which first time began it — I might say it started with my first blackout, or maybe the first time I sought blackout: the first time I wanted nothing more than to be absent from my own life. Maybe it started the first time I threw up from drinking; the first time I dreamed about drinking; the first time I lied about drinking; the first time I dreamed about lying about drinking, when the craving had become so deep that there wasn’t much of me that wasn’t committed to either serving or fighting it.
I was afraid that loving the drunk story best meant some part of me still wanted to keep living it. And of course, some part of me did.
I started drinking every day when I was in graduate school in Iowa City, where getting drunk daily didn’t seem dramatic and pronounced so much as encompassing and inevitable. There were so many ways and places to get drunk: the fiction-writers’ bar in a smoky double-wide trailer, with a stuffed fox head and a bunch of broken clocks; the poets’ bar down the street, with its anemic cheeseburgers and glowing Schlitz ad, a scrolling electric landscape with a gurgling stream and neon grassy banks, a flickering waterfall. I mashed the lime in my vodka tonic and glimpsed — in the sweet spot between two drinks and three, then three and four, then four and five — my life as something illuminated from the inside. There were parties at a place called the Farm House, out in the cornfields, where poets wrestled in a kiddie pool full of Jell-O, and everyone’s profile looked beautiful in the crackling light of a mattress bonfire. Winter took us below zero. There were endless potlucks where older writers brought braised meats and younger writers brought plastic tubs of hummus, and everyone brought whiskey, and everyone brought wine. Winter kept going; we kept drinking. Then it was spring. We kept drinking then too.
The first time I told the story of my drinking, I sat among other drinkers who no longer drank. Ours was a familiar scene: circled folding chairs, foam cups of coffee gone lukewarm, phone numbers exchanged. Before the meeting, I imagined what might happen after it was done: People would compliment my story or the way I’d told it, and I’d demur, Well, I’m a writer, shrugging, trying not to make too big a deal out of it. I practiced with notecards beforehand.
It was after I’d gone through the part about my abortion, and how much I’d been drinking pregnant; after the part about the night I don’t call date rape, and the etiquette of reconstructing blackouts — it was somewhere in the muddled territory of sobriety, getting to the repetitions of apology or the physical mechanics of prayer, that an old man in a wheelchair, sitting in the front row, started shouting: “This is boring!”
We all knew him, this old man. He was instrumental in setting up a gay recovery community in our town, back in the ’70s, and now he was in the care of his much-younger, soft-spoken partner, who changed the man’s diapers and wheeled him faithfully to meetings where he shouted obscenities. He was ill, losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech; “Kiss me, wench!” he once said, as he held my hand for our closing prayer. But he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that were never said aloud in meetings: I don’t care. This is tedious. I’ve heard this before. He was nasty and sour, and he had also saved a lot of people’s lives. Now he was bored.
Other people at the meeting shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The woman sitting beside me touched my arm, a way of saying, Don’t stop. So I didn’t. I kept going — stuttering, eyes hot, throat swollen — but this man had managed to tap veins of primal insecurity: that my story wasn’t good enough, or that I’d failed to tell it right, that I’d somehow failed at my dysfunction, failed to make it bad or bold or interesting enough; that recovery had flatlined my story past narrative repair.
During the early days of my drinking, I was drawn to the legendary writer-drunks. I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather. If you needed to drink that much, you had to hurt, and drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain: You could numb it, or you could grant it a voice.
While I was studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I spent my nights at the writers’ bars on Market Street, and I spent my days reading the other writers who had gotten drunk in that town before I’d gotten drunk there: John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson. The myths of their drinking ran like subterranean rivers underneath all the drinking I was doing. Their drinking seemed like proof of their proximity to the terror and profundity of psychic darkness. As Patricia Highsmith argued, drinking allowed the artist to “see the truth, the simplicity and the primitive emotions once more.” Jack London wrote about the “imaginative” drunk for whom the “white light of alcohol” granted access to bleak truths about the human conditions — what he called “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” Booze was illumination and consolation. It helped you see, and then it helped you survive the sight.
Denis Johnson’s short-story collection “Jesus’ Son” was our bible of beauty and damage, a hallucinated vision of how and where we lived. Half the book took place in Iowa City bars; its stories were full of farmhouse parties and hungover mornings. There was a dilapidated old house where people smoked pharmaceutical opium and said things like: “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.” Johnson’s protagonist looked at the giant screen of a drive-in theater in the cornfields and saw a sacred vision: “The sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity.” He had mistaken the ordinary Iowa around us for something sacred, and drugs and booze had helped him do it. One of Johnson’s poems described being “just a poor mortal human having stumbled onto/the glen where the failed gods are drinking.” That’s what it felt like to drink in Iowa. This sense of affinity had been passed down like a half-glorious, half-absurd inheritance.
But if mythic intoxication was an inheritance, who had the right to claim it? It seemed like a family tree composed almost entirely of men. Women rarely got to strike the same roguish silhouettes. “When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child,” Marguerite Duras wrote. A woman’s drinking is often understood less as the necessary antidote to her own staggering wisdom and more as self-indulgence or melodrama, hysteria, an unpardonable affliction.
This is only one of many double standards, of course. Some addicts are pitied, others are blamed. Race and class have everything to do with this abiding cognitive dissonance. But in Iowa, I didn’t see this context. I just wanted entry to the boys’ club. I wanted to understand my drinking as part of a story about the kind of creativity that had to happen past the boundaries of comfort. As Berryman himself put it in his poem “Dream Song 57”: “Something can (has) been said for sobriety/but very little.”
Sitting on a folding chair in a church basement, you always face the question of how to begin — how to assemble your private ledger of traumas into what people in meetings call a drunkalog. The early days of my drinking are the easiest ones to dress in costumes of nostalgia: drinking in smoky bars with other 22-year-olds who dreamed of becoming writers; running drunk through the peeling paint of the French Quarter, riding piggyback on my boyfriend, both of us fueled by shots of well bourbon; drinking lukewarm rum by candlelight during power outages in Nicaragua.
But the truer story of my drinking is really a story about tedium, about claustrophobia and repetition. At a certain point, it started to expose itself as something that wasn’t revelry, that wasn’t about connection but isolation, that wasn’t about dark wisdom or metaphysical angst — that wasn’t about anything, really, besides the urge to get drunk, by myself, with no one watching.
The night of my first meeting, when I was 26 and desperate, I drove across the river to an address near the hospital, crying all the way across the Burlington Street Bridge, my tears streaking the streetlamps into bright white rain. It was almost Halloween: cobwebs on porches, hanging ghosts made from stuffed sheets, jack-o’-lanterns with their crooked grins. Being drunk was like having a candle lit inside you. I already missed it.
The first two times I had stopped drinking, I didn’t go to meetings. It seemed like crossing an irrevocable threshold. Those times, some part of me suspected I would probably end up drinking again, and I didn’t want voices from meetings chiding me when I did. But this time I wanted to cross a line — to make it harder to go back. It was like taking out an insurance policy against the version of myself who — days from now, weeks from now, months from now — would miss the drinking so much she’d say: I want to try again.
I wasn’t quitting because I wanted to quit. I had woken up that morning, just like every other morning, wanting to drink more than I wanted to do anything else. Quitting seemed like the only way I would ever arrive at a life where drinking wasn’t the thing I wanted to do most when I woke up. When I imagined a meeting, I pictured grizzled men in a church basement talking about their D.T.s and their time in detox wards, gripping their foam cups with trembling hands. I pictured what I’d seen on television: slow claps and nodding heads, earnest mmm-hmms. But I didn’t know what else to try.
When I reached the gravel parking lot of the address I’d copied down, it was just a clapboard house, not a church. But the lights were on. For 10 minutes I sat in my car without killing the engine, heat blasting, wiping my snotty nose with the back of my wrist, jamming my fists into my eyes to make them stop crying. I was searching for a story I could tell myself that would take me back home: Maybe I’ll come back tomorrow, maybe I don’t have to be here, maybe I can do this on my own, maybe I don’t have to do it at all.
The meeting itself — once I willed myself out of the car, into the cold and through the lit doorway — was just a bunch of strangers gathered around a huge wooden table, past a kitchen tracked with footprints, old linoleum curling upward at the edges of the room. People smiled as if they were glad to see me, almost as if they’d been expecting me. A sheet cake on the table was frosted in muted sunset tones.
A man called Bug was celebrating an unthinkable amount of time without booze. He described staying in his apartment for 40 days straight — without leaving, without going anywhere, like Christ in the desert of a low-rent Iowa condo — and getting handles of vodka delivered to his door. I thought: I never got that bad. And then: Vodka delivery actually sounds pretty great. When Bug described how he’d gotten there — starting with the ritual of a vodka tonic with the 6 o’clock news, his whole day built around it — I thought, Yep. Imagining the rest of my life without that relief made me sick to my stomach.
But in that room, I felt a different relief, just an inkling: the eerie immediacy of hearing myself spoken out loud. These people didn’t know anything about me, but they knew one part of me — the part that thought about drinking all day, every day — better than anyone else. I tucked myself quietly in a corner. I wasn’t sure what to say aside from my name — which, as it turned out, was enough.
Once I got sober, I became more interested in the question of what little, as Berryman put it, could be said for sobriety. If addiction stories ran on the fuel of darkness — the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis — then recovery often seemed like the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But when I got sober, I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.
Over the years, I’d come to realize that many of my drunk icons had actually gotten sober eventually, or tried to, and I went looking for proof that recovery had not blunted or destroyed their creativity. It was like the desire the poet Eavan Boland confessed when she asked for poems with women who weren’t beautiful or young: “I want a poem/I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.” I wanted a story I could get sober in.
Many of the writers I’d come to idolize were famous for work that evoked the pulsing dysfunction of their addictions: the slurred voices and wild visions of Berryman’s “Dream Songs,” or the weary distances of Carver’s short stories, their tense conversations strewn with silences. The work that evoked sobriety — much less recovery — had often faded into obscurity, out of print or unpublished, lodged deep in file boxes in hushed university libraries.
At Berryman’s archives in Minneapolis, I found A.A. step-work covered with coffee stains and cigarette burns. The inventory he completed when he arrived at rehab in 1970, in a Minneapolis hospital called St. Mary’s, spelled out the wasteland his drinking had made of his life:
Wife left me after 11 yrs of marriage bec. of drinking. Despair, heavy drinking alone, jobless, penniless in N.Y. … Seduced students drunk. … My chairman told me I had called up a student drunk at midnight & threatened to kill her. … Drunk in Calcutta, wandered streets lost all night, unable to remember my address. … Wet bed drunk in London hotel, manager furious, had to pay for new mattress, $100. … Defecated uncontrollably in a University corridor, got home unnoticed. … My wife said St. Mary’s or else. Came here.
After his first few stints at rehab, Berryman began to think about writing a novel called “Recovery”: “make a book of these notes — useful 12th step work — probably hardly worked up at all, only expanded and glossed, with some background … on Hazelden and St Mary’s last spring. …” When Berryman described the novel as “useful 12th step work,” he was imagining the potential impact it might have on other alcoholics — that it might help them understand their addictions more fully, or come to believe in the possibilities of recovery. But I suspect he was also hoping the novel could do something for him, that it might prove that his sober energies could be translated into a new kind of creative project — less stylistically adorned, perhaps (“hardly worked up at all”) but just as deeply felt, and more explicitly geared toward emotional generosity — the project of reaching others in their desperation.
Berryman had long cherished his reputation as a drunken sage — had loved, for instance, the seven-page profile Life magazine published in 1967, with a photograph of him in a Dublin bar surrounded by foam-lipped pints. “Whisky and ink, whisky and ink, these are the fluids John Berryman needs,” the article began. “He needs them to survive and describe the thing that sets him apart from other men and even from other poets: his uncommonly, almost maddeningly penetrating awareness of the fact of human mortality.” But by the time Berryman started working on “Recovery,” he had come to see the notion that he needed to drink in order to write as a delusion. “So long as I considered myself as merely the medium of (arena for) my powers, sobriety was out of the question,” he wrote in his journals in 1971. “The even deeper delusion that my art depended on my drinking, or at least was connected with it, could not be attakt directly. Too far down. The cover had to be exploded off.”
The protagonist of “Recovery” is a renowned professor of immunology named Alan Severance — almost amusingly revered, as if celebrity immunologists are nothing out of the ordinary — who struggles, as Berryman did, to reconcile his acclaimed professional life with his identity as a debilitated alcoholic. From his room at rehab, Alan sees the spires of the college campus where he teaches: “Towers above the trees across the river reminded him he was University Professor Severance not the craven drunk Alan S who had been told by an orderly that his room smelled like a farmyard.” At rehab, Severance is constantly reaching for the part of himself capable of something besides self-concern: “His own hope was to forget about himself and think about the others.” The novel is all about the world of rehab — its linoleum floors, cafeteria food and daily mundanity — but it’s ultimately about theseothers, and what it might mean to think about them. A woman named Arabella tells the group that she hasn’t wanted to do anything but scream for years. “You don’t remember a time when you didn’t have it?” her counselor asks, and she replies, “Drinking sends it away.”
The core question of “Recovery” is whether something else might send it away instead. Perhaps other people might. This had been Berryman’s hope in life as well. “In hospitals he found his society,” his friend Saul Bellow wrote about Berryman’s stints in rehab. “About these passioning countrymen he did not need to be ironical.” In the spring of 1971, during his last sustained bout of sobriety, Berryman taught a course at the University of Minnesota called “The Post-Novel: Fiction as Wisdom-work.” This was what he was trying in “Recovery,” as well: something like wisdom—work.
But by that fall, Berryman had given up on “Recovery” entirely. He left the novel unfinished, and it wasn’t published until after his death. He left only yellow notecards suggesting the possible endings he’d imagined. “END OF NOVEL,” he wrote on one. “TURN THIS CARD OVER.” On the back, he wrote: “He might, certainly, at any time drink again. But it didn’t seem likely. He felt — calm.” On an alternate card labeled “LAST PAGE OF BOOK,” he wrote: “On Pikes Peak, coming down. He was perfectly ready. No regrets. He was happier than he had ever been in his life before. Lucky, and he didn’t deserve it. He was very, very lucky. Bless everybody. He felt — fine.”
But I suspected that part of why he couldn’t finish the book is that he didn’t feel fine. Those phrases — He felt — fine, He felt — calm — are haunted by similar phrases that appear earlier in the book, statements of feeling punctuated by the long, uncertain pause of a dash: He felt — depressed. He felt — nowhere.
Berryman kept writing in the composition notebook dedicated to “Recovery” even after he gave up on the novel itself. But his final entries, from December 1971, are full of despair: “terrible continual thoughts of suicide — cowardly, cruel, wicked — beating them off. Don’t believe gun or knife; won’t.” On Jan. 7, 1972, Berryman jumped off the Washington Avenue Bridge near the University of Minnesota, where he taught for almost 20 years, and landed on the riverbank below, dead on impact. He relapsed just days before jumping, after 11 months of sobriety, his longest stretch.
When I started visiting the archives of drunk authors who had gotten sober, I thought I was looking for proof of the possibilities of sober creativity. But in truth I was also looking for something much simpler: company in the struggle — not just the struggle to live without alcohol but the struggle to find a voice that didn’t depend on its thrall. In those early days of sobriety, when I first read Charles Jackson’s 1944 best seller “The Lost Weekend,” a tragicomic account of a single extended bender, I found myself torn between rooting for its antihero, an aspiring writer named Don Birnam, to get sober and wanting him to find a way to keep drinking. Reading the novel illuminated my own deep ambivalence about booze: how much relief I felt at stopping, how thirsty I still felt.
Jackson’s reputation was largely based on that novel, which the director Billy Wilder turned into an Oscar-winning film the following year. The book was revolutionary for its time, in its willingness to portray alcoholism as a state of merciless dependence rather than a metaphysical state illuminated by the sepia-tones of tragic myth, as Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner, the holy trinity of modernist drunks, had done half a generation earlier. “The Lost Weekend” was a critical and commercial hit, selling almost a million copies over the course of Jackson’s lifetime. But it frustrated Jackson that its success meant his reputation became so inextricably entwined with alcoholism.
For decades, Jackson wanted to write the story of his drunk hero once he’d left his lost weekends behind him. But he was perpetually stymied by that hypothetical book, tentatively titled “What Happened”; his biographer, Blake Bailey, has observed that Jackson was a master of “working on every conceivable thing but his novel.” In the months after Jackson began attending A.A. in 1953, however, he was finally able to generate about 150 pages, presenting a more stable vision of his drunk antihero. He wrote to a friend: “It’s far & away the best thing I’ve done, simpler, more honest, and, for the first time, out of myself — that is, not self-tortured or -absorbed or -eviscerated.”
The novel was anchored in the ordinary texture of a sober alcoholic’s daily experience. “I can put it best,” Jackson told his editor, Roger Straus, “by saying that the story happens, is happening — taking place, like daily living — on every page.” Jackson wanted to believe his novel could be wondrous in its attention to ordinary human life. But he was also worried. In letters to friends, he openly confessed his anxiety that this approach could seem marked by a “total lack of originality” — the very lack of originality that A.A. was teaching him to embrace. How could he write a novel that would succeed according to the very different standards set by the spheres of literature and recovery?
Jackson never finished “What Happened.” When I finally read the unpublished manuscript at his archives in New Hampshire, I brought so much desire with me — to see the fruits of his sober creativity, to see proof that sober creativity was possible — but found only pages of turgid, convoluted narrative. “I can only write the human, meanderingly,” Jackson had written to a friend, confessing his fears about his long-awaited epic, and reading his pages I started to understand what he meant. I’d been glued to “The Lost Weekend,” unable to put it down, and I wanted “What Happened” to be like that, but it wasn’t. Mostly, it was hopelessly abstract:
What life means, it came to him (or he seemed to overhear it), it means all the time, not just at isolated dramatic moments that never happened. If life means anything at all, it means whatever it means every hour, every minute, through any episode big or small, if only one has the awareness to sense it … each step, the dramatic and the humdrum alike — every fleeting second of the way.
The thing was, I actually agreed with what Jackson was saying. I’d come to believe that life happened every hour, every minute; that it wasn’t made of dramatic climaxes so much as quiet effort and continuous presence. But I could also see how Jackson’s desperate desire to deploy his recovery wisdom had crippled his story. His own words about the book now played back to me like an omen: “with scarcely any ‘plot’ but much character. … I’m proud to be so objective & detached, finally.”
The manuscript bore out some of my worst fears about sobriety: that it was destined to force you into a state of plotless tedium, a string of empty evenings, a life lit by the sallow fluorescence of church-basement bromides rather than the glow of dive-bar-neon escapades. I was afraid that loving the drunk story best meant some part of me still wanted to keep living it. And of course, some part of me did.
Nine months into my second sobriety — the sobriety I’m still inside of, seven years and counting — I stopped going to meetings and found myself wanting deeply to drink. I’d just moved back to the New England college town where I’d spent several years drinking heavily, and all the old bars made me nostalgic. I remembered their crushed peanut shells and vodka specials, the sweet blur of that nightly surrender. The shimmering alternate world in which I decided to drink again grew close once more. It lay just beyond the drudgework of recanting: I know I said I was an alcoholic and then took it back and said I wasn’t really and then took that back and said I actually was but the thing is I’m really not, I promise. Then I’d be back in the sweet autumnal swirl of red wine and hard cider, the chilled salt slide of dirty martinis. It would be like finally crawling back under the covers on a cold morning.
That’s when I found “Infinite Jest.” David Foster Wallace’s novel didn’t exactly lead me back to meetings, though I did return to them, but it helped me understand why I needed them. More specific, it helped me understand that certain things about meetings could drive me crazy and that I could still need them. The novel had metabolized recovery with so much rigor that it had already asked all my questions and weathered all my intellectual discomforts. It documented what Wallace called the “grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd A.A. thing — so unlikely and unpromising … this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharine grins and hideous coffee” might actually offer hope, in its simplicity and its slogans, in its church-basement coffee and its effusion of anonymous and unqualified love.
While Berryman and Jackson understood the project of writing sobriety in terms of deprivation — denying themselves the luxuries of plot and stylistic adornment, eschewing the momentous for the plain-spoken — Wallace wrote recovery with an exuberant excess. “Infinite Jest” is full of humor and wild imagination — giant feral hamsters roaming the land, Québécois-separatist assassins in wheelchairs — and its vision of recovery is similarly full of earnest absurdity: grown men crawling across cheap carpeting with teddy bears tucked into the crooks of their arms, sober folk struggling with “pastry dependence” or a man in rehab killing alley cats to get a sense of “resolution.” “Serious AAs look like these weird combinations of Gandhi and Mr. Rogers,” the novel observes, “with tattoos and enlarged livers and no teeth.”
If I’d read “The Lost Weekend” rooting for Don Birnam to get drunk again, I read “Infinite Jest” rooting for Don Gately — one of Wallace’s protagonists, a beleaguered halfway-house counselor — to stay sober. Gately describes the newly sober as “so desperate to escape their own interior” that they want “to lay responsibility for themselves at the feet of something as seductive and consuming as their former friend the Substance.” I wanted to lay myself at the feet of the book that told me that.
Wallace himself went to a Boston rehab called Granada House in late 1989, seven years before “Infinite Jest” was published and nearly 20 years before his suicide in 2008. In his 2012 biography of Wallace, “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story,” D.T. Max argues that Wallace quickly understood the ways that recovery was also a “literary opportunity.” He credits recovery as part of Wallace’s growing commitment to “single-entendre writing, writing that meant what it said.” Recovery shifted Wallace’s whole notion of what writing could do, what purpose it might serve — made him want to dramatize the saving alchemy of community, the transformative force of outward-facing attention, the possibilities of simplicity as an alternative to the clever alibis of complexity. (The rehab staff, he wrote in an anonymous online testimonial often attributed to him, recognized his “meaningless intellectualization as a way of evading terrible truths.”) I’d been so afraid of sobriety as a flatline, as Jackson had been afraid of sobriety as a flatline, as Berryman and Johnson and maybe the older waitress sitting at the Tuesday-morning meeting had been afraid of sobriety as a flatline. I’d been afraid that meetings were basically lobotomies served alongside coffee-flavored water and Chips Ahoy!; afraid that even if sobriety could offer stability and sincerity and maybe even salvation, it could never be a story. But “Infinite Jest” knew better. It wasn’t that the novel’s brilliance survived the deadening force of sobriety. Its brilliance depended on what sobriety had wrought.
Three years after I got sober, I found myself teaching Denis Johnson’s stories to a classroom of college students in Connecticut: another circle of chairs full of people listening to tales of drugged-out misadventure. My students seemed unspeakably cool — they spent their weekends finding their spirit animals and doing drugs I’d never heard of — and I was desperate to earn their affection. On the first day of class, I brought two dozen doughnuts and a cardboard box of coffee, and then I kept bringing them each week, afraid that if I stopped, the students would be disappointed. When we read Johnson’s stories about barflies and hallucinated visions, I could see myself a decade earlier, convinced that these fever dreams had a monopoly on creative brilliance, these farmhouses full of pharmaceutical opium and outdoor movie screens lit by the gigantic faces of angels. I asked the class if they had a favorite story from the collection. “Don’t worry,” I said. “There’s no right answer.”
But I was lying. There was a right answer. Their favorite story was supposed to be my favorite story, which was now “Beverly Home” — the only one about recovery. Johnson’s protagonist is finally sober and working at a rehabilitation center for the elderly and disabled, where he spends his days walking the O-shaped circuit of its lobby with the patients: “All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them,” he says. “I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
I read that line, the closing line of the story, aloud to my students. I read it — once, twice, three times — while they quietly swept up their doughnut crumbs. There might be a place for people like us. Every voice I’d ever heard in meetings echoed in that closing line. Maybe some of my students found it sappy or maudlin, that sense of belonging, but my heart swelled righteously against their imagined accusations. The story believed in something besides the self-immolating antics of dysfunction — their flickering, intoxicating glow. It was gazing somewhere beyond the horizon, past the blaze.
Johnson, who died last year, first tried to dry out in 1978, in his parents’ home in Tucson, where he was living with his eccentric grandmother Mimi, but he didn’t get sober for good until the early 1980s. “I was addicted to everything,” he said decades later. “Now I just drink a lot of coffee.” At first Johnson was “concerned about getting sober,” and knew this was “typical of people who feel artistic.” But he wrote only two stories and a few dozen poems in 10 years while he was actively using, so he figured he didn’t have much to lose. In the first decade after he got sober, he produced four novels, two collections of poetry, a collection of stories and a screenplay.
His was the arc I’d been looking for: the possibility of sobriety as jet fuel. In his archives, I found a letter a younger writer sent him in 1996: “I want to thank you for your unfailing support and friendship in helping me get acquainted with my alcoholism. It seems there are two kinds of American writers. Those who drink, and those who used to. You introduced me to the latter. Thanks, brother.”
In an early draft of “Beverly Home,” Johnson wrote: “Approval was something I craved more than drugs or alcohol, and I hadn’t been able to get it in the bars, but it seemed attainable in the rooms.” He meant the rooms of recovery. That early draft shows his ragged, stuttering attempt to articulate that transformation: I had sobered up just in time to have a nervous breakdown. I had no idea. I was a whimpering dog inside. nothing more than that.
In a 1965 book review for The New York Times, Charles Jackson wondered about the myth of the tormented artist: “Are we really all that tormented? Or is it something we hang onto, foster, even cherish?” During days spent in the archives and during the midnight hours of my own attempts to write, it was liberating to start questioning the ways I’d understood torment as a prerequisite to beauty. It was liberating to start imagining that there could be meaningful stories told about wreckage, sure, but also meaningful stories told about what it might mean to pull yourself out from under it: stories about showing up for work, for intimacy, for other people; stories about getting through ordinary days without drinking enough vodka to forget yourself entirely. The lie wasn’t that addiction could yield truth. The lie was that addiction had a monopoly on it.
Leslie Jamison is a contributing writer for the magazine. She last wrote about female rage. This article is adapted from “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,” to be published next month by Little, Brown.
A version of this article appears in print on March 18, 2018, on Page MM44 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: A Story to Get Sober In.
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