My father quit drinking in 2013 when he was sent home from his fire station, still intoxicated from the night prior. The department offered him a choice: enter a probation period and attend a set number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or be terminated. My mother raised the stakes when she told him to get sober or she would leave him.
In true dramatic fashion, my father huffed, cursed his luck, and quit drinking on the spot, attending his AA meetings until they were no longer a requirement before retiring into a life of sobriety. My family loves to tell this story because it hits many of the sobriety narrative tropes – the “rock bottom,” the epiphany, the new beginning. In The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison argues that the power of the recovery narrative lies not in its unique qualities or commonalities, but in repetition.
The Recovering is elusive in its genre, emerging somewhere in the spaces between memoir, literary journalism, and academic discourse. Jamison, who emerged as a modern master of nonfiction with her 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, performs a narrative high-wire act in The Recovering.
Weaving her personal journey with stories of fellow AA members and the famed alcoholic writers John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, and more, Jamison conducts a sweeping chorus in which voices at times take center stage, fade, and ultimately harmonize. Jamison begins by exploring how alcohol and sobriety affect the creative mind, but by the end, readers are left with a sense of something larger. The Recovering is a book about the stories we tell to shift blame or take responsibility, to maintain our lives or uproot them, to confront ourselves or retreat so that we can face a new day.
Growing up, I was told stories that framed alcohol as the specter following in the darkness. On nights when my father finished a case of beer and his mood switched without warning from deep-throated laughter to rage, my mother would remind me that alcoholism is in my blood, and to be careful for the rest of my life. Whenever I got drunk in college, I’d look in the mirror and wonder if I was becoming my father. I counted beers and took note of any consecutive days that I drank. I worried that if I wasn’t vigilant I would become an alcoholic by accident, as the stories I was told became the reality I ran from.
The chorus of voices in The Recovering begin as whispers, myths perpetuated through stories and booze. Jamison describes the aura of the drunken genius at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where writers such as Berryman, Carver, and Cheever had a number of famed escapades, noting “these were the legends I inherited. The air was thick with them.” She approaches like a boxer at the opening of a match, probing and taking calculating jabs at each overarching narrative. Readers are asked to follow closely to the foundation she sets and are rewarded when the pieces come together as her story of sobriety clicks into place with Raymond Carver’s, her relapses with Jean Rhys, and her personal struggles with the countless stories told by the community she finds in AA.
The Recovering is sweeping in scope, and Jamison works to avoid blind spots within her exploration, as she notes the discrepancies between alcoholism as a disease or crime and recovery as treatment or incarceration. She argues that privilege plays an important role in the way alcoholism is perceived, noting “I am precisely the kind of upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship with substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than punishment.” When viewed as a whole, Jamison’s investigation of sobriety is not merely a collection of stories but a patchwork of individual journeys, illuminated in their unique struggles and successes, and tied together by their common path toward a more hopeful future.
We live by the stories we tell. My father has since retired from the fire department and remains sober, but he blames my mother for threatening him into quitting. He views sobriety as a slight against him, his stubbornness the only thing that keeps him from relapsing. Perhaps this contradicts the narrative my family wants to tell of the man who did the right thing for those he loved when he quit drinking without hesitation. I frequently tell two competing stories of my father, balancing between the volatile, angry man whose drinking kept me at a distance and the sad, grieving man who retreated into alcoholism after his brother passed away. I’m not sure which version to embrace, which version to reject.
Jamison also struggles with seemingly contradictory narratives. The pitiable victim versus the criminal. The redeemable versus the lost. The creative drunk who uses alcohol as inspiration and whose sobriety is hollowing rather than redemptive versus the sober writer who can finally see clearly. There is no single, true answer, of course, and ultimately it is more important to tell, retell, and listen to the stories. In breaking down the mythos of the drunken writer, Jamison reveals the intimate lives underneath, both unique and common in their pain. Jamison notes that “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 story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again.” The power of the recovery narrative, like The Recovering itself, is that is a conversation, a collection of voices that add, diverge, repeat, and eventually become one.
Michael Welch is the winner of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies’ Florence Kahn Memorial Award and the author of the chapbook, But Sometimes I Remember. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, The Dallas Review, and elsewhere. He is a masters candidate in fiction at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is a fiction editor for cream city review. Find him at www.michaelbwelch.com and @MBWwelch.