Writing and Alcohol: A Reckoning

In her new book, Leslie Jamison challenges the mythology and the mystique of literary drinking.

Café Table With Absinthe, Vincent van Gogh (Van Gogh Museum)

About two-thirds of the way through The Recovering, Leslie Jamison—newly sober for the second time—finally confronts the reality of winter in Iowa City. “For years,” she writes, “I’d felt personally persecuted by winter—a martyr to its bitter chill, my numbness epic and inevitable, the air little more than an external companion to my interior weather.” But then she buys a down coat. And, “as it turned out, a good jacket made you less cold.”

It’s a sharp instance of Jamison falling sway to the allure of self-pity, the sweep of pathetic fallacy, and then puncturing her own bubble of writerly delusion. Winter is cold for everyone; there are ways of making it bearable. But Jamison has long become accustomed to perceiving the world “as a conspiracy of forces directing their attention toward me.” In the scene, her mind interprets a regular, banal experience—being cold—as an epic conflict between one woman and the seasons, the frigid gloom matching her inner rawness blow for blow. It’s the tendency of the writer—and the addict—to inflate a sensation into a personal slight, a happenstance event into a charged scene. With drinking, over the years, the great alcoholic writers have similarly transformed ordinary compulsion and degradation into literary myth. Alcohol is as critical an essence to the mystique of the 20th-century writer as ink.

The Recovering, over 450-odd pages and 14 chapters, is an effort to challenge the legend that alcohol and literary art are inextricable. Arriving at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the age of 21, Jamison writes of being “drawn to the same unhinged sparks of luminous chaos” that had defined the work of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, John Berryman, and Denis Johnson. Addiction, in her mind, was something that enabled great writing, bringing illumination with intoxication, clarity with alcoholic cloud. And, as The Recovering documents, she became alcohol-dependent, got sober, drank again, got sober again, and then faced her biggest fear: that sobriety would ruin her writing forever.

Clearly, it didn’t. Jamison stopped drinking before the publication of her second book, The Empathy Exams, a collection of curious, luminous essays that garnered critical praise and sold more than 80,000 copies (a vast amount for the genre). So the primary mission of The Recovering, to prove that “stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart,” feels slightly undermined by its author’s own biography. That’s not its only inherent contradiction. The Recovering is a sprawling, compelling, fiercely ambitious book that considers excess with full control, and strives for both exceptionalism and utility at the same time. It’s a book that laments the sameness of literary drunkalogs, particularly when it comes to women, even as its publication represents the most significant new addition to the canon in more than a decade.

But isn’t contradiction part of being human? Jamison is more than aware that her account of her alcoholism and path to sobriety is nothing particularly extraordinary. That’s the point. The biggest obstacle she faces in writing an exceptional recovery memoir is that recovery itself relies on stories that are unexceptional, on platitudes, on cliché. In Alcoholics Anonymous, which is where Jamison got sober, “your story is only useful,” she writes, “because others have lived it and will live it again.” This is why, formally at least, The Recovering isn’t so different from other works in the pantheon of quit lit. Jamison’s incantation the first time she drinks alcohol—More. Again. Forever.—recalls the title of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir about addiction, More, Now, Again. The Recovering also bears comparison with Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, which Jamison has said she read in a single sitting a few years before she got sober, shocked by how much of herself she saw in its pages.

The parts of The Recovering that I found the most compelling were precisely the parts whose sameness I cherished—and whose sameness I suspect most of her readers will cherish, too. Not the reckoning with cult icons of literary boozing, but the parts about why Jamison drank—how it quelled her anxiety and made her feel alive. She documents the milestones in her academic career (undergrad at Harvard, a masters at Iowa, a Ph.D. at Yale) alongside her evolving tendencies toward self-destruction (cutting in high school, anorexia in college, drinking in postgrad). She’s ruthless in assessing how predictable this all sounds, given her advantages and her compulsion to overachieve. “It makes me cringe, looking back at my own theatrical production of angst,” she writes of slicing her own ankles as a teenager. Later, she deduces that her “ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered.”

And yet something compelled her to cut, and to starve herself, and to drink. Jamison is reluctant to attribute her addiction to any one thing that happened to her, but the book is at its most revelatory when she does. “My drinking,” she writes, “had something to do with my family, and something to do with my brain, and something to do with the values I was raised to worship: excellence, enchantment, superlative everything.” Booze, she quotes David Foster Wallace as writing, is “the interior jigsaw’s missing piece.” Jamison checks her own privilege throughout her story, as if to preempt anyone else who might do so, but there’s something fascinating about the combination of her alcoholism and her anorexia and her relentless, probing mind that she never fully parses.

Instead, she delves into the literary history of drunkenness, the origins of AA, the roots of institutional inequality that treats drug addicts of color as a scourge on society and middle-class white women who drink as people to be pitied. She writes about Charles R. Jackson’s The Lost Weekend—the first novel, she argues, that resisted finding metaphysical significance in alcoholism and presented it instead in its tedious, banal reality. She writes about Jean Rhys, who published her finest novel toward the end of a lifetime of alcoholism. And she writes about how differently the world perceives men who drink and women who drink: how “the mythic male drunk manages a thrilling abandon—the reckless, self-destructive pursuit of truth,” while “his female counterpart is more often understood as guilty of abandonment, the crime of failing at care.”

There’s so much to consider here that you almost wish Jamison—who notes that “the Old Drunk Legends were all men”—had sidelined their too-familiar stories to make more space for Rhys, and Marguerite Duras, and Billie Holiday. But it’s her book, and she follows the paths that intrigue her. Her writing throughout is spectacularly evocative and sensuous, comparing early sobriety to “a lemon squeezed dry, all the juice gone, just the wrinkled mess of rind left behind.” Drinking is “a lawn full of fireflies,” not drinking is “several kinds of casserole.” And she thinks with elegant precision, cutting through the whiskey-soaked myths and the history of why people, particularly writers, put so much stock in drinking as a creative act. “Yearning,” she writes, “is our most powerful narrative engine, and addiction is one of its dialects.”

If The Recovering has a stylistic flaw, it’s that it’s relentlessly, deliberately earnest. There are just two moments in the book that tend toward levity: the anecdote about getting a decent coat in the winter, and a moment when Jamison describes her apartment in Iowa. “It was dusty with layers of accumulated heart-swell and epiphany from the other writers who had lived there,” she writes. “It was also dusty because I never cleaned it.” Otherwise, she’s sincere to a fault, heartfelt, and—forgive the pun—sober. She seems urgently compelled to share what she found in recovery, how it changed her life and corrected her distorted vision of the world. “It’s hard to write this way, full-throated and shameless, with such crude awe at what recovery came to mean in my life,” she writes. But she does it anyway.

If The Recovering has a flaw as a memoir of addiction, it might be that—as some writers have already noted—Jamison’s story isn’t so spectacular. Drinking didn’t ruin her life, or even slightly slow her roll toward national acclaim when she was barely 30. She was a high-functioning alcoholic, seemingly damaging no one but herself. And in The Recovering, she tells her story with tight, selective control. An incident she declines to call date rape is dismissed rather than interrogated; it happened, she writes, “because I was drunk and because he didn’t stop.” She describes cheating on her boyfriend while drunk, and then excuses it in retrospect as “explicable and unextraordinary.” Her childhood, she writes, “was easier than most, and I ended up drinking anyway.” It’s a surprising amount of gloss for a writer so steeped in emotional fluency—she notes the worst moments of her drinking days but declines to really excavate them.

Perhaps that’s because she so consciously wants this to be a different kind of story. Not the salacious, dramatic, second-hand charge of Berryman’s misadventures and remorse, of Cheever deserting his family to drink unfettered, of Rhys getting drunk while her baby dies. Those stories, however counterintuitively, have only buffeted the aura of magic and tortured genius that hovers around the literary alcoholic. Jamison is interested in something else: the possibility that sobriety can form its own kind of legend, no less electric, and more generative in the end.