Making Room for Messier Stories: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison

Posted on Mon, Apr 23 2018 10:00 am by Ryan Berg

Book Covers: The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, The Gin Closet


I first encountered Leslie Jamison’s 2014 breakthrough book, The Empathy Exams, by accident when I stumbled upon her reading at Common Good Books in St. Paul. I was taken by her personal essays about what it means to be an outsider, by how thoughtful, brave, and honest they were. In the book she explored her days spent as a medical actor, her fascination with a group of people who suffered from a phantom disease, and explored the plights of the West Memphis Three. I loved how Jamison raised more questions than she answered.

With The Recovering, Jamison continues to dissolve the borders between memoir and journalism and criticism by weaving them together. The result is a life-changing book of both memoir and scholarship in which Jamison braids the story of her own addiction and recovery with the lives and careers of writers who were also addicts. She flips the notion of the “recovery memoir” on its head and challenges the myth of the addict-genius, whose boozing and using is seen as proof of artistic importance. 

Although Jamison is generous with details of her own experience of addiction and recovery, she often centers the stories of others, mirroring the ways in which 12 Step meetings allow for story to lead to transformation. Jamison is clearly fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories; how we often find ourselves, our truths, in the pain and compassion of others. She’s a writer of astonishing talent and I’m so excited I was able to speak with her prior to the Minneapolis stop on Tuesday for her book tour (event info here).

Ryan Berg: You’ve been reading from and discussing The Recovering on tour for a few weeks now. Has encountering your readers and hearing their insights taught you anything new about the book?

Leslie Jamison: Ah, what a fantastic question. Well, it's certainly shown me that the book contains many worlds within it: Some people respond to the love story. Some people respond to the descriptions of booze itself, and its enchantments. Some people love the engagements with drunk authors and the yearning for their sober work. Some people respond to the narrative of the daily grind of recovery itself, just showing up for your own life. It's almost like, in listening to ten different people talk about the book, you could be hearing about ten different books entirely. I think I've also developed a sharpened awareness of how much people will bring their own lives and histories and wounds to the subject of addiction—it can really hit a white-hot emotional nerve, in ways that can mean it has a powerful impact, but can also set off more heated or difficult reactions. 

RB: The Recovering is an exquisitely crafted combination of personal narrative, research, and reportage. To make sense of your internal world at times you seem to turn to the external—famous addicts, non-famous addicts, literature, doctors, poets. Can you talk about how you balanced the observed, the research, and the personal in crafting The Recovering?

LJ: I like that way of framing things: that the book turns to the external to make sense of the external. And I'd add that the opposite is true as well: the book turns to the external (my own lived experience of coming to depend on drinking) in order to help make sense of larger mysteries about addiction in our culture. In crafting all the various threads in the book, I tried to think about how and where each thread might answer a question posed elsewhere. How could Raymond Carver's insecurity about his early sober stories speak to the panic I experienced about whether it would be possible to write after I'd stopped drinking? How could Jean Rhys' first novel shed some light on what it felt like to me to turn to booze after a break-up? I like juxtaposing threads—letting them speak to one another in multiple and ambiguous ways—rather than forcing them into direct explanatory relation.

RB: Some critics of creative nonfiction discount the genre as only a delivery system for facts. But what most intrigues me about creative nonfiction is not the exploring of what is known but what is unknown. My favorite pieces examine uncertainty, imagination, reflection, sensitivity, and doubt just as successfully as literary fiction. The Recovering accomplishes this beautifully.

LJ: Oh thank you! I utterly agree with the sentiment—that great nonfiction can hold uncertainty and imagination, can be animated by these things—and am so glad you feel The Recovering does this. 

RB: Cultural understanding of addiction—from a moral misgiving, to a disease, to a coping mechanism to trauma-- and what recovery can look like in the U.S. seems to be evolving. How do you see the relationship between addiction, recovery and trauma, and what role did it play in the birth of this book?

LJ: I hope that we are coming to understand addiction with more compassion and to see our punitive responses to addiction—in many cases, incarceration—as both inhumane and utterly ineffectual. Addiction often rises in the wake of trauma, but so often our punitive approaches have only compounded the impact of that trauma rather than offering any kind of relief from it. I think it's more important now than ever to think about multiple recovery pathways—AA, therapy, medication-assisted treatment, harm reduction—into the mainstream social imagination, and to make room for a variety of narratives of what recovery can look like. It doesn't always follow the cookie-cutter version of getting better (things get bad, you hit rock bottom, things get better), and that's important to recognize. We need to make room for messier stories, and meet those messier stories with compassion as well.

RB: You touch on the ways that addiction is gendered throughout the book. The tortured, artistic man vs. the neglectful, bad mother. I feel like that says so much about how we view control in this country, who gets to lose it, how and why.

LJ: Yes! Who gets to lose control? Such a beautiful way of phrasing the question. Perhaps it's somehow sexier for those who have had control for a long time to lose it. 

RB: Writing the self, intellectual and emotional self-examination, often gets characterized as narcissistic. How do you address this topic with the student who is drawn to write personal narrative but is blocked by the fear her work will be dismissed for being “confessional?”

LJ: Well, I can only say that I believe every life has stories in it that are worth telling. It's just about finding those stories, excavating them from the material of lived experience, and illuminating and interrogating those stories. So to tell your story—it doesn't necessarily involve an assertion that your story is extraordinary, or your story is the only thing you care about—it's just a set of materials, close at hand, that you are examining in order to offer some truths to your readers. That can be viewed as an act of offering, not an assertion of ego. What would I tell the writing student? Your work might very well be dismissed with any number of condescending labels—"confessional," "narcissistic," solipsistic"—but you will also get readers who come up to you and say: Thank you for what you wrote. It helped me understand my own life better. It helped me feel less alone. It brought me into illuminating uncertainties. It reckoned with mystery. And those readers will matter more to you than the people who dismissed your work.

Ryan Berg is an author and a Loft Literary Center Teaching Artist. His debut book, No House to Call My Home: Love, Family and Other Transgressions, won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction, the 2016 NCCD Media for a Just Society Award, and was listed as a Top 10 LGBTQ Book of 2016 by the American Library Association. Berg received the New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature and the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Slate, The Chronicle for Social Change, The Advocate, Salon, Local Knowledge, The Rumpus, and The Sun. Berg has been awarded residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He lives in Minneapolis. You can visit his website here: