by Leslie Jamison
Little Brown, 2018
Review by Christian Perring on May 29th 2018
According to the Yale English Department website, Leslie Jamison gained her PhD in May 2016 with her dissertation titled "The Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in 20th Century American Literature." According to Wikipedia, she was born in 1983, she is the daughter of two academics and is the niece of famed writer Kay Redfield Jamison. She has spent a good deal of time at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She is now an assistant professor in English at Columbia University, is married to another writer, and now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She describes herself as a "nice middle class white girl."
The interesting parts of Jamison's memoir The Recovering are those that must come from her dissertation. She sets out some of the history of addiction memoirs, biographies and other stories about many notable figures such as Bill W, John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, and David Foster Wallace, and also George Cain, African American author of Blueschild Baby, a semi-autobiographical novel of addiction published in 1970. Jamison provides a fair amount of historical background for public policy over drugs, and biographical information about her writer subjects. She pays a good deal of attention to themes of race. Occasionally she even gets into a little literary theory, with brief mention of Jacques Derrida. Her discussion of literature is eloquent and thoughtful, and her analysis of David Foster Wallace is especially impressive in her defense of the virtue of literary earnestness.
Unfortunately, more than half the book is devoted to Jamison's own story of her relationships with alcohol and men. She started drinking early and went through several attempts to stop, going through AA and seeing therapists. She certainly had struggles and put her health at risk at various points. Her reflections on her own recovery process are illuminated by her thoughts about the writers she examines, and that makes her own story telling illuminating.
But she faces the problem she herself alludes to but does not confront full on. As Jamison notes in her text, there has been an explosion in the genre of memoirs of addiction, and they leave little to say about the experience of addiction. In its own narrative, The Recovering is just another alcoholism memoir. Part of her own discussion is about whether alcoholic writers should aim for uniqueness in their own stories or should accept the repetitive nature of an addiction. This is certainly an interesting question from a theoretical point of view, but there's no question that readers need uniqueness if they are to be motivated to read yet another story of addiction. Jamison's privileged life does not add a lot to the pile of existing stories, especially since Jamison does not really address her own privilege, but casually describes her history of career success as if it were an accident. It is uncomfortable that this book is a combination of an interesting scholarly tome written in accessible English, with just another memoir, and Jamison indicates her understanding of this, but shrugs it off. Compared to the other memoirs, her story lacks drama but Jamison is a good writer which makes the reading more enjoyable. Still, ploughing through her tales of the strains in her relationships with her boyfriends due to her drinking or her sobriety is hard work.
Of course, some people have not read lots of previous addiction memoirs, and so they will not be so jaded when approaching Jamison's story. If they relate to Jamison at a personal level, they may find her story especially gripping. But the book is 544 pages long, and one can't help wondering if it would not have benefitted from a stricter editor. Should a version of her PhD thesis be published by an academic press, all indications from this version are that it will be a considerable addition to the literature.
© 2018 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.