“I was wary of trotting out the tired tropes of the addictive spiral,”
Original Source: usatoday.com
Leslie Jamison wants you to know that her new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (Little, Brown, 534 pp., ★★★½ out of four), isn’t like other redemption memoirs.
Before we have the chance to roll our eyes or make assumptions, she beats us to it. “I was wary of trotting out the tired tropes of the addictive spiral,” she writes, “and wary of the tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulations of a redemption story.”
She has chosen to go in a different direction, discarding the structure of the typical cliché-ridden rehabilitation saga to produce something wholly original, and it shines.
Jamison made a name for herself in 2014 with The Empathy Exams, a wide-ranging collection of essays that catalog poor choices, bizarre setbacks, and her complicated relationship with alcohol. In The Recovering, we learn that the romance with booze has faded — she increasingly finds herself drinking alone, vomiting during blackouts— and Jamison gradually acknowledges that she’s an alcoholic.
The transition to sobriety is not easy; she tells us that drinking had been “the honeyed twilight sun falling over every late afternoon, softening everything to amber” and worries that abstinence might stifle creativity. “Everything glossy or buzzed or hot-blush-drunk in my life was gone.” She quits, relapses, jams to Amy Winehouse, and eventually joins Alcoholics Anonymous.
Here, the narrative takes off, bouncing between her own story and the tales of others who have battled alcohol and mental illness. In a powerful chapter on the nature of blame, Jamison notes that women of color are not permitted to flaunt neuroses and addiction “as a mark of social and psychic complexity” the way she and other white women might.
The author uses the example of Billie Holiday, a black woman from Baltimore who would become one of the country’s most famous singers, to highlight the racial disparity. Holliday started shooting heroin in her mid-20s, and was hunted ruthlessly by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. (A 1947 conviction sent her to federal prison camp for almost a year.)
By contrast, the leader of that Bureau, Harry Anslinger, told Judy Garland she should get over her heroin habit by taking longer vacations between movie shoots. The preposterous discrepancy leads Jamison on a quest for answers to a vexing question: What interventions will actually help addicts get better?
Last year, a short story called “Cat Person” appeared in The New Yorker and caused a literary sensation. The piece confronts the complicated ways that men and women flirt, pursue and hook up, and it briefly sparked a national dialogue about sexual consent, acquiescence and gender imbalance.
Jamison’s book feels like a fleshed-out, more fully realized version of that story, reflecting on her own encounters during a time when she was often intoxicated. “I was giving him certain signals of consent,” she writes of a man she met in Nicaragua. “But consent when you’re drunk means something I still don’t have a good language for. It was as if I’d already made myself available as someone without pride, and it would have been hypocritical to become someone different.”
By the end of this wonderful book, we discover that the author has indeed become someone different: she’s sober, successful and happy. Her 20’s were rough, but she’s recovering nicely.