Monday, August 19, 2019
Published April 2018 by Little, Brown and Company
Source: my copy purchased for my Nook
With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction—both her own and others'—and examines what we want these stories to do and what happens when they fail us. All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the complicated bearing that race and class have on our understanding of who is criminal and who is ill.
At the heart of the book is Jamison's ongoing conversation with literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace, as well as brilliant lesser-known figures such as George Cain, lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here. Through its unvarnished relation of Jamison's own ordeals, The Recovering also becomes a book about a different kind of dependency: the way our desires can make us all, as she puts it, "broken spigots of need." It's about the particular loneliness of the human experience-the craving for love that both devours us and shapes who we are.
I've read about addiction in a lot of books over the years, from Go Ask Alice when I was in junior high to, most recently, Daisy Jones and the Six. I've read memoirs and fiction. I've a lot of books by both men and women who battled addiction - William Faulkner, Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens. Jamison has read a lot of books written by addicts, too. When it was time for her to write her dissertation, it was those addicts whose journeys through addiction she chose to write about. Those were her people, writers battling their addictions.
Here Jamison has expanded on that dissertation. She writes a lot about how addiction and recovery affected creative lives. She was looking for answers to some questions - are active addicts better storytellers? are stories of active addiction more interesting? I'd add another question after reading this book and thinking about those questions - what does it say about our society when it seems that the answer is that stories of people behaving badly, giving in to their demons are more interesting to us? Perhaps the most interesting story off all the authors she included was that of Stephen King, who said he wrote The Shining "without even realizing...that I was writing about myself." But even though this piece of the book gave me much to think about, it was also this piece of the book that dragged for me.
Fortunately, there was so much in this book that made me happy that I picked it up. Jamison is incredibly honest about her own alcoholism and how it impacted her life and very open about her battle to get clean. Addiction has hit close in my family and I'm always looking for stories about people who have found a way to get and stay clean. I could picture those church basements Jamison described and the people who found their way to them. I know about addicts getting up to tell their stories and I know about the mantras that may seem trite to some but which seem to be lifelines for recovering addicts. Because Jamison is an alcoholic, her recovery experience is with Alcoholics Anonymous and she includes the history of that program. I did wish she would have touched on other groups that help other kinds of addicts; not all programs work the same.
Most interesting for me was Jamison's research into the history of the recovery movement in this country and her examination of the way we treat addicts and addiction. Have you ever heard of the Narco Farm, the "infamous prison-hospital for addicts?" Did you know that Richard Nixon, not Nancy Reagan, first initiated the so-called War on Drugs? In the past 100 years, it seems that we have made very little progress, as a society, in dealing with addiction. We rely almost entirely on programs like Alcoholic Anonymous or rehabilitation facilities that most addicts can't afford and which have a very low rate of sustained recovery.
But Jamison leaves readers with hope. Researchers continue to find new drugs that will help recovering addicts sustain their sobriety and the way addiction and treatment affect the brain. And there is hope for addicts who want to recover, who look to those fellow addicts who can show them the way.