Author Leslie Jamison Hopes To Change How People Think About Creativity And Recovery
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Literature is full of books that glorify addiction, not so many about recovery. The novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison takes on sobriety in her new book "The Recovering" - her own sobriety and famous writers who came before her. She writes that at first, being sober felt like a specific moment from her childhood. At age 7, she told her mom she could make a better apple crumble topping. Her mom said, go for it.
LESLIE JAMISON: I made a disgusting concoction with too much butter and, for whatever reason, raw macaroni. And then too proud to admit I'd failed, I sat there eating the mixture in front of her, pretending that I loved it. Sobriety felt like that.
SHAPIRO: Her relationship with sobriety has changed since then. Jamison told me with this book, she wants to change the ways we think about creativity and recovery.
JAMISON: I was looking for examples of how sobriety could charge and energize creativity rather than killing it. So like a lot of young writers, I think I had internalized a certain mythology about drinking and writing that there was a kind of dark, moody, self-destructive temperament that sought out booze, sought out drugs, sought out intensity of experience in that way and turned it into beautiful art, that kind of suffering and dysfunction were what great art was made of.
And I had a real fear that getting sober was going to mean that all those sources of intensity were shut down, but I became really interested in the fact that some of the drunk writers that I had idolized most - Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson - had also gotten sober and had written really incredible things.
SHAPIRO: Have you figured out how sobriety affects the kind of writer that you are?
JAMISON: I think that discovery is an ongoing one. I mean, there are certain basic ways in which it actually feels good not to wake up hungover every morning, right?
JAMISON: It's a little bit easier to write from that space. One of the big ways in which I felt my own writing life shaped by recovery had to do with my relationship to other people's stories. And one of the things I loved most about recovery was the way in which, in meetings and through fellowship, you are constantly kind of paying attention to lives outside of your own. And that gave me a kind of hunger and a kind of practice with engaging with other people's stories that started to really become part of my writing life as well. And it never had before I got sober.
SHAPIRO: We perceive addiction in a lot of different ways in society depending on what the substance is, who the addict is, whether it's genius or pathology, sickness or crime. Will you read a section from this book where you kind of dig into that a little bit?
JAMISON: Sure. (Reading) Every addiction story wants a villain. But America has never been able to decide whether addicts are victims or criminals, whether addiction is an illness or a crime. So we relieve the pressure of cognitive dissonance with various divisions of psychic labor. Some addicts get pitied. Others get blamed. They keep overlapping and evolving to suit our purposes.
(Reading) Alcoholics are tortured geniuses. Drug addicts are deviant zombies. Male drunks are thrilling. Female drunks are bad moms. White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of color get punished. Celebrity addicts get posh rehab with equine therapy. Poor addicts get a hard time. Someone carrying crack gets five years in prison while someone driving drunk gets a night in jail even though drunk driving kills more people every year than cocaine.
SHAPIRO: As a writer, too, there's a difference between the way male and female addicts are perceived. People put an Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver on a pedestal in a way that they might not put a woman of the same stature. So do you as a writer think that you are perceived differently as a woman struggling with some of these same issues that these writers we glorify who happen to be men have struggled with?
JAMISON: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that I had started to think about a lot as I was writing this book was, as you point out, the ways that female drunks are seen differently than male drunks. And so in a lot of different senses, I think we bring a lot of expectations around caregiving to women, that they're, you know, supposed to take care of others.
And so when you have a lady drunk, she's often, like, failing at that task of taking care of others, or her drunkenness is kind of part of her selfishness versus - men are more often allowed to be this kind of, like, rogue, reckless, dysfunctional geniuses. And it's, like, OK that they're off getting into trouble because we don't expect them to be taking care of anyone in the same way. I think sometimes female dysfunction can also come across as sort of uncouth or melodramatic or a little bit unseemly. And those aren't often adjectives we apply to to male dysfunction in the same way.
I guess one thing to say is I think my whiteness has probably been a bigger part of how my addiction has been perceived than my gender. And it's important to me to kind of call out that privilege first.
SHAPIRO: Having spent a lot of time in church basements describing your lowest moments, what are your feelings about now being out there publicly talking about a book that's available for anyone to read in which you describe those lowest moments?
JAMISON: Yeah. I really believe in people putting stories out there that contain the most difficult moments because nothing to me is more lonely making than sanitized stories or airbrushed stories that kind of allied how hard it got. And so for me, there's a real consolation as a reader in reading people's stories where they - where they're really willing to confess, like, this is how hard it felt. I think it really mattered to me to show where drinking took me because I believe that for people reading this, there's a consolation in seeing those lowest moments that wouldn't reside in reading a story that pushed them into the margins or silenced them.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You know, beyond addiction, there's a long association with artistry and torment. You could list an endless number of names. Do you think there is something to that, or is that just a story we tell ourselves?
JAMISON: I think that the ways in which people have made beautiful art from suffering, from pain - those connections are absolutely real. But I think it's the idea that pain and torment have, like, a monopoly on what art can be. I think that's where the delusion lies and that - I think sometimes it's a lot harder to write the compelling stories about happiness or about getting better about positive states of feeling, about what it feels like to just wake up every morning and show up for your life, like, show up for work, show up for your relationships.
And that was kind of the aesthetic gauntlet that I wanted to throw down for myself in this book. Like, could I write a book where the story of recovery wasn't just the final chapter that readers kind of, like, flip through thinking, like...
JAMISON: ...Oh, I got to get through this recovery part, yeah.
SHAPIRO: It's not the happily ever after, yeah.
JAMISON: Yeah. I wanted to show that it's, like, rich and complicated, and getting better is just as interesting as falling apart. You just have to find the story in it.
SHAPIRO: Well, Leslie Jamison, thank you for sharing your story with us.
JAMISON: Thank you so much for having me and for your thoughtful questions.
SHAPIRO: Her book is called "The Recovering: Intoxication And Its Aftermath." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.