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.
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?
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 and scales of storytelling that would come to feel necessary—the War on Drugs, the early days of AA, Billie Holiday getting arrested on her deathbed at a Midtown hospital.
From early on, I knew I wanted to write about creative people who had gotten sober, or tried to—who had, in many cases, gone into recovery—and I knew I wanted to think about the relationship between their sobriety and their creativity. But I also realized at a certain point that I wanted to include more reported material, the stories of people who weren’t necessarily famous or remarkable but whose sobriety was all about storytelling anyway—because twelve-step recovery is so much about turning addiction into a narrative that allows you to live past it. I also came to realize that there were even larger questions about addiction and storytelling I wanted to be asking—about the War on Drugs, for example, and the ways that certain racialized scripts about addiction have been deployed, for many decades, to justify its ongoing punitive fever.
Often, with this book, I had the feeling of living in a house that kept growing all around me. I was aware of the room I was standing in, but then I’d become aware that it was lodged inside an even bigger room, or that there was another room that had newly appeared just off the end of the hallway, and I needed to explore that room, too. It was like the Winchester Mystery House—crazy passageways kept opening up, demanding to be explored, just when I thought I was done. And maybe also like that house—insofar as the whole thing is always haunted by ghosts—the ones who didn’t make it.
You talk in the beginning about the glazed look people had in their eyes when you said you were writing a book about recovery. There have been many books written on the subject, and the addiction memoir is almost always a self-congratulatory tale of redemption. What makes the soul-baring truth in these other books feel so false is their exceptionalism—the stories of those who don’t make it are always left out. And they are the majority. The account of your relapse in The Recovering seems pretty matter of fact. We see that recovery is an ongoing process, and it’s often pretty banal.
It’s so true what you say—so often, triumphant accounts of recovery implicitly or explicitly exclude the less triumphant stories of others. These are often more frustrating stories, emotionally and structurally, about relapse or suicide or alienation. Part of what felt liberating about writing a book in which my story wasn’t the only story—in which it was living alongside a bunch of other people’s stories—was the idea that the book wouldn’t just have one ending, it would have ten. Denis Johnson’s sobriety, David Foster Wallace going to rehab and staying sober but ultimately committing suicide, Billie Holiday getting arrested on her hospital deathbed, John Berryman jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge. In that context, my getting and staying sober isn’t the only “end” to the story. And, of course, it’s not any kind of end at all—only, as you point out, an ongoing process. But I wanted very much to map the many courses addiction can take, to use multiple lives to refuse the false fiction of a single path.
And yes! So much of the book is a fight against exceptionalism. So much of recovery is a fight against exceptionalism—that necessary act of saying, What I’ve lived has been lived before, will be lived again, is nothing special but still holds meaning, still holds truth. The idea that a story has to be “exceptional” in order to be worth telling is curious to me. What if we looked at every single person’s story as a site of possibly infinite meaning? What if we came to believe that there isn’t hubris or narcissism in thinking your story might be worth sharing, only a sense of curiosity and offering?
Exceptionalism is the heart of capitalism, and the essence of most workshop fiction. You know, the process of thinking, Why is this day different from all other days? To reject this mode automatically opens up other possibilities—aesthetically, historically, existentially.
That’s part of why I reference that Deleuze quote—one I know you also find meaningful—in which he says, “Life is not personal.” To me, part of that idea is the notion that an individual life isn’t just about itself, that its narrative can be offered in a more communal or collective spirit.
I think I first encountered that quote reading your response to a question about whether you considered your work confessional. What does it mean to you, that life isn’t personal? And how does the recovery ethos around storytelling—the practice of telling your story without understanding your story as exceptional—connect or resonate with the ways you have deployed your own life in your work?
What you write in the “Shame” chapter of The Recovering is so funny—“Everything was the best or the worst. Selfhood was a deck of superlatives I kept reshuffling.” And selfhood is an illusion, of course. I thought about the Deleuze quote when I was writing I Love Dick. The narrator announces she’s decided to use her life as a case study. Case studies are not personal! By using specific, singular detail, they become exemplary … of something else. Writing the Acker biography, I thought about that quote again. I wanted to describe Kathy Acker’s experience as intimately and forensically as possible, both for its own sake and to make a kind of revisionist history of New York in the seventies and eighties, piercing the romantic, bohemian myth. I always want to move the backdrop to the fore.
Oh, absolutely. There’s something so exciting about the ways specificity pushes back against the reductive blur of myth. And thinking of a life—your own, someone else’s—as a case study is an answer to the charges of exceptionalism or narcissism that often get hurled at memoir. I love that notion of moving the backdrop to the fore. In a way, that’s part of how writing nonfiction always works for me—identifying some strange, persistent presence lurking at the edges of my peripheral vision, and illuminating it more fully, draft to draft, forcing it into the light.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book is your discovery of yourself as a nonfiction writer and how that dovetailed with your involvement in recovery—your discomfort with the “made-up” characters in your early fiction writing and the pleasure of fully entering the worlds of other people. The bridge toward that discovery seemed to be the experience of sitting in rooms, night after night, listening to people’s stories. I was struck by the way you point out they don’t even have to be good stories!
Absolutely! Sitting in rooms, listening to other people—that practice, that wonder, that intentionality, that engagement—it was absolutely connected to my evolving life as a nonfiction writer. That experience of listening was a catalyst to reporting, in the strange, nontraditional way I report—and I needed some kind of catalyst, because I’m not naturally inclined to talk to strangers. That experience of listening was also deeply connected to research and archival work, which is to say, seeking out the stories of others, in so many shapes and forms.
I believe in fiction, and love reading fiction, and am absolutely certain I’ll write it again—in fact, I have a secret fiction project I’ve been working on for years, it actually got me jazzed about fiction again to pursue it in the margins of secrecy—but something happened as I was getting sober that I guess I’d describe, at the risk of sounding cheesy, as waking up to the world, in all its wonder and endlessness, feeling kind of staggered by all the stories that were out there waiting. It’s not just that everyone has a story. It’s that everyone has a thousand stories. Everyone is infinite.
And yes, as you say, I really started to wonder about what we mean by “good story” and what it takes for someone to have one. It’s one of the “clever”—at this point, deeply familiar and utterly tired—critiques of personal writing, that people are often deluded when they believe they have a story “worth telling” and that terrible memoirs or personal essays are ones that subject readers to these “unworthy” stories. I come from a place of believing everyone has a bunch of stories worth telling. It’s just about how you tell them. One of the things I loved about meetings from the very beginning was the idea that it wasn’t about having a “good story” in the literary sense—in which “good” might mean original or dramatically compelling or striated with sophistication or subtlety. It was about sharing an experience that might resonate with someone else. In that sense, the less original, the better.
The twelve-step system was always off-putting to me, the one part I couldn’t embrace. But I was taking language and speech too literally. Reading The Recovering, I think I understood it for the first time. You describe how it’s through the use of these slogans, these tepid rituals and clichés, that people with vastly different lives are able to come together for a common purpose. You describe talking to someone in a meeting who was living in a car and who was grateful to be able to fall back on a common phrase like take it one day at a time. This lack of specificity makes intimacy possible among strangers—a paradox I’d never appreciated before.
I struggled with those clichés at first, too, but it came down to shifting away from the belief that speaking always had to constitute an act of self-expression and toward seeing speaking as a means of connection. How can these words—maybe familiar, maybe trite—serve as a bridge between our very different lives?
It’s fascinating to think about cliché in terms of intimacy and specificity, because, as any of my students would tell you in a heartbeat, I’m the high priestess of specificity. My student G’Ra once said, In this class, we worship at the altar of narrative specificity. So often in writing, I think specificity, rather than its absence, is what allows a reader to connect with a story far removed from her own life. That can be true in recovery, too. I do love how people’s stories glimmer with the details of their particular lives. But I also love the way clichés humble us, bring us back to an awareness of how unsingular our lives are. In the book, I call them safeguards against alibis of exceptionality.
You were living in Iowa, in and around the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where you received your M.F.A. The workshop was a common locale among many of the writers whose addictions and work you describe—Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, John Berryman, George Cain. They were by no means a group, but they all taught or guest taught there at some point. In terms of writers who lived with addictions, the pool to draw from is vast. How did you decide to concentrate on writers who’d moved through the Iowa Workshop? There’s something about that choice that feels so midcentury American. But then, so was the start of AA—it was quintessentially American.
I’d come of age as a writer in Iowa City in certain important ways—living there when I went to the workshop, drinking in the bars where all these famous writers had drunk, having doomed love affairs, making friends who would become the great friends of my life. I lived there again in my twenties, trying to build a life with my former partner and eventually getting sober. So I felt like Iowa shaped me, and it was interesting to follow it back toward these other lives. Many of the writers I worshipped when I was young—Carver, Berryman, Johnson—were Iowa legends, and in some way I wanted to be part of that boys’ club, or at least I got a kind of electric charge from brushing up against their mythic haunts—the bars where they drank, the streets where they stumbled home at night, the neon hospital signs that showed up in their stories.
You bring up gender in interesting ways throughout the book. The difference between a male alcoholic—tormented, interesting, et cetera—and a female—bad mother, negligent, slatternly, et cetera. There are no interesting ways to be a female alcoholic, which makes the lives of Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys seem even more triumphant and vital, beyond their merits as writers.
Honestly, it’s one of the issues driving the whole book. What are the different kinds of stories we tell about losing control? And how does it code differently when a woman loses control—how does it seem like selfishness or how is it falling down on the eternal job of being a caregiver? How does that diverge from the romantic gloss that can attach to a man losing control, surrendering himself to the overpowering forces of creative frenzy or metaphysical angst, with intoxication or dependence serving as barometers of that overwhelm? Like most fruitful veins of inquiry in my writing, this one began with self-interrogation—Why were so many of the figures in my book male? Why were so many of the tortured geniuses I’d identified with when I was young male? What had I hoped to get from joining that boys’ club?
One of the things I have always loved about many of your female characters is the way they interrogate gender asymmetries without getting preachy or bombastic about it. For example, the main character in I Love Dick inhabits a posture—romantic pursuit—that looks different when occupied by men, in whom it often looks roguish, swaggering, part of a grand tradition of aggressive courtship, and by women, in whom it is often seen as abject or pathetic.
I can’t believe those aspirations, and the ideal of the tortured male genius, have persisted so long. Even now, the art world is much more tolerant of the “difficult” male artist. “Difficult” female artists are dropped, then they fall out of view. You describe how AA has evolved over generations, through traditions defined by its members, away from the mid-century sexism that was such an important part of Bill and Lois’s, the founders, story. Al-Anon actively critiques the “To Wives” chapter of AA’s big book and affirms the group’s focus on the lives of individuals who are involved with addicts and alcoholics.
Yes! Part of what’s fascinating about fellowship-based recovery as a culture is the way it constantly reinvents itself and resists monolithic identity. So some of the cultural residue of the early days, especially around gender, is subject to constant debate and interrogation, rather than coding as gospel.
The chapter on Seneca, a kind of twelve-step commune that existed for two decades in Maryland, from the early 1970s to the early 1990s, is one of my favorite parts of the book. You managed to track down a few of the members who are still living and record firsthand testimonies that augment the archives. How did you become aware of Seneca, and what drew you to use them as a case study?
Seneca House came to me through clichés, actually, in a serendipitous way. A few years into the process of working on the book—while I was spending lots of time in archives, that illicit and scholarly-sanctioned thrill of basically going through other people’s mail—I published a column in the New York Times Book Review about clichés. Specifically, it was a piece defending clichés—what could be redemptive or connective about them. It was inspired by recovery, although I didn’t write explicitly about recovery. After the piece was published, I got a letter from a man who said that the piece had resonated deeply with him, that he’d found value in clichés during his years of recovery, and he wanted to tell me the story of this community he’d been part of, a ramshackle rehab called Seneca House, tucked in the Maryland woods by the shores of a creek near the Potomac. I was immediately intrigued by his description of Seneca as a kind of duct-taped-and-glued-together site of survival, and I embarked on a year of interviews with people who had gone through it. Their stories came to constitute an important thread of the book. I imagined the Seneca voices echoing through the book like the voices you’d hear in a meeting and wanted the structure of the book to create that effect of strangers speaking to you from their folding chairs.
I also really liked the idea of choosing a community as my case study, rather than simply gathering stories from isolated individuals, because so much of recovery is about social ecosystems, rather than isolated psyches. Your Kathy Acker biography also seemed to me to be quite interested in writing the biography of an ecosystem rather than the biography of an individual—in that case, Acker’s world and social circle, the social landscapes she was part of, the people in her world. The form of that book suggests that every biography of an individual is actually the biography of an ecosystem, or several ecosystems. Was that always part of your sense of how you wanted to approach her life and her art—or did its necessity emerge somewhere along the way?
I always knew the Acker biography would be partly a cultural history, an attempt to capture those periods in a way most memoirs can’t because the memoirist sees everything through the lens of what shaped his or her story. The Seneca part of The Recovering dovetailed with research I did for the Acker book into addiction-therapy cults of the same era. Compared to shock therapies like Synanon, the Seneca experiment seems so democratic and grounded. Perhaps that’s because the structure evolved, as you say, through the traditions, over time, and among so many people. Reading The Recovering, I kept thinking there’s something about AA culture that’s exemplary now, even beyond the world of addiction. The ethos of the program is an allowing of difference, the idea that it’s a very big tent. There’s a sense of accommodation and agreeing to disagree that’s pretty much absent from public life now.
That’s part of what I loved about your approach to Acker, how seriously you took her context, in all senses—her teachers, her colleagues, her rivals, her lovers, her cities, her jobs. It allows you to illuminate the ways a psyche—and an artist—is always shaped by all these streams around her, and to explore the ways in which she brought multiple and distinct, if overlapping, selves to her various relationships and social ecosystems. No life is an island. The cross-pollination is where things get interesting. That’s part of what the Seneca House case study allowed me to start exploring, too—what happens when all these damaged, hopeful, malleable, desperate people joined this particular community. How did that community shape them, how did they shape each other? How does listening to multiple voices give a richer sense of recovery than simply listening to one?
I loved that you chose to start your Acker biography by considering various accounts of her memorial service—which not only started to give a sense of her community, and some of the people who were part of that community but also suggested the ways in which history is constantly being shaped by how it’s told and who is telling it. The same event gets narrated sixteen different ways. That’s ultimately so much of what The Recovering is about—how we craft the stories of our own lives, and the lives of others, to suit our needs and hungers. There’s nothing false or shameful in that shaping and reshaping. It’s an inevitable, fascinating, generative part of being human. With the Seneca House folks, I wanted to look at how they had turned their own lives into stories in order to stay sober, how they thought about sobriety as a kind of upward mobility, or a productive humbling, or a reclaiming of self.
And yes, absolutely—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. 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. There’s room for people to find resonance without forcing false conflation. Part of what makes a meeting work is the fact that people are telling a hundred different stories, rather than the same story over and over again. Someone is telling the story of living in a van with her kid. Someone else is telling the story of losing his job as a professor. Someone else is telling the story of getting out of prison and trying to rebuild his life. Someone else is telling the story of being a drunk housewife. There’s room for all of these stories—in the chorus of a meeting or the chorus of a book.
Chris Kraus is the author, most recently, of After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography.
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