The Delusion of Objectivity: Talking with Leslie Jamison


In preparation for writing this introduction and conducting this interview with author Leslie Jamison, I spent an embarrassing number of hours scouring the Internet in what I imagined would culminate in me possessing a complete inventory of the reviews, essays, and even Instagram posts hashtagged with her name and the title of her debut essay collection, The Empathy Exams. From there, I could make an Excel spreadsheet containing adjectives used to describe the work, nouns proclaiming Leslie herself a variety of earned superlatives, and—the most challenging column of all­­—the one where I would deposit all of the multi-layered metaphors deployed in praise of a book that was unprecedented, not only in its massive commercial success but in the cultural moment it produced. Armed with this inventory, I could at last deliver the most clever and original insight to date about Leslie and her body of work in the context of our interview about The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, a hybrid work of memoir, reporting, and cultural analysis of addiction. Like many of my creative plans, it was an inevitably and comically doomed exercise in futility. I just know far too many ways to be inadequate at describing significance, scope, and brilliance.

But I’m fairly decent at describing things that I saw someone or something do and so I can tell you about the first time I saw Leslie Jamison do something. It is sort of hard to say when you “met” someone in Alcoholics Anonymous because of one of its signature rituals that is so corny that some people are shocked to find out it is totally real: The person who is going to talk says, “Hi, I’m [Name] and I’m an alcoholic” and without missing a beat, the whole room replies “Hi [Name]!” in unison and remarkable enthusiasm for how often its done. But anyway, it was a Saturday morning at 8 a.m. in 2011 in a church nursery at a meeting comprised of mostly middle-aged women. At twenty-five, seeing another young person in that particular meeting, and at any meeting really, was thrilling in the same way hearing your own language while traveling in a foreign country is thrilling: an entirely ordinary part of your identity becomes suddenly more visible and a potential liability by virtue of its scarcity and thus expands your openness to seeing a stranger as one of your own kind.

I’m not going to share what was shared in those meetings, because it wouldn’t be my place, I really can’t remember them especially well, and as Leslie notes in this book, they are in many ways all intentionally and quite miraculously the same story. What I can remember is that every time someone shared their story and then opened it up to the group to talk about, at some point in Leslie’s responses, she would always some variation of, “Something I really loved that you said was” or “I just love the way you described” and then would repeat word-for-word a phrase, fragments, or sometimes a complete and fairly complicated sentence that the speaker had just shared. That might sound to some like a kind but fairly minimal gesture but in the context of those spaces, it was one of the most generous habits I ever witnessed or experienced. To repeat back someone’s exact words from stories built from fractured and shameful memories, painful losses, and then reconstituted aloud in a community that even the most diehard AA evangelists will admit is a destination of last resort offers both solid proof that someone was listening and a strong case that what you said was at the very least coherent: the rants and run-ons and prolonged, flailing metaphors we are afraid we share would be much harder to commit to memory. To repeat someone’s exact words is a direct and definitive way of affirming that the words were worth saying at all; it is a rare and peculiar grace to be given that answer without having to ask the question.

I read The Recovering after being out of AA for longer than the three years I was in it and coming up on the five years that I drank alcoholically and found reflected back those familiar traces of my younger self and of the sense of home that the recovery community had given me. Leslie has mapped onto these pages the thickness of the air you breathe in addiction, the distinctive ambience of bars and church basements alike, and she has rendered a story that maintains eye contact for its entire duration, never straying beyond that narrow, delicate boundary where it offers the mercy of answers that never force you to ask the question.


The Rumpus: You write in the first chapter, “When I told people I was writing a book about addiction and recovery, I often saw their eyes glaze over. Oh, that book, they seemed to say, I’ve already read that book,” and that preemptive assumption of what a book about addiction is came up a lot. I did wonder why, in the wake of the huge success of The Empathy Exams, when you were in a position to do any number of totally experimental, off-the-wall books about, like, taking the moon hostage. What was it that made you feel that this was the moment for the addiction and recovery book?

Leslie Jamison: Part of what felt exciting about The Empathy Exams hitting a nerve, I could smuggle this project that I had been excited about and conceiving of for a while, even if it was at that point a pretty expansive mess and to actually get people to sign off on it in a way that they never would have otherwise. I had the conception for what I wanted this book to be very early on but it was entirely unrealistic in a professional sense. Nobody was going to give an unknown writer free rein to either write a straight addiction memoir or with my story because my story is totally narratively unremarkable. Or to write the kind of wild hybrid that I knew I wanted to write. It was my story, the stories of these writers, stories of ordinary people, and the cultural story of addiction in America. So there was there was something that felt nice to me almost directing such cynical industry impulses as a force for good that nobody expected to be successful at all and then to make a place for another kind of book that nobody expects to be successful at all.

Rumpus: As you went into these archives and chose the writers you explore most thoroughly in the book, did you have a sense of why some were more magnetic to you than others? I don’t know if I’d refer to it as them “calling to you” necessarily but ultimately, was there something that was that was drawing your attention in these directions?

Jamison: In terms of why I was drawn to particular writers, they became somehow meaningful to me but the reasons they became meaningful were very different. Some I engaged with and idealized and mythologized when I was young and wanted to be a writer and starting to write and part of that was the geography of Iowa City and the fact all writers has passed through Iowa City and I was engaging with their work when I lived there. But also engaging with them as people who had come of age as writers in the same place I was coming of age as the writer. So that was the bond for some of them: for Denis Johnson, for Raymond Carver, and for John Berryman.

Jean Rhys was a writer that I fell in love with when I was in my early twenties and was still very attached to as someone with a certain relationship to pain and she writes about it as a kind of generative, affective state. And so when I was writing the book about addiction recovery like ten years after I’d first fallen in love with Rhys, I started to see what the context of her life which was pretty unrestrained drinking right until the end. It’s like, impossible how much she drank and for how long and what she did in her body. It started to seem really important not just to have, you know, the story of a woman as a of major thread in the book but also to have the story of somebody who didn’t get sober, who didn’t even really try to get sober. Including her was part of my fight against the idea of a single kind of addiction story or a simple kind of recovery story. And so she became a sort of counterpoint to the reformation story or the conversion story. It was important to have stories that went all different ways and had all different kinds of endings.

Rumpus: For how long this book is, you barely scratched the surface of literary drunks.

Jamison: Part of the experience of writing this book was being reminded at every turn of how incomplete it was. Because whenever people ask what I was writing about, in addition to sometimes getting the glazed look, I would be asked, “Are you writing about Cheever? What about Burroughs? Bukowski?” I was like “Eh, not them,” and it was forcing me constantly to reckon with a painful part about writing a book and finishing a book: no matter how much you write or how good a job you do, that it’s always going to be incomplete in some way. There’s always going to be some boundary around what it says and a whole set of things that it doesn’t say and doesn’t explore and you have to just make peace with that.

Rumpus: I wouldn’t call it incomplete. I don’t think anyone no would mistake this project as a failed attempt at being encyclopedic about the most notable literary drunks in history.

Jamison: When I use the word “incomplete,” it is because I want to redeem it from being a pejorative word by saying that every text is incomplete and that’s fine.

Rumpus: Do you feel like that incompleteness emerged from another sort of cultural location and moment? Like, you can almost witness the scope of your project expanding as the narrative unfolds.

Jamison: I had sort of started an investigation of the relationship between sobriety and creativity but then other strands started to assert themselves. Fairly early on, I realized I didn’t just want to be engaging with the stories of famous people, I also wanted to be engaging with ordinary people who are also storytellers and the way that recovery turns everyone into a storyteller. I knew that I wanted to have this reporting component of the book at a certain point. I felt that any consideration of addiction narratives was incomplete if it wasn’t thinking about these very different kinds of narratives that get told about addiction in the bulk of the American public imagination. It wasn’t part of my initial conception that in a book like that I was going to write about the War on Drugs or Nixon and Reagan or the narratives of the War on Drugs, the crack epidemic, the phenomenon of “crack mothers.” But all of those things are actually deeply related to the question of storytelling and how telling stories shapes our sense of what addiction is, which is at the core of the book.

Although what was great with discovering that many of those writers’ drunken legends, that had somehow formed a prior version of myself around, that many of them had gotten sober, tried to get sober, and I became very interested in that second act of theirs as well both in their lives and in their work. And then there were other writers like David Foster Wallace that I had very little relationship with before I got sober and very little of the kind of space… Infinite Jest existed in my mind as a kind of cultural signifier rather than as an actual word of art. That was a novel I read. Nine months sober. And it really did end up being an important part of my sobriety because it was both interrogating 12-step recovery and kind of illuminating a lot of the absurdity and intensity of 12-step recovery but also, really, to me, at least as a reader, articulating so much of what was due for recovery. At that point in my recovery I very much needed that doubleness. I needed a voice that was both interrogating and affirming what could be found in those spaces.

Can I turn that question around?

Rumpus: Sure.

Jamison: So much of the structure of your book is about the methodical construction of a personal mythology and exploring why and how various other public lives have meant something to you or have played some role in your own identity formation. I’m curious if you approached it as using yourself as a kind of a personal narrator to describe these public lives or using those public lives to somehow refract back or illuminate something about yourself? It could have been both; I guess I’m just curious about what you found compelling about lives in conversation rather than doing cultural criticism absent of you? And did you view yourself as a sort of subject narrator or were the women figures in your book being used to somehow eliminate yourself?

Rumpus: So I have a very Protestant approach to writing in that I believe that everything I write should be in the service of other people.

I also feel like I let the scope of areas I wrote about get really scattered and so have found it useful to ask myself constantly to return to a very simple purpose in all of it and I’ve decided that purpose is to make people feel less alone. I mean that in the sense of both sharing thoughts, sorrows, and feelings about ourselves and other people but also in the sense that we all come from somewhere. We have all inherited certain identities from birth and then taken on new ones from that moment on. We did not sprout fully formed from the earth this morning. And so with cultural criticism, I often encountered this reverence for subjectivity. I was talking to the writer Briallen Hopper about how much we reward the acknowledgement of emotion or even humanity in many creative or intellectual pursuits and she said, “People conceive of true genius as some sort of free-floating, disembodied excellence” and that’s really stuck with me. So I read work by Chuck Klosterman that makes it seem like he just dropped in from outer space on Britney Spears, observes her, speaks to her, and then rips her to shreds in a number of ways as if he was simply reconstituting the data collection and concluding something true—when really, he chose to deny or omit the fact that for every day of his entire life, he was having experiences that were leading up to that day and that encounter that made him have the reactions and perceptions he did.

I wanted to be of the most service to people who don’t know me but with whom I might have shared experiences of both witnessing cruelty in celebrity culture and experiencing cruelty in their own lives by sort of introducing myself via this third character of the celebrity that they do know in a way. These women I cared about were the entry point for me telling them, “You see how they did this to her? It’s hyper magnified and so evident here. Like, what you’re experiencing you know at a micro level is no less painful it’s just far less visible and less validated because you’re not Angelica Huston, you’re not Britney Spears. But what the world was doing to them are things that the world’s been doing to you much more quietly.”

Jamison: There is this shaming that happens when somebody who is ostensibly writing a profile or writing a piece of cultural criticism or writing a piece of reportage brings himself or herself into the piece. Honestly, obviously much of it to herself because this is a really gendered kind of criticism. It’s seen as narcissistic or self-involved because it is supposed to be a piece about something else and you’re making it a piece about you. But so often, I think precisely the opposite is true. There is a kind of self-absorption in refusing to confess subjectivity, confess bias, and confess that all the days of your life were leading up to a particular encounter with a cultural figure in a way. In refusing to confess those things and acting as if, by leaving yourself out, you are actually leaving yourself out.

Of course you never are. The writer is always in the piece. There can be a way that massive amounts of self-involvement get masked by the delusion of objectivity or absenting.

Rumpus: When people criticize my work that way, saying, “You’re making their art about yourself!” I sort of laugh it off and say, “That art is about myself.” If that artist or that writer or poet or painter wanted it to be just about them, they would have written it in a journal or they would have hung it on a wall in their home. I think artists get sort of flummoxed when the audience that they don’t want to be relating to them does or when they feel like they’ve lost control of the narrative or that their message or identity is getting lost.

I wondered how you felt about this for a few reasons. One is that you write in this book how this plays out in the context of sharing stories in AA meetings:

But the flip side of communion’s humility, being willing to say I’m not the only one, is the danger of assumption or conflation: I’ve felt what you’ve felt. It’s so satisfying to acknowledge what’s shared that it can become its own temptation—to insist on commonality everywhere.

The second is that it reminded me of a piece you wrote in 2014 after The Empathy Exams had really exploded and you were inundated with so many letters where people shared their own stories and what a gift it was but also that the sheer volume made it impossible to respond. You wrote:

When they confessed things to me, these strangers were offering something but they were also asking for something. They were asking for the subject of the book itself: empathy. They wanted an enactment of its central principle, its primary call: to pay attention. Even when they didn’t say they wanted this, I felt I owed it to them.

I wonder how you deal with that now and in the context of another book that is fundamentally about storytelling in community but that also cautions against assuming too much of a shared experience?

Jamison: When somebody does that in relation to my own work I don’t experience that as, like, deprivation or kind of distorting or refocusing. If somebody responds to my work in terms of their own lives or in terms of how it is kind of where it hit them in their lives, like, I love that. I don’t have a response like it’s about ME not about YOU and I don’t really believe in a finite economy of “aboutness.” I think something can be about many things at once. And so I generally am really fascinated by the way people articulate, either in public forums or to me personally or in a letter, how this particular piece of writing resonated in such a different life than my own; to me that just makes the work bigger and in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. It also exposes my work to me as something surprising. And that experience of surprise is often really exciting because I think especially when you’ve spent a long time working on this or putting it out in the world, it can go a little bit stale, it can feel like these are the well-worn grooves of the piece of writing I’ve done. And so it can actually feel kind of liberating to feel that surprise of somebody revealing the work back in their own lives.

Rumpus: I guess I just wonder how you deal with readers who identify so profoundly that it moves them to quite explicitly say that they need something from you and they actually request it, like specific kinds of help or friendship or healing? And honestly, I’m kind of asking for myself because I don’t know how to manage it and you’re dealing with it at a scale I can’t even conceive of.

Jamison: For me it’s kind of gradual and ragged and I don’t think I have liked a good clear-cut philosophy about it. But I had this really wonderful experience with the writer Barry Lopez. I read this essay he wrote called “Sliver of Sky” which was in Harper’s and it was about the experience of being abused when he was a child. I wrote to him about it and said I thought it was beautiful and an example of what I think personal narrative can do, how it can find meaning in experience without resolving it too neatly and he wrote me a really beautiful reply. And then I replied to his reply; this was like many years ago. And he wrote another reply when he basically said, “Thank you so much. I’m glad the work meant something to you but I can’t be in correspondence with you.” At the time, I was a little bit hurt by it, not because I didn’t think he was within his rights but I just wanted him to find my letters so special and so articulate that he wanted to keep engaging with me. I look back and I feel like it was such a great gift that he gave because he was essentially modeling that he was totally generous, totally engaged, but also just drawing a boundary about what was and wasn’t possible for him. So he really gave me a kind of talisman or amulet that I could carry with me in the years to come.

Another friend of mine told me something really helpful, which was basically that I should just remember that I’ve already given people something by putting this writing out into the world. I loved that it made me feel like there had been something useful about putting it out in the world. I really strongly identify with that idea of wanting the world to be useful. And that if we’ve worked to really be in service of questions that have preoccupied us, it stands to reason that other people are preoccupied by them as well and they hope that the work sort of speaks to their relationship to those questions.

Rumpus: So apologies for the sort of high school newspaper question, but when did you know that you wanted to be a writer? I promise there’s a relatively good reason that I want to know.

Jamison: I mean, it’s sounds cheesy to say but I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer, like I’ve always had a pretty strong sense. I just always knew that I loved telling stories and that that basic activity always felt primal to me. I felt like some part of my self resided in that act.

Rumpus: So since knowing you felt you were meant to be a writer from early on and well before you were drinking, were there other locations of identity or thematic fixations that you zeroed in on?

Jamison: I do feel like I’ve always felt it is very hard to tell a story in which nothing goes wrong. So I think there is a way in which thinking about pain or damage or loss or trauma or disruption as narrative engines is, you know, a fact that it’s not entirely accurate but I can also see the way that even my very young writing was… almost like there was something a bit compulsive or addictive about the way that I just wanted to attach myself to pain as a kind of heat force, in a way. It’s in this book, but I remember we had projects in tenth grade where we wrote stories in response to works of art that other tenth graders had made and that the work of art I got was some kind of abstract, impressionist red swirl painting. And I told the narrative about, like, I know somebody in a wheelchair who died in a house fire.

Rumpus: I actually laughed out loud at that part because I feel like everyone kind of knows that kid or was that kind of kid.

Jamison: Yeah, and I think there was both a genuine curiosity at play in taking stories to those dark places and really trying to wonder about what it would be like to live through difficult things. But there’s also something about wanting people to have the most powerful experience of your work and thinking the more painful it is, the more powerful it will be. So I’ve grown deeply suspicious of that part of myself as well. The way that I was sort of drawn to darkness as a source of charge or potential for that kind of narrative authority or power and some of that suspicion is what I’m interrogating and trying to break open in the book.

Rumpus: I wonder, too, how those fixations change as we take on new identities or grow suspicious of our existing ones. And so, you recently became a mother and I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was twenty-seven but I have no memory from my entire life when I didn’t feel like becoming a mother was the thing I was ultimately meant for. And then one day I found myself realizing that the writers I most wanted to emulate or hope to build on the legacy of were Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion and that none of them ever gave birth. And I don’t mean they didn’t become mothers or that by not having had this value-neutral physical experience that they had creative properties particular to that absence. It was just this thing I noticed that I know is totally illogical and superstitious and as a kid I was similarly fixated on identifying patterns and sameness, so I sought out evidence that being left-handed kept me in the company of geniuses.

Jamison: One thing that is interesting to me about those particular writers is seeing the ways in which the maternal impulse or the specter of the maternal impulse did feel like something in their work was moved towards them. Obviously Joan Didion was a mother and that became a big part of her work. With Mary Gaitskill, I feel like so much of her latest writing has been about what it feels like to be accountable to another and that, to me, is almost where her work is the most interesting, that her latest work is fascinated by this condition that she was never inside of.

Rumpus: I recognized a lot of my fixation on it in the way you grappled with imagining what being sober would do to your creativity. I read it less as a fear of losing something very particular and more about struggling to conceive of what it would feel like or not feel like to experience that change.

Jamison: I mean, there are huge ways that my sense of my own being has systematically changed since I gave birth to my daughter but I also I also feel very strongly that, wherever you go, there you are. I am fully myself. Something I really want to write about birth in particular is C-sections and how so much of our language and imagery and moralizing around them tries to communicate that the birth of your child was not actually real. I think there are these ways that the actual experience of childbirth does become part of your self-conception so I’m interested in how different kinds of childbirth might constitute women in different ways.

I’m sure it happens differently for everyone but having a child made me feel everything expanded rather than shut. There’s a way in which I feel like it’s going to be extraordinary for my life as a writer in terms of the kind of consciousness and inquiry. There are practical things that are now more logistically tricky about my life as a writer but in every other kind of spiritual way, it will expand things. For the next book I write, I want to go different archives of writers and artists and activists and all different kinds of women and hunt around for traces of the intersection between the domestic life and work, particularly the work of motherhood and other kinds of care work.

I am so fascinated with how Shirley Jackson conceived of “The Lottery” while her like toddler within a playpen in the kitchen. Or like Marilynne Robinson writing Housekeeping when her son was two and her notebooks being full of shopping lists and his little jammy fingerprints. Then that idea of how the work of art happens alongside and kind of contained within and in conversation with the work of caregiving. It’s really fascinating to me and I kind of want to look at how it actually plays out in different women’s lives.

Rumpus: I want to return to this book’s interest in cataloging the many ways of describing the experience like, “it’s tyrannical enough to summon shame” or the AA sort of definition which is realizing “our lives had become unmanageable.” You have so many of these. But then you also want definitions to have meaning and say you are “weary of attributing addiction so broadly it ceases to mean anything but compulsively desiring something capable of causing harm” and that you “wish we could invoke that universality not to render the boundaries of addiction utterly porous but to humanize those under its thrall.” It is something that made me think of your story about teaching poetry about injuries to undergrads and how everyone wanted physical suffering to mean something. You wrote, “My workshop was thinking everything must be a metaphor for something else: the cut lines on raw gums, the self-quieting sparkle of anesthesia. But in truth, nothing was a metaphor for anything. It was more or less this happened, and it hurt. There was nothing below the surface.” It feels related to the idea in this book that you challenge about how all addiction stories much necessarily follow an arc and end in redemption. I wonder, is there any tension between making a case that an experience of suffering like addiction does require a meaningful definition and the insistence that an experience of suffering like physical pain does not require any meaning beyond its own existence?

Jamison: Part of the desire to revisit the project defining addiction was also a desire to destabilize that project. Anytime you do something six different times in six different ways, each one of those definitions is a little bit less stable than if it had only the one definition. It all stems from a desire to honor the multiplicity both of narratives of what addiction looks like but also multiple kind of articulations of the fugue state inside of actually trying to figure it out. That felt like one of the biggest ethical projects of the book. It was to try to conjure multiplicity rather than pinning it down. This multiplicity was meant to show that no one has a monopoly on what the definition is or what it feels like to live inside of it.


Author photograph © Beowulf Sheehan.

Alana Massey is a writer and editor covering identity, culture, virtue, and vice. She wrote the book All the Lives I Want, and hopes you like it. Her writing appears in Elle, the Atlantic, the Guardian, New York Magazine, VICE, The New Republic, Pacific Standard, BuzzFeed, The New Inquiry, and more. She lives in the Catskills where she writes, reads, drinks champagne, and listens to pop music. More from this author →