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Jamison outs herself early on as “precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationship to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable” — the daughter of a global health expert and health economist who raised her in the Pacific Palisades and seemed to have instilled a taste for international service trips. She got her schooling at places overdetermined with literary meaning where getting sloshed got elevated into an artistic activity. At Harvard, “college simmered into myth” and she had her first blackout in the lit mag’s basement. At Iowa’s fiction program (where “the myths of Iowa City Drinking ran like subterranean rivers”), genius drunks like Denis Johnson and Richard Yates were campus legend. She internalized the idea that “Things got dark, and you wrote from that darkness. Heartbreak could become the beginning of a career.” Inner depths were measured in downward spirals. Alcoholics Anonymous offered an almost opposite storytelling ethos — one “not about glory but survival.” Its sharing rituals provided her with endless narrative interest; other members’ experiences felt like a refuge. Still, Jamison confesses, at first she could barely stifle her inner critic. “Clichés were one of the hardest parts of my early days in recovery,” she recalls. “I cringed at their singsong cadences.” Convinced that her life and her writing had grown sluggish, she resumed drinking. Recovery is always messy and never assured. “Part of proving that you’re truly ready to recover — in drug court, in meeting, in a memoir — involves admitting that you don’t know if you can recover at all,” she writes. “Part of getting into the right narrative involves admitting you can’t see the end of it.” In her celebrated collection The Empathy Exams, each essay presented a variation on a fundamental dilemma: whether it is possible to honorably represent her subject’s experience. The book took in a Morgellons disease conference, a profile of a pen pal incarcerated in West Virginia, and Frida Kahlo and her plaster corsets, always circling around the question of whether Jamison was sharing, or merely leeching off, other people’s wounds. By dissecting the difficulties of the writing process, naming its sins, her writing made itself good — both masterful and moral. The Recovering carapaces its events in a similar meta-plot: how to write about binges and bottoming-out without glamor; how to make abstention entertaining to the reader. Neatly, Jamison cuts through both narrative binds. She grounds the memories of intoxication in those of a turbulent romance with a poet, Dave — a relationship whose all-caps extremes, complete with separations and relapses, provides a safe outlet for storytelling dramatics. The drinking that soaked into their life, dully eroding it, feels repetitive compared to their knock-down, drag-out fights (mostly about her jealousy of other women). By contrast, the scenes of Jamison trying not to drink feel taut and immediate.
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