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What Makes a Successful Addiction Memoir?

With ‘The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,’ Leslie Jamison has set out to reinvent the genre. Is that even possible?

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If you read enough addiction memoirs, the genre’s particular narrative cadence become easy to spot. There’s the firecracker-bright memory of the first time using, often recounted in crackling prose. Substance-fueled revelry begets accelerating recklessness—blotted-out nights, disastrous sexual encounters, careers skidding into limbo, glee followed by horror. It’s fun until it is scary-fun until it is scary, an entropic joyride that ends in an inevitable, spectacular crash. There’s a climactic epiphany snatched from a debauched bottom, then an earnest striving toward sobriety. For the most part, the story arc is tidy, allowing readers the rubbernecky thrills of second-hand vice with a dose of hard-won redemption as a chaser. It’s like scarfing a bacon cheeseburger and washing it down with a shot of wheatgrass.

Leslie Jamison’s new book, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, directly confronts how familiar its story may feel. Jamison announces her intentions to transcend the genre’s trappings in her opening pages. “When I told people I was writing a book about addiction and recovery, I often saw their eyes glaze. Oh, that book, they seemed to say, I’ve already read that book,” she writes. “I wanted to tell them I was writing a book about that glazed look in their eyes, about the way an addiction story can make you think, I’ve heard that story before, before you’ve even heard it. I wanted to tell them I was trying to write a book about the ways addiction is a hard story to tell, because addiction is always a story that has already been told, because it inevitably repeats itself, because it grinds down—ultimately, for everyone—to the same demolished and reductive and recycled core: Desire, Use, Repeat.”

Jamison is correct that people with addiction tend toward compulsive behavior, and that addiction memoirs are compulsively predictable. The genre has been so popular for so long that it has spawned a constellation of subgenres: parent addiction (Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom), celebrity addiction (Anthony Kiedis’s Scar Tissue), childhood addiction (Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), and stories from the families of the addicted (Stephanie Wittels Wachs’s recent Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful). Hazelden, a network of addiction treatment centers, has its own publishing house, which has released best-sellers like Michael W. Clune’s White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. (The books that Hazelden publishes overwhelmingly and understandably present rehab in a favorable light.) Some memoirists, like David Sedaris, mention their addictions but do not seriously excavate them. Other writers, like James Frey, dwell nearly exclusively on the experience of addiction without cracking themselves open in other ways. These books vary widely in quality, like any narratives yoked together through genre alone, though they share a thematic backbone: They all explore what it means to be addicted and what it means to get well, frequently by hitting emotional marks.

The best addiction memoirs, I’ve found, grant a catharsis followed by the satisfaction of seeing someone unmoored right themselves as they write about themselves. One standout, Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, which Jamison references, distinguishes itself with a spare, frank style. Another, Sarah Hepola’s Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, offers such wit and candor that it is a harrowing, occasionally blissful kick to accompany her anyways.

The Recovering, when it operates as a memoir, is equally lucent; the reader is ferried into the perils of addiction by a nimble, stylish narrator. Jamison, 34, is the author of a novel (The Gin Closet) and a well-received collection of essays (The Empathy Exams). She is also a recovering alcoholic. She started researching The Recovering while completing her doctorate at Yale; her dissertation focused on the literature of alcoholism and recovery, and The Recovering contains the research from that academic project, retooled into a literary one. It largely succeeds in moving away from an overly academic tone, thanks mostly to personal narration; as Jamison recounts her decision to move to Nicaragua in her early 20s, she lays out what she hoped to gain from the travel. “I craved luminosity—the glimmering constellation points of a life told as anecdotes,” she writes. The Recovering contains lively prose, and while the framework is that of an expansive investigation into the history and mythos of how addiction intersects with art and life, Jamison’s storytelling skill mostly keeps it from feeling like a tract.

The Recovering has been marketed as a radically different sort of book about drinking, a corrective to the “tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulation of a redemption story.” Jamison has emphasized that her book is meant to operate like a chorus, offering a multitude of recovery stories, a literary evocation of an AA meeting. She weaves her own experience with stories about how other writers and artists have struggled against and written about their habits, examining John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, David Foster Wallace, Raymond Carver, and Denis Johnson as case studies. She also nests the stories of ordinary people who have dealt with addiction into the mix, changing their names to preserve Alcoholics Anonymous–enforced obscurity, creating an expansive, generous collage.

The book interrogates its own genre, questioning whether an addiction memoir can transcend its own fascination with the abuse of substances. “What role could sobriety possibly play in that glorious arc of blaze and rot?” Jamison asks, as she describes her fixation on the work of John Berryman, a poet and an alcoholic. “I idolized the iconic drunk writers because I understood their drinking as proof of extreme interior weather: volatile and authentic.” The book dissects the myth of the besotted genius, arguing that whatever a person accomplished while drunk, it was despite the addiction and not because of it. She wanted to turn communal recovery into the thrilling part of the story. The Recovering plants a flag for the inherent worth of stories of temperance, and in doing so, it suggests that an addiction memoir capable of transcending the genre must treat the process of getting well with as much electric flair as the process of falling apart. Her book questions what a successful addiction memoir looks like, and whether it is possible to move the story beyond an individual tale of rising from the depths of an addiction into something more universal.

“I love the big-tent quality of communal recovery. There’s an idea that twelve-step recovery wants everyone to have the same story, or puts a kind of pressure on people to make their story conform to the standard model, and there can certainly be a narrative structure that recovery embraces,” Jamison told Chris Kraus in a Paris Review interview about her project. “But what’s amazing about recovery is that it acknowledges a certain kind of unoriginality—no one is as exceptional as she thinks she is—while also making room for difference.”

The Recovering’s insistence on the need for a different sort of addiction story is a tad unfair. Books diverging from the genre’s hallmarks are already easy to find. Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, while adhering to many narrative beats, also includes lengthy reporting about the science of blackouts. She also writes at length about social and emotional repercussions of losing memory. “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them,” one expert tells her. The late New York Times media critic David Carr wrote another notable “addiction memoir that’s not a normal addiction memoir” with 2008’s Night of the Gun, in which he investigated his own descent into cocaine addiction. In it, he confronts the fuzzy parameters of truth as it pertains to memoir by acknowledging his supreme unreliability as a narrator and reporting his own story out by interviewing over 60 people who dealt with him during his darkest days. While the book does end with a fairly typical recovery arc, Night of the Gun is unusual in how directly it deals with the idea of truth coming from one person. Carr’s investigation into his past self also reveals a dark side that is shocking even by the grisly standards of addiction memoirs; he beat women.

Some of the most well-known addiction memoirists skip recovery narratives, instead focusing on using, like William S. Burroughs’s Junky. (Subtitle: Confessions of an Unredeemed Addict.) Burroughs’s autobiographical novel, published in 1953, is still part of the addiction memoir canon, and paved the way for Hunter S. Thompson’s gleeful druggie journalism. More recently, beauty writer Cat Marnell—who was once called “Hunter S. Tampon”—released How to Murder Your Life in 2017. Marnell remained a person with an active addiction throughout the process of writing and publishing, and her chirpy, slapstick account of becoming addicted to prescription pills resists a redemption arc. Marnell blithely admits that a relapse is likely, and during the book’s press tour, she openly continued to use substances, including Adderall. “Female drunks rarely got to strike the same rogue silhouettes as male ones,” Jamison writes in The Recovering, as she discusses the different cultural receptions to alcoholic male authors and their equally addicted female counterparts. Marnell, however, struck a distinctly roguish figure.

Although it is not the only unusual addiction narrative, Jamison’s project aims to depart from the standard in two significant ways. As it focuses on the stories of many people in recovery, it is not a straightforward memoir so much as it is a blend of memoir, reporting, popular history, and literary criticism. It also spends far more time on the recovery portion of the story. Jamison intended this as a rejoinder to the idea that only the lurid parts of these stories are interesting. “If addiction stories run on the fuel of darkness—the hypnotic spiral of an ongoing, deepening crisis—then recovery is often seen as the narrative slack, the dull terrain of wellness, a tedious addendum to the riveting blaze,” she writes. “I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.”

Jamison writes about her recovery as well as she does about her addiction. “Sobriety often felt like gripping onto monkey bars with sweaty metallic palms,” she writes, describing how it was to quit drinking again after a relapse. The book jumps between Jamison’s personal addiction story, between her investigations into the lives of other writers and artists with addictions, and then, toward the end, it expands to tell the stories of other people she met in recovery. Jamison gets sober almost exactly halfway through the book, and avoids the dull tone that can creep into the “sober sections” of these narratives. “The first day of my second sobriety, I crashed my friend’s car into a concrete wall,” she writes, as if to bang home how wild, mistake-filled, and exciting life without drinking can be.

Her first thesis—that the topic of recovery can be as powerful as the drunkalogues that come before it—bears out. But The Recovering also argues that these narratives need not be unique to compel. “Our stories have common hinges, whether we want to admit to them or not,” Jamison writes. “I’d grown suspicious of my own narrative tendencies: my desire for drama; my tenacious, futile pursuit of originality; my resistance to cliches. Perhaps this resistance to cliche was just one symptom of my refusal to accept the commonality of my own interior life.” The “Chorus” section, which relays stories from patients at a Maryland-based rehab center called Seneca House, lapses briefly into the tedium Jamison had feared. The vignettes lack the pointillist clarity of Jamison’s memoir and literary history sections. It’s clear that Jamison values these tales, but she relays them as matter-of-fact inventories of behavior. Perhaps because they were stories she received, she does not embellish them. “I thought Seneca House was compelling not because it was different but because it wasn’t,” Jamison writes.

It is a rare instance in the book where her ability to chronicle the pain of others falls flat. Jamison might well be morally correct that banal stories hold no less value than those stylishly told by artists, but ethical high ground doesn’t make the rehab chapters any less dutiful. Some of the most awkward moments come when she attempts to yoke experiences of addiction wildly dissimilar to her own. Jamison is careful to acknowledge that her status as an affluent white woman afforded her starkly different treatment as an addict than people from less lucky backgrounds. She briefly writes about a woman known as Prisoner 109416, who was cooked alive in an outdoor cage in the middle of the Arizona desert as part of the inhumane treatment of incarcerated female addicts held in what became known as “Tent City.”

“It’s easy to forget that Prisoner 109416 and I are part of the same story, because we have been granted the right to tell very different tales about our pain. According to the scripts of our culture, one of us is a victim, and the other a prisoner,” Jamison writes. So far, so good. “But keeping our stories apart, understanding them as unrelated, would ratify the logic that let our fates diverge in the first place: the desert cage, the basement chorus. Our stories are both stories about coming to depend on a substance—to crave it, to seek it, use it—and I no longer want to live by the traditions that keep them apart.”

Collapsing the wholly horrific experience of someone who is burned to death for a minor drug infraction with the tale of an affluent, talented, lucky woman who remained high-functioning and free throughout her struggle with addiction does not make much sense, because the totality of addiction experiences in America cannot be flattened into the same space. While it is wise of Jamison to acknowledge the vast gulf between herself and people who, through systemic and specific disadvantages, have been incarcerated and killed because of their addictions, it is an uncomfortable reading experience to witness Jamison attempt to meld deeply unalike situations. This is not to diminish how necessary it is to tell stories about people who have not been so lucky with addiction. It is simply to say that if Prisoner 109416 and Jamison are part of the same story, Prisoner 109416 deserves a volume of her own, which highlights the stark difference in how she was treated in comparison with those with privilege and means.

The Recovering is a wide-ranging and frequently excellent book about addiction, but it is stymied when it attempts to be too zoomed-out. Addiction, with its cyclical copping, its single-minded want, is a monotonous thing. But the experiences of those addicted differ vastly, based on race, class, the substances in question, the time and place. Jamison set out to write a different sort of addiction memoir, and she wrote one of the most exhaustively researched, lyrical, and thoughtful additions to that canon in recent years. The book flags only when she reaches for universality instead of focuses on writing her own story, which is already an expansive account of a woman confronting her addiction and her obsession with writers who drink.

When The Recovering is at its best, it is a singular account from a writer of rare talents about how addiction shapes and distorts art. Addiction memoirs are perennially popular because, like all memoir, they give readers something precious and unrepeatable: They allow us to slip inside the most intimate corners of someone else’s life. They can be hackneyed or they can be great, but they do not need transcending.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to The Recovering as The Reckoning.