Jean Rhys, the author best known for Wide Sargasso Sea, was famously an alcoholic. Her child died while she was getting drunk, she was divorced; her sadness was so fully steeped that given any booze she overflowed with it. And yet, while her drinking died along with her, her books live on as indication of a successful creative life. The narrative of alcohol as creative fuel is well-established in our literary canon: Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bishop, David Foster Wallace all drank, all wrote during periods of drinking. And so we forgive them their drinking, we exalt it and correlate it with creative liberation.
In fact, as Leslie Jamison dissects in her new book, The Recovering, drinking has nothing to do with liberation. The kind of drinking those authors did, that Jamison herself did, had more to do with pacing outside of closed liquor stores and drinking inside of a closet than with freedom. The Recovering is an addiction narrative, but on a shelf full of stories competing for the sexiest rock bottoms, Jamison underlines the dullness and sameness of addiction. She lays bare the ways in which addiction looks very much the same on everyone: from a black man shooting heroin in Harlem to Amy Winehouse. The difference being whether we victimize them or criminalize them; idolize or ignore.
Jamison’s own story is full of movement--to Iowa’s famous MFA program, to Nicaragua, to the PhD program at Yale. With each move, drinking is her loyal companion; it allows her access to the parties with writers she respects in Iowa, to exotic binges abroad. But underneath the admissions to prestigious universities, the relationships, the potlucks with famous writers, Jamison describes herself as a “broken spigot” of need--she craves love and unconditional commitment from her relationships, creative acceptance from her peers. She strives to be original, to be superlative. Her feelings are “THE BIGGEST FEELINGS and they existed in CAPITAL LETTERS. Everything was the best or the worst.” Jamison drinks because her father was often absent, because it runs in her family, as a treatment, a transcendence. But, she writes, “Drinking is a thwarted flight into transcendence, like a dog, chained to a post, barking at the sky.”
Interspersed within Jamison’s personal narrative are the stories of a hundred other addicts, among them Rhys, Carver, Foster Wallace, Winehouse, Johnson, Billie Holiday, plus countless others whose names don’t mean anything to us. There is commonality in their stories: all spend boring, predictable hours and days in service of substance--except that Jean Rhys’ drinking made her, in the eyes of the public, a failed wife and mother; Billie Holiday died chained to a hospital bed; Raymond Carver’s drinking was fuel for his genius. The drug and alcohol abuse of creative men is an exception; the drug and alcohol is abuse of minorities is criminal; the drug and alcohol abuse of women is pathetic, annoying. Alongside her own story, Jamison examines the ways our culture, our laws, our history have created certain addiction narratives, depending on your race, your gender, your profession.
After years of her own drinking, Jamison writes that “Drinking was no longer electric. It was musty routine, little more than a claustrophobic shell game…” Shortly after, she attends her first AA meeting, and where the period of Jamison’s addiction is all about her thirst to be the superlative, her recovery is defined by striving to recognize herself within a collective experience of use: “But I was also aware,” she writes, “that being ‘too smart for AA’ could become its own siren call to the ego: considering yourself the exception to the common story, exempt from every aphorism--with a consciousness too complicated to have much in common with anyone else.”
And thus she dissects the narrative about famous artists and their propensity for abuse. Where we assume adventure and inspiration, she points out pain and a reliance that none of those men or women wanted. Many succeeded in giving up booze, but many died trying, including Billie Holiday. Holiday was clear that her addiction had nothing to do with the genius behind her music: “Dope never helped anybody sing better, or play music better, or do anything better.”
Jamison spent her early life certain that to be loved, she needed to be interesting; to write well she needed to say something that had never been said before. In AA, she’s given the “Big Book” with no one author and countless stories not so different from her own. In her drinking days, Jamison worried that recovery meant sacrificing creativity, story, the hallowed thing: “life experience.” But in recovery and others’ stories she finds “relief from my own plot line.” And it is in her recognition and dissection of her place within the tradition of addiction that makes the book original, that makes it rich.
Jamison’s fear, in writing The Recovering, was to contribute one more recovery story: “tedious...and tawdry.” The book mostly avoids tedium, despite its 544 pages; but towards the end it starts to drag--Jamison’s own story begins to feel effortful. She lends the narrative to four different addicts and though it serves to highlight Jamison’s point--that the stories of addicts are different, but knitted together with the same threads of desire and need--it feels a bit like undue diligence. Jamison was thorough in her effort to make the story about more than herself, but eventually it becomes conspicuous. That said, mostly The Recovering feels like a conversation with your smartest friend (except that none of us are actually so candid with our friends).