In her essay collection The Empathy Exams (Graywolf), one of the surprise hits of 2014, Leslie Jamison looked at a wide range of topics—disease, incarceration, abortion, self-harm—through the lens of few unifying questions: How and to what end do we feel the pain of others? How do our traumas manifest in our bodies? What can we learn from our uglier moments?
Those questions, and others, drive her new book, The Recovering (Little, Brown, Apr. 2018), which documents her years-long struggle with alcohol addiction and meditates on how others, especially fellow writers, have navigated dependence.
Her book is well timed: in the past few years, addiction—to opioids in particular—has become a leading health issue in the U.S. The New York Times reports that drug overdose is the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and a 2015 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that more than two million Americans struggle with opioid dependence. PW spoke with Jamison about the difficulty of talking about addiction, the relationship between substance abuse and creativity, and what in the way of “help” a book about recovery can hope to offer.
In your book, you refer to an Elizabeth Bishop poem in which she explains the origin of her alcoholism and then casts doubt on that explanation. How, in The Recovering, did you find a way around, to use a phrase from your book, the “false coherence” of addiction narratives?
Part of my desire to include many stories in the same book, rather than, say, just my own, in the way that a standard memoir might, was that I wanted to honor the multiplicity of narratives, as a way of avoiding the “false coherence” of a single narrative. The same goes for explaining addiction inside a life. In the Bishop poem, for example, it probably is true that there were early issues of abandonment and fear that were part of Bishop’s relationship to alcohol. But it’s also important to recognize that the truth isn’t just that. [It’s more about] thinking of truth as a cumulative, layered thing.
A striking feature of your book is your willingness to talk about the appeal of substances. Do you think that aspect of addiction—the fact that drinking or using drugs can give pleasure—is missing from the conversations we tend to have about addiction?
I quote my dad at one point in the book. He says, essentially, that the problem with most drug-education programs is that they don’t talk about how good [drugs] feel. That captures something that feels true to me. In order to have an honest conversation about addiction that’s trying to suss out why and how addiction becomes a part of people’s lives, and how we can help get them treatment, it seems imperative to talk about, well, what’s the draw in the first place? It’s not an utterly senseless act. There’s a kind of relief, or bliss, or feeling of elevated consciousness. There’s something driving that experience.
As you point out, several writers, including Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, seemed to find in substances a kind of gateway to profundity. How, as a writer yourself, did you reconcile that perhaps tempting outlook on substance abuse with your own need to get sober?
One of things that happened to me as I drank and then got sober was realizing that a lot of the writers that I had idolized as “drunk prophets” had gotten sober, or tried to. Their stories were more complicated than the mythos of drunken creativity that I had written for them. They tried to incorporate recovery and sobriety into their creative lives, with varying results. It opened up one of the central inquires of the book. How can recovery be another form, or another manifestation, of creativity?
You quote a line from Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.” Was it part of your goal, in writing this book, to help people?
Having a set moral to the story can be the least helpful approach to writing a book, in terms of reaching people. I wanted to speak to what I think is a pretty universal feeling of being overwhelmed by wanting, or craving, all kinds of things—people, lovers, attention, whatever it is. My vision of how a book might be helpful is not entirely dissimilar to how a recovery meeting is helpful: there’s consolation in the fact of encountering other people’s stories.