Excerpt: ‘A Conversation with Leslie Jamison’, by Madelaine Lucas

Illustration by Andrina Manon

Leslie Jamison is the author of a novel The Gin Closet, the essay collection The Empathy Exams, and, most recently, The Recovering, a hybrid memoir that questions and considers the stories we tell when we talk about drinking and sobriety: in recovery circles, in literature, and in the myths that conflate artistic genius with damage, and in the punitive rhetoric that has surrounded addiction in America tracing back to the Prohibition era. Here, genre is elastic. The personal is political, Jamison knows, because every individual life is shaped by larger social and cultural forces. She allows these influences to intersect in textual forms: memories exist alongside literary biography, journalistic reportage alongside critical analysis.

The Recovering is a book for anyone who has ever felt outsized by their own desires. But here, too, is hope — that by placing our stories of personal suffering alongside those of others, we might find a resonance, that feeling of being a little less alone in the world.

Leslie Jamison is in person as she is on the page — curious and engaged, articulate and open, empathetic and generous. She can discourse on the poetic potentiality of hermit crab shells or unravel the full opera of human emotions that might erupt during the climax of a Guns N’ Roses concert. This interview took place over the kitchen table in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her family. Though we spoke of addiction, damage, longing, and lack, our conversation ended in a moment of pure joy heralded by the appearance of Jamison’s baby daughter.

— Madelaine Lucas


ML: When I was reading The Recovering, I felt there was a real tenderness to the way you described your younger self — with a sense of humour but also forgiveness. You know, not knowing who Morrissey was or what to do with cocaine. Was it difficult to conjure that person again on the page?

LJ: A pattern that I’ve noticed in myself in the past is a tendency to be super self-flagellating as a kind of defensive posture. Like, to say any critical thing about myself before a potential reader could say it about me — to demonstrate some distance between the present tense narrated self and the past tense narrated self by way of disdain. This habit was largely motivated by the fear that it would seem egotistical to be too much on my own side as a narrator. So, I think that the pendulum swung really far towards narrating my prior selves with a kind of loathing, especially around particular kinds of subject matter — like eating disorders or things that I felt looked like trite manifestations of female damage. With this book, I was very consciously trying to fight that impulse. I wanted to be able to see around the blinkered vision of that past self through noting moments of absurdity and humour, but to also, in some way, honour her emotional experience. I guess ultimately my main allegiance is to complexity on the page, and I think that self-loathing threatens to create emotional simplicity or one-note consciousness in the same way that egotism can. They’re both thinking about the self in very extreme terms.

ML: What are the challenges of narrating or recapturing an experience once you’re no longer inside of that experience? I’m thinking particularly of writing about drinking from a place of sobriety, but also the general challenges of memoir — accounting for lost time and the fallibility of memory.

LJ: I came up against those issues in a differently acute way writing a long-form narrative, rather than essays. Essays are very forgiving insofar as nobody’s expecting the complete story, and so you can take a lot of liberties and prerogatives in terms of what moments you choose to land on and to articulate. You can go where you remember, rather than feeling like you have to account for what’s missing. With The Recovering — even though this book is also extremely sculpted, thus necessarily incomplete — I did want to create more of a chronological narrative experience. So, in that sense I was coming up against, Okay, what do I do about an important turn in a relationship when I can’t quite remember how that turn happened or whether it was encapsulated in a conversation. I try to use primary sources whenever I can. Whether that involves journals, or going through Gmail archives, or even having conversations with other people who were involved — not only because they’re sources of information, but also because the seed of something in an email might then prompt a whole series of other memories.

On drinking and sobriety specifically, I was very aware of all the ways in which remembering drinking from a place of sobriety can threaten to colour it in a bunch of different directions at once. There can be the risk of wanting to narrate it in overly negative terms so you sustain the narrative of, ‘Well, I need to be sober because it was always so bad when I was drunk,’ or the opposite, of nostalgia, and the sepia-tones of missing something. I really did want to write an account of drinking that was honest about what had been lovely and seductive about it, but I also let some of those dilemmas on to the page, rather than writing to avoid them. Partially because it’s a book that’s not only narrating drinking, but about what narratives of drinking look like, so there was already a self-consciousness built into the premise.

ML: In what ways do you think lack or absence can be a generative thing?

LJ: Oh, it’s so rich. I think partially, whenever there’s distance or lack or absence, that space of longing is always about trying to close that gap in some way. If you can’t actually touch the thing or grasp the thing or have the thing, then imagination or remembrance are the ways you try to get close to it again, and so I think that they can become hyper-activated. If you miss something, then your mind’s eye is always surging up to try to meet it or reclaim it in some way.

I think sometimes that can be seen in negative terms as a kind of pollutant — like your recollection of something gets polluted by nostalgia or polluted by longing — but I actually think there’s no reason why those aren’t still true ways of thinking about something. The way I can get nostalgic about drinking — there’s a real truth in that. It’s not the entire truth of what the drinking was like, but it’s the truth of how a certain part of me that misses the drinking constructs the drinking in this way.

I also think there’s a real urgency that can come from lack or absence. You can relate to something with a certain kind of intensity if it’s not right there. It creates the conditions for you to reach towards it. I’m sure you know that Robert Hass poem ‘Meditations at Lagunitas’, it’s the one that has “blackberry, blackberry, blackberry” in it. There’s a line where he says, we call it longing “because desire is made of endless distances.” That speaks to something similar for me. Without distance, desire is almost conceptually impossible because you have to desire across some space.

ML: The Recovering intersects with your writing of The Empathy Exams, so readers might recognise certain autobiographical episodes that appear in both texts. What makes you want to return to a certain experience and tell it again, or tell it a new way?

LJ: I think it is directly related to my understanding of what personal writing is in the first place, which is not the recounting of an event so much as the exploration of an event in the context of particular inquiries or particular questions. If you think about it that way, the same event could be called upon in multiple investigations and do a different kind of work in each one.

ML: The way you’re describing returning to these memories is almost more like using a text to make different arguments.

LJ: Yeah! I think that’s a great way of framing it because I do really think of personal experience often in textual Terms — not to be weirdly clinical about it or to deny the personal charge that experiences have. But I do think of non-fiction as involving lots of different kinds of investigation with lots of different objects, whether you’re looking at a piece of history, a piece of your own experience, a piece of literature, a piece of someone else’s experience that comes up through interviewing. The work always comes down to, how is this showing us something about how complicated consciousness is? Whether I’m asking questions of my own life or somebody else’s, or life as it shows up in a text, it just feels like different materials to use for that common, shared task.

ML: You said sometimes you turn back to textual ephemera or ‘primary sources’. Does keeping a diary have a place in your writing practice?

LJ: I’ve kept many diaries over the course of my life. Less religiously and more sporadically — from the age of fourteen or fifteen through the present. Not only do I draw on them sometimes, but the fact that I’ve drawn on them has also shaped the way that I keep them. They used to be just deeply internal, lots of intangible Feelings — which I think is a natural form for the diary — but I came to realise once I started revisiting them, how tedious and unilluminating sheer emotional abstraction can be. So, I started to include more of the concrete world and physical details, and to write my diaries with a little bit of an idea of how at least my own memory works — the madeleine is going to get me back there more than the blunt statement of feeling.

If you were to look at notebooks of mine from the past few years they would be more hybrid. There might be jotting down elements of personal experience, but also writing notes towards an essay, or on a book I was reading. In a way there’s always been a little bit of hybridity because one thing that I usually do with whatever diary I’m keeping is also keep a list of all the books I’ve read in the back of it. Often it is really interesting and can jog the memory in certain ways to be like, oh, right, I was reading Housekeeping, or like, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage for the first time as that relationship was ending. It’s helpful for me to be able to cross-reference in that way. So, I guess that was another version of thinking about those parts of the self as not belonging in segregated territories.

ML: I’m interested in the idea that often the portal to the past is a physical thing, like an object or a book. That’s the way back to recapturing an emotion or experience.

LJ: There’s this essay that I would like to write about these three big critical pieces I wrote over the course of about a year or two, as I was getting married and becoming part of Lily’s [Jamison’s step-daughter’s] life. One was about Mary Gaitskill’s whole body of work, another was about Chris Kraus’s, and the third was about Marilyn Robinson’s Lila. In all three essays, I was thinking about how these writers’ female characters were negotiating the roles of wife and mother, and I’m interested in looking at those books — revisiting these critical essays — as ways back into this particular transitional period in my life.

ML: That’s always been something that’s interested me — the way that domesticity collides with creativity. You’ve just had a baby, so I was wondering if you had questions, like with sobriety, as to whether motherhood would alter your relationship with yourself or with your creative practice?

LJ: First of all, and I think I did write to you after I read it, but I loved that piece about your mother [‘Cigarettes and Turpentine’, in Catapult]. There is a cultural narrative that constructs motherhood and creativity as antagonistic and on the one hand, there’s something great about that. It acknowledges struggle, and it acknowledges the labour of motherhood and the finitude of time.

ML: And the labour of creative work as well.

LJ: Yes, right. But it also feels really claustrophobic, potentially, to see them as wholly antagonistic. It risks damning the mother who allows creativity to be part of her life and the way you remembered turpentine as part of home, as a smell you associated with your mother, is a beautiful refutation of that.

I mean, this is all a way of beginning to answer, yes — I have tremendous fears about it but I also believe really passionately in pushing through those fears and trying to create ways in which motherhood holds the creative self, and similarly, that the creative self can hold all of the work of raising a child and be informed by that work, rather than just crippled or constrained by it. Writing personal narrative creates one explicit way that the two can come together, which is to say that motherhood eventually becomes another experience that can be written about. It shapes the self, and if the self is one of my subjects, then the evolution of the self is also one of my subjects.


ML: One thing I noticed that came up in reviews of The Recovering was this idea of how ‘bad’ does your addiction have to get before you are allowed to talk about it. I wondered if you had thoughts about that.

LJ: There are very few people who don’t have personal baggage around addiction or aren’t triggered by the subject in some way. That can either prime you to love a book about addiction or fight a book about it. One of my fears about the book coming out was that I would get framed as somebody who was trying to turn what I’d gone through into something that was ‘bigger’ than it was, and obviously that anxiety comes up explicitly in the book itself.

The extent to which people are prone to judge the extremity of your pain — whether it got ‘bad enough’ for your addiction story to be compelling or useful — is yet another pretty marked difference between the world of recovery and the world of publishing. Something that I consistently find is that people who have gone through extreme pain are much less likely to want to discount the pain of others. There’s something very grace-giving and permissive about dialogue inside recovery in that way. It allowed me to consider the possibilities of thinking about different kinds of pain in relation to each other in a way that didn’t conflate them or pretend that they weren’t different. Whereas, I think there’s a culture of how memoirs are received that demands a certain kind of exceptionality in order for a story to be worth telling. I was more prepared maybe for that vein of critique — of “ultimately, this addiction wasn’t that bad” — than I was for the ways in which getting a degree from Harvard or a PhD from Yale became such huge parts of the narrative for certain readers.

I wonder sometimes whether it has something to do with gender, too. I think that it’s much more possible to be a man who’s a high achiever and have that high achievement just be a backdrop to the story you’re trying to tell. Whereas, if you’re a female high achiever, that has to be the story somehow. You have to apologise for it, or explain it, or brag about it, or make it the point of the whole narrative.

ML: So much of The Recovering is about the myth of the drunk genius writer and questioning those narratives that we build around artistic damage. Do you think it’s possible to understand that glamorising that damage is problematic, but also still love the products of it? Like, Denis Johnson’s stories or Jean Rhys’ novels?

LJ: Yeah, completely, and maybe it’s connected to what we were talking about before about various narratives around motherhood and creativity — that it’s damaging both to ignore the tensions and the conflicts that are created by two intense kinds of labour coming into conversation, but it’s also damaging to understand them as mutually exclusive. The narrative that I’m interested in is the one that says and rather than either/or. There’s a line in The Recovering that’s something like, the lie wasn’t that addiction could create beauty, the lie was that addiction had some sort of monopoly on it. That was what I was trying to refute — beauty as the exclusive domain of suffering.

ML: I wanted to ask you about Jean Rhys, because I feel like you write about her with real empathy in this book. Her life didn’t include a period of organised recovery in the way that Raymond Carver’s did, or Denis Johnson’s did. Why did it feel important to include her story?

LJ: One of the things that felt ethically important to me about writing a book with many stories in it was to let those stories do different kinds of work. Certainly, I wanted to explore the ways in which “getting better” isn’t the only storyline that’s important to talk about when it comes to addiction. For that reason, I wanted not only to engage with writers whose work seemed to suffer in sobriety and recovery, as well as those for whom — like Wallace or Carver or Johnson — sobriety also brought their work to life in a certain way. I didn’t want to choose only lives that would neatly corroborate some sort of thesis statement about sobriety and creativity, I wanted to choose lives that showed the many courses that addiction can take.

I also was really interested in Rhys as a way of thinking about how gender inflects the story of the tormented artist, or how that story seemed to play out very differently for her than for male writers. The ‘Trial of Jean Rhys’ [a dramatised courtroom scene in one of her notebooks, in which Rhys literally puts herself on trial for solipsism] was one of the most moving things I found in her archives because it seemed to be reaching for some of the same things people reach for in recovery, but in a much more literary framework.

ML: One of the most resonant aspects of The Recovering for me was the way you write about need. Wanting need to be acknowledged, but also feeling ashamed of it, and wanting the body to be a code for it or speak it instead. I was thinking a lot about desire and visibility. Do you think that desire makes us vulnerable because it essentially makes us visible?

LJ: That’s a great way of framing the question. I do think that the connection between desire and vulnerability is partly about visibility. Exposing something that’s wanted is, in a way, showing a very deep secret. I also think it’s about granting the possibility of control or power to somebody else. At the end of that early coke scene in the book I wrote that it felt like the most humiliating possible state to be the desiring one rather than the desired one. That has something to do with power. To be the one who does the wanting is to be the one who is somehow less in control.

ML: I’m interested in the way this might also be constructed partly by gender as well. Why do you think there’s so much shame around desire, dependency and need for women?

LJ: Part of what I really love about Chris Kraus’s work, and in particular I Love Dick, is that it takes this state that I myself have experienced as disempowering — the state of unrequited desire — and makes it this space of performative creativity instead. What’s exciting about the book is not just that it’s doing that work with desire, but that it is speaking to the particular inherited shame of being a woman who wants a man when he doesn’t want her. I think that some of that gender double-standard comes from how many socially acceptable narratives we have about being a man pursuing a woman. That’s a story we all know and love, or somehow seems like the natural state of things. It can almost become a source of pride, or at least fit into this easy narrative groove, but there’s something about its opposite that we don’t have narratives for.

ML: I’m wondering when you became interested in writing about the body pushed to its limits — in addiction, illness, or pain — because it is a thread that runs through your whole body of work. Oh, body again! [Laughs.] It’s interesting how we talk about creative works as a body, too.

LJ: Yeah! Totally. I’ve often been struck by the way that bodily language attaches to female personal writing, too. Like, bleeding on the page, or vomiting all over the page, as a pejorative term.

ML: When you wrote about Chris Kraus, you noted how a critic said her work was “secreted.”

LJ: Yeah, that felt like the natural extension of this pejorative critical language that was already bubbling around female personal writing.

I think that there’s something about bodies breaking down or being pushed to some state of extremity that doesn’t just make the body visible but makes the relationship between the body and consciousness visible. In those moments when something is wrong with the body, it becomes harder to deny that the body is shaping what it means to be alive. For me it comes back, as so many things do, to that Virginia Woolf essay on illness. She calls it a myth to think of the body as a ‘transparent pane of glass’ when the truth is that all day, all night, the body intervenes. The pane of glass is smudged or ruptured or broken, and that has always resonated for me. The body is always mediating, but that mediation becomes loudest when something is going wrong.

ML: I’m interested in how your writing about the body might connect to your writing about intimacy. Like, telling the stories of our scars — that’s such a ritual of becoming close to someone. But that also makes me think about drinking, and how getting drunk with someone can be a short-cut to a kind of intimacy.

LJ: Part of what’s interesting about states of dysfunction, bodily or otherwise, is that they create apertures or occasions for closeness. And again, it’s very possible to be close in a state of wellness but I think it gets back to what’s generative or propulsive about absence. When something is wrong there’s often a state of heightened need, and intimacy can come from those spaces. A crack can create some way to touch somebody or get to some more exposed or personal part of them. So, I think there is this connection between damage and intimacy in that way. It can create the grounds for connection via sharing narratives, but it’s interesting to think about the role of reciprocity in that. I’m thinking about the Stephen King novel that I wrote about briefly in the book — not The Shining but the sequel, Doctor Sleep, where he has this evil troop of people who essentially huff other people’s pain as if it were glue. Knowing that he is sober, it did seem like this dark version of AA, but part of what made it dark was that it was totally non-reciprocal. You’re killing somebody and absorbing their pain rather than it being some sort of exchange, like the telling of scar stories.

This is an excerpt of a piece that originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #39. Get your copy here.

Leslie Jamison is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Recovering and The Empathy Exams, as well as a novel, The Gin Closet. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and her work has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, Oxford American, and the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she is an Editor at Large.

Madelaine Lucas is an Australian writer and musician based in Brooklyn, New York. She is the senior editor of NOON annual and an MFA candidate at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Literary Hub, The Lifted Brow, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on her first novel.