Ed Simon thinks through the spiritual malady of addiction in this review essay of Leslie Jamison’s memoir.
Leslie Jamison, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath (Little, Brown and Company, 2018), 544pp.
“I have suffered from abnormal thirst” – Elizabeth Bishop
“Of course there’s a mythology that goes along with the drinking.
But I was never into that. I was into the drinking itself.” – Raymond Carver
In her addiction memoir The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison makes it abundantly and poignantly clear that it’s the first drink that will get you drunk. This is a wisdom that makes little sense to the majority of people who have no difficulty in normally drinking. It is perhaps even a knowledge that doesn’t apply to those ever-bloated legions of “problem drinkers,” the weekend warriors who slink off home and enjoy half a micro-brew on the weekends. Rather, Jamison’s understanding is reserved for a tribe that’s gone by different names, from “dipsomaniacs” to “alcoholics,” but who are unified in that one unassailable commonality – at a certain point they can’t stop. For Jamison, that one drink is too many precisely because then all of the drinks will never be enough.
Through grace (or luck), some of those afflicted have fully internalized that handy equation, so that they can come out the other side of those experiences still living (many don’t). The Recovering explores not just what it means to have joined that society of the previously inebriated. There are dozens of incredible addiction memoirs on that from Mary Karr’s Lit to Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. Jamison fully pokes Dionysius in the eye, asking why the Devil should get all the good tunes? She claims that there is as much creative ferment in sobriety as our deadly romantic myths that tell us that there are in drunkenness. Sometimes the path of excess can lead to the mansion of wisdom, but there is a lot of falling off the curb on the way there, and most people never get up again. Jamison provides an account of what that mansion’s rooms are like when she finally pays a visit.
Author of the celebrated 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, Jamison combines material from her Yale doctoral dissertation, as well as her understanding of being an active addict and her subsequent time in Alcoholics Anonymous. She dwells at length with the possibility that hers is simply “another” alcoholism memoir, name-checking exemplars of the form like Knapp’s account. Yet, true to the twelfth step of the fellowship of which she is a member, she shares her own experience, strength, and hope not because it is exemplary, but precisely because it is so common. She explains that this “commonality could be its own saving grace.” It’s precisely the sharing of narrative that is capable of keeping people sober, often in the sanctuary of a church basement with its eucharist of instant coffee and stale cookies. Jamison claims it is the fusion of universalism and singularity central to the process of recovery that defines AA, and writes that The Recovering could be a “book that might work like a meeting.”
The Recovering is not just Jamison’s own account of alcoholism and sobriety, but it’s also a query into the damaging myth that creativity can only be fueled by booze, and that writers are in particularly a holy intoxicated tribe. A graduate of the esteemed University of Iowa Writers Workshop, Jamison imbued this legend with every whisky, beer, and vodka tonic she drank, writing that Iowa City “surged with dreamlike tales of dysfunction,” that there was “Raymond Carver and John Cheever tire-squalling through early-morning grocery-store parking lots to restock their liquor stash” (both men, incidentally, went onto productive sobriety). She considers “Denis Johnson getting drunk at the Vine and writing short stories about getting drunk at the Vine” (also went onto sobriety), and “John Berryman opening bar tabs on Dubuque Street and ranting about Whitman till dawn, playing chess and leaving his bishops vulnerable” (attempted sobriety; suicide).
“Great Drinkers” shot glasses, literary themed cocktail books, and not one but two Boston bars named “Bukowski’s” all attest to this presumed connection between creativity and alcoholism – and thus the need to feed the latter in service of the former. Reading Ernest Hemingway’s Garden of Eden, written while he suffered from late-stage alcoholism, should dissuade anyone of this causal connection, though the link between writers and drinking endures for a reason, especially in the United States. Of the nine Americans to have won the Noble Prize in Literature, only three (Pearl Buck, Saul Bellow, and Toni Morrison) were not addicts at some point in their lives. Psychiatrist David Goodwin in his 1990 study Alcohol and the Writer concluded that after bartenders, writers were the occupation with the highest incidences of cirrhosis. A 15-year study conducted in the late 1980s at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop by psychiatrist Nancy J. Andreasen discovered that among both the faculty and students of the program, 30% would qualify as alcoholics when compared to a little under 7% for the wider public – more than a decade before Jamison would saddle up to those same Iowa City bars. With such heady influences, Berryman reciting Whitman and Johnson stumbling home down snow-blanketed streets, Jamison resisted the dreary call of sobriety. Yet, as for all people who must give up drinking, it was this thing that she loved which was killing her: “I wanted to believe that giving up booze didn’t mean giving up electricity.”
As the examples of Berryman and David Foster Wallace demonstrate, no happy endings are ensured, even in sobriety. But what Jamison pushes against isn’t the stereotype of the alcoholic writer. Rather, it’s to puncture its romanticism. “We love our drunk heroes intoxicated,” Jamison writes, “We don’t want to watch them get sober.” And yet the full human cost of the disease is obscured in a shaky haze of recounted anecdotes, embodied in drained pint glasses and filled ash trays. Examining a Life magazine spread about Berryman’s readings in Dublin and his subsequent whisky-and-Guinness-fueled pub crawl, Jamison writes that the connection made between whisky as the “fluid he ingested” and ink as the “fluid he produced” is simplistic and damaging. She reminds us that rather than ink flowing in his veins, Berryman was actually “full of ordinary human blood… that his drinking slowly poisoned.” Drinking didn’t give us The Dream Songs, but it did give Berryman thousands of blackouts, and hangovers, as well as embarrassment. Romanticize impromptu bar-stool lectures that go on till dawn all you want, but it’s much harder to valorize drunkenly shitting your pants in public. Berryman didn’t write because of his drinking. He wrote in spite of it. The alcohol merely made something unendurable inside of him endurable, until it couldn’t.
The Recovering in many ways acts as a companion piece to Olivia Laing’s excellent The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (2013). In that travelogue, Laing, the daughter of alcoholics, examines the mythos of the drunken American writer as she looks into the lives of iconic authors and drinkers, some of whom like Cheever and Carver got sober, some of whom like Hemingway didn’t. There is, for all of its complexity, a celebrated “shimmering link between drinking and darkness, between drinking and knowing.” Jamison reminds us of the full costs of that knowing, or of acquiring what we think we know. Her book is sort of The Trip to Echo Spring from the other side of the bottle. One thing left unconsidered in The Recovering is the “Why?” behind this association between writers and alcoholism. It is easy enough to forget that vomiting and the shakes aren’t just for Noble laureates, that teachers, plumbers, lawyers, doctors, cops, and accountants suffer too. Addiction is a common human affliction, for “the desire to alter consciousness is as old as consciousness itself,” as Jamison puts it. Increasingly, however, addiction speaks with a particularly American accent. Entire communities have been decimated by the opioid epidemic. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under the age of 50. A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve reports that 20% of Americans personally know somebody addicted to an opioid, and for the past two years the average life expectancy has dropped as a direct result of the epidemic. These are not stories of just famous writers. These are the narratives of your friends and family, and maybe you. Where The Recovering shines the fullest is neither in accounts of authors like Charles Jackson and Jean Rhys, or in Jamison’s own drunkalogue, but rather in the stories of others in recovery. This is a fraternity (and sorority) with millions of members meeting in the basement of the Capital building and in Anacostia homeless shelters; up a graffiti covered door in a third-floor walk-up at the corner of 8th and 42nd; in an oak paneled library in an Episcopalian cathedral on Madison; in Salt Lake City churches; and on the Las Vegas Strip. As destructive as Sister Morphine might be, America is a country which is still the kingdom of John Barleycorn. And where there is disease, there is need for a palliative.
Alcohol and alcoholism remain surprisingly overlooked as a public health issue. Booze remains culturally enmeshed and the individual possibility of becoming addicted is low, compared to substances like heroine, despite its potency. With 88,000 annual deaths a year due to alcohol related causes as reported by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking remains the third highest cause of preventable death in the country, after tobacco-use and obesity. More than a quarter of adults are monthly binge drinkers, and 6.7% of adults – that’s 15.1 million people – qualify as having “alcohol use disorder,” the DSM-V’s new designation for alcoholism. Rightly wary of the puritanical disaster that was Prohibition, and well aware that the vast majority of drinkers drink without any problem, alcoholism is often obscured in the public imagination, and viewed as either romantic or an issue of willpower. A general ignorance surrounds its etiology, the ways in which a complex combination of genetics, acculturation, and experience can render some people addicts while others can drink without problem.
That alcoholism isn’t purely a writer’s disease is true, but it’s the metaphorical acumen of the writer that allows normies to more fully comprehend what exactly the alcoholic predicament is. Jamison’s prose is an exemplar of explanatory alcoholic rhetoric. Her narrative is spiked with conceits that convey the difference between the act of drinking and imbibing with the deck stacked against you. For Jamison and her fellow alcoholics, drinking promises “the unmistakable feeling of coming home,” of feeling “initiated, aglow.” She writes that most “addicts describe drinking or using as filing a lack” and that “being drunk was like having a candle lit inside you.” For all the heartbreak that drinking will eventually cause for the alcoholic, there is still that unrepentant gleam. Elegies are composed for feet placed on the brass rail, elbows on the bar top, and the cold feel of a whisky tumbler with ice melting into yellow amber. Jamison is constitutionally unable to comprehend the idea of someone leaving a vodka tonic unfinished, or of not having an emergency bottle of scotch in a desk drawer. This, it should be said, is not an issue of willpower or morality, but rather of the combination of factors which define her disease. As the non-alcoholic can’t understand why an alcoholic refuses temperance after their drinking problems set in, so the alcoholic can’t fully comprehend how people can drink without consequences. “Addiction doesn’t surprise me,” Jamison writes, “It seems more surprising that some people aren’t… I didn’t understand why everyone in the world wasn’t getting drunk every night.”
To the alcoholic, drinking could be like finding a missing puzzle piece; turning the volume on the stereo down; or opening a pressure gauge on one’s head. But it’s through language that something as cunning, baffling, and powerful as alcoholism can ever be conveyed. Addiction, Jamison explains, “has always been two things at once: a set of disrupted neurotransmitters and a series of stories we’ve told about disruption.” Narrative is at the center of the alcoholic’s self-understanding, whether in the romanticizing of drinking or the denial of its destructive results. Stories of drunken heroism and misadventure, and stories of abject humiliation are strangely united in this sense. What makes narrative so potent is that it also conveys the possibility of redemption, represented by the drafting of new stories. “I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” Jamison writes, ultimately concluding that recovery stories “lend meaningful arcs of cohesion,” and they “save us from our lives by letting us construct ourselves.” I once was lost, now I’m found, and so on and so forth.
Ironically, it’s both addiction and recovery that makes all alcoholics storytellers, in the first instance as means of rationalization and in the second as a method of salvation. Jamison experiences the life-saving aspects of narrative in AA, where the open sharing of trauma and redemption constitutes a network of empathy designed to help the white-knuckling alcoholic in early sobriety to hold on just one more day at a time. What it was like, what happened, what it’s like now. Drunkalogues tell versions of the same story. There are certain generic touchstones: the unquenchable, almost metaphysical thirst and the unremitting guilt; the missed appointments and shirked responsibilities; the secretive drinking and the hiding of empties; the horror of blackout and the dangers of withdrawal. The list of all of those whom the drinker has hurt. A set typology to the alcoholic’s life, both before and in recovery, but as Jamison writes these “stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it.” The ultimate irony in trying to divorce literary creativity from alcoholism is the discovery that the fundamental units of narrative are in many ways central to recovery. Bucking against everything she learned about literature at Iowa and in her PhD program at Yale, she understands that in AA “originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.” Ideally for those who aren’t addicted, this universality would “humanize those under its thrall.” But in the program, the point is estimably more pragmatic. Talking and listening about alcoholism gets addicts sober.
Inevitably AA generates criticism as being fundamentally religious. Articles such as Gabrielle Glaser’s “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous” published in The Atlantic (April 2015) argue that harm-reduction techniques are preferable to the abstinence approach advocated for by AA. Also, principles outlined in the massive text Alcoholics Anonymous (colloquially known as the “Big Book”) don’t reflect the most current thinking about addiction. For these denigrators, there is the taint of the numinous about AA: The Big Book as a type of scripture; it’s founder Bill W. as quasi-messianic; the meetings a form of secularized confession; the 12-step program an equivalent of contrition; the sobriety tokens as relics; and the traditions as rituals. The mentioning of a “Higher Power” speaks for itself. As with most secular critiques of anything which has sublimated theology at its core, this appraisal is both correct and irrelevant – in part because modernity is defined by sublimated theology. While many defenders of the program would disagree that AA is in some sense “religious,” that conclusion seems unassailable to me and also totally beside the point, save for the first amendment issues involved with court ordered attendance. Some defenders of AA will say that the “Higher Power” talk is “spiritual and not religious,” or that it speaks not of the Abrahamic God, but a “God of your own understanding.” There is a bit of the dodge about it, for the brilliance of letting the member define that God in their own terms is a combination of Jamesian Pragmatism with behavior modification which notably works.
Jamison explains that the “Higher Power… was simply not me. That was all I knew. It was a force animating the world in all of its particular glories: jelly-fish, the clean turn of line breaks, pineapple upside-down cake, my friend Rachel’s laughter.” Bill W. forged AA out of a particularly Protestant understanding of the world, drawing inspiration from evangelical lay societies like the Oxford group, but if the 12-Steps is a variant of religion, then it is distinct from the faith which birthed it. By very pluralistic logic of American religious promiscuity, it can be combined with any number of other faiths, or no conventional faith at all. That is the sectarian brilliance of this homegrown religion, bearing the appearance of not being one at all. And yet, millions have been saved in the sanctuaries beneath cathedrals as much as they have been in the pews above. Jamison explains that if this “place was a house of worship, Bill Wilson wasn’t its god. The god was communion itself: the cups of coffee, the possibility of penetrating the ordinary loneliness of being a drunk.” There is something radically transgressive in a group anarchically organized with absolutely no established hierarchy. It is structured in an entirely horizontal way. It also requires no dues to attend. Addiction, it could be said, is the modern spiritual malady most afflicting Americans. As Jamison remarks, it was born from “one of the core promises of capitalism – transformation through consumption”, an injunction to “Make something of yourself.” In her most truthful of definitions, she explains that “drinking is a thwarted flight into transcendence; like a dog chained to a post, barking at the sky.” By contrast, abstinence almost takes on a radical import. So often mocked as the lifestyle of a scold or a puritan, there is something transgressive in tee-totaling, something subversive in sobriety. It is to willfully opt out of at least one of those endless cycles which defines the post-modern condition.
For alcoholics, there is a particularly predictable manifestation of at least one aspect of this condition. John Cheever’s masterpiece “The Swimmer” from a 1964 edition of The New Yorker conveys a particular sense of this process. Suburban husband Ned Merrill decides that he’ll journey back to his house by swimming through the pools of his neighbors’ homes, stopping off for cocktails on the way. Yet, at the narrative progresses, so too does Ned’s affliction. A tone of subtle, yet malevolent, surrealism permeates the story. Time and seasons are wrenched from Ned’s consciousness. By the time he arrives home, disheveled with seemingly years of his life lost, he finds it abandoned and overgrown, his wife having long since left. Where exactly things went wrong for him, and why they didn’t seem to go wrong in the same way for others doing the same thing, was of course the great mystery of Ned’s disease. But that mystery is also irrelevant to the tragedy of it. Cheever writes, equally of himself, that Ned “had done what he wanted, he had swum the county, but he was so stupefied with exhaustion that his triumph seemed vague.” Sick and tired of being sick and tired it would seem. The story’s author was deep in his cups that season of ’64. But a decade later, even Cheever could get sober.
The affection for the abusive partner which is alcohol and nostalgic ruminations of the “sepia toned glow of the Advocate’s wooden floor, sticky with gin” ensnare the alcoholic in their spiral. This desire to be “absent from my own life… to feel the world made strange, more spellbinding or simply more possible,” the “instant alchemy of drinking” is what defined the first part of Jamison’s life, and her rejection of it defines the second. What The Recovering recounts through Jamison’s story, and the millions identical to hers, is that while there is something inevitable about the thirteenth drink after the first, the first doesn’t have to be. One should simply say “Thanks for sharing.”
Ed Simon is an Editor-at-Large with The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of the Los Angeles Review of Books. A specialist in early modern literature and religion, he received a PhD in English from Lehigh University. A widely published freelance author, his essays regularly appear on sites such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Jacobin, Aeon, Nautilus, Atlas Obscura, Berfrois, The Revealer, Killing the Buddha, Religion Dispatches, Salon, Newsweek, and Tablet, among several others. A proud native Pittsburgher, he now lives in Massachusetts.