Somewhere around page four of Leslie Jamison’s gripping and glorious 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, I flipped to the author photo to peer at her face. Jamison looked like the girl you’d fall in love with in the library or at a county fair, but as I kept reading, I realized that beneath that fresh sweetness was some kind of superhuman emotional courage. Jamison is a writer willing to get roughed up for her reader, even if she has to deal the blows herself. She lets us wander unpoliced through her lower and higher selves while detailing her experiences with abortion, hypochondria, and racism—and what it is to feel pity, petty, or unmanageable.
In her new book, The Recovering (Little, Brown), the 34-year-old author takes on sobriety. Exploring the exhausted subject of addiction, she manages to spark fresh conversations about her own years of addiction and stories from so many others. It’s an ambitiously comprehensive look at what it means to get sober and the countless unmarked roads that lead there, but Jamison weaves it all together like a thriller. I was rapt by the simple passages where she details the horror of getting lost in the middle of a regular Thursday, losing herself while sitting at her own kitchen counter. As the modern version of revealing ourselves becomes even more diligently and perversely curated to accentuate our most glamorous angles, to have Jamison serve up her own undressed inner monologue feels groundbreaking. Jamison just lays it out. She won’t stop going deeper, especially when it’s not pretty under there, or disappointing, or both. I spoke to her this past January by phone from my New York home to hers, where she was in the intoxicating (and sobering) moment of becoming a new mother.
MARY-LOUISE PARKER: Congratulations! Oh my goodness!
LESLIE JAMISON: Thank you! It’s crazy and wonderful and exhausting and wondrous and just all the superlatives.
PARKER: It was one of my two or three favorite times of my whole life, and I do remember being tired, but I also remember telling everyone I didn’t mind being tired, and I really didn’t.
JAMISON: It’s a pretty amazing thing to be so immersed in another tiny life. I had never really thought of myself as a baby person, but it’s just a really profound connection. There’s something liberating about disappearing from the world and being in this strange dream. Like, who is this little creature? It’s really, really magic. There’s also the simplicity of constantly nursing and feeling like, “Okay, this is what it takes to satisfy your needs.”
PARKER: Yeah, caring for someone else’s needs really changes your executive function and what goes on your to-do list. Do you make a to-do list for writing, like, “Today I will work on this”? Or do you just kind of get in the car and see where you end up?
JAMISON: I often have some kind of plan. I feel like I have a bit of a Type A personality. I do like arranging things. I like order. I basically like all these things that are the opposite of what people associate with the wild, passionate creative temperament. Often what I feel like I need is some kind of provisional destination, and then I end up going somewhere else entirely. I’ll be like, “Today I’m going to write a section of this essay about this conversation I had with my dad when I was 10.” Or, “Today I’m going to write about going on a train ride with my best friend when we were 22 and didn’t know what we were doing and passed out from hard lemonade on the overnight portion of the trip across Nebraska.” I let myself follow those tangents, but I’m pretty committed to surprising myself along the way.
PARKER: I find in writing, if I have too much freedom, too much rope, I end up hanging myself. I like having boundaries or a specific format—even if it’s a word count, like 500 words on gas-station food. To me, that’s freedom, as opposed to me sitting here in my apartment thinking, “Oh, I could write about the tsunami, or I could write about artisanal cheeses.” That’s what’s so stunning about this new book of yours. It covers so much territory, like an entire continent.
JAMISON: I completely identify with finding freedom in boundaries. That’s why I tend to have more freedom when I write nonfiction over fiction, because I’m running up against actuality and beholden to the truth in a different way.
PARKER: The problem for me is that when I write about my own life, it is often received as salacious—it’s thrown back at me in a way I don’t love. Your first book of essays, The Empathy Exams, was so wildly personal that it kind of blew my mind. In terms of this new book, were you at all hesitant writing about addiction? It gets into the parts of ourselves that are not always the shiniest.
JAMISON: First of all, people are not interested in my life in the way that they’re interested in yours. But for me, writing is always about exploring some kind of question, and my experiences are the ones at my disposal in order to explore those questions. Wrestling with what I’ve experienced is one of the ways in which my mind can kind of come alive on the page. It’s some of the most beautiful stuff in my arsenal.
PARKER: Are there any limits to what you will write about yourself?
JAMISON: The things that give me pause are usually things that have to do with other people’s lives. The boundary is porous. There’s very little that we experience that isn’t somehow related to someone else. I don’t necessarily give the people I write about veto power, but I do like to give them a chance to read and respond so the relationship is saved. Dave [Jamison’s ex-boyfriend, who appears in The Recovering] actually read the book twice in different forms, and we had hard but really illuminating conversations about it. He helped it become a better book and a more complicated one. A lot of the hardest wrestling for me isn’t, “What are people going to find out about me?” It’s more about trying to do right by other people.
PARKER: I wondered, with the book being so much about alcohol and the program, whether it was hard to write about Alcoholics Anonymous, because its cardinal rule is not revealing things about other people. Was that a concern?
JAMISON: That was something I thought about a lot. I made a choice to violate my own anonymity, but I was careful not to do that for anybody else. Again, anybody who I wrote about, who was involved in the program, I made sure they were okay with what I wrote and I made sure to obscure their identities, except in a few cases where they didn’t want me to. I think some of the stories that are most realized in the book are the ones involving Seneca House, that rehab center in Maryland in the ’70s and ’80s. Part of why Seneca House came into the book was because I wanted to give rich portraits of peoples’ lives like the kind you hear in meetings, but I didn’t feel ethically comfortable with just taking stories from people in a meeting. I felt like I needed to encounter people as a writer and say, “Do you feel comfortable with your story becoming a part of this book?” I sought them out as a journalist instead of a participant, because I didn’t want to exploit recovery.
PARKER: Oh, hang on one second. My dog is eating a credit card. She won’t stop eating until she’s ill.
JAMISON: [laughs] Well, that I identify with. The whole book is about wanting more and more and more. But I was thinking, going back to motherhood, the dominant cultural script tells us—or forces us—to have this overwhelming love for this tiny being. And I do. But I was thinking that so much of my writing life is about making space for stories that don’t fit the dominant cultural narrative of how someone is supposed to feel. And as you said about portraying myself not always in the most flattering light, I feel like part of that really comes down to this desire to tell stories where people feel things they’re not supposed to feel, or where I feel things that I felt guilty about. It’s so lonely to only have narratives where people feel the things they’re supposed to feel.
PARKER: Do you think anybody’s actually having all of those scripted experiences? People who aren’t sad are really interesting to me. I don’t trust people who are satisfied the majority of the time.
JAMISON: I generally feel that way, too, although I do have a close friend who’s pretty genuinely happy. But getting back to writing, I think trying to find what’s underneath the surface of a life pretty accurately describes my editing process. My first draft will often be more like an anecdotal version of a story—the kind you might tell at a cocktail party. It’s burnished and witty in a shorthanded way. I have to edit my work over and over and over so I can get to the trickier version of the truth underneath that. It rarely comes out complicated in all of the right ways off the bat.
PARKER: Yeah, often there’s a desire to please, and when you have that, you’re not revealing the breadth of yourself in the most in the baldest, bleakest, weirdest, or pervy way. With acting, too, I respond to people who aren’t afraid to be dull or who aren’t constantly telling you what you’re supposed to feel. I think maybe that’s a female thing of wanting to please, like “Hi, I’m just so friendly right now and so available to you, and this is what I’m feeling just so you’re not confused by anything that I’m feeling!” I hate watching people act like that, and I don’t like reading things like that.
JAMISON: I had a fiction writing teacher who always used to say, “Abandon your citizen self.” I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time. But for me it’s come to mean abandoning the desire to please at all times, or to make people comfortable. And then there’s also the willingness to let yourself be boring or let the story be boring, which is a huge part of what I wrestled with when I was thinking about what it meant to write about recovery—because I very much wanted not to write that kind of addiction memoir. For so many addiction memoirs, recovery is a boring afterthought—flatter than all of the dysfunction that came before it. I wanted recovery to be alive and rich and just as complicated and exciting. But I also wanted to honor the ways that sometimes there was dullness and tedium in my story.
PARKER: I found reading about those mornings of yours where the same things happen again and again so gripping and harrowing.
JAMISON: I love reading the small minutiae of how people get through their day—how they wake up again and pull themselves together and pull it off. Some people write so beautifully about depression, and they take you inside of the bleakness in a way that feels charged and electric rather than flat. So much of the truth lives in those little instances, like changing your apron at the beginning of a 7 a.m. bakery shift, or trying to get the ice off your car windshield in the middle of Iowa in winter.
PARKER: Alcohol is so woven into how we view romance and sex and passion.
JAMISON: Absolutely. I always viewed myself as someone in control, or not as a reckless person. I played by the rules. I think it had a lot to do with being a pleaser, like we talked about. Part of what booze did for me was just open up this other side of me that could be more wild and do some things that I wasn’t supposed to do. I could let loose, with men, with sex, and nights could feel full of possibility, and I wasn’t sure where things were going to end up. Sometimes it didn’t work out that well, but I loved it. One of my big questions about sobriety and recovery was, “What will passion or possibility or that kind of electricity feel like without alcohol?” It’s been fascinating to see how that’s played out. There’s a moment in the book where I write about starting to get involved with somebody I met in recovery and drinking black coffee and going on these hikes at five in the morning, and it felt like the opposite of being in a dim, candlelit bar. But there was something exciting about how different it felt to be totally awake and present and in touch with my own nervousness and feel the thrill of the question, “What do I want from this person? What does this person want from me?” There was something that ended up feeling really raw-nerved about sober romance in a good way.
PARKER: I do wonder what it would be like to write about a carnal, wild love affair that didn’t include any reference to alcohol, food, or weather. It would be really hard!
JAMISON: When you write about passion, do you find yourself going to those other realms of physical experience or physical desire?
PARKER: Every time I’ve written about sex, it’s always surprising to me how fluent I’ve felt. I didn’t feel the need to censor. It can be so telling about a person. And that’s how I feel about love scenes in movies, too. It’s a really good opportunity to say something new when everyone generally ends up making the same noises. Sex is so human, and it can be really revealing. One of my favorite things I wrote was about having sex with somebody, and they went to get a Coca-Cola and spit it in my mouth. I didn’t intend for it to be quite so explicit, but it came out really easily.
JAMISON: Some part of me still feels a level of nervousness or discomfort on setting out to write a sex scene. But sometimes it just feels like the most important way of getting at some kind of truth. There’s a sex scene in the book where I write about breaking up with my boyfriend and having sex right afterward. There was that sense of deep intimacy that comes from knowing that something is ending, or that this might be the last time—as it turns out, it wasn’t the end of anything [laughs], but at that moment, it felt like it was. Writing about the sex was somehow necessary to evoke that particular emotional place of how your connection to something can be sharpest right at that moment when you’re leaving it.
PARKER: There’s also the question for recovery books about how much you’re writing to help other people. Did that occur to you at all?
JAMISON: One of the things I like about recovery is that it doesn’t try to pretend that the act of helping other people is always altruistic. Recovery is very real about the fact that when I help other people, I’m trying to help myself. I think sometimes there can be some shame attached to that, like, if you help other people, it should just be about them. But of course, that’s not actually how human beings—at least in my opinion—operate. It would be asking people to be generous and never have a single feeling of self-satisfaction about that generosity.
PARKER: We were talking before about the importance of structure—about having walls to bounce around inside of. How did you find the structure for this book?
JAMISON: A huge part was finding that structure, because I knew from very early on what I wanted to be in the book. I wanted it to have some of my own story; I wanted it to have the stories of other people, especially creative people who got sober and how their sobriety impacted that creativity; I wanted it to have stories that worked in a chorus you’d find in a meeting. The question was how to get all that material into a book that has some kind of architecture to it.
PARKER: Writing is a true time capsule, right? Somebody can read this book in 30 years or whatever, and they’ll be taken back to the moments when you experience XYZ. You can transport someone somewhere else in whatever ship or whatever magic carpet you choose. There are so many little details in your writing—like in The Empathy Exams, those times in the doctor’s office with that pillow on your stomach—that make me feel like I was really right there.
JAMISON: I’m drawn as a reader to writing that’s physical and visceral and concrete with sensory details. When I wrote about what I’d eaten for breakfast, or where my friends went on a Friday night, or the specific way that the dust felt on the hill in the cross-country course that we ran in high school, those specific textures take me back into the experiences and their emotional dimension. Those details in personal writing are worth finding. They’re there, in everyone’s life.
PARKER: What are your thoughts on the response? I feel like you often call attention to your own weaknesses and mistakes even before a reader could call them out.
JAMISON: I’m always going to say every bad thing about me before you can say it first. It’s like taking the arrows out of your quiver. To a certain extent, the trust-fall of writing is that you have to be willing to let people have whatever reaction they have to what you wrote, and to know that you can’t control it and that some of those reactions aren’t going to be the reactions you want. Or they’re going to misunderstand you or hate you. After publishing The Empathy Exams, there were many good responses to that book. But there were also lots of people who hated the narrator of that book, or felt that she was privileged or precious or self-conscious. All those things.
PARKER: Has anybody ever said anything that’s stuck to you?
JAMISON: Once, at a college in Idaho, I was reading a piece in The Empathy Exams about living in Nicaragua and staying in this house where there was a boy who was homeless who was sleeping outside the house. I wrote about stepping past him, rather than inviting him into the house. I was thinking about what my obligation was to that boy, what it meant that I just let him sleep outside rather than offering him a place to stay. The piece is so much about processing guilt. After the reading, a guy raised his hand and asked, “Why didn’t you let that boy into your home?” It was like he was saying, “You can have all the self-consciousness and self-interrogation in the world, but it’s not going to let you off the hook.”
PARKER: But then there would be no piece. You were writing about guilt. The only reason he knows that whole experience exists is through your willingness to examine what we all do. It’s the same as when we walk by a homeless person who is asking for money.
JAMISON: But what I appreciated about the guy in Idaho was the way he was basically saying that I hadn’t won him over, or completely exonerated myself just by being super self-conscious about the episode. There was something that felt really important about that to me. The point about this whole writing thing isn’t that if you interrogate yourself rigorously enough, then everybody will have to concede that you’re actually a great person and that everything you’ve done wrong has been redeemed by your self-awareness about it. I think he was saying, “Your self-awareness hasn’t won me over.” Ultimately, you have to accept that every single person who reads your work is going to have their own distinct idea of its life in their mind. And you can’t control what that life is.
MARY-LOUISE PARKER IS AN EMMY-, TONY-, AND GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD–WINNING ACTRESS AND AUTHOR BASED IN NEW YORK.