The first time she told the story of her recovery from alcohol addiction, Leslie Jamison recalls in her memoir The Recovering, an older man in the front row of the meeting where she was speaking started shouting: “This is boring!”
Jamison is quick to assure us that the man was ill, “losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech.” Still, diminished though he was, the man had been a pillar of the local recovery community, and even now “he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that never got said aloud in meetings.” And now he was saying, very loudly, that he was bored.
The moment clearly shook her—it comes up twice in The Recovering—but perhaps she should have paid more attention to what the man was saying. Jamison, author of the 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, is an incisive stylist and has amassed an enormous amount of information and insight on what her subtitle calls “intoxication and its aftermath.” But her own recovery story, the spine on which she hangs reams of archival research and reportage, is—well, boring is a little harsh, but it’s not enough to carry a 500-page book.
Jamison is what is known in sobriety circles as a “high-bottom drunk.” The daughter of a prominent health economist, she earned degrees from Harvard, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Yale. Along the way, she started drinking. Then she started drinking a lot. In her mid-20s, while on break from her doctoral program, she stopped drinking. A few months later, she started again. Seven months after that, she stopped for good. She was 27 years old and had never been arrested, never lost a job to drinking, never landed in jail or a psych ward, never shot drugs, nor caused bodily harm to another person.
To state the obvious: this isn’t a bad thing. Jamison is to be commended for seeking help before she tore up her life, and in truth, her story probably hews closer to the lived experience of most addicts than the lurid tales of junkies shooting up into their genitals that you find in pulpy memoirs and on reality TV. It also hews pretty closely to my own experience. I can’t claim Jamison’s Ivy League pedigree or her precocious literary success, but, like her, I quit drinking in my 20s, leaving a long trail of “nevers” and “not yets.” Even so, addiction, and the years it took me to recover from it, left a blast hole in my life I still grapple with to this day.
So, for the first 100 pages or so, I cheered on The Recovering as a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do. Jamison offers up instead a quieter story of an addict whose life looks great on the outside—She’s in a doctoral program at Yale! She has a debut novel coming out!—but who, unbeknownst to those around her, is slipping deeper and deeper into despair. She sneaks white wine at a B&B where she works and picks endless low-grade fights with her boyfriend until, at a low point, she comes home already drunk and fills a cup with eight shots of whiskey and drinks until she can’t remember. “I hadn’t set off a bomb in the middle of my own life,” she writes. “It had just grown small and curdled. I lived with shame like another organ nestled inside me, swollen with banal regrets.”
The Recovering shimmers throughout with lines like that, but 500 pages is a very long time to watch a woman suffer in silence. Perhaps sensing this, Jamison intercuts her story with archival research about other addicts, like singer Billie Holiday and poet John Berryman. Too often, though, stories of lifelong addicts like Holiday, who grew up black and poor and died literally handcuffed to a hospital bed, sit uneasily alongside that of a Harvard-educated novelist who sobered up her 20s without so much as a DWI.
Jamison is, of course, wise to this. “I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationships to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than a punishment,” she writes, adding: “My skin is the right color to permit my intoxication.” But awareness of privilege doesn’t blunt its protective force, and in the end the borrowed pathos of the stories of Holiday and Berryman and other writers like Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace never solves the core problem, which is that Jamison’s own story lacks the dramatic heft to bear the weight of analysis and research she piles upon it.
Much of this, I suspect, could be resolved by more ruthless editing. There is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long. But I wonder, too, if in her effort to highlight the stories of addiction, Jamison shortchanges another essential element of recovery. Midway through the book, newly sober and stranded at a weeklong writing retreat in a converted tofu factory in small-town Iowa, Jamison stays up until five a.m. obsessively watching an obscure BBC miniseries to distract herself from drinking.
The next morning, desperate, she finds a meeting at a nearby church, where there are only three other people, two of them leather-clad bikers passing through the area. When Jamison tells the group about staying up all night watching the BBC miniseries, “one of the bikers—a huge man with a snake tattooed around his neck—nodded so vigorously [she] was sure he’d say he’d seen that miniseries, too.” He hadn’t, of course, but as Jamison says, “he knew what it was like when craving tugged you like a puppet.”
He knew what it was like.
I’ve spent decades in church basements listening to people tell their stories, and I can’t say I recall the details of more than one or two. I’m a story person, but it wasn’t the stories that got me sober. It wasn’t anything anyone said, really. It was that for the first time in my life I felt heard, that when I said aloud completely insane things whole rooms full of people nodded along in perfect understanding.
In an afterword, Jamison writes that she “wanted to write a book that worked like a meeting,” by which she means that she “needed to include the stories of others alongside [her] own.” That’s one way of describing how a meeting works, as a series of people telling their stories. I’ve certainly sat through my share of those, but the meetings that stuck with me, the ones that changed me, were the ones where someone cried out in pain and a room full of people listened.
To my mind, that is the deeper secret to recovery, that force of constructive listening, the almost osmotic process of drawing the pain out of a human being in crisis and allowing it to settle, if only for an hour, in the body of the group. Jamison describes several moments of this kind in The Recovering, like that morning in the Iowa church basement and others later when she meets with a sponsor and begins helping people with less sobriety than herself, but each time she moves on to recount yet another argument with her boyfriend, yet another anecdote about John Berryman.
What drew me to The Empathy Exams was the sense I had of Jamison as being a crackerjack listener, a woman willing to sit without judgment as people told her, for instance, about their experience with Morgellons disease, a crackpot-sounding syndrome in which people believe their bodies are being attacked from within by tiny fibers no one else can see. The Empathy Exams is a book-length feat of constructive listening, and I suppose I came to The Recovering hoping Jamison would do the same for a world I know well. Instead, I got a lot of stories about addicts. Some are absorbing, others less so, but let’s face it: ours is a culture awash in addicts’ stories. They fill whole shelves at the bookstore and amuse the millions on TV. What we need is what there has never been enough of: more, and better, listening.