Finding the Literary Truths in Alcoholism and Recovery
When Leslie Jamison realized she had to quit drinking, she was also giving up on everything she’d ever been taught about literature. By the time Jamison took her last drink (so far), she had been taught by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and by most of her mentors and professors, a credo totally opposite from what she was learning in her 12-Step recovery. Lit culture prized originality, but AA scorned “terminal uniqueness,” the false belief that you alone cannot not be helped by what had helped so many before you. Jamison found herself forced to turn from experiment to tradition; from the lone genius to the chorus of the anonymous; from “make it new” to cliché; from art for art’s sake to useful, lifesaving writing; from linear progression and clear endings to the humility of “one day at a time” and “my last drink—so far.”
In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Jamison interlaces her own story with reflections on John Berryman and Raymond Carver, Wide Sargasso Sea and Infinite Jest, Under the Volcano and The Lost Weekend—a whole ice-clinking canon. The Recovering suggests that the experience of addiction and recovery can shift our understanding of narrative and literary creation.
Despite the legendary role alcohol plays in American literature—one study is called The Thirsty Muse: Alcohol and the American Writer—compulsive drinking is the opposite of dramatic. Jamison revisits the milestones (“the first time I sought blackout, the first time I wanted nothing more than to be absent from my own life… the first time I dreamed about lying about drinking”), but once you’re deep enough into the territory, the whole landscape goes blank. None of your attempts go anywhere. None of your epiphanies change anything. No catastrophe is climax. Every day is the same, only worse. I remember walking that tight circuit from the liquor store to my apartment, every single day no matter how much I wanted to do something else, This is the song that never ends. It just goes on and on, my friends. Some people started singing it, not knowing what it was, And they’ll continue singing it forever just because. This is the song…. You can’t make a novel out of that.
Recovery might seem like a better dramatic subject. At least something happens. But Jamison argues that elements of recovery resist our contemporary understanding of literature. She shows Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, describing narration as temptation: “It has always been a hazard for me to speak at an AA meeting…because I knew that I could do better than other people. I really had a story to tell. …I could dramatize it.”
What we recover in recovery can be dramatic: family, friendship, repentance. But the process is not dramatic—its milestones can only appear in retrospect (it took me until August 2012 to realize my last serious craving for drink had been in March) and they can only be named tentatively (…I mean, my last so far). A lot of early recovery looks like sitting in a filthy bedroom trying very hard not to go anywhere or do anything, because if you don’t move, you can’t drink.
Jamison hopes The Recovering is “a book that works like a meeting,” a book written “in chorus, without the numbing privacy of getting drunk.” So it’s appropriate that the best parts of Jamison’s book are her literary insights: her attentiveness to others’ work. There are hard, recognizable truths scattered throughout the reflections on her life and recovery-in-general—anorexia as a way to hit the pause button on your life; that first gulp of vodka as “coming home.” Her first attempt at sobriety begins by showing her boyfriend the cup of whiskey she’d hidden behind the sofa: a silent synecdoche. But many of The Recovering’s most striking insights concern literature. Jamison identifies tropes of alcoholism writing, like the refusal of etiology. She interprets Jean Rhys as someone whose masterwork honors the suffering and inner life of those who harm others. (Rhys inspires one of the book’s best lines: “Her female characters were her hair shirts.”) She tells The Lost Weekend as a story of, among many other things, anxiety of influence: Jackson’s hero drunk-dials F. Scott Fitzgerald and castigates himself for the banal melodrama of his story. She calls Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel “a twisted version of rehab,” where Jack Torrance becomes obsessed with “the hotel’s own sordid drunkalog,” which is flat-out brilliant.
It’s less appropriate—more painfully ironic—that the book’s greatest weaknesses come from Jamison’s docility, her willingness to be trained. The prose style is relentlessly writers’-workshopped, that windy, self-impressed MFA style: “Life with David was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled.” If you do a shot every time Jamison deploys the “adjective and adjective and adjective” form, or its cousin “noun-that-should-be-an-adjective and imprecise-but-jarring noun,” you will black out by page 100. For every glint of self-deprecating humor (a line of cocaine is “straightened by a credit card that was honestly probably a debit card”) there are three or four muddled images like “being a black man in a country that had cosigned on the notion of his criminality before he was born” (cosigned…with whom?).
And Jamison’s gratitude toward AA sometimes becomes boosterism. In the book’s author’s note Jamison denies that AA is the only way. But she doesn’t talk to anyone who is recovering without AA, or who has been seriously disillusioned by it, or who needed a different language for hope. As I read Jamison’s work, I was revisiting Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—a book in which “humility” and “acceptance” curdle in the characters’ mouths as they’re used to justify white supremacy.
This is a reporting problem, which comes forth most clearly when Jamison describes Seneca House, a semipro rehab that opened in 1971. Seneca used gentler versions of the public humiliation techniques (making residents wear signs or clothing exposing their vulnerabilities) and “marathon sessions” of confrontational counseling that are common in abusive rehabs. Jamison speaks only to people who loved Seneca and I do not doubt it did them great good. But The Recovering doesn’t wonder whether the 12-Step insistence that alcoholics have an especial need for humility and docility—“Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth!”—contributes to a culture in which we’re disbelieved and humiliated for our own good. (“Humble?” a drug-court judge asks a defendant. “Willing to listen now?”) When Jamison describes how Seneca held an intervention for its director, she gives no credence whatsoever to the woman’s own account of what happened. “For me,” Jamison says, “it wasn’t just moving but useful to know that Gwen had hit a wall one day and started crying.” Not only is there limited concern here with truth, there’s no hint that a story of AA people being wrong about what you need might also help some people.
Jamison’s inattention to AA’s insufficiencies is a spiritual problem: if you’re going to praise AA cliches, you might note the people they’ve failed. Jamison shows the heartbreaking diligence with which John Berryman returned again and again to the 12 Steps. I’ve been in meetings that ended with “Keep coming back—it works if you work it, so work it, you’re worth it!” If the clichés are true, should we conclude that Berryman didn’t really work hard enough? Or what?
And it’s a literary problem: Jamison forces every recovery narrative into one genre, the genre of sincere choral service. Her assessment of Infinite Jest is warped by her strenuous (and endearing) wholesomeness. She’s able to see that David Foster Wallace depicted recovery as “absurd,” but she can’t see that he also satirized its excesses—the rehab founder who made residents eat rocks to prove their determination; the Guy That Didn’t Even Use His First Name.
The Recovering includes a beautiful, insightful description of how AA caused Jamison to reinterpret her early church experiences: “I was shy and uncomfortable in my own body, kneecaps bruised by wooden kneelers, afraid of the vulnerabilities of belief—afraid to find anything too beautiful, or fall for it. …The more you had to make yourself believe, I was sure, the more false your belief was.” Whereas recovery teaches “that I could do things until I believed in them, that intentionality was just as authentic as unwilled desire.”
But in spite of a lovely description of praying when you don’t know why you’re doing it (“a ritualized cry of longing and insufficiency”), The Recovering is largely uninterested in the Second and Third Steps. Jamison explains that AA “teaches coping strategies, facilitates community, and rewards abstinence”; it also, you know, brings people to God. Even AA itself offers more genres—the mystical, the frankly religious—than The Recovering can fully acknowledge.
I love Jamison’s realization that you can live in and through others’ words, not your own—that your expression can be “less like a sermon, more like a song.” I just wish she had a bigger hymnal.
Eve Tushnet is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel, and editor of the forthcoming Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. She blogs at Patheos.