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The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath


The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

Leslie Jamison boasts an impressive pedigree. She studied at Harvard as an undergraduate, followed directly by the Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA program, and holds a PhD from Yale. She has published several novels, a New York Times bestselling collection of essays, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, and writes reviews for the New York Times Review of Books. In 2015, she joined the faculty of Columbia’s MFA writing program and has since been named the nonfiction concentration chair. Jamison is also a recovering alcoholic, which is the subject of her new memoir, THE RECOVERING.

I use the term “memoir” loosely. While Jamison relates her story of alcoholism and recovery throughout these 500 pages, it often feels like the most minimal part of the book. This isn’t a straightforward addiction narrative in the way you might expect, one that follows the protagonist’s path from pre-addiction to recovery. Instead, Jamison sprinkles snippets of what is a fairly standard story of alcoholism --- unsure child, self-conscious adolescent, philandering and distant father, shy college student who finds that she lets go of inhibitions with alcohol, etc. --- amongst literary criticism, journalism, stories of cultural icons who are also addicts, and reportage to form a conglomeration of a book about drug and alcohol abuse and how it has been responded to in the annals of American history.

"There are some very compelling aspects to THE RECOVERING that I was not expecting.... What THE RECOVERING ultimately boils down to is an overly long but very thorough examination of addiction in its many forms."

Jamison has very clearly put years of writing, research and thought into this project. She details her history with drugs and alcohol. The job she worked while caring for her ailing grandmother and the warm bottles of Chardonnay she used to steal, drink and later drop in a neighbor’s recycling to avoid suspicion. How the culture of being an alcoholic writer was not only prevalent but celebrated at Iowa, where students read Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson, then flocked to the bars they used to frequent and drink like the good old boys. Her father’s warning to her at age nine that drinking is not dangerous for everyone, but it is for them. How her first winter of recovery was long and cold, devoid of the things in which she once found comfort.

But much more time is devoted to literary alcoholics like Carver and Hemingway; books written about alcoholism and addiction; icons like Billie Holiday, who had very public narcotic addictions; how Nixon’s War on Drugs became Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign; and the racial fear and bias that bore the stereotypical image of an addict as a black man in the mid-20th century. Jean Rhys, the French writer whose infant son died in a hospital while she was getting drunk with friends, plays a large and recurring role. Perhaps Jamison sees some of herself in Rhys. While Jamison didn’t suffer the same fate as Rhys, she did get pregnant and have an abortion while in the midst of her alcoholic years.

There are some very compelling aspects to THE RECOVERING that I was not expecting. The section titled “Blame,” in which Jamison explores the addict in America and the effects of the War on Drugs, was particularly good. It was more historical and reported, rather than a close read of THE LOST WEEKEND or her antics while drunk in various South American countries, though the section contains some of those as well.

What THE RECOVERING ultimately boils down to is an overly long but very thorough examination of addiction in its many forms. Part of me wonders if Jamison wrote it as she did because she feared her story told in conventional memoir form was not going to add much to the conversation. As it is, the book reads a bit like Jamison describes herself as a teen: disjointed, reaching, unsure of what it is or exactly wants to be. The overall effect is both distilled and bloated --- too much but not enough.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on May 11, 2018

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath
by Leslie Jamison

  • Publication Date: January 15, 2019
  • Genres: Cultural Studies, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316259586
  • ISBN-13: 9780316259583