In April, Little, Brown will publish Leslie Jamison's nonfiction book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath. Jameison, 34, is productive in more ways than one: she is the director of the creative nonfiction program at Columbia University; the author of a novel, The Gin Closet (Free Press, 2010), and a collection of essays, The Empathy Exams (Graywolf, 2014); and a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She earned a PhD in American literature from Yale in 2016, where she will return in the spring as a Poynter fellow in journalism. And she'll be touring for The Recovering with her newborn daughter in tow.
As Jamison spoke softly in the light-filled, book-lined living room of the Park Slope apartment she shares with her husband, novelist Charles Bock, and their nine-year-old daughter from his first marriage, 11-day-old Ione Bird nestled on her lap. “She came three weeks early, which was a good early lesson in disruption,” Jamison says. “I had everything planned out. I had a piece closing for the Times Magazine. The whole deal with babies is that they don’t operate by your carefully orchestrated plans.”
Jamison says she worked on The Recovering for seven or eight years, but it’s hard to draw a bright line between the research on addiction narratives that she did for her dissertation and her work on the book. In typical fashion, Jamison conjures up a poetic metaphor: “I saw these Amazonian tree frogs at the Museum of Natural History, and I learned that the male frog would sometimes inseminate a little clutch of eggs for one female frog and then trick other females into thinking he would fertilize their eggs, but would instead use them to feed the earlier set of eggs. I was using my dissertation to fill out the contours of this more nebulous project. It helped me to be disciplined about the more archival parts of the research; people read early chapters and asked really hard questions. Getting pushed on the thinking was invaluable.”
The Recovering is difficult to define. Jamison herself has struggled with alcoholism, and the book comprises a unique mix of memoir, nonfiction reporting, and literary criticism. Ultimately, like an AA meeting, it features the voices of many different figures, all engaged in similar struggles.
The question of how to categorize the book was much discussed, Jamison recalls. “It came up in a pointed way when we were trying to figure out the subtitle. I didn’t want to call it memoir, or biography. Is it a chronicle? An intoxication? I really think of it as a chorus—that’s the most resonant word for me, insofar as it always felt integral to me to put my story in conversation with other stories. Figuring out the structure took years and was quite tricky, but what was always exciting was this idea of using the structure to enact one of the things that felt most important to me about recovery, which was outward attention and connecting to other lives.”
In part, The Recovering is a response to the “whiskey-and-ink mythology” that surrounds so many admired writers and artists. Jamison says, “When I got sober, for very selfish reasons I wanted alternatives to that mythology, because I wanted to believe that getting stable was not the enemy of art. I was looking not to debunk any connection between pain and creativity—because obviously there’s a profound connection between pain and what it means to make art—but to say there are other ways. Also, there was a real aesthetic gauntlet I was throwing down for myself. I wanted the recovery material to be as compelling as the downward-spiral material. So often in addiction memoirs there’s a final tepid chapter. I wanted to write a book that narrated the aftermath that wasn’t Pollyanna or sugar coated. For me it felt like life sharpened and got more acute and more rich rather than flattening out.”
The subject of addiction is complex and little understood. Indeed, Jamison notes, “There’s a lot that is genuinely confusing and paradoxical about how addiction works: somebody keeps doing something that is ruining their life. There’s a book by Maia Szalavitz called Unbroken Brain in which she frames addiction as a learning disorder, because it keeps having negative consequences, but you’re not drawing the right conclusions from those. Yet it can be a dangerous alibi to say addiction defies all explanation. Experientially, I found a thousand different ways to explain my own relationship to alcohol. It was about confronting my true self, escaping my true self, insecurity. Probably none of those were true, or each one had a kind of partial truth to it.”
And addiction in the United States is, of course, intrinsically linked to incarceration. Jamison says of the current political moment, “One of the encouraging things about the public and governmental response to the opioid crisis was that it was starting to be seen as something where treatment was the answer rather than a punitive response. Then Trump got elected and ushered in this climate that across the board is invested in cutting social services, leaving people out in the cold, this dehumanizing approach to suffering and resources. Our approach to addiction has been broken for so long, and we need to think of it in radically different terms. Instead they’re creating villains, blaming problems on scapegoat-able figures. If the very nature of addiction involves not reacting to negative consequences, why would a punitive model be a good way of responding?”
Jamison confesses that she likes writing in “stolen pockets of time—they have the feeling of something pressurized and energized,” and says she has a weakness for “mistress projects,” i.e., books that call to her when she’s meant to be devoted to something else. She’s already turned in another collection of essays, tentatively titled Ghost Essays, to Little, Brown (where it was the second in a two-book contract).
“The theme of the collection is the states of hauntedness and obsession,” Jamison says. “But the idea that links everything together is a quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: ‘When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?’ It’s about how we’re shaped by the things we can’t ever fully reach or have, but the essays themselves are about very concrete things, like this whale called ‘the loneliest whale in the world’ who’s a whale no one has ever seen, but his mating call has a different frequency than any other whale’s call. A whole coterie of people have identified with him. I was thinking about why and how we project ourselves onto the natural world and the camaraderie we seek. There’s a piece about children who have memories of prior lives and how their families have built narratives. And a piece about Second Life, the online world. Those were written over the course of five years, but they feel cut from the same cloth in the sense that they’re all about finding meaning outside the boundaries of your daily life.”■
Natalie Danford is a novelist, food writer, and translator.