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Unpacking the Recovery Narrative: Leslie Jamison's Investigation of Addiction and Recovery in "The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath"


Unpacking the Recovery Narrative: Leslie Jamison's Investigation of Addiction and Recovery in "The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath"

B L Jayadev

PhD Research Scholar

Department of English Literature

The English and Foreign Languages University

Hyderabad, Telangana, India



This paper will examine Leslie Jamison’s extensive exploration of addiction and recovery in her magnum opus, “The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath." Through an analysis of Jamison’s text, the paper will interrogate addiction memoirs and their adherence to conventional narrative structures that shape the cultural perception of addiction. Jamison critiques the clichéd storyline of recovery commonly found in addiction memoirs, arguing for a more nuanced and expansive portrayal of addiction and recovery experiences. Drawing on personal anecdotes and insights from renowned literary figures, Jamison constructs a mosaic of recovery narratives that defy easy categorisation.  The paper examines Jamison's engagement with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and its influence on addiction memoirs, particularly the tension between individual storytelling and the prescribed narrative frameworks of recovery programs. Through an analysis of AA's "Pattern Script" and its impact on personal narratives, the paper highlights the complexities of navigating institutionalised recovery models within the context of memoir writing. Jamison's narrative challenges the prevailing myth of "whiskey and ink," which romanticises substance abuse as a catalyst for artistic brilliance. In conclusion, this paper argues that "The Recovering" transcends the traditional boundaries of addiction memoirs, offering a meditation on the complexities of addiction, recovery, and storytelling.

Keywords: Addiction memoir, Recovery arc, Triptych structure, Resonance

The architecture of the addiction/recovery memoir is readily identifiable due to its adherence to a "neat" narrative line: the exposition of the most jarring aspects of addiction, the fight for recovery, and the ultimate redemption and recovery.  These memoirs share a familiar storyline that consistently ends with recovery. Such recovery-focused memoir matches with what Julie Passanante calls "rehabilitative edutainment" (Passanante 4). These stories are meant to entertain, educate, and help people rehabilitate, all at the same time. The idea stems from how media is designed to shape people into responsible citizens while being engaging and entertaining. Passanante contends that such media mirrors the expectations prevalent in an industrial capitalist economy, in which the pursuit of a capable body and mind for efficient labour output becomes crucial. Disability is then seen as something that hinders a person's ability to be productive, due to which capitalist media frequently depict disability as a problem to be solved. Passanante points out that a standard inspirational narrative in this context is surmounting disability to become able-bodied (Passanante 5). The memoir genre is a suitable platform for these kinds of rehabilitation and education narratives where authors carefully showcase their journey of recovery, documenting their transformation from their past disabled state to a current productive one.  The majority of addiction memoirs are authored solely by people who are in the process of recovering and moving away from their past situations, inadvertently narrowing down the range of people who can write such memoirs. Hence, a discussion surfaces concerning how the recovery memoir neglects to accommodate alternative experiences of addiction – those that defy easy alignment with the parameters of recovery.

In her memoir "The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath," Leslie Jamison addresses the familiarity readers associate with the recovery narrative’s storyline. From the very beginning of the book, Jamison states her desire to go above and beyond the typical structure and elements of the genre. In the first chapter, she details the initial reactions she received when she proposed writing the book –

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 (Jamison 14).

Here, Jamison reflects on the overused tropes of the addiction memoir genre and takes a stance –

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 14).

Sited as a reaction to the cliched and self-congratulatory structure often found in recovery narratives, Jamison’s part memoir, part cultural critique, spanning almost 500 pages in length, has been marketed as a departure from the conventional literary narrative about drinking and addiction. She scrutinizes the inebriate narratives and writings of renowned writers and artists such as Jean Rhys, John Berryman, David Foster Wallace, Billie Holiday, Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver while simultaneously interweaving her personal journey of living with alcohol abuse. In an interview, Jamison clarified that The Recovering was written with the intention to “innovate upon the tradition of the recovery memoir … by including a whole fugue of stories, not just my own” (Barrett). Through these nested narratives, Jamison endeavours to transcend the inherent limitations of the recovery genre. She candidly acknowledges from the outset that a narrative on addiction "is always a story that has already been told" (14). It is characterised by a recurring cycle of desire, use, and repetition that ultimately leads to a "demolished and reductive and recycled core" (14). Addiction not only fosters trite writing but also engenders an unoriginal life narrative, as it perpetuates a cycle of familiar tropes and repetitive experiences. Jamison’s writing engages in a self-reflection with its own genre, questioning whether addiction memoirs can indeed surpass their fixation on capitalising on the voyeuristic schadenfreude pleasure derived from watching a life being wasted on substance and alcohol abuse. Jamison prompts, "What role could sobriety possibly play in that glorious arc of blaze and rot?" (30). The Recovering champions the significance of stories portraying recovery instead of the thralls of addiction, suggesting that a transcendent addiction memoir must render the process of recovery as captivating as the downward spiral. Her work challenges conventional notions of successful addiction memoirs. It explores the potential to expand narratives beyond individual tales of overcoming addiction to encompass more universal themes that can encompass the actual lived experience of addiction and its aftermath.

The impact of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), founded by Bill Willson, is discernible in the manner in which authors approach and, at times, overlook the cyclic nature of addiction (14). AA typically advocates a philosophy of complete abstinence from alcohol and illicit substances. By employing a framework centred on community-building through peer group meetings, the organisation encourages its members to share their experiences as a means to foster hope and solidarity among individuals grappling with a shared struggle. Leslie Jamison's memoir intricately explores the challenges posed by the narrative constraints imposed by AA, as exacerbated by her encounter with the "Pattern Script" circulated by the General Service Headquarters of AA in 1957 (221). The "Pattern Script" is a standardised rendition of an addict's recovery narrative, crafted explicitly for AA members to utilise in public speeches elucidating the organisation's mission. Jamison's engagement with this prescribed script sheds light on the tension between the individual's unique journey through addiction and the strict narrative framework imposed by AA. This tension underscores the discourse surrounding the influence of institutionalised recovery models and their impact on the authentic expression of personal narratives within the context of addiction memoirs. Jamison reflects,

"When I first saw the Pattern Script, it seemed to crystallise everything that was troubling about recovery narratives, their cookie-cutter conventions, and the tyranny of their triptych structure: what it was like (one’s drinking), what happened (why one stopped), what it’s like now (one’s sobriety)" (221).

Contrary to the public-facing advocacy of a singular recovery model by AA, the storytelling dynamics within the confines of a regular AA group meeting give rise to alternative avenues for the dissemination of addiction narratives. This dynamic is what Jamison wanted to emulate in her book - a chorus of voices that operated akin to the functioning of an AA group meeting. In exploring this phenomenon, Leslie Jamison acknowledges the divergence of narratives exchanged within AA meetings from the conventional recovery arc typically depicted in memoirs. Unlike the standardised path, which is promoted in public speeches and accounts, the private stories that are shared in the confines of AA meetings eschew glamourisation and solely aim instead to cultivate empathy among individuals grappling with addiction. Jamison observes that narratives emerging from AA meetings often lack traditional climactic elements that convey a definite resolution to the recovery story and generally emphasise their intention to convey meaning even in the absence of a pronounced climax: "The [AA meeting] narrative does not just insist on the moment as anticlimactic; it insists that this anticlimax has still been meaningful… Your story is probably pretty ordinary. This does not mean it cannot be useful" (297). These narratives, characterised by their anticlimactic nature, deviate from the established norm of the standard recovery narrative. Instead of serving as prescriptive models for emulation, they act as a source of solidarity, offering insight into the messy realities faced by individuals grappling with addiction. Jamison underscores here that the stories exchanged in AA meetings embrace ordinariness without succumbing to monotony: "They were all the same. But they were all different, too - insofar as every particular life manifested and disrupted the common themes in its way" (293). These narratives celebrate the distinctiveness of each individual's addiction experience while constructing a supportive community through shared thematic elements. The shared stories within AA meetings, thus, become a testament to the diverse paths to recovery. She reflects, "In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been told about stories—that they had to be unique—suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it was not unique at all when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again" (14). Jamison emphasizes that the value of these stories lies in their redundancy, not despite it. She contends that originality should not be the ultimate goal and beauty, not the primary focus. She opts instead to adopt a narrative perspective she describes as "the first-person plural" (14). She emphasises that such narratives, particularly those involving recovery, are never solitary experiences. She expresses her desire to craft a text that resembles a support group meeting—a narrative that candidly portrays the challenges, joys, and even the mundane aspects of adapting to a life lived collectively, one that is devoid of the numbing solitude of alcohol or drug-induced escapism.

Despite Leslie Jamison's advocacy for everyday addiction narratives that does not conform to the formulaic script and one that abandons a clear-cut separation between the addicted and sober-self, she confronts a harsh reality: the organic and communal stories recounted in AA meetings often struggle to garner market appeal among non-addict readers. Their shortcoming lies in the absence of spectacular displays and clears before/after structures characteristic of the prevailing recovery memoirs that dominate the literary landscape. Jamison identifies them as products shaped by a market that increasingly demands forms of abjection to sustain reader engagement. In contrast, she champions "the saving alchemy of community, the transformative force of outward-facing attention, the possibilities of simplicity" (349). The informal and real-time narration of addiction stories within AA meetings offers a distinct space for shared experiences that may share commonalities with memoirs focusing on recovery, although not confined by a predetermined formula. However, when authors endeavour to publish memoirs on recovery, they inevitably are confronted with the established rules of the genre. Drawing insights from precedent, authors discern what is deemed appropriate, contemplate the likely effects of their narrative choices on readers, and subsequently tend to alter the narrative to pander to the audience (152). While addiction often yields life experiences that have mostly similar structural elements, the raw and unrefined encounters are meticulously tailored into recognisable narrative arcs by authors adept in the nuances of genre conventions. As explicated by Katie Knibbs, this process renders commercially available recovery stories in the category discernibly "easy to spot" (Knibbs).

Jamison's project diverges from the norm in two significant aspects. Firstly, it encompasses the stories of numerous individuals in recovery, blending elements of memoir, reportage, popular history, and literary analysis rather than just adhering strictly to the memoir format. Secondly, it allocates more attention to the recovery phase of the narrative. Jamison crafted this approach as a rebuttal to the notion that only the sensational aspects of addiction narratives hold interest. She reflects, "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" (15). Jamison acknowledges her own fascination with spiralling tales of self-destruction but questions whether narratives of healing can endeavour to captivate as intensely as tales of suffering. While acknowledging the market's reliance on sensationalism and entertainment to sell addiction memoirs, Jamison explores alternatives by abstaining from graphic depictions of her most harrowing moments with addiction. Jamison articulates her journey of recovery with the same depth and insight as she does with her struggle with recovery from addiction. She vividly depicts the experience of sobriety, likening it to clinging onto monkey bars with sweaty metallic palms, especially in the aftermath of a relapse (243). Jamison actively struggles to steer clear of the monotony that often characterises the sober segments of such narratives. She punctuates her account with moments like crashing her friend's car into a concrete wall on the first day of her second sobriety, underscoring the unpredictable, error-prone, and exhilarating nature of life without alcohol. Recovery lacks the grandeur of a celebrated myth; it occupies the neglected space within our cultural narrative of illness and addiction, situated between the mesmerising descent and the triumphant return to health. Rife with setbacks, frustrations, and mostly repetitive and ritualistic actions, recovery is marked by the necessity of adhering to the same rational behaviours "Every…Day," as articulated by members of Jamison's AA Charter. Jamison contends that recovery is often perceived as the narrative lull in stories of illness or addiction. It lacks the adrenaline rush or altered states of consciousness that are commonly associated with the captivating allure of illness. Recovery lacks the yearning that propels narratives forward, making it less sensational compared to the spectacular derailments that capture attention. Consistently adhering to the path of recovery may lack the dramatic flair of veering off course. However, it is an essential, albeit underappreciated, aspect of the journey that often goes unnoticed.

Dissecting the myth of the intoxicated genius, the book contends that achievements while under the influence stem from talent rather than from the addiction itself. The primary focus of "The Recovering" is an exploration into the aftermath experienced by renowned writers after their attempts to overcome alcoholism. Jamison endeavours to uncover narratives that encapsulate their struggles in breaking free from the allure of addiction, seeking to understand the creative output that emerged from the mundane realm of sobriety, as opposed to the electrifying allure of addiction, a term she frequently employs. Describing this interest as "speculative autobiography," Jamison aims to discern patterns that might offer insights into what her own sober creativity could entail, essentially seeking a roadmap for navigating the terrain of sober artistic expression. Iowa City, where Jamison resided, was a place haunted by the specters of renowned alcoholic writers. "The myths of Iowa City drinking flowed like subterranean rivers beneath our own drinking," Jamison reflects. She goes on to detail how acclaimed authors like Raymond Carver and John Cheever raced to replenish their liquor supply. At the same time, John Berryman frequented bars, engaging in spirited debates about Whitman until dawn. Denis Johnson, too, succumbed to the allure of alcohol, crafting stories about his inebriation. She contends that among the Iowans, some, like Carver and Johnson, managed to overcome their addiction and continue writing. However, others, consumed by alcohol, met bitter and often premature ends. A 1967 Life profile celebrated "whisky and ink" as the essential fluids of Berryman's existence (Howard 76); however, he tragically met his demise five years later. Implicit in this inquiry is examining the association between art and suffering, suggesting suffering is justified or somehow elevated by its creative output. This notion likens creativity to a pact with malevolent forces, perpetuating the romanticised archetype of the tormented alcoholic genius. However, such thinking dismisses the experiences of countless individuals who do not transform their pain into acclaimed works of art or literary success and whose struggles yield only devastation. Jamison contends that this equation is fundamentally flawed and unattainable. In discussing the life of Jean Rhys, Jamison writes -

I’m not interested in the question of whether her work is “worth the price,” to us or to anyone, because it was never our choice to make. Her life was. The work is. We can’t trade either back. There’s no objective metric for how much brilliance might be required to redeem a lifetime of damage—and no ratio that justifies the conversion. Whatever beauty comes from pain can’t usually be traded back for happiness (233).

In addition to exploring the myths surrounding alcoholism, Jamison also delves into the clichés associated with recovery. Clichés permeate all facets of treatment, whether they are offered as sympathetic platitudes or as pearls of wisdom. Jamison reflects on her initial discomfort with the sing-song cadences of clichés during the early stages of her recovery, expressing disappointment when others veered away from narrative specificity in favour of abstract generalisations. She grapples with the complexities of what it truly means to enact transformative change in one's life despite the triteness of the phrase itself. For instance, she recounts a personal anecdote involving accidentally crushing a pet turtle after consuming too much absinthe, juxtaposed with the disappointment of hearing others resort to bland abstractions like being "sick and tired of being sick and tired" (183). This dilemma underscores why Jamison significantly emphasises incorporating a chorus of other voices in her book. She believes that this collective multitude of perspectives may potentially redeem cliché. Rather than focusing solely on what is deemed original or novel, Jamison highlights the significance of what is "new for us"—individual experiences and insights that resonate uniquely with each person's thoughts and emotions.

Jamison's examination of metaphor and its potential to provide more interpretive space compared to clichés is closely intertwined with this theme. She explores how metaphorical language enables better acknowledgement of the diversity in individuals' experiences and interpretations of recovery. Jamison discusses the animal metaphors of recovery articulated by French philosopher Catherine Malabou. Malabou presents the phoenix, which symbolises a rebirth from ashes with minimal change; the spider, which bears a web of scars; and the salamander, which can regenerate an entirely new limb. Each metaphor represents a distinct journey of recovery, emphasising the varied perspectives and outcomes inherent in the process. The phoenix symbolises a form of recovery wherein the wound is completely eradicated, akin to the mythical bird rising unblemished from its ashes. This notion of recovery involves the annulment of defects, resulting in a restoration to a perfectly pristine state. It is reminiscent of skin healing without leaving a scar, representing a psychic antithesis to the principles of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, where wounds are formative to personal narratives. In contrast, AA's ethos of recovery resides in the interstice between Malabou's other metaphorical creatures. The spider embodies a model of recovery characterised by the accumulation of scars, akin to a text inscribed with marks and scratches, refusing the possibility of an absolute renewal. Conversely, the salamander exemplifies a different paradigm, where the regenerated limb is neither scarred nor identical to its predecessor. Malabou elucidates that this new limb embodies a divergence from the past, marked by differences in size, shape, and weight, without the presence of scars or a complete replication of the former state. Jamison opines that AA's conception of recovery advocates for a sober identity that transcends mere replication or accumulation of scars. It envisages a new organ altogether, one that is devoid of sanctity or grief but is instead a mere pragmatic strategy for survival.

Despite her narrative being devoid of pedantry, she advocates for the messy process of recovery, both explicitly and implicitly. Through the telling of her own story and the inclusion of accounts from others who have grappled with addiction, The Recovering explores the concept of resonance, or what Jamison refers to as the 'chorus'—the inclusion of diverse voices and narratives of both illness and recovery—and the potential solace they may offer to individuals enduring suffering. Resonance to Jamison signifies the acknowledgement of shared experiences and the possibility of fellowship or the recognition that our struggles are often collective rather than unique. She contends that every addiction exists at the intersection of public and private realms, a sentiment that extends to illnesses, bodily injuries, and any transformative experiences that shape our interactions with the world. Through The Recovering, Jamison attempts to comprehend a kind of nebulous pain, one that lacks a clear definition or one that feels unjustified. She acknowledges that she belongs to a privileged demographic—a "kind of nice, upper-middle class white girl" (59) -not subjected to the systemic or institutional injuries faced by others. Nevertheless, she explores how different bodies can articulate distinct narratives about their pain, facing disparate consequences as a result. The Recovering aims to construct a narrative capable of embracing one’s personal truth while honouring the validity of all forms of pain, irrespective of their origins or expressions.

In her essay titled “The Devil’s Bait”, Jamison details a time when she attended a Conference on Morgellons disease, where patients convened to exchange therapeutic advice and share their stories about their lives marked by it. She observes that these individuals resonate with each other not only through their illness but also through their relentless but futile attempts to extract indications of pain from their bodies. As one of the members of the conference confides, "Some of these things I’m trying to get out, it’s like they move away from me" (Jamison, The Devil’s Bait). While in Bolivia, she is stung by a botfly, an insect that leaves eggs in its prey. Jamison experiences a squirming sensation at the stung spot, which later turns out to be alarva, "the size of a fingernail clipping and the colour of dirty snow, covered with tiny black teeth that looked like fuzz," extracted by a doctor from under her skin. However, even after the procedure, she still feels the same squirming sensation. She obsessively examines her skin for traces of parasitic life, even after tangible evidence proves that it has been removed. Jamison explores themes that resonate with her memoir, particularly the notion that narratives, such as that of a medical diagnosis, offer containment and closure but often fail to capture or acknowledge the depth of suffering fully. The diagnosis of Morgellons provides sufferers with an explanation, a sense of community, and a framework for understanding their affliction. However, because it lacks a definite treatment, it solely replaces one form of uncertainty for another. Jamison revisits the experience of the botfly in "The Recovering," repurposing it to meditate on the complexities of addiction. She critiques the reductionist approach of scientific or medical explanations for addiction that seeks to isolate its origins in brain chemistry, childhood trauma, or genotype. While understanding the root causes of addiction may provide some insight, it does not necessarily lead to a cure. She identifies most strongly with narratives that discard deterministic explanations and the illusion of being able to pinpoint the exact cause of addiction. Rejecting the notion of clear-cut cause-and-effect relationships, Jamison embraces the open-mindedness inherent in ongoing narratives, epitomised by the grounding mantra of Alcoholics Anonymous: one day at a time. In this regard, Jamison writes about a fairy tale, "The Hunter in the Forest." The story presents multiple endings, offering varying degrees of closure. However, the fourth and most intriguing ending, labeled the "Real Ending," concludes ambiguously with the hunter awakening and uttering the simple question, "Well?" (317). This open-ended quality of narrative is a significant takeaway from Jamison's journey through recovery.

In conclusion, Leslie Jamison's "The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath" is a seminal work that transcends the boundaries of traditional addiction memoirs, offering a multifaceted exploration of addiction, recovery, and the complex narratives that emerge from these experiences. Through her analysis, Jamison challenges the prevailing tropes and clichés associated with addiction narratives, advocating for a more nuanced understanding of recovery that embraces the ordinary and the mundane alongside the sensational and the tragic. By incorporating diverse voices and perspectives, she underscores the importance of communal support and empathy in navigating the treacherous terrain of addiction and healing. "The Recovering" serves not only as a testament to Jamison's own journey but also as a beacon of hope and solidarity for individuals grappling with addiction and seeking solace in shared experiences. In its embrace of ambiguity and open-mindedness, Jamison's work invites readers to reconsider their preconceptions about addiction and recovery, ultimately urging us to confront the complexities of human suffering with compassion, understanding, and a willingness to engage with the messy realities of lived life experiences.

Works Cited

Barrett, Ruth Shalit. “Can Leslie Jamison top The Empathy Exams with her mega-memoir of addiction?” Vulture. March 19, 2018.

Howard, Jane. "Whisky and ink, whisky and ink." Life. July 21, 1967, pp 76.

Jamison, Leslie. "The Devil’s Bait." Harper’s Magazine, 2013.

Jamison, Leslie. The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. Granta Books, 2018.

Knibbs, Kate. “What Makes a Successful Addiction Memoir?” The Ringer. 8 March 2018,

Passanante, Julie Elman. Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation. New York University Press, 2014.

Wilson, Bill. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Third Edition, 1976.