The 12th StepLeslie Jamison is Reinventing the Addiction Memoir

Leslie Jamison (Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Leslie Jamison wrote my story. It is the story of a woman—a white, middle-class woman—who drinks to fill some sort of emptiness inside her, who longs to be interesting, to be desired, so she drinks and drinks and drinks until she can’t keep going on like that. And so, the woman walks into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and, eventually, finds recovery. In her ambitious and sprawling addiction memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Jamison tells the story of use and misuse, of falling apart and putting herself back together—hallmarks of the recovery narrative. She tells my story, and the story of so many others who have found themselves compelled to use substances as a salve and found they couldn’t stop. But “that’s the point,” she tells me over the phone.

With this book, Jamison sought to marry the two worlds she’s immersed in: literature and Alcoholics Anonymous. Both are rooted in storytelling, but in very different ways. “These were two worlds that I had spent time in, both of which were kind of anchored in storytelling but sort of understood its purpose in different ways,” she says. In literature, the value is in telling a story that’s never been told before, to be original. But in recovery, a story becomes valuable when it resonates with other people who can relate to it. In other words, Jamison says, “the value is really predicated on having been lived before.”

There is utility to the sameness of these stories. But the truth is while the details of people’s stories may be different, there are similar themes and patterns that emerge in many of the most compelling stories. In the world of AA, they say that the details may be different, but the feelings are the same. They encourage people to “identify, don’t compare” when they enter the halls, because focusing on the details makes it easy to compare yourself right out of the room. But our stories all share common broad strokes, if we really pay attention.

The way those stories are received by society, however, varies greatly based on who we are. To demonstrate this, Jamison tells more than just her story. She examines literature’s most famous drunks; tackles our cultural narrative around addiction with a race- and class-based lens; and tells the stories of a group of people who went through the same Maryland treatment center. This should not work in a single book, and yet, it does. Jamison finds a way to weave these stories together with her own to create what she calls “a chorus” of voices. In this way, the book works like an AA meeting, where people share their stories in the hopes that others will identify with them. The Recovering works in the same way the back of the AA Big Book, the program’s main literature, works, containing stories from a variety of people who have gotten sober through AA.

This chorus of voices serves another purpose, too. It seeks to shatter the predominant recovery narrative, the acceptable narrative in the addiction genre that essentially says that someone’s life falls apart, they seek treatment, get better, and their life is great. While that is some people’s truth, it is not the only truth. “There are stories of people who get sober and create incredible work. There are stories of people who try to get sober but can’t ever fully stay that way. There are stories of people who never really try to get sober,” says Jamison. “Having a story model in mind that follows one particular script of ‘it gets really bad, somebody bottoms out, they find recovery and they remain sober’ can be really toxic because it doesn’t make room for the path of the person who can’t quite stay sober but lived with more of a higher quality of living because of harm-reduction measures, or their body isn’t in disrepair because they’re still finding some kind of meaning in their lives.”

Thus far, there have been very few books that deviate from the traditional script. It’s one of the reasons why I appreciate Cat Marnell’s 2017 memoir, How To Murder Your Life. It shows a messiness that we don’t often see, and a person who never really gets better in the way traditional recovery narratives say someone should. “I was totally taken by Cat Marnell’s book as well, and part of what I kept asking myself was why am I so engaged in this book?” Jamison says. “I also felt frustration and lots of other things but I was like, am I engaged in this book because there’s so much brokenness and I’m wondering how or if it will ever get fixed or simply how will it play out? Am I engaged because I am tapping back into these old veins of nostalgia or hunger for that function? And I think that those questions are live ones for me. What draws us in about those things?”

The Recovering seeks to shatter the predominant recovery narrative where someone’s life falls apart, they seek treatment, get better, and their life is great.

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The Recovering turns that rampant spectatorship on its head. Jamison wanted to challenge herself to write a book in which the process of getting well was as interesting as the process of falling apart. “Part of what I wanted to explore in asking this question of ‘Can the story of getting better be as compelling as the story of falling apart?’ was to set down this aesthetic gauntlet for myself,” she explains. “Can I write a book about addiction and recovery where the recovery stuff takes up more than half the book, rather than being relegated to a slightly less interesting final chapter?”

Yes, she can. She achieves this, in part, by exploring tortured alcoholic writers, including John Berryman. The myth of alcohol as a creative stimulant is well known: Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, told his wife Lois that “men of great genius conceive of their best projects when drunk.” Jamison aimed to explore whether there’s any merit to this stereotype, partially to assuage her own fears about what effect getting sober would have on her writing.

After she entered AA, Jamison would go to her local coffee shop in hopes of creating a routine and opening up something new in her work. “Instead of getting drunk at night, I would be in that coffee shop trying to write,” she says. “I just remember that as a particular kind of strain, hope, and a kind of white-knuckling in the sense of just really hurling myself against this desire for sobriety to open up something else [in my work]. So I was going to go show up, work on my novel.”

Of course, the creative, genius alcoholic image has historically only extended to men; alcoholic women writers are far more likely to be seen as tragedies and criticized as failures. Jamison dives head-on into this double standard, holding up the writer Jean Rhys—another artist who never managed to find sobriety—against the mythology of men like Berryman, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Denis Johnson. She quotes from Malcom Lowry’s Under The Volcano: “A woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of the drunkard’s life.”

Jean Rhys (Photo credit: Public Domain)

In Jamison’s book, Rhys is a tragic figure—in part because of the alcoholism she could never get under control and the overwhelming sadness she felt, but also because she’s remembered as a writer who never got the credit she deserved because her work, too, was characterized by overwhelming sadness. That’s one of the reasons women’s recovery memoirs are valuable: It was important for Jamison to read Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and Mary Karr’s Lit. In fact, those books convinced her to name AA as the program that helped her get sober, something that is controversial among program folks.

Tradition 11 in AA reads, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.” So when an author says, “I went to Alcoholics Anonymous,” it’s often a calculated decision. “I definitely always took seriously what I felt to be the intention of that tradition, which is to not have people become de facto spokespeople for the program who could then, by virtue of what they said or how they lived, sort of color or overly inflect what the program was in the public imagination,” Jamison says.

“I take seriously the imperative not to become or act as if I’m any kind of representative of AA. All I am representing is my own experience, my own recovery and not my interpretation of the program. My experience in the program isn’t the truth of the program,” she continues. “And that feels like an important distinction.” In many ways, sharing her story publicly is actually in the spirit of the program’s 12th Step.

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The 12th Step in AA reads: “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.” For me, I consider a huge part of my public-facing writing to be 12th Step work, whether it’s awareness raising or sharing my story or somebody else’s story. And so I was thrilled to see that writer Berryman, who never managed to secure long-term recovery, had an unfinished novel that he hoped would work like a 12th Step.

“When I started to think about potentially writing about my own drinking and recovery and putting it in conversation with a larger set of stories, part of the desire to do that was to potentially give readers out there somewhere, someday, some version of that experience that I had had with [Knapp’s] book and how much that felt like this crucial part of my own recovery journey,” Jamison says. “So it absolutely fits into that framework or that idea of 12th-Step work I encountered in Berryman’s archives. I found that really moving. And I think I found that moving in part because it articulated something I wanted my work to do, or hoped that it would be able to do.”

Jamison has taken on a gargantuan task with The Recovering, and it’s a testament to her skill and talent that she’s succeeded in telling so many stories within one book. She refreshes the recovery genre itself, and I hope this book encourages publishers to seek out more stories like the ones Jamison tried to elevate: the messy ones, the ones where someone got sober by taking Suboxone, or took a harm-reduction approach, or still hasn’t quite figured it out but keeps trying anyway.

As Jamison told me, those stories still matter. “They’re still human beings whose lives have value.”

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by Britni de la Cretaz
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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.