The 'Empathy Exams' author constructs a recovery memoir like no other
What’s most impressive about Leslie Jamison is her clarity. With The Recovering, a massive volume tackling addiction from multiple angles, the inventive Empathy Exams author has spun a popular subgenre on its head. Here, she’s a bare-it-all memoirist, an astute critic, and a diligent archivist all in one. Yet her method is holistic; she carefully guides her reader with an understated grace. She’ll meditate on the oeuvre of Raymond Carver before swerving into the harrowing memory of her first blackout — and in her telling, such a sharp turn marks a building block, progress in her construction of a recovery memoir like no other.
While Jamison dissects her lifelong battle with alcoholism, she doesn’t merely unpack her history. She summons the legends of literary gods — the iconic writers, like Carver or Denis Johnson, in whose work genius and addiction remain seductively entwined — and elucidates why they so deeply feed her pain, insecurities, and creative spirit. She went to college in Iowa City, a landscape haunted by drunken (male) maestros; their addictions didn’t serve as learning lessons, to be sure, but they weren’t merely aesthetics to aspire to either. Their stories fed Jamison. They were formative.
Jamison’s Empathy Exams was a best-selling phenomenon, a provocative essay collection borne out of its author’s experiences as a medical actor. It’s here that the author first demonstrated her exceptional ability to interweave different forms of analysis. Its underpinnings were personal, but the book felt rigorous, academic. That it appealed as broadly as it did spoke primarily to the potent sense of purpose with which Jamison approached every sentence.
With The Recovering, Jamison still articulates a clear, compelling mission. But the book may not strike such a chord, layered as it is with highbrow references and unconventional structures. Jamison is inserting herself into an established field here — the recovery memoir — and she carves it scrupulously to fit her strengths. There’s no straight line between rock bottom and sobriety, no inevitable bumps to overcome. Her entire journey is filtered through the lens of narrative; her life story is compiled in non-chronological chunks, assembled by argument.
These arguments, fortunately, tend to be plenty persuasive. The book knows no bounds, building in depth and vitality with each passing concern: the politics of race and drugs, the culture of college boozing, the sexism inherent to how artistic male addicts are revered while women are patronized, dismissed, mocked. Most intimately, there are the stories of those who are back down on earth, living right beside us — who aren’t basking in collective worship. The stories of Jamison’s fellow alcoholics exist in the periphery until the climax, if we can call it that, and while it’s a tonal departure — a bit more emotionally removed — they find the author back in her Empathy Exams sweetspot: meditating on our power to heal each other’s wounds, our ability to spin performative empathy into real feeling.
The book is sharper than Empathy, and soars above it on the strength of Jamison’s command. It all comes down to a balance of storytelling. Amid the classic novels and great writers cited and unpacked throughout The Recovering is the very real, relatable experience of an addict telling her own story. As Jamison recalls her introduction to recovery early on, she has an epiphany that’s both challenged and reinforced in her book. “In recovery, I found a community that resisted what I’d always been told about stories — that they had to be unique — suggesting instead that a story was most useful when it wasn’t unique at all, when it understood itself as something that had been lived before and would be lived again,” she writes. “Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it. Originality wasn’t the ideal, and beauty wasn’t the point.”
This notion contrasts with those who have shaped Jamison — with those for whom originality and a spiky kind of beauty were not just an ideal, but core to their legacy. Both in terms of artistry and lifestyle, their influence is quite specific to Jamison, a writer of prodigious ambition, and it’s baked into her anecdotes. But her synthesis of memoir, criticism, and historical analysis is still unshakable, even encompassing. There’s something profound at work here, a truth about how we grow into ourselves that rings achingly wise and burrows painfully deep. In this astounding triumph, Jamison reveals how myths make us who we are, situating herself within a storied American movement before steering us all toward a new, clearer state of being. A