A recovering alcoholic dissects the fetishisation of “whiskey and ink”by Lucy Watson / March 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Recovering, a literary history of writers’ addiction, 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 fetishisation of “whiskey and ink”: the romanticisation of the “old, mythic drunks” such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. This hierarchy of addicts—those on the privileged side of race, gender and class, and those not—is interrogated.
She asks who gets to be considered ill, and who criminal. While the author finds compassion in the church basements of Alcoholics Anonymous, others are made to work in chain gangs in the Arizona deserts. It is a bias that has a long history: Billie Holiday was incarcerated for her heroin habit, and Judy Garland advised to take longer holidays to treat hers.
The book’s 500-odd pages are dense with stories of other writers, both famous and obscure, and the cultural and social history of addiction and recovery in the 21st century. It’s a compelling work made possible by Jamison’s formidable knowledge—she is the author of 2014’s highly praised The Empathy Exams. 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 a…