Guernica Magazine

Leslie Jamison: Storytelling and Sobriety

The acclaimed writer talks recovery, responsibility, and reforming the culture by which we treat addiction. The post Leslie Jamison: Storytelling and Sobriety appeared first on Guernica.
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

On a quiet sunny morning in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Leslie Jamison sits on her favorite orange couch and scoops her newborn baby in her arms. The baby settles into a perfect lump in the crook of her neck, tiny toes tucked up and fists balled, its bum slumped gently into the cup of her hand—in that bouncy way that only brand-new baby bums have. The light-filled room hums with all the comfort of well-worn domesticity: full bookshelves and lightly chipped coffee cups. A green-eyed cat plops lazily at Jamison’s feet, stretching its white paws against the rug and yawning. In the outside world, Jamison’s new book is climbing to the tops of bestseller lists, but inside her peaceful home, the cozy wonder of this scene is lovingly swaddled against intrusion.

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath is Jamison’s stunning account of her own experiences with alcohol addiction and recovery. She weaves cultural history and reporting with her own sober story, and the effect is like being carried through a choral arrangement: raw, sparkling, honest. The precision of her insights and the soaring beauty of her prose fly high above the tired old myths that dysfunction is a necessary ingredient of art, or that illness is somehow glamorous. Of course, we know from the works of great writers—Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Marguerite Duras, to name just a few—that drunkenness can be associated with a kind of lyric thinking. But here, Jamison makes the case that we are mistaken to put tormented genius on a pedestal. That the greater service to artists, and to their art, would be to support them through the process of healing and continued growth.

“Falling in love was the only sensation that ever truly rivaled drinking,” Jamison confesses in the book. And here, in her small Brooklyn home, the sentiment is underscored. As precious as the bond with her new child is, as beautiful all the makings of her life, it’s clear how hard-won these prizes are. There is a pulse of anxiety hidden in the careful pauses she takes before answering my questions. And in these pauses, it’s hard not to recall the darker passages of her writing: the suicides of addicts who tried to live and didn’t make it, and the uncertainty with which she herself has offered guidance to the various people who come through AA meetings (all of them in pain). Jamison describes her own experience of sobriety as vastly challenging. To me, this is precisely what is valuable about her book, and why it will attain a lasting place in the genre of alcoholic literature.

The addiction memoir is a popular topic in America because addiction is, itself, a widespread issue. But the recovery memoir—how to wake up every

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