Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams (a New York Times bestseller) and the novel The Gin Closet. Her newest book, The Recovering, was published in April 2018 to wide acclaim. Of The Empathy Exams, the New York Times writes, “watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise.” Publishers Weekly called The Recovering an “unsparing and luminous autobiographical study of alcoholism,” adding, “the dark humor, evocative prose, and clear-eyed, heartfelt insights Jamison deploys here only underscore her reputation as a writer of fearsome talent.” Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, A Public Space, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer. A graduate of Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently teaches in Columbia University’s MFA program, where she directs the nonfiction concentration; she also leads the Bridge Project, which brings creative writing workshops to transitional housing and recovery programs. Jamison recently joined Image as an editorial advisor. She was interviewed by Rachel Toliver, a nonfiction writer and Image’s 2018–19 Milton Fellow.
Image: You mentioned you were going into the archives. What’s your current project?
Leslie Jamison: I’m never far from the archives. I am currently doing some work at the amazing New York Academy of Medicine archives on the Upper East Side. I originally connected with them because one of the archivists had really enjoyed The Recovering, and she had written a short essay about their collection of old Grapevines, the Alcoholics Anonymous newsletter. She shared it with me, and we ended up getting into a back and forth. I was teaching a seminar last semester at Columbia about writing the body, and we did an offsite class at their archives. The themes of the class were illness, injury, intimacy, and pleasure, and this archivist arranged four tables of materials around those themes: old sanitarium postcards, tiny porcelain mannequins, anatomical drawings. It was incredible.
Partway though, I remembered I was writing an essay for the New York Times Magazine about C-sections, and on how our evolving ideas about C-sections illuminate how we think about maternity and motherhood and good motherhood. I realized that was the perfect place to ask for good materials on C-sections. And Anne’s face lit up.
Image: I know of an artist in Philadelphia who did a project where she took castings of women’s C-section scars and made glass art out of them. A friend of mine volunteered to have a casting made of her scar. She said it was very intimate, to have this other woman (who had had a C-section herself) take a mold of her scar. She said it was a beautiful experience.
LJ: That idea is so interesting to me; there’s something interesting about glass, too. It’s solid and it lets you see through it. I was recently up at the Cloisters in New York, and I read that as stained glass started to be used in medieval churches, part of the theology around its material properties was that glass holds a paradox: The fact that it was solid but could also transmit light felt resonant with the tension of the virgin birth. There’s something about the idea of casting a C-section scar in glass, which is somehow both solid and lets something through—it feels like it’s about the experience of having this body that’s both healing and letting a baby out of a rupture in the skin.
Image: Speaking of tensions, you once said, “The problem with an essay can become its subject.” So rather than steering away from a problem in an essay, you steer towards it. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that process actually looks like for you. I think you said it in relation to The Empathy Exams, but I was wondering if that process also describes how you came to the page for The Recovering?
LJ: You probably got it from the acknowledgments to The Empathy Exams. It’s not my own idea. It’s a piece of wisdom I heard from Charlie D’Ambrosio, who’s an amazing writer and my great mentor in this world, who has taught me everything.
He read an early draft of the title essay in The Empathy Exams, and I think he said it in relation to that. In any case it was certainly the first place I remember putting that wisdom into practice. He had read a draft where I was primarily writing about the experience of being a medical actor and also some of these abstract ideas about empathy, but I wasn’t writing into my personal experiences of being a patient. There would be these brief mentions, but then I would pull away; I think I was self-conscious about seeming self-indulgent, self-pitying, all the things that come up whenever we write about experiences that are painful. And Charlie, when he read the early draft, said, “Not only does it seem like you’re backing away from some of your most important material, but it actually feels like whenever you’re writing toward personal experience, your tone is becoming somehow jaded or dismissive or clinical, almost the way you described those medical dossiers.”
He was invoking the dossiers as a way to help me understand his critique, but it sparked this idea in my mind. I knew I had to write more deeply into that material, but I also thought: “What if I turned that narrative into the form of medical dossiers and exploded that structure from the inside?” In that case, I was taking something that felt like a problem—how does one even begin to account for the incredibly complicated experience of being a patient?—and making that a problem of form, or how to tell that story. The problem became a kind of answer—in that case, a formal experiment.
That was the first place I put that idea into practice. But what I love about that advice is that it’s reborn slightly differently each time; it rises to meet the occasion of each essay. I find myself often giving that advice to students as a way to help them understand that often the very same thing that’s making a subject challenging to write about is what makes it important to be doing that writing. I had a student recently who used to be a professional snowboarder. She was trying to write about having survived an avalanche, and she said, “People keep telling me this is the most boring avalanche they’ve ever read.” And I got so passionate about it. I told her, “This isn’t a problem, this is the point! Part of your subject is that trauma isn’t always hyper-dramatic. It isn’t always an amazing story. Sometimes the aftermath of trauma is boring. It’s just you eating ramen, watching Netflix, feeling blank in the head.” And again in that case, boringness can be turned from problem to subject. That’s actually part of what she was trying to say about a difficult experience, and that’s an incredibly important and consoling thing for people to hear.
There are a thousand iterations, but I certainly keep coming back to that advice as a writer and teacher. In The Recovering, it showed up in all sorts of ways. Addiction and recovery is a story that seems either impossible to tell or too familiar to tell. Part of the dilemma of that book was thinking about how addiction is a story that we often think we already know. I wanted to transition from thinking about that as a liability in my project to making it one of the subjects I was interested in. Why do we praise exceptional stories? Why do we feel like a story has to be unique? What if we turned that wisdom on its head? And that became part of the intellectual territory I was exploring, rather than just anxiety that this story had already been told.
Image: One thing I really loved about The Recovering was how—I hope you don’t take this the wrong way—you make the narrative persona pretty unlikable in places, and then in that exact moment, you forgive your former self. I was wondering, from a craft standpoint, how did you manage to walk that line of judgment and forgiveness at once?
LJ: That’s a generative way of framing the question. One thing I’ve thought a lot about as I have tried to turn certain personal experiences into narrative is: I’ve noted my own knee-jerk tendency to lean into the crutch of total self-deprecation as a self-protective gesture. I judge myself very harshly on the page as a way of preempting the judgment of readers. I’m saying, “Every bad thought you could have about me, I’ve already had about myself. So I’m going to inoculate you against having it.”
A really self-ennobling narrative is a bad idea for lots of reasons: it reduces the truth; it’s oversimplified. But I think an unequivocally self-deprecating narrative can be too simplistic in the same way. If you reduce your consciousness to something wholly good, you’re not telling the most complicated version of the story, and if you reduce your consciousness to something wholly dismissed, you’re not telling the most complicated version of the story either. Complexity is what I’m always trying to be in search of, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, whether I’m writing about myself or somebody else. I try to ease up on the impulse to dismiss myself too fully on the page because I want to make room for how consciousness is always a thousand different things at once. You can’t make room for all of them on the page, but you want to make as much room as you can.
As I was writing The Recovering, I thought a lot about trying to create distance between my narrator and my younger self. I wasn’t wholly inhabiting her perspective on her life, but I also wanted to be tender with her. It’s so easy to call our prior selves absurd because we feel ashamed of them; I didn’t want to do that either. In “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion says, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” I like that idea of granting your former selves enough respect to let them be complicated. Part of twelve-step recovery is the idea of not disowning the former self, but drawing on that self in order to live into the current version of self. I think I was trying to enact some version of that with the former self that I was narrating on the page.
Image: That makes me think about how recovery mediates our relationship to shame. Recovery brings up the question: What good things can we do with shame?
LJ: Shame can be such a toxic emotion. But I also think about shame as a heat signal that can take you somewhere important. If you let it have the final say, or give it too much power, then it can curdle you from the inside. I remember talking once with an artist at a residency in Wyoming. We were walking where there was geothermal activity, little pockets of steam coming up out of the ground, and I remember that felt like a useful visual image for shame. What’s under the ground that’s releasing that steam?
Sometimes I talk about shame with my students. Not that I’m trying to force them to write about things they’re ashamed of, if they’re not ready for that or comfortable with it. But sometimes shame is that little bit of steam coming up off the land, and then you know there’s something with real heat underneath. It can sometimes be a barometer: there’s some experience here that I’m not done reckoning with yet. There’s something to write into here.
Image: Some of that tenderness in The Recovering also comes from humor.
LJ: Well, thank you! One of the New York Times reviews said, “This book is absolutely humorless.” That totally devastated me, because this is about as funny as I get! Every time I do a reading and even one person laughs—of course, because I’m a perpetual anxious pleaser—I think, “Oh, I wish that reviewer were here to hear that person laugh.”
Image: You’re very interested in community, a sense of choral we. One chapter of The Recovering, “Chorus,” is modeled on the communal voice of AA. But in The Recovering, you’re also very explicit about how people of color experience addiction quite differently from people with more privilege, particularly race privilege.
This makes me think of the epigraph from The Empathy Exams, “I am human: nothing is alien to me.” I wonder: When do the ideals of collective experience become dangerously universalizing, particularly when race and class impact our experiences?
LJ: I think of that epigraph, first and foremost, as my tattoo. I have that phrase tattooed on my arm, so I see it every day. I think one of the things that was fascinating to me about recovery, and the spaces of recovery, was that they seemed to provide a model for how one could understand the possibility of resonance without conflation. You could find something that might resonate between your experience and another person’s experience without assuming or imposing total equivalence. So, around race or class, for example, I went into AA meetings on guard against presumption. I didn’t want to believe myself—in any kind of euphemistic or reductive way—to share too much with people whose lives are really different from mine. In other words: what did I honestly know about what it was like to come to a seven-thirty a.m. meeting straight from a homeless shelter where you’ve been kicked out at seven a.m.? I think it’s wise and right to ask yourself those questions.
But I also realized that there was something pretty dangerous about following that skepticism too far into another space of assumption. It was dangerous to assume that meant I couldn’t share anything with people who were coming from a different position. That’s the whole premise of literature, right? That you can read something spoken or written by somebody from a very different place or time or background or state of being—and it can feel true anyway. And you can take that truth and bring it back into your own life.
I often felt in meetings, both as a listener and a speaker, that sense of possibility. The shared experience of coming to feel extremely dependent on a substance could really resonate across very different lives. The experience of recovery itself could also resonate across different lives. Meetings gave me this idea of what it might look like to try to articulate the possibilities of resonance, but not to fall into that trap of believing that all of our experiences were the same.
I wanted to enact that with The Recovering itself. I was trying to unify some things that I felt the public narrative had, in really destructive ways, separated into different categories. For example, alcohol dependence and drug dependence: one was legal and the other was illegal, so they’ve come to have very different narratives attached to them. But there were lots of reasons to talk about them as part of the same continuum. Similarly, I wanted to look at the very different narratives of the villain addict and the victim addict and to ask, “Why are these narratives segregated in these ways? Why are they segregated across race lines?” I wanted to do some work of bringing together in a way that felt ethically productive. I also tried to tackle explicitly what is dangerous about conflating two things that aren’t the same.
Maybe it comes back to your first question. If I felt the danger of conflation as I was writing, I didn’t want to let that problem keep me from speaking. I just wanted to write directly into it, and so some of the narrative about meetings looks at that question pretty directly: what were the dangers of assuming that I knew too much?
In terms of my tattoo—I am human: nothing is alien to me—I see it in a slightly different way than I did when I first got it six or seven years ago. I saw it then as an articulation of empathic possibility. I see it now more as a sentiment that has a lot of internal tensions. How do we try to understand each other’s experiences? What are the limits of that understanding? I think it’s fine for sentiments to have tensions embedded inside of them. I think it’s useful. It keeps them crackly, in a good way. But I’ve learned so many things about the phrase since I got the tattoo. Somebody told me it was one of Montaigne’s favorite phrases. Somebody told me it was Marx’s favorite phrase. Somebody told me that in the original context, in a play by Terence of Rome, it was a humorous idea—it had to do with a guy who has a penchant for gossip. I sort of love that, because I had meant it so earnestly, that it was a joke.
Image: And so the phrase itself actually enacts the idea, nothing is alien to me. It contains divergent interpretations and diverse narratives.
LJ: My next book, a collection of essays called Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is coming out in the fall. In it, I circle back to the tattoo a couple of times, to interrogate it along those lines. I write about a moment where a soldier in Sri Lanka asks about the tattoo. And I want to explain it to him; I would have told him what it said except—well, some things are alien to me. There are some limits that we have to keep reckoning with.
Image: I recently reread your essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” from The Empathy Exams. That essay seems to be teasing out some of the ideas you work through later in The Recovering. You write, “Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we’ll find we’re nothing but banal.” Then you have a great quote from Oscar Wilde: “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” I’m interested in how that fear of being nothing but banal maps on to the arc of The Recovering, and how the push away from, or pull towards, sentimentality maps onto The Recovering.
LJ: It’s exciting to see you tease out those connections. Yes, wrestling with the possibility of banality—or commonality or interchangeability—is definitely one of the arcs across the course of The Recovering. And so is moving away from this trope of the exceptional tormented artist who has a singular voice and profound set of experiences; starting to look instead at how that mythology was constructed and what it meant in terms of who didn’t have a place in that mythology. And also what that mythology left out about the reality of being a drunk whose liver was palpable through your skin. I was thinking about that fetishizing of the exceptional, painful voice. And then thinking about the sort of self-relation and relationship to expression that is celebrated and practiced in recovery, which is the idea that your story isn’t unique, but that’s not a liability, it’s actually the point, because part of what allows your story to be useful to other people is that it feels shared.
There’s certainly that interrogation—what do we even mean by banal? Why is it even an insult to say, “This thing is banal because it is ordinary, because it is familiar, because we’ve encountered it so many times before in other people’s lives or other people’s articulations or other people’s stories”? In the realms of the literary, these things can be seen as dismissals. I went through a process of questioning why it is self-evident that something has less value because it’s unoriginal. I’ve been taught that my whole life, but why should that be true?
Trying to work through my own shifting relationship to things being common or held in common is certainly one of the big quests of the book. And one of the theaters it ends up playing out in is the relationship to cliché. Clichés are these nuggets of meaning or insight in which we are essentially recognizing that other people share our experiences—that’s what a cliché is. And then it’s interesting to think about all of that in relation to sentimentality, because I do think that when I wrote “In Defense of Saccharin(e)”—which I wrote back in 2006, years before I got sober or was in recovery—I was already suspicious of my own fixation on the idea of being original or deep or exceptional. I both had this strong desire to find language for feeling and was afraid of being seen as sentimental or reductive or trite in how I was trying to articulate feeling. Sometimes we call a piece of language sentimental. But there’s a way we even call experience itself sentimental, if you’re having a feeling that’s too common or too familiar. That’s where I think this breaks down, because when do we ever honestly believe that we’re feeling an emotion that hasn’t been felt a million times before?
Image: I’m interested in how some of those words—ordinary, unoriginal, common, held in common, sentimental—can map onto cultural perceptions of faith or religion. Do you have any thoughts about that?
LJ: There’s a lot of resonance there. There are certainly critiques of faith or spiritual life that see it not just as an opioid of the masses but a set of reductive or easy beliefs. In the same way that you could see a cliché as a pat or fixed thing—and that’s part of what’s unsatisfying or reductive about it—I feel there’s a misunderstanding of faith as a static thing as opposed to a site of wrestling. Or, most people who lead lives full of faith would call that a misunderstanding of faith. Maybe it connects to what we were saying about my tattoo before: it’s not a stable mode of unequivocal truth, so much as a site of wrestling.
My own experience with faith has been as an ongoing thing—something that’s always in flux. And other people who are more involved in institutional religion than I am also articulate this. It’s about questioning and reckoning; it’s not stable or fixed. That’s something those critiques of faith miss, when they call it too pat or too stable or too easy: they don’t see faith as this constantly shifting, volcanic thing.
And certainly faith is invested in what sorts of experiences are possible in community, and what kind of access to meaning can happen by virtue of physical practice or ritual. This was a revelatory thing to me about recovery: that simply physically showing up in a room with all of these other bodies, and going through certain kinds of rituals—sitting in the chairs, having the bad coffee, saying words at the beginning of the meeting—those rituals were really important and could take you somewhere that just your mind or your own interiority couldn’t. You didn’t have to summon yourself to this transformative or ecstatic experience. Your body could do certain things that would help take you there too.
Image: Culturally, there are set pieces of faith language that feel so clichéd and overdone. But it’s interesting to think about how the language of faith also opens up in ways we don’t anticipate.
LJ: There’s an exhibit up at the Guggenheim right now of paintings by Hilma af Klint. She was a Swedish mystic painter, turn of the century. Her major painting cycle, Paintings for the Temple, consisted of almost two hundred paintings designed for a temple she envisioned. The temple was never built, but weirdly her imagining of that temple was a lot like the Guggenheim: a tower with a long circular interior ramp. So it’s sort of cosmic that her paintings are now up in the Guggenheim. I bring her up because I think we often associate spirituality with something ascetic. There’s an idea that it’s supposed to be about deprivation or purity in some way. But her paintings are the opposite of that—they’re very lush and extravagant, and there’s almost a feeling of too much-ness about them. Her vision of spiritual experience is very intense and visually extravagant and almost cluttered. There are so many colors and shapes.
I think there was something about recovery that was able to upend my sense of sobriety in similar terms. Recovery was able to turn my idea of sobriety away from this experience defined by deprivation and loss—life as a barren lack or absence—and show me that, no, it can actually be about all these other kinds of presence. And there’s a way that I can understand spirituality—or have understood spirituality in the past—as ascetic or as deprivation, when really there’s another way of understanding it as extravagant provision instead. I like the way her paintings seem to be manifestations of that idea.
Image: So much of your work has to do with performance, the performance of pain and the performative nature of language. And your work also has to do with deconstructing the divide between the performative and the real. I think that can apply to the way that you characterize prayer in The Recovering—that a person can pray and then, as a result, believe. You perform faith, and then the reality of faith comes out of that. Do you have anything more to say about that?
LJ: That feels right to me as a characterization. One of my abiding preoccupations is interrogating this categorical divide between the real and the performed. There’s a moment in the essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” where I quote my friend Harriet, who is a very wise woman, saying that performed pain is still pain, while she’s also interrogating that divide in a very efficient way. To try to isolate some aspect of living, or some aspect of ourselves as the authentic self that is not performing, sort of misses the point. We’re always performing for somebody, or for ourselves, but that performance is also being—it is also just what it means to be alive, to authentically be in the world.
Part of what kept me hampered, or hamstrung, or tied up in knots around faith itself, was this idea that there was some kind of authentic faith experience that I wasn’t having if I wasn’t sure I believed in God, or wasn’t sure how to conceptualize God, or didn’t feel totally at home in church. All of those ways of feeling isolated, or feeling outside of a certain experience, were predicated on essentially constructing this binary in which some people had an authentic experience of faith, and if I felt doubt or felt like I was just going through the motions, that meant I wasn’t having an authentic experience of faith.
Part of what happened for me in recovery wasn’t just the recovery, it was also happening in other ways. My partner through many of the years that I write about in The Recovering, Dave, who’s also a very wise person, would talk a lot about destabilizing this divide between authentic faith and performed faith. He would say, it’s not that you experience faith unequivocally and then go through the motions of faith. It’s that sometimes you go through the motions of faith, and that’s part of what it might mean to start to experience it. So his was another voice challenging that binary. One of the big recovery truisms is “fake it till you make it.” I love that. I think there’s actually something profound in that. It seems to be saying that it can actually be authentic to put yourself through the motions of a certain activity as a way of articulating a desire to experience faith, or a commitment to inquiry or exploration, or a commitment to showing up. And these things might lay a groundwork for feeling something.
And certainly with prayer, those ideas did become hugely important to me. Getting on your knees feels less to me about subservience and more about having some sort of physical practice. But it could be any physical practice. It could be standing on one leg. Or it could be a yoga pose. Or any physical action where you put your body in a position that relieves your mind of having to do all the work. I don’t have to feel all the right things or think all the right things, but I’m articulating a certain kind of commitment just by doing this thing.
Image: My own practice is related to the Episcopal Church, and I know your mother is an Episcopalian deacon. One thing I really appreciate about the Episcopal Church, even though it’s sort of paradoxical, is that it has a very reified, highly aestheticized service and liturgy, but that translates into social action as well: an institution that could be seen by the culture as a bourgeois, empty performance is actually doing quite a lot of work on the ground.
LJ: My mom will love to hear about this interview, and will love to know you think about Episcopalianism in those ways. Not only does she feel that way about the church, but she also understands her work as a deacon as living precisely in that space of bringing the church out into the world. She had this whole career in public health—through the nonprofit world and through the academy—and thinks about her life as a deacon very much as a continuation of that work, just under the auspices of another institution. Her faith practice is so inspiring to me, in part because it is all about lived experience and this sense of faith as deeply connected to the world, and about faith as a way of building community around action. She experiences her faith as a set of actions rather than just a set of beliefs. So everything you’re saying rings true to what is inspiring about her practice to me.
Image: I know you wrote about her serving communion through the San Diego border fence.
LJ: I love to bring every interview around to the awesomeness of my mother, so I’m glad that we found our way to that closing note. It always feels great.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.