John Burnside

Sobering Thoughts

The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath

By

Granta Books 534pp £20 order from our bookshop

That Leslie Jamison’s account of her descent into addiction should begin with a chapter entitled ‘Wonder’ is a sure sign that this is a writer who knows what she is talking about. At the age of fifteen, drunk on stolen Chardonnay or stoned on pot at a swimming party, the thoughts that come immediately to her mind are ‘What is this? And how can it keep being like this? … More. Again. Forever.’ With intoxication, the world is illumined with a glowing sense of potentiality – and wonder is the natural precinct of the mid-teen as she grows into a mysterious world of physical pleasure, dizzy emotion and a rare species of romantic pain that sets the soul on edge and transforms ordinary events into a larger-than-life narrative. What society offers its mid-teens, however, is a hidebound routine that is very much drained of vitality: school, chores and apparently random prohibitions are substituted for the freedom to feel, the necessity to explore and what Rachel Carson once described as ‘a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years’.

Like intoxication, sex is reserved for grown-ups; no surprise, then, that these twin pleasures are often stumbled upon together: ‘The first time I ever drank with a boy, I let him put his hands under my shirt on the wooden balcony of a lifeguard station,’ says Jamison (it is, in part, this specificity, this eye for the telling detail, that makes the book so compelling), and it soon becomes clear that intoxication through drugs and alcohol is irremediably bound up with the intoxication of romantic love and sex. This is a dangerous combination. Those embarked upon the way of addiction tend to end up with others of their kind, all too often raising the individual drunk’s febrile, devil-may-care attitude into a dangerous folie à deux. This leads, in due course, to the stages identified in the chapter titles that follow on from ‘Wonder’: ‘Abandon’, ‘Blame’, ‘Lack’, ‘Shame’, ‘Surrender’ and so on. In Jamison’s case, the shared madness of the addict was magnified yet further when she arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a centre of literary excellence where the drunken exploits of Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and John Berryman were not only legend but also seen, by many, as examples to be emulated. It is in this hothouse atmosphere of romantic tragedy and intoxicated bravado that Jamison begins to lose any last vestige of control, setting her on a path that, lead as it might to salvage and homecoming towards the book’s close, is both painful and humiliating.

That journey is painstakingly and honestly delineated, with flashes of humour and wry wit that leaven the sense of waste. If The Recovering were only a personal account of the recovering addict’s long passage from innocent wonder to experience, it would be an essential record of one woman’s survival. As it is, however, the individual account is wound into an extraordinary work of literary and social history, featuring not only the drunken, self-lacerating lives of writers and singers as diverse as Andre Dubus II and Billie Holiday, Jean Rhys and Amy Winehouse, but also the astonishing career of Bill Wilson (co-founder of AA) and a scathing indictment of the USA’s ‘War on Drugs’. Jamison’s accounts of drunken artists’ lives are both sensitive and painfully frank; she is nearly unique among cultural historians in showing how, while many of these figures were their own worst enemies, the society they inhabited was never far behind. At the same time, she is keenly aware that our pity for these flawed giants is all too often tinged with what Geoffrey Hill has called the ‘tenderness of the damned for their own flesh’.

Meanwhile, Jamison’s political analyses – of the racial background to state drugs policies, or of the valorisation of white, middle-class drug use compared to that of the poor and people of colour – are exact and scathing. ‘My skin is the right colour to permit my intoxication,’ she says. ‘When it comes to addiction, the abstraction of privilege is ultimately a question of what type of story gets told about your body: Do you need to be shielded from harm, or prevented from causing it? My body has been understood as something to be protected, rather than something to be protected from.’

The Recovering is, without doubt, a brave, honest and surprisingly generous study of intoxication and its consequences. Throughout, Jamison navigates a passage between the Scylla of glamorising bravado and the Charybdis of self-pity (the two great sins of drunks and junkies everywhere). She herself emerges chastened, politicised, keenly aware that what she is narrating is not ‘just another addiction memoir’ but a story that needs to be told for its own sake. Many readers will be surprised by her final chapters, in which she discusses the failure of a one-size-fits-all paradigm for recovery and sets out her argument for a pluralistic and adaptive approach, as against the standard prescription of ‘enduring abstinence’. She also recognises that since ‘the stories we tell about addiction have always had a deep impact on legal policy and social opinion’ it is vitally important to get those stories right. The Recovering gets it right and then some. It should be read by everyone, no matter how sober, and studied carefully by policymakers everywhere.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter