Crime, Punishment & Recovery

Book Review by Carla H.

Photos by Andre Benz and Christopher Burns

The Recovering is a fascinating read for people who are and are not in recovery. The author has been to Harvard, Yale, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and now directs a graduate program at Columbia University. She covers who goes to recovery, who goes to prison, and the stories that divide us; her own journey; and famously alcoholic writers who tried recovery and mostly relapsed.

Those who think the disease of alcoholism doesn’t apply to them

I mention the author’s academic history and current position to support my belief she wrote this book to reach and affect “elites” everywhere, those who went to “good” schools and have good jobs, who may think the diseases of alcoholism and addiction don’t apply to them or their families, and to those who think the poor, people of color, and those of different cultural or economic status deserve punishment instead of treatment and recovery. These are the most powerful aspects of The Recovering. Author Leslie Jamison builds a strong case that society punishes those it sees as criminal (addicts) but helps rehabilitate those with the disease of alcoholism.

Plenty of writers imbibed to devastating effect without recovering

The stories that societies tell themselves about addicts and alcoholics are starkly different, in terms of race, gender and economic status. The vivid imagery never obscures the details of recovery, which makes for an engaging, effortless read. These sections felt almost like a women’s meeting. She doesn’t stint on the recurring dangers drinking put her in, damaging her relationships with men, employers, and writing. She discusses what “story” means for those of us in recovery versus “story” for those who are learning and attempting to be published writers. The differences are worth mentioning because so often writers are encouraged and urged to be original, avoid clichés, and achieve the unique in voice and story. Ms. Jamison catalogues and explains why commonality of story is so critical in recovery. She struggled with it, and as a newcomer so did I.

Interspersed with her story are the stories of famous authors, known in part for their debilitating drinking, including Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Stephen King, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry,
Jean Rhys, David Foster Wallace; and Billie Holiday, co-author of Lady Sings the Blues. She also notes a few writers I didn’t know—Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend; George Cain, author of Blueschild Baby; and poets John Berryman and Louise Bishop. Plenty of English-speaking writers have imbibed to devastating effect and used drugs habitually without recovering. I’m not sure why she picked these particular writers. But each story is telling and moving. The author’s note says she’s changed names, genders, and particulars in the book, as she writes, “One of my highest priorities … was preserving the anonymity of the people I was writing about.” She has what it takes to carry a message, and I’m all for it. This is a great read.

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