‘Judgement and perfectionism and compulsion and writing: a review of Leslie Jamison’s “The Recovering”’, by Ellena Savage

(Image courtesy of Allen and Unwin)


It wasn’t till I got a break between jobs that I made time to read Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. I was staying for a few weeks in a shack in a holiday beach town. During this time, I also:

  • got rejected for one fellowship
  • applied for two other fellowships
  • got my last pay from my last job
  • but got offered a nice $300 gig for next month out of the blue
  • received my student feedback evaluations from semester one, which were sweet and positive
  • but which made me feel exposed nonetheless
  • graded the assessments of those students
  • felt bad for the students who didn’t get great marks
  • judged a prize that I helped set up a few years ago
  • felt bad for everyone who didn’t win the prize, which is the exact nature of a prize
  • wondered why I had ever thought the world needed another fucking prize
  • thought about but did not quite write a course I am teaching next semester
  • which I worry I don’t have the correct expertise for, having not fully acquainted myself with the history of feminist performance art
  • wrote a mean essay about a guy I used to live with who would hate me if I ever published it
  • and entered it in two prizes
  • scanned Twitter for people to feel indignant about based on the fact that they publicly spin slightly more self-serving bullshit than I do
  • worked on a poem that will be published soon for no money in a journal I think is cool
  • looked up the journal to investigate its reputation, hoping I wasn’t uncool for thinking of it as cool
  • expanded the second-last chapter of my manuscript, which helped me realise I am currently out of touch with my ‘voice’
  • felt embarrassed about all the people I know who will one day hate my book based on the inconsistent voice in chapters like the one I was working on
  • felt soothed by the fact that ‘no-one reads books anymore’
  • felt bad for sending the chapter to my editor, who I presume is underpaid
  • read three other books
  • drank approximately one bottle of wine every day

I am not complaining about my holiday. I was in the holiday beach town supermarket eavesdropping on a woman who was being trailed by several loose children. She said: “I think I’m going to need a holiday after this holiday!” and gave a ragged smile to whoever was looking. I smiled back. I could really believe it. My holiday is not like her holiday. My holiday is totally and completely indulgent of the things I love most in the world: spending all day in my dressing gown writing in bed; demonstrating my mastery of time by achieving feats of administrative magic; going for walks by the water; and drinking discounted wine while talking frantically for hours with my boyfriend. Aside from the marking and the having to manage work emails and schedules while ostensibly ‘out of office’, i.e. not getting paid, all the work I was doing was deeply voluntary. All the ‘work’ was solely and exclusively for the benefit of my imagination and my self-image, which is bound up in presenting myself to myself and to the world as a hard-at-work writer. Even the most democratic, or radical, forms of literary distinction are predicated on the elevation of some texts and artists at the exclusion of others. Critically evaluating, and being critically evaluated, is literally part of the job.

A psychologist once suggested that my ‘career choice’ was a response to how I perceived my childhood. That the memories of childhood that lingered uncomfortably—getting in trouble for crying, which would make me cry more, which would get me into ever more trouble; being reprimanded for acting too proud of my achievements; being unable to predict what I would get told off for; the feeling of balancing my whole weight on the tops of eggshells—had been transplanted by my writing career. It sort of made sense. What career is more pathological, more punishing, than one that is rooted in, indeed is contingent upon, the unstable and uncontrollable judgement of others? For the pleasure I take in writing (which is great), for the joy and social transformation I (sometimes) believe that good writing can affect, I must accept the reality of continuing external evaluation. In turn, while working my side-hustles, I judge others—as an editor, a reader, and a teacher. In turn, while working my side-hustles, I am also judged. This fact is as banal to me as it is extraordinary.

“Look at my job,” the psychologist said. “I come in three days a week, because I want to spend time with my children. Once the day is done, I go home. No-one evaluates my performance. I’m trusted to do my job.” I scrambled home after that session and looked up what it would take for me to become a psychologist. A post-grad Dip followed by another Honours year followed by a two-year Masters. I didn’t think I could handle four more years of academic evaluation.

It took me a while to read The Recovering and to write this review. Partly, because I was busy and this $100 gig was towards the bottom of my rich and diverse to-do list. Partly, because I didn’t quite know what to say. Not because The Recovering isn’t good—it’s Leslie bloody Jamison, of course it is ‘good’. But I didn’t want to write a generic description (The Recovering blends memoir with reportage and literary criticism—and remains historically rigorous and emotionally comprehensive throughout!), nor a qualitative evaluation (The Recovering is a nuanced, intelligent and affecting account of alcohol addiction in the lives of writers. Evidence that Jamison is entering the prime of her brilliant career!!!).

I thought, instead, about tallying up the glasses of wine I drank while reading the book (naff). I thought about exposing the fractures in my memory from drinking in my early twenties (not interesting. Also… I don’t remember them). I thought about writing about the time I quit drinking altogether for four months (I got a third shit job and saved some money and watched a lot of TV. It sucked). I thought about alluding to the family stories of the many addicted people I am related to (not relevant). But when I woke up this morning I said to my boyfriend, “Sorry honey I finished that wine last night while I was reading the Leslie Jamison”, and he said, “Who cares!” I realised that I don’t want to frame my drinking as alcoholic, I don’t want to talk about people I am scared to share genes with, and I don’t want to overstate the drama of alcohol abuse when alcohol abuse is rarely, really, about alcohol. Most of all I don’t want to ignore the thing I am most attracted to and repelled by in Jamison’s nonfiction: the force with which she draws together judgement and perfectionism and compulsion and writing.

The real reason I found it difficult to write about Jamison’s new book, I realise, is because in it, Jamison’s prose and thinking anticipates and encompasses criticism; she seems to be able to foreshadow judgement and critically address it. What can I say about The Recovering that Jamison hasn’t already predicted I might say? This ability, to successfully integrate judgement, is the thing that makes Jamison’s writing both excellent and predictable. Excellent in its clarity, its rigour, its patience, and its envy-inspiring sentences. Predictable in its controlled self-exposure, its good girl affect, its self-knowledge that not only anticipates a diagnosis, but outperforms the diagnostic expert. Examples:

  • Of Charles Jackson, an early AA member, she writes that he “loved being the expert, the ‘star pupil’ [...] It was his ‘new addiction’”. Jamison anticipates the judgement that she, too, needs to be the star pupil of recovery, and she gets ahead of it with humour. Before her first AA meeting, she writes, “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 had been practicing.”
  • Jamison anticipates criticism of her cloistered, privileged life; the what-would-you-know-about-suffering critic, writing that “My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered.” (I don’t like the reductive implications of dismissing ‘suffering’ if it looks well-heeled. As Mary Gaitskill wrote of the tendency to dismiss the platitudes of the ‘recovery’ movement in the 1990s: “If thousands of Americans say that they are in psychic pain, I would not be so quick to write them off as self-indulgent fools.”)
  • Jamison takes into account her racial privilege as a White woman—“Addiction has always been more dangerous for some people than for others”—by rigorously detailing the deliberate and lasting violence of Nixon’s so-called ‘War on Drugs’ on the lives of Black and Latinx people. (I should note here that The Recovering is the fourth memoir-cum-cultural-criticism book on alcoholism I have read over the past few years, all written by White female addicts—authors who, while being vulnerable to obvious forms of interpersonal and social harm, are nonetheless more protected from institutional harm when they disclose their substance abuse.)
  • Jamison anticipates harsh judgement of her confessed behaviour in her relationship with ‘Dave’—the romantic relationship that is given the most page-time in the book. At one point towards the very end of their relationship, Dave mentions that a friend of his has called Leslie an ‘emotionally abusive’ partner. While there is ample evidence that the relationship has been difficult, and that both partners are immature in their love (they fight a lot; Dave entertains covert, flirty relationships with other women and calls Leslie crazy for wondering if he’s cheating; Leslie locks herself in her study and drinks all night instead of learning how to become emotionally independent), I’d hardly describe her behaviour as abusive. But Jamison writes, “It caught me off guard, emotionally abusive, but I had to admit—looking at everything objectively—I couldn’t say it was wrong.”
  • Perhaps most extraordinary is Jamison’s acrobatic awareness of her Type A personality:

    When Dr Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. ‘You’re really smart,’ she tells them. ‘That might work against you’. The idea of being ‘too smart for AA’ immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple. But I was also aware that being ‘too smart for AA’ could become its own siren call to the ego: considering yourself the exception to the common story… I was even aware that my rejection of that ego trip was, in its way, also a revision of it: I was proud that I didn’t feel too smart for AA, as if I deserved a gold star for resisting that arrogance.

    No wonder, she writes elsewhere, “we got drunk so much; we just wanted a fucking break. Booze let me live inside moments without the endless chatter of my own self-conscious annotation.”

These moments read to me as almost compulsively diligent and, perhaps, even, performatively self-flagellating. The confession, here—getting ahead of the shame by confessing the shameful thing, and agreeing that, yes, it is indeed shameful—betrays a perfectionism in the form of suffering. Beyond the messy ‘wound dweller’—a name Jamison reported she was called by an ex in The Empathy Exams—Jamison has graduated to become a mature abettor of sound (read: hypercritical) self-judgement. I don’t want to conflate Jamison the textual sign and Jamison the flesh-and-blood author, but perhaps this perspective, this form-perfect self-critique, is what permits recovery. I wouldn’t know. It does, however, leave little room for mistakes or surprises or even those nourishing little indulgences: rage, self-pity, contempt. And so I found myself most interested in the scenes that seemed to spill over with something not resembling self-control.

After presenting her thesis to a panel of academics, for example, Jamison’s thoughts strike—finally!—the register of a human being not intent on people-pleasing:

‘But what about the relationship between addiction and creativity?’ one professor asked. ‘Don’t certain obsessions also produce experiment and variation?’

[…]

‘I think that—‘I paused, stuttered. ‘I think addiction often feels like the opposite of variation.’ What I wanted to say: Addiction is just the same fucking thing over and over again. Thinking of addiction in terms of generative variation is the luxury of someone who hasn’t spent years telling the same lies to liquor-store clerks.

Yes! Moments like these, however, are few and far between. In Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring (another memoir-cultural criticism book on alcoholic writers), she writes: “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I am interested in absences […] I was beginning to think that drinking might be a way of disappearing from the world, or at least of slipping one’s appointed place within it”. Drinking is certainly a way of blurring the edges of a person’s subjectivity. And of slipping from an awareness of the internal chatter–or feeling, at least temporarily, that the chatter is correct and finally, finally, justified, rather than it being merely inane. There are absences in The Recovering (as there must be in any text constructed from life). One I noted most keenly was: what is Jamison’s understanding of the relationship between shame and perfectionism and judgement and drinking? This question seems to inform the entire, 500-page book, but it goes largely unacknowledged (at least overtly).

Yet in an interview, Jamison addresses rejection directly:

So much of the book is about rejection — and the fear of rejection — and about the ways that consciousness seeks to avoid or console the prospect of rejection that comes attached to all forms of desire…part of what fueled [sic] my drinking was the sense that I could inoculate myself against the impact of that rejection if I could find my own solace in the booze itself.

Here is an unrelenting high achiever—Harvard undergrad, Iowa writers’ workshop MFA, Yale Ph.D., first novel out at twenty-six. Perfectionists fear rejection more than anything, and yet they court it in everything they do. This is what interests me most about Jamison’s nonfiction. The memoir-of genre (memoir of addiction, memoir of a body, which portions of The Recovering resemble) is necessarily limited. These sections of the book are devoted to anecdotes of desperate drinking, shame, and longing. The reader, therefore, is not permitted access to the structures of a highly disciplined person’s days, nor, quite, how the author mentally balances her two powerful urges: to create and to destroy.

The performative (or perhaps even unconscious) self-abnegation Jamison relies on in The Recovering is framed as an excavation. At times, it reads as a flaying. She writes that “when it came to drinking, I’d parsed my motivations in a thousand sincere conversations—with friends, with therapists, with my mother, with my boyfriends—and all my self-understanding hadn’t granted me any release from compulsion”. In fact, it seems, this compulsion to divulge is the mirror of—and the ego of—the addiction. This reminds me of something Foucault wrote about the link between prohibition and confession: “The association of prohibition and strong incitations to speak is a constant feature of our culture.” In other words, the more taboo a behaviour, the more compelled we feel to confess it. Prohibition requires shame-faced truth-telling; the confession doesn’t abnegate the shameful act but makes it in fact more shameful.

What I want to know about is what drives people to open themselves up to constant rejection and critique? Why do humans anticipate and encompass and transform into art rejection and critique? I want, in Joshua Weiner’s words, art that reveals “the working of the medium, in the medium”. If the medium is confession, how does confession work, what are its delusions, and what are its ends?

But maybe what I am asking for is an ever more fastidious—and tedious—excavation of the soul. Instead, perhaps, there are other things to obsess over. “Maybe”, Jamison writes, “stopping drinking didn’t have to do with introspection but paying attention to everything else”.




Ellena Savage is the author of Blueberries, a collection of essays forthcoming with Text Publishing. She teaches writing at the University of Melbourne and RMIT and is undertaking a Ph.D. at Monash. Subscribe to her free newsletter of infrequent provision and varying quality: tinyletter.com/ellena