Intoxication and Its Aftermath
By Leslie Jamison
When Leslie Jamison was a student at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she fell in love with the myth of the alcoholic writer: the myth that liquor fed, not poisoned, great writing. By getting drunk in the same Iowa City bars as 20th-century alcoholic literary giants — John Cheever, Raymond Carver, John Berryman and, more recently, Denis Johnson — she felt as if she were raising a glass to them, as it were, and joining their illustrious company. “I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather: volatile and authentic,” she writes, and she desperately aspired to find her place among “the Old Drunk Legends.”
The first 200 pages of Jamison’s sprawling new memoir, “The Recovering,” follow the romantic formula of life as a literary alcoholic. She writes a bleak novel, “The Gin Closet,” about an alcoholic woman. “In Iowa, I spent my days reading dead drunk poets and my nights trying to sleep with live ones.” Life there “was magic”: She had “come to live. I was going to do things at parties here that I might talk about at parties later, elsewhere. I was thrumming with that promise.” College, too, “shimmered into myth” — being initiated into a secret society, buying V.S.O.P. cognac with a fake ID, dancing, drunkenly, while her strapless dress fell to her waist. “This was living,” she decides. After a bout with anorexia, “drinking felt like the opposite of restriction. It was freedom. It was giving into wanting, rather than refusing it.”
The notion that when she was drinking, she was really “living” — living large, in an adventurous, sexy, outsize fashion with great highs and dark lows and travel to cool places — comes up repeatedly. Drinking freed Jamison from her crippling self-consciousness and allowed her to pursue story-worthy experiences in Nicaragua (where she found herself having unwanted sex with a man but felt too drunk to say no); in Bolivia (where, drunk, she cheated on a boyfriend days before he was about to visit her); in Italy (where she and a long-term boyfriend quarreled, drunkenly, admired sunsets and ate delicious octopus).
As she drank she experienced the alcohol as abating unhappy emotions only to discover, again and again, that it was secretly abetting them. She sought out sex with strangers as “a way of purging feeling, siphoning it off and putting it somewhere else.” But drinking, she saw, was “a shape-shifter. It sheds its various costumes of pleasure and exposes itself as an attempt to flee the same sadness it always ends up deepening instead.”
Finally, she decides to go to an A.A. meeting in Iowa City. She fears that recovery will be boring: not merely that it will be a tedious experience to undergo, but that being in recovery will transform her into a dull person. In a touching, comic scene, her anxiety is fulfilled when, the first time she tells her story at a meeting, a crazy old man shouts at her that she is boring. It was as if, she writes, “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.”
The intellectual project of the book, as she sets it out, is to create a narrative about recovery that is as powerful as the fictional representations of alcoholism in literature. “If addiction stories run on the fuel of darkness … then recovery is often seen as the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness,” she writes. She reads a how-to-write-a-recovery-memoir guide and (surprise, surprise) finds it clichéd and formulaic. She fixates on the story of Charles Jackson, the alcoholic author of the best-selling 1944 novel “The Lost Weekend,” who became sober, but developed writer’s block, and was never able to publish the big book he planned to write about recovery. She even searches out the manuscript in his archives and confirms that it is, indeed, lifeless, which she takes as confirmation of her fears about sobriety. She describes herself as driven by the need “to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart.” She “needed to believe they could.”
Believe! It’s hard to know what to make of all this. Drawing on her Ph.D. thesis on writers and sobriety, she entwines her own story with fascinating, smartly chosen biographical sketches and quotations from famous alcoholic writers and their critics. She quotes, for example, a fawning 1967 Life magazine profile of Berryman, “Whiskey and Ink, Whiskey and Ink,” which asserted that Berryman needed both “to survive and describe” his acute sense of mortality. But that was 1967. The myth of the alcoholic writer seems decades out of date. (Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single prominent writer glorified for alcoholism today.)
What has replaced it has been an enormous flowering of recovery memoirs in the last few decades, which Jamison summarily dismisses. It’s unfortunate when writers believe they need to create a whole new genre in order for their work to be of value. Jamison’s book fits well into this rich body of recovery memoirs and her book would be strengthened by being situated among them, just as it is strengthened by the portraits of the famous fiction writers and poets she has included. Instead, as she continues her quest, she presents herself as discovering successful fiction dealing with recovery by Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace, while holding on to the fantasy that she alone must invent a memoir that transcends “the tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulation of a redemption story.” At one point, she describes picking up Caroline Knapp’s beloved memoir, “Drinking: A Love Story,” in a bookstore, but never tells us what she thinks of it! If she doesn’t feel that book (or Lee Stringer’s “Grand Central Winter,” which she also mentions) answers the question of whether a recovery memoir can be riveting, why not move on to work by, say, Mary Karr, David Carr, Susan Cheever, Jerry Stahl, Bill Clegg, or a dozen others?
Addiction is a handy tool in fiction because it causes characters to behave in dramatically destructive ways. And fictional characters don’t need to sober up because fiction does not require redemption — they can just perish. But there are no good memoirs about being a drunk and staying a drunk. Memoirs about addiction are always recovery stories — and, fortunately, recovery is a great subject. If addiction is an attempt to medicate bad feeling, recovery forces the writer to experience it straight, like everyone else.
In fact, for all the “this was living” justification of her drinking life, Jamison’s book actually becomes more alive and more interesting in the second half, when she starts wrestling with her demons sober, which is to say really wrestling.
Jamison’s prose is strikingly uneven. The writing itself seems tipsy: It can be energetic, colorful, fun, buzzy, affecting and spot on, but also loose, sloppy, digressive and excessively poetized at moments, veering into nebulous grandiosity. In “The Empathy Exams,” Jamison’s acclaimed book of essays, her writing benefited from the tighter form of the essay, whereas in this book, like a drunk spinning a colorful yarn at a party, she sometimes loses track of her audience and what we need to know. Her tale is bloated with detail about what she and various boyfriends did together too, while far too little is said about more central questions such as the curious lack of attempts at intervention by those boyfriends, not to mention her accomplished parents and her brothers. Perhaps she wants to preserve her family’s privacy, but, of course, the need for privacy is at odds with the needs of a memoir.
The redeeming grace of the book is Jamison’s honesty. She shared at an A.A. meeting that before she gets out of the car, she makes sure to turn the radio from the pop station she was enjoying to NPR in order to impress her boyfriend, and a woman in the meeting laughed and warmed up to her — and so will readers. Just when her self-indulgence becomes wearying, she cuts through it with a critique of her own self-absorption. She chooses to share many unflattering moments, both large and small. There was the time, for example, when she was living with her dying grandmother in order to take care of her, but instead she spent her nights holed upstairs in her room drinking wine she pinched from the hotel where she worked and her mornings trying to write her novel about alcoholism through a hangover. (In fact, her sense of moral failing was so keen that she was driven to ease her guilt with more booze.)
Emotional, as well as factual, honesty is the sine qua non of a memoir. Yet this kind of deep honesty — the merciless self-examination and exposure that Jamison displays — is increasingly rare in memoirs now that readers can, and will, attack them online. And many memoirists no longer feel the literary necessity of self-scrutiny, as the advertisements-for-myself-style writing on social media has been culturally validated.
The book is at its least successful when Jamison diverges from alcoholism to the larger social issue of criminalization of drug addiction, including the persecution of pregnant drug abusers and the targeting of minorities in the war on drugs. She trots out familiar arguments (that addicts should be suffering from a disease, not criminals) that may be true, but fail to advance the conversation. Attempts to link those arguments to her story seem more than a little strained. She writes about the infamous case of Marcia Powell — a mentally ill prostitute and crystal meth addict who died of heat exposure in 2009 in an outdoor holding cell in the Arizona desert. “My story included the woman who died in a cage in a desert, or her story included me; not just because of my guilt — the guilt of my privilege, or my survival — but because we both put things inside our bodies to change how we felt,” she writes.
The analogy seems like such a stretch that it belies the truth of each of their experiences. Jamison writes that while society would prefer to view the two women separately, she rejects that narrative — an assertion that seems like a clumsy attempt to ward off potential (unfair) criticism that her social privilege makes her own suffering an unworthy topic. Likewise, at the close of the book, she writes of the recovering alcoholics she met in A.A.: “In Iowa, in Kentucky, in Wyoming. In Los Angeles, in Boston, in Portland. I could say I wrote this book for all of them — for all of us — or I could say they wrote this book for me.” Identification rendered that broadly — the fantasy that the similarity between her and other addicts is so great that those strangers could actually have written her memoir — feels fulsome and so simplistic as to be almost silly.
The book is dedicated to “anyone addiction has touched.” Such readers will doubtless relate to her story and be grateful for her honesty and insight. But what about readers who do not have a personal interest in the subject? Jamison’s book falls into that vast category of good books that tantalize the reader with all the ways in which they could have been better.
534 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $30.