The Recovering

Intoxication and Its Aftermath


By Leslie Jamison

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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Empathy Exams comes this transformative work showing that sometimes the recovery is more gripping than the addiction.

With its deeply personal and seamless blend of memoir, cultural history, literary criticism, and reportage, The Recovering turns our understanding of the traditional addiction narrative on its head, demonstrating that the story of recovery can be every bit as electrifying as the train wreck itself. Leslie Jamison deftly excavates the stories we tell about addiction — both her own and others’ — and examines what we want these stories to do and what happens when they fail us. All the while, she offers a fascinating look at the larger history of the recovery movement, and at the complicated bearing that race and class have on our understanding of who is criminal and who is ill.

At the heart of the book is Jamison’s ongoing conversation with literary and artistic geniuses whose lives and works were shaped by alcoholism and substance dependence, including John Berryman, Jean Rhys, Billie Holiday, Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace, as well as brilliant lesser-known figures such as George Cain, lost to obscurity but newly illuminated here. Through its unvarnished relation of Jamison’s own ordeals, The Recovering also becomes a book about a different kind of dependency: the way our desires can make us all, as she puts it, “broken spigots of need.” It’s about the particular loneliness of the human experience-the craving for love that both devours us and shapes who we are.

For her striking language and piercing observations, Jamison has been compared to such iconic writers as Joan Didion and Susan Sontag, yet her utterly singular voice also offers something new. With enormous empathy and wisdom, Jamison has given us nothing less than the story of addiction and recovery in America writ large, a definitive and revelatory account that will resonate for years to come.




The first time I ever felt it—the buzz—I was almost thirteen. I didn’t vomit or black out or even embarrass myself. I just loved it. I loved the crackle of champagne, its hot pine needles down my throat. We were celebrating my brother’s college graduation, and I wore a long muslin dress that made me feel like a child, until I felt something else: initiated, aglow. The whole world stood accused: You never told me it felt this good.

The first time I ever drank in secret, I was fifteen. My mom was out of town. My friends and I spread a blanket across living room hardwood and drank whatever we could find in the fridge, Chardonnay wedged between the orange juice and the mayonnaise. We were giddy from a sense of trespass.

The first time I ever got high, I was smoking pot on a stranger’s couch, my fingers dripping pool water as I dampened the joint with my grip. A friend-of-a-friend had invited me to a swimming party. My hair smelled like chlorine and my body quivered against my damp bikini. Strange little animals blossomed through my elbows and shoulders, where the parts of me bent and connected. I thought: What is this? And how can it keep being this? With a good feeling, it was always: More. Again. Forever.

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. Dark waves shushed the sand below our dangling feet. My first boyfriend: He liked to get high. He liked to get his cat high. We used to make out in his mother’s minivan. He came to a family meal at my house fully wired on speed. “So talkative!” said my grandma, deeply smitten. At Disneyland, he broke open a baggie of withered mushroom caps and started breathing fast and shallow in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, sweating through his shirt, pawing at the orange rocks of the fake frontier.

If I had to say where my drinking began, which first time began it, I might say it started with my first blackout, or maybe the first time I sought blackout, the first time I wanted nothing more than to be absent from my own life. Maybe it started the first time I threw up from drinking, the first time I dreamed about drinking, the first time I lied about drinking, the first time I dreamed about lying about drinking, when the craving had gotten so deep there wasn’t much of me that wasn’t committed to either serving or fighting it.

Maybe my drinking began with patterns rather than moments, once I started drinking every day. Which happened in Iowa City, where the drinking didn’t seem dramatic and pronounced so much as encompassing and inevitable. There were so many ways and places to get drunk: the fiction bar in a smoky double-wide trailer, with a stuffed fox head and a bunch of broken clocks; or the poetry bar down the street, with its anemic cheeseburgers and glowing Schlitz ad, a scrolling electric landscape: the gurgling stream, the neon grassy banks, the flickering waterfall. I mashed the lime in my vodka tonic and glimpsed—in the sweet spot between two drinks and three, then three and four, then four and five—my life as something illuminated from the inside.

There were parties at a place called the Farm House, out in the cornfields, past Friday fish fries at the American Legion. These were parties where poets wrestled in a kiddie pool full of Jell-O, and everyone’s profile looked beautiful in the crackling light of a mattress bonfire. Winters were cold enough to kill you. There were endless potlucks where older writers brought braised meats and younger writers brought plastic tubs of hummus, and everyone brought whiskey, and everyone brought wine. Winter kept going; we kept drinking. Then it was spring. We kept drinking then, too.

Sitting on a folding chair in a church basement, you always face the question of how to begin. “It has always been a hazard for me to speak at an AA meeting,” a man named Charlie told a Cleveland AA meeting in 1959, “because I knew that I could do better than other people. I really had a story to tell. I was more articulate. I could dramatize it. And I would really knock them dead.” He explained the hazard like this: He’d gotten praised. He’d gotten proud. He’d gotten drunk. Now he was talking to a big crowd about how dangerous it was for him to talk to a big crowd. He was describing the perils of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was being articulate about being articulate. He was dramatizing what the art of dramatizing had done to him. He said: “I think I got tired of being my own hero.” Fifteen years earlier, he’d published a best-selling novel about alcoholism while sober. But he relapsed a few years after it became a bestseller. “I’ve written a book that’s been called the definitive portrait of the alcoholic,” he told the group, “and it did me no good.”

It was only after five minutes of talking that Charlie finally thought to begin the way others began. “My name is Charles Jackson,” he said, “and I’m an alcoholic.” By coming back to the common refrain, he was reminding himself that commonality could be its own saving grace. “My story isn’t much different from anyone’s,” he said. “It’s the story of a man who was made a fool of by alcohol, over and over and over, year after year after year, until finally the day came when I learned that I could not handle this alone.”

The first time I ever told the story of my drinking, I sat among other drinkers who no longer drank. Ours was a familiar scene: plastic folding chairs, Styrofoam cups of coffee gone lukewarm, phone numbers exchanged. Before the meeting, I had imagined what might happen after it was done: People would compliment my story or the way I’d told it, and I’d demur, Well, I’m a writer, shrugging, trying not to make too big a deal out of it. I’d have the Charlie Jackson problem, my humility imperiled by my storytelling prowess. I practiced with note cards beforehand, though I didn’t use them when I spoke—because I didn’t want to make it seem like I’d been practicing.

It was after I’d gone through the part about my abortion, and how much I’d been drinking pregnant; after the part about the night I don’t call date rape, and the etiquette of reconstructing blackouts; after I’d gone through the talking points of my pain, which seemed like nothing compared to what the other people in that room had lived—it was somewhere in the muddled territory of sobriety, getting to the repetitions of apology, or the physical mechanics of prayer, that an old man in a wheelchair, sitting in the front row, started shouting: “This is boring!”

We all knew him, this old man. He’d been instrumental in setting up a gay recovery community in our town, back in the seventies, and now he was in the care of his much younger partner, a soft-spoken book lover who changed the man’s diapers and wheeled him faithfully to meetings where he shouted obscenities. “You dumb cunt!” he’d called out once. Another time he’d held my hand for our closing prayer and said, “Kiss me, wench!”

He was ill, losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech. But he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that never got said aloud in meetings: I don’t care; this is tedious; I’ve heard this before. He was nasty and sour and he’d also saved a lot of people’s lives. Now he was bored.

Other people at the meeting shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The woman sitting beside me touched my arm, a way of saying Don’t stop. So I didn’t. I kept going—stuttering, eyes hot, throat swollen—but this man had managed to tap veins of primal insecurity: that my story wasn’t good enough, or that I’d failed to tell it right, that I’d somehow failed at my dysfunction, failed to make it bad or bold or interesting enough; that recovery had flatlined my story past narrative repair.

When I decided to write a book about recovery, I worried about all of these possible failures. I was wary of trotting out the tired tropes of the addictive spiral, and wary of the tedious architecture and tawdry self-congratulation of a redemption story: It hurt. It got worse. I got better. Who would care? This is boring! 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.

I wanted to tell them that 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.

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 wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again. Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.

When I decided to write a book about recovery, I didn’t want to make it singular. Nothing about recovery had been singular. I needed the first-person plural, because recovery had been about immersion in the lives of others. Finding the first-person plural meant spending time in archives and interviews, so I could write a book that might work like a meeting—that would place my story alongside the stories of others. I could not handle this alone. That had already been said. I wanted to say it again. I wanted to write a book that was honest about the grit and bliss and tedium of learning to live in this way—in chorus, without the numbing privacy of getting drunk. I wanted to find an articulation of freedom that didn’t need scare quotes or lacquer, that didn’t insist on distinction as the only mark of a story worth telling, that wondered why we took that truth to be self-evident, or why I’d always taken it that way.

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. I wasn’t immune; I’d always been enthralled by stories of wreckage. But I wanted to know if stories about getting better could ever be as compelling as stories about falling apart. I needed to believe they could.

I moved to Iowa City just after my twenty-first birthday, in a little black Toyota with a television riding shotgun and a winter coat that wasn’t even thick enough to keep me warm through autumn. I lived in a white clapboard house on Dodge Street, just below Burlington, and hit the circuit right away: backyard parties under branches strung with tiny white Christmas lights, mason jars full of red wine, local bratwurst on the grill. The grass shimmered with mosquitoes, and fireflies blinked on and off like the eyes of some coy, elusive god. Maybe that sounds ridiculous. It was magic.

Writers ten years older than I was—twenty years older, thirty years older—talked about their drumming careers and prior bylines, their prior marriages, while I found myself without much life to talk about. I’d come to live. I was going to do things at parties here that I might talk about at parties later, elsewhere. I was thrumming with that promise, and nervous. I drank quietly, quickly, staining my teeth with Shiraz.

I’d come to get my master’s degree at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an institution barnacled with history. It seemed to me the program was always asking you to prove why you deserved to be there, and I wasn’t sure I did. I’d been rejected from every other program I’d applied to.

One night I showed up at a potluck—brick building, basement unit, carpeted floors—and found everyone sitting in a circle. It was a game: You had to tell your best story, your absolute best. I can’t remember anyone else’s. I’m not sure I even listened to anyone else, I was so afraid no one would like what I said. When it was finally my turn, I pulled out the only story of mine that reliably made people laugh. It was about the community-service trip I’d taken to a Costa Rican village when I was fifteen. I’d run into a wild horse on a dirt road, on my walk home one day, and then later confused the words for caballo and caballero while I was trying to tell my host family about the encounter. When I saw the concern on their faces, I tried to reassure them that I actually loved horses and ended up telling them how much I enjoyed riding gentlemen. At this point, in the carpeted basement, I got onto my feet and mimed riding a horse, as I’d mimed it for my host family years earlier. People laughed, a little bit. In my horse-riding position, I felt like an overzealous charades player. I quietly arranged myself cross-legged again.

The structure of that basement game was nearly identical to the structure of the program itself: Every Tuesday afternoon we gathered in workshops to critique each other’s stories. These discussions happened in an old wooden building by the river, beige with dark green trim. When we clustered on the porch before class, under the red-leafed October trees, I smoked cloves and listened to their sweet crackle. Someone had once told me cloves had little bits of glass in them, and I always pictured shards glittering through the smoky chambers of my lungs.

Whenever it was your week to get critiqued, copies of your story were stacked on a wooden shelf—always more than enough copies for everyone in your class. If other people in the program were interested in your work, all the copies of your story would disappear. You’d sell out. Or else you wouldn’t. Either way, you’d sit at a round table for an hour and listen to twelve other people dissect the virtues and failures of what you’d written. Then you were expected to go out afterward, with those same people, and drink.

If most days in Iowa were like a test, some version of that first night swapping stories in a basement, then sometimes I passed, and sometimes I failed. Sometimes I got high and worried about sounding stupid, even though the whole point of getting high was that you weren’t supposed to worry if you sounded stupid. Sometimes I went home at the end of the night and cut myself.

Cutting was a habit I’d picked up in high school. It was something my first boyfriend had done, the same one who took enough mushrooms at Disneyland to get scared of the frontier. He’d had his reasons, traumas in his past. At first, I told myself I was doing it because I wanted to get closer to him. But eventually I had to admit I was drawn to cutting for reasons of my own. It let me carve onto my skin a sense of inadequacy I’d never managed to find words for; a sense of hurt whose vagueness—shadowed, always, by the belief it was unjustified—granted appeal to the concrete clarity of a blade drawing blood. It was a pain I could claim, because it was physical and irrefutable, even if I was always ashamed of it for being voluntary.

I’d been shy for most of my childhood, afraid to speak because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing: afraid of popular Felicity, a girl in eighth grade who’d cornered me by the lockers to ask why I didn’t shave my legs; afraid of the girls in the locker room who laughed in a huddle and finally asked me why I never wore deodorant; afraid even of the kinder girls on my cross-country team, the ones who asked why I never spoke; afraid of dinners with my father, which happened maybe once a month, when I wasn’t sure what to say, and often ended up saying something sullen or bratty, something that might compel his attention. Cutting was a way to do something. When my high school boyfriend told me he thought we should break up, I felt so powerless—so spurned—that I threw a stack of plastic cups against my bedroom wall so hard they shattered into shards. I drew these shards across my left ankle until it was a messy ladder of red hatch marks.

It makes me cringe, looking back at my own theatrical production of angst, but I also feel a certain tenderness toward that girl, who wanted to pronounce the size of how she felt, and used what she could: disposable plastic picnic cups, the mode of harm she’d borrowed from the one who was leaving her. It had been a kind of camaraderie between me and him—wearing long sleeves during Southern California summers so our parents couldn’t see the cuts on our arms, explaining the Band-Aids on my ankles as shaving nicks.

Cutting and writing were the ways I’d found around my chronic shyness, which felt like constant failure. At Iowa, my short stories were the kind that got called character-driven, because they never had plots. But I was suspicious of my characters. They were always passive. They suffered from diseases; they suffered assaults; their dogs got heartworms. They were either fake, or else they were me. They were cruel and cruelly treated. I sent them into suffering because I was sure that suffering was gravity, and gravity was all I wanted. My work followed pain like a heat-seeking missile. Even as a young girl, my princess characters had died by dragon breath more often than they’d gotten married. In tenth grade, I’d been assigned to write a response to another student’s painting, an abstract swirl of red and purple, and I wrote a story about a girl in a wheelchair dying in a house fire.

That first year at Iowa, I lived with a journalist in her thirties who had spent years writing newspaper articles about the New York City art scene. She knew how to roast a chicken stuffed with whole lemons, hot and pulpy and sour. The fact of cooked lemons seemed undeniably adult to me, a sign of having crossed some sort of threshold. On Wednesday nights we drove out to the farmers’ auction in a big barn just west of town—tractors and livestock and estate sales, old LPs and old swords and old Coke cans, trash and treasure—where you could buy funnel cakes and watch the auctioneers ride their giant high chairs through the aisles, speaking their incomprehensible staccato language: nowfourfifty-canigettafivenow-fivefromtheback. Back home, we sweated in our kitchen, melting goat cheese and torn-up basil into couscous and then spooning it into the little purses of fried squash blossoms. The smell of oil-blistered vegetable skin was everywhere. Those days were like that: humid, insistent. I had this thought that sautéing things would make me an adult.

Some nights when I got restless and had trouble sleeping, I would drive out to the biggest truck stop in the world, forty miles east on I-80. It had a fifty-foot buffet and showers for the truckers. It even had a dentist and a chapel. I scribbled character-driven dialogue in my notebooks and drank mugs of black coffee filmed with broken lily pads of grease. At three in the morning, I ordered apple dumplings and vanilla ice cream and cleaned the bowl with my tongue, miles of darkened cornfields all around me.

It seemed like everyone drank in Iowa City. Even if no one drank all the time, there was always someone drinking at any particular time. When I wasn’t pretending to ride a cowboy, trying to earn my seat on the shag, I spent my nights balancing on leather stools at the writers’ bars on Market Street: George’s and the Foxhead. “Writers’ bar” was a nonexclusive term. Really any bar where writers drank could be a writers’ bar: the Deadwood, the Dublin Underground, the Mill, the Hilltop, the Vine, Mickey’s, the Airliner, that place with a patio on the Ped Mall, that other place with a patio on the Ped Mall, that place with a patio just a block from the Ped Mall.

But the Foxhead was the most writerly bar of all, and also the smokiest. The ventilation system was just a hole someone had shoved a fan into. The girls’ bathroom was covered with marker scrawl about men in the workshop: So-and-so would fuck anyone, so-and-so would fuck you over. Some of the guys called me barely legal, because I was so young, and I wondered if that phrase lived above a urinal in the guys’ room. I hoped. It seemed like living, to be someone who inspired gossip in black marker.

Even as Iowa got colder, I always wore my cheapest jacket to the Foxhead because I didn’t want to get my other jackets smoky. My cheapest jacket was thin knee-length black velour with a faux-fur trim so large I felt comfortably recessed within it—shivering, arms crossed tight across my chest. Years later, I read about an undergrad in Ames who had gotten drunk and died in the snow, his body found at the bottom of the stairs in some old agricultural warehouse. But back then I wasn’t thinking about dying in the snow. I drank until I couldn’t feel the cold. After the bars closed, I kept drinking in the chilly apartments of boys who were trying to save money on their heating bills.

One night I ended up in the chilly apartment of a boy I liked, or who I thought might like me—the two possibilities were nearly indistinguishable, or else the first barely mattered. There were a few of us at his place, and someone brought out a baggie of coke. It was my first time ever seeing coke, and it was like stepping into a movie. During high school, it seemed like all the other girls had been doing coke since they were toddlers. Popular Felicity, with her smooth-shaven legs; I was sure she’d done it all the time, while I’d been drinking Diet Cokes at PG-13 movies, spending weeks choosing an ankle- length blue lace semiformal dress.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure exactly how to do coke. I knew you snorted it, but I didn’t know what that looked like. I tried to summon every movie I’d ever seen. How close did you get? How close had that girl gotten in Cruel Intentions, snorting from a secret stash in her silver crucifix? I didn’t want to tell this guy it was my first time doing coke. I wanted to have done coke so many times I couldn’t even count how many times I’d done coke. Instead I was someone who needed to be reminded, gently, to use the cut straw.

“I feel like I’m corrupting you,” this guy said. He was twenty-four but acted like those three years were a canyon between us. They were. I wanted to say: Corrupt me! I was wearing bright white pants with a big silver buckle attached, kneeling in front of this guy’s coffee table, doing a line straightened by a credit card that was honestly probably a debit card, sniffing loudly.

There was nothing feigned about how much I loved that icy swell, that sense of so much to say. We had all night. The woman who’d brought the coke was gone. Everyone was gone. We could talk till dawn. I imagined him saying: I’ve always wondered what you were thinking. Other people were always the ones who got noticed, the Felicitys of the world, but now this guy was putting on a record, Blood on the Tracks, and Dylan’s scratchy voice filled the cold room, and the coke charged my pitter-pattering heart and it was finally my turn. The icy swell believed in me, and it believed in what this night could become. I’d only ever kissed three guys. With every one of them, I’d imagined an entire future unfolding between us. Now I was imagining it with this one. I hadn’t told him about it yet, but maybe I would. Maybe I’d tell him while dawn broke over the park beyond his bay windows.

“Who actually wears white pants?” he asked me. “You see them, but you don’t think of anyone actually wearing them.”

I kept sitting on his couch, for hours and hours, waiting for him to kiss me. I finally asked him, “Are you going to kiss me?”—meaning, Are you going to try to sleep with me?—because there was enough coke and vodka inside me to ask out loud, to peel away whatever feeble skin remained between the world and my need to be affirmed by it.

The answer was no. He wasn’t going to try to sleep with me. The closest he got to trying to sleep with me was saying, just before I left, “Hey, not everybody can pull off white pants,” as a kind of consolation prize.

As I was leaving, he kissed me in his doorway. “Is that what you wanted?” he said, and a sob rose in my throat, salty and swollen. I was drunk but not drunk enough. It was the worst humiliation: to be seen like this, not desired but desiring. I couldn’t let myself cry in front of him. So I did it on the way home, walking through the cold, at four in the morning, my white pants gleaming like stretched headlights in the dark.

When I got home that night, I stumbled upstairs, tripped, and fell face-first onto the steps, hard enough that the next day a huge bruise ripened on my shin. That night, freshly spurned, I wanted to see what he’d seen when he turned me away. In the mirror, I was someone red-eyed—someone who had been crying, or maybe had allergies. She had some white dust under her nose. She took it on her fingertip and rubbed it on her gums. She’d seen them do that in the movies, too. She was sure of it.

We weren’t the first people who’d gotten drunk in Iowa. We knew that. The myths of Iowa City drinking ran like subterranean rivers beneath the drinking we were doing. They surged with dreamlike tales of dysfunction: Raymond Carver and John Cheever tire-squealing through early-morning grocery-store parking lots to restock their liquor stash; John Berryman opening bar tabs on Dubuque Street and ranting about Whitman till dawn, playing chess and leaving his bishops vulnerable; Denis Johnson getting drunk at the Vine and writing short stories about getting drunk at the Vine. We got drunk at the Vine too, though it was in a different building now, on a different block. We knew this too: how imprecisely we squatted in the old tales, how we only got them in glimpses and imperfect replicas.

I often thought about Iowa with that we: We drank here. We drank there. We drank somehow with those who would drink after us, just as we drank with those who had come before. One of Johnson’s poems described being “just a poor mortal human” who had “stumbled onto / the glen where the failed gods are drinking.”


  • "An astounding triumph...A recovery memoir like no other...Jamison is a writer of prodigious ambition...Here, she's a bare-it-all memoirist, an astute critic, and a diligent archivist all in one. The book knows no bounds, building in depth and vitality with each passing concern...There's something profound at work here, a truth about how we grow into ourselves that rings achingly wise and burrows painfully deep."—David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly (A)
  • "A sprawling, compelling, fiercely ambitious book...Its publication represents the most significant new addition to the canon in more than a decade...Jamison's writing throughout is spectacularly evocative and sensuous...She thinks with elegant precision, cutting through the whiskey-soaked myths...Jamison is interested in something else: the possibility that sobriety can form its own kind of legend, no less electric, and more generative in the end."—Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic
  • "Masterful...beautifully honest...Essential reading...The most comprehensive study of the relationship between writing and alcohol that I have read, or know about...The prose is clean and clear and a pleasure to read, utterly without pretension. Although the subject is dark, Jamison has managed to write an often very funny page turner...In short, The Recovering is terrific, and if you're interested in the relationship between artists and addiction, you must read it."—Clancy Martin, Bookforum
  • "Magnificent and genuinely moving. This is that rare addiction memoir that gets better after sobriety takes hold."—Dwight Garner, New York Times
  • "A remarkable feat...Jamison is a bracingly smart writer; her sentences wind and snake, at turns breathless and tense...Instead of solving the mystery of why she drank, she does something worthier, digging underneath the big emptiness that lives inside every addict to find something profound."—Sam Lansky, Time
  • "Riveting...Jamison orchestrates a multi-voiced, universal song of lack, shame, surrender, uncertain and unsentimental redemption...It is a pleasure and feels like a social duty to report that Jamison's book shines sunlight on these creepy, crepuscular enchantments. Wisdom floods the scene, and genius never flees. Quite on its own terms, The Recovering is a beautifully told example of the considered and self-aware becoming art."—Priscilla Gilman, Boston Globe
  • "Such is Jamison's command of metaphor and assonance that she could rivet a reader with a treatise on toast. We perhaps have no writer better on the subject of psychic suffering and its consolations."—Gary Greenberg, The New Yorker
  • "Brilliant...We are aware, most fundamentally, of Jamison's urgency. This, of course, is as it should be, for sheis writing to survive...The Recovering leaves us with the sense of a writer intent on holding nothing back."—David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times
  • "Fascinating...energetic, colorful, fun, buzzy, affecting, and spot-on...Emotional, as well as factual, honesty is the sine qua non of a memoir. Yet this kind of deep honesty--the merciless self-examination and exposure that Jamison displays--is increasingly rare."—Melanie Thernstrom, New York Times Book Review
  • "Wonderful...wholly shines."—Matt McCarthy, USA Today
  • "Thoughtful, fiercely honest, and intimate, The Recovering is a must-read that is Jamison at her best."—Jarry Lee, Buzzfeed
  • "Precise and heartfelt...The Recovering is a magnificent achievement."—Scott F. Parker, Minneapolis Star-Tribune
  • "Jamison writes about personal experiences in a way that feels universal...Her vulnerability and determination are present on every page."—Maris Kreizman, Esquire
  • "Like Mary Karr's Lit or Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, Jamison's perceptive and generous-hearted new book is uncompromising on the ugliness of addiction, yet tenderly hopeful that people can heal...Jamison is a writer of exacting grace...Her prose reaches a new register in conveying the rawness of early sobriety...She captures with fullness the feeling of growing up and growing into oneself."—Nora Caplan-Bricker, Washington Post
  • "As engaging as it is thoughtful. Jamison proves both an insightful guide to decades of literature by and about addicts, and a self-aware chronicler of her own struggle with alcoholism...In The Recovering, she has written a movingly humble book, filled to the brim with lessons learned the hard way."—The Economist
  • "Gritty...Raw...Thought-provoking and distinct...Fascinating in ways you might not expect...The Recovering ventures beyond the cliché and the ordinary to remind us once again of both the fallibility and resiliency of the human condition."—Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "As a reader of this most consuming book, I celebrate Jamison's deep openheartedness, deliberate unselfishness, immaculate, inculcating vision, and her language--oh, her language...For her intelligence, her compassion, her capaciousness, her search, her deep reading, her precise language, Jamison must be honored here."—Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune
  • "Poignant...Taut and immediate."—Sophia Nguyen, Village Voice
  • "A latter-day Susan Sontag...the author of the genre-changing collection The Empathy Exams takes her blend of the personal, reportorial, and scholarly to expansive new lengths and's the uniqueness of her case studies, as well as the power of addiction as metaphor, that really make it stand out."—Boris Kachka, New York
  • "A beautiful behemoth."—Jaime Green, GQ
  • "The breadth of Jamison's knowledge on this subject is impressive . . . The writing is beautiful. There are descriptive phrases that are simply breathtaking . . . I couldn't put the book down . . . More than that, I was genuinely moved by how accurately Jamison captures the experience of addiction, the hollows we all try to fill with one thing or another."—Roxane Gay, New York Times bestselling author of Bad Feminist
  • "The Recovering follows the story of Jamison's alcoholism in lush, almost caressing detail...For the most part, Jamison's story was the only one I cared about, not because her drunkalog, as she calls it, is different from or better than anyone else's, but because she was so fully there, in her own thronged and fraught mind, illuminating it from the inside. She worries that that kind of interiority suggests a fatal selfishness. But the promise of books is that we are bound up and implicated in other people's lives, even if they have nothing to do with us. Her story is ours now--what a gift."—Annalisa Quinn, NPR
  • "The Recovering is a typically adroit offering from Leslie Jamison, who has been deservedly compared to Joan Didion. The work and lives of Jean Rhys, John Berryman, William Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, and many others are featured in fascinating detail, but the thread drawing them all together is that it is told from the perspective of a former alcoholic. Now recovered, Jamison dissects the fetishization of 'whiskey and ink': the romanticization of the 'old, mythic drunks' such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner . . . The book is a compelling work made possible by Jamison's formidable knowledge . . . but the real subject of The Recovering, its driving force, is Jamison herself. This is a memoir of alcoholism deftly mediated through the lives of others, where trauma and abjection (and, equally, seduction) are patched together with collective experience to produce a nuanced, tender portrait of life with and after alcohol."—Lucy Watson, Prospect
  • "With intricate detail and multilayered storytelling, The Recovering lays bare the myths surrounding artists and addiction . . . Jamison's exploration of how culture impacts the direction that addiction takes people is, while not new, framed in a nuanced context, giving new breath and voice to an old problem . . . This book reads like a fine poem. Encompassing depth adorned with eloquence and a marriage of memoir and research, the message is important and should serve to shatter our romanticism of the altered artist's contributions. Jamison digs deeply into the mythical cloud billowing around writers and what's in their glass, proving sobriety is a creative force to be lauded."—Christina Ledbetter, Associated Press
  • "The book offers a pleasing corrective to the ideal of the drunken seer-poet, swilling gin in the hope that it might bring them one woozy step closer to the tragedy and poetry of life. It also proceeds with accessible lyricism and disarming frankness, a style that serves as an extension of the book's message that sobriety hardly means the end of poetry, of the clarifying intoxification of language." Ted Scheinman, Pacific Standard
  • "Leslie Jamison's forthcoming 544-page door-stopper, The Recovering, promises the same blend of memoir, reportage, and cultural history as her excellent 2014 collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. In The Recovering, Jamison details the ups and downs of her own struggles with alcohol. Looking to famous alcoholic writers, Jamison additionally battles her fear of the boredom of sobriety, describing it with arresting, brutal honesty. This is so much more than an "addiction memoir" -- it is the work of a singular voice at the top of her game."—Jeva Lange, The Week
  • "Breaks the addiction-lit mold."—Sloane Crosley, Vanity Fair
  • "Symphonic...Beautiful and moving...Jamison writes with poignancy and compassion of hard-won triumphs, hers and others'. She is honest and observant, at times lyrical, about her experiences in AA, what the group gives its members, but also what they lose when they get sober. She writes about the sense of of fellowship in meetings viscerally, like a churchgoer describing a powerful service...The Recovering is an exhaustive and definitive Big Book."—Kate Christensen, Wall Street Journal
  • "Jamison is preternaturally canny . . . She provides unexpected perceptions and expertly distilled research . . . The Recovering bursts with insight on how we scramble together our identities, told in a voice that manages by some literary legerdemain to be both winsomely idiosyncratic and resoundingly collective . . . The book is a story of the long, painful, resistant, and unoriginal road to getting--and staying--sober as much as it is a narrative of addiction. But it also conveys the 'sinuous, glimmering energy of recovery.' . . . Along the way, it mutates from one gifted and successful young woman's tale into a larger inquiry into how we seek to heal ourselves . . . Part confession, part literary criticism, part cultural analysis, part musing, and part hard-edged reporting, The Recovering creates its own grainy context, defying all the usual tropes of addiction memoirs . . . Jamison has written an extraordinary document of self-reckoning that will make you think and rethink the trajectory of your own life in its 'mundane realities' as well as its 'cinematic epic mode.' This is a book about one of us, all of us, and the yearnings that take us to dark as well as light-filled places."—Daphne Merkin, The New Republic
  • "The Recovering is full to the brim with beauty. Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, and David Foster Wallace: The skill and admiration with which she illuminates these complicated lives shows how Jamison herself is touched by the same brand of genius, for better or for worse."—Rachel Veroff, Guernica
  • "Jamison is one of the most insightful, introspective, and compassionate authors I have ever encountered, and all of those qualities make her writing about love as sage, biting, and incisive as her writing on addiction...The Recovering proved the secret superpower of memoir as a genre: that someone's darkest secrets and most shameful, hidden thoughts and insecurities can be exactly the thing that someone else needs to read."—Cristina Arreola, Bustle
  • "Thrilling...Dynamic...Jamison has proven herself to be both a fierce intellectual and an extreme empath...She's written a singular, extraordinarily insightful memoir of addiction, one which she might insist is altogether ordinary. That a reader might recognize herself in these pages, familiar as they are, is, of course, part of their power."—Laura Adamczyk, AV Club
  • "Using a blend of memoir, investigative reporting, and literary criticism, Jamison deftly tells a new narrative about recovery, the history of recovery, the criminalization of addiction, and more."—Liberty Hardy, Book Riot
  • "Stunning... Her language manages somehow to be simultaneously lush and piercing. It is richly imaged, delighting the senses with its descriptive texture."—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • The breadth of Jamison's knowledge on this subject is extensive and there beautifully written moments throughout coupled with interesting insights about the sociopolitical implications of addiction and how privilege can shape the experience of addiction. This book is a beautiful mess and well worth reading."—Roxane Gay, Omnivoracious
  • "Leslie Jamison, the accomplished scholar and venerated essayist, has written a great book . . . She dazzles us with her feats of scholarship . . . The sheer immensity of the book is noteworthy . . . The Recovering is a magisterial survey of recovery literature and a beautifully written memoir in its own right."—Garrett Kamps, Huffington Post
  • "Jamison is a notably lyrical writer, but what really shines is her curious, generous, sensitive mind... It's a rich and powerful chorus."—Thrillist
  • "The Recovering opens our eyes...This book should be required reading--simultaneously informative and chilling, it details the devastation of alcoholism as Jamison bares all, her story the tale of many who sit humbly in circles in 12-Step rooms. Readers will wish the best for this brave soul."—The Missourian
  • "Leslie Jamison has written an honest and important book. It will be important to recovering alcoholics who wonder if there really is life after booze, and I think it will be important to writers and critics, because she weaves her story of recovery into those of other artists (mostly writers, but also Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse) who also made the jump from soused to sober. And some who didn't. The most important thematic thread may be its insistence that the talented artist who needs booze or drugs to support his work and withstand his own vision does not, in fact, exist. It's important to debunk what Todd Rundgren called 'the ever popular tortured artist effect.' All in all, vivid writing and required reading."—Stephen King
  • "Leslie Jamison writes about the highs of dependency and also about the highs of recovery. Her prose is so sharp and evocative that the reader feels the thrilling trickle of alcohol down the back of the throat, and breathes the struggle for health and freedom. Jamison demonstrates great wit, penetrating intellect, and an enormous heart. This strangely exhilarating book is about recovery, but it is more resonantly a book about desire, consciousness, kindness, self-control, and love--and hence a Tolstoyan study of the human condition."

    Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon
  • "Leslie Jamison has done a magnificent job of rescuing an age-old social problem from the clichés that surround it, and making us see it anew for the cruel assault on the human spirit that it really is."—Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments and The OddWoman and the City
  • "You don't need to be an addict to be enthralled by The Recovering. This book is for anyone interested in a dazzlingly brilliant, uncommonly compassionate, and often hilarious study of human nature. Leslie Jamison's work will definitely make you feel smarter--I'd like to borrow her brain to pick a fight with a couple of people--but The Recovering also reads like a gripping mystery as written by a subversive and deeply passionate philosopher. Her writing is unexpected, profound, and perverse--in short, a thrill to read. Best of all, for a writer so gifted at locating the excruciating commonalities of isolation, Jamison manages this greatest feat of magic: when I read her words, I come away feeling less alone."
    Mary-Louise Parker, author of New York Times bestseller Dear Mr. You
  • "Leslie Jamison's The Recovering is a definitive investigation of both the romance of intoxication and the possibilities for recovery. Whether interviewing veterans of a communal rehab house, digging through the archives of alcoholic writers, or examining her own motives and thoughts, Jamison shows ways of living alongside contradictions without diminishing their confusion and pain. Graceful, forensic, and intimate, The Recovering sets a new bar in addiction studies. It is a courageous and brilliant example of what nonfiction writing can do."—Chris Kraus, author of I Love Dick
  • "The Recovering is beautifully written, brutally honest, formidably intelligent, emotionally powerful, and absolutely fascinating. Leslie Jamison captured my attention in the very first sentence and didn't let it go for a second until--with reluctance--I finished the very last. Addiction literature has just welcomed a new classic."—Anne Fadiman, National Book Critics Circle Awardwinner and New York Times bestselling author of The Spirit CatchesYou and You Fall Down
  • The crawl back up to sobriety is as engrossing as the downward spiral in this unsparing and luminous autobiographical study of alcoholism...The dark humor, evocative prose, and clear-eyed, heartfelt insights Jamison deploys here only underscore her reputation as a writer of fearsome talent.—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
  • "Jamison's questing immersion in intoxication and sobriety is exceptional in its vivid, courageous, hypnotic telling; brilliant in its subtlety of perception, interpretation, and compassion; and capacious in its scholarship, scale, concern, and mission."—Booklist
  • "Deeply honest...At the heart of this poignant work is an insightful exploration of the loneliness and pain that fuels addiction."—Bookpage
  • "Throughout Jamison's somber yet earnestly revelatory narrative, she remains cogent and true to her dual commitment to sobriety and to author a unique memoir "that was honest about the grit and bliss and tedium of learning to live this way--in chorus, without the numbing privacy of getting drunk." The bracing, unflinching, and beautifully resonant history of a writer's addiction and hard-won reclamation."—Kirkus
  • "A staggering investigation into cultural assumptions about addicts, and a necessary critique of a literary scene that idolizes the drunken genius. . . . In her essay collection, The Empathy Exams, Jamison more than proved herself as an incisive witness to the complicated, messy lives people lead. Her blend of reportage and personal insight, in the tradition of Joan Didion, is on full display here. . . . Empathetic and unflinching, The Recovering offers a refreshing antidote to narratives that would marry substance abuse to creativity."—Dave Wheeler, Shelf Awareness
  • "The sheer immensity of the book is noteworthy . . . The Recovering is a magisterial survey of recovery literature and a beautifully written memoir in its own right."—Garrett Kamps, HuffPost
  • "Clever, bold, and earnest . . . The Recovering makes for bracing reading . . . Jamison writes wonderfully well about the bad old days, beginning with the very early drinking when she felt 'giddy from a sense of trespass.' . . . The Recovering is an impressive work: difficult, strong, and strange, both comprehensive and impressionistic, with much to say about how we live, how we yearn, and how we might do both differently."—Susie Boyt, The Spectator (UK)

On Sale
Jan 15, 2019
Page Count
544 pages
Back Bay Books

Leslie Jamison

About the Author

Leslie Jamison is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams; the collection of essays Make It Scream, Make It Burn, a finalist for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award; and the novel The Gin Closet, a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and her work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review, the Oxford American, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among many others. She teaches at Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn.

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