The Paris Review

Big-Tent Recovery: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

I read the manuscript of Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering last summer in Winnipeg, Canada, when I was going to several twelve-step meetings a week. I knew and admired Jamison’s 2014 breakthrough essay collection, The Empathy Exams; her ability to transparently render her meticulous, passionate process of thought astonished me. But The Recovering changed my life. It’s an antimemoir: generous with details of her own experience of addiction and recovery, Jamison insists on the existence, or primacy, of other stories as well. A personal story, she suggests, can be told only in the context of other personal stories and the conditions that shape them.

Perhaps most importantly, the book challenges intellectual snobbery. Jamison explains the paradoxically profound and sloganeering rhetorical logic of twelve-step philosophy in ways no one has before. As she’s observed elsewhere, “Clichés lend structure and ritual and glue: They are the subterranean passageways connecting one life to another.” She writes beautifully, with furious clarity. I finished the book wondering why the active, nonjudgmental listening of twelve-step recovery can’t be applied to all realms of life.

During the first weeks of the New Year, we wrote emails back and forth.

INTERVIEWER

In The Recovering, you move between three constellations of material—your own experience with addiction and recovery, the experience of other writers like John Berryman, Jean Rhys, and Charles Jackson, and the history, culture, and ethos of twelve-step programs. Did you always know you’d need to explore all three areas, or did your subjects emerge from the research?

JAMISON

I always knew I wanted the book to function as a kind of chorus—placing my own story among other stories—rather than offering any single perspective. Though I knew it could become a kind of boast to say, This won’t look like a memoir in the traditional sense. And the book ended up interrogating that, too—exploring the shame of memoir, especially the shame attached to the idea of the addiction memoir as an overplayed and overly familiar genre.

In any case, I was passionately committed to the idea that the book would hold lots of stories, but at first I had no idea what that would look like, structurally speaking. I had to structure and restructure this book so many times, spreading pages on the floor to make myself maps through the wilderness. And I definitely didn’t know, at the beginning, all the layers

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