Book Reviews & Essays

Equipment for Living

Michael Pollan and Leslie Jamison, Sober and Intoxicated

A version of this article was originally published June 5, 2018 in The Nation

In December of 1934, an unemployed stockbroker named Bill Wilson checked himself into Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He had a habit of consuming more than two quarts of whiskey per day, and his wife had implored him to get help. The doctor gave Wilson an extract of belladonna, a plant with hallucinogenic properties, which at the time was an experimental treatment for alcoholism. That afternoon, the “room blazed with an indescribably white light,” Wilson later wrote. A vision of a mountain came to him. “I stood upon its summit where a great wind blew…. Then came the blazing thought, ‘you are a free man.’”

Bill Wilson never drank again. He went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous, the grassroots organization that has helped millions of people achieve and sustain sobriety. The story of Wilson’s spiritual awakening figures prominently in AA mythology. The part about the preceding drug dose does not.

Wilson’s dabbling in psychedelics—including later experiments with LSD—comes up in two new books: Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, a memoir of drinking and quitting intertwined with literary and cultural criticism, and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, an exploration of the awesome powers of psychedelics to enrich human consciousness. Many other authors have covered similar ground, but Pollan and Jamison bring to bear singular gifts. They are, in some ways, very different writers: Pollan is at heart a journalist oriented toward the world; Jamison, trained as a fiction writer, is drawn to her own psyche for material. But both deftly synthesize research and their own experiences into finely crafted narratives that give new life to these familiar themes.

These authors approach mind-altering substances from apparently opposite perspectives. Jamison shows how they can destroy lives and how to escape their thrall; Pollan focuses on their potential to transform lives for the better. As the story of Bill Wilson suggests, however, unexpected connections arise between the two books. Taking drugs and recovering are not always as incompatible as they seem.

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Leslie Jamison came to widespread attention in 2014 with the publication of her essay collection The Empathy Exams. The essays mined episodes from Jamison’s life—her abortion, her heart surgery, the time she was punched in the nose by a guy on the street in Nicaragua—for insights into suffering and what it means to try to feel the pain of others. The collection also included journalistic pieces; for one, she spent time with sufferers of a disease called Morgellons, which causes its victims to believe they have mysterious fibers emerging from their skin. Jamison sought not simply to extol empathy but to grapple with its limits and vanities. As one representative sentence put it, “empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.”

Jamison, who had previously published a novel, The Gin Closet, was hailed as an heir to Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, and The Empathy Exams is undeniably impressive. Nearly every page is dense with insight, expressed in tautly constructed sentences. Sometimes reading it feels like sitting in on a therapy session with a hyper-introspective, hyper-articulate patient—an appraisal some might interpret, but I don’t intend, as pejorative. But it has shortcomings common to many essay collections. While the volume is ostensibly knit together by the themes of pain and empathy, some pieces, such as a brief account of a trip to a writers’ conference, feel like filler. The book can also come across as overly performative. It is easier to admire than to enjoy.

The Recovering covers some of the same autobiographical territory as The Empathy Exams. We hear again about Jamison’s abortion, her heart surgery, the time she was punched in the face by a guy on the street in Nicaragua. We’re back on the couch with the consummate analysand. (“I wanted to be loved because I deserved it. Except I was scared to be loved like this, because what if I stopped deserving it? Unconditional love was insulting, but conditional love was terrifying.”) Yet this time, the vignettes and self-scrutiny are presented in a more straightforward memoir, fleshed out with context and with the narrative propulsion that chronology bestows. Her prose, meanwhile, has become looser, freer, and funnier.

The humor often comes at her own expense. While working a post-college job at a bed-and-breakfast, she sneaks wine intended for the guests. “I never thought of this as drinking on the job, although strictly speaking—or really any way of speaking—it was,” she writes. Elsewhere, she recounts anticipating reactions the first time she told her story at an AA meeting. “People would compliment my story or the way I’d told it, and I’d demur, Well, I’m a writer, shrugging, trying not to make too big a deal out of it.” Instead, midway through her earnest account, a half-senile old-timer interrupts, “This is boring!”

Perhaps part of the reason he found her story boring is that there was no obvious trauma or other hardship that led her to the balm of booze. Her alcoholism was almost tautological: She needed to drink because she needed to drink. Starting at the University of Iowa, where she enrolled in the MFA program; then in New Haven, where she moved for a PhD program in English at Yale; and then back in Iowa, with some travel to Central America along the way, “Intoxication had become the feeling I was most interested in having.”

Nor were there any catastrophic consequences for Jamison. She maintained loving relationships with her family. She published a novel and continued to amass fancy credentials. During this time, she had a long-term relationship with a fellow grad student, and while her drinking caused tension, their relationship was relatively stable for years before they amicably separated. A recent profile of her in New York magazine was titled “Where’s the Train Wreck?”

Why, then, did Jamison need to quit? It was, she suggests, a matter of sovereignty over herself. “My shame about drinking wasn’t mainly about embarrassment at what I did when I was drunk,” she writes; “it was about how much I wanted to get drunk in the first place.” She drank because she needed to drink; she quit for the same reason.

Into the story of her addiction and recovery, Jamison weaves those of others, especially writers like Charles Jackson, John Berryman, Denis Johnson, and Jean Rhys. She also pays attention to noncelebrities: women convicted on drug charges in Arizona and forced to work on a chain gang in the extreme heat; alcoholics who spent time in a ragtag recovery center called Seneca House. The idea, she explains, is that all of these stories will collectively bear some resemblance to an AA meeting.

Through these stories, Jamison explores how addiction gets refracted through race and gender. White male alcoholic writers have often been lauded as tortured geniuses. White women are typically denied that status, but their substance use does often get them cast as wounded and interesting. People of color with substance-use issues, by contrast, are more likely to be depicted as criminals than as victims. These general observations are not new, but Jamison’s critique adds depth and nuance: “The crack mother was the negative image of the addict genius: She wasn’t someone whose dependence fueled her creative powers. She was someone whose dependence meant she’d failed to create the way she was supposed to.”

While this taxonomy shows how our culture divides addicts, AA meetings, in Jamison’s account, work a reverse alchemy: They bring together people of different demographics and classes. As a graduate student at Yale, Jamison finds herself at meetings with homeless men and sorority girls. In AA, social background seems to lose some salience, as does individuality. In the stories that make up the heart of the meetings, the parallels stand out to fellow AA members much more than the differences.

As a writer who had always been taught to prize originality, Jamison initially chafes against this emphasis on sameness. She wants her contribution to shine. She also cringes at the frequently invoked catchphrases: “Feelings aren’t facts” or “Sometimes the solution has nothing to do with the problem.” Ultimately, however, she comes to see the value of both of these aspects of AA. Clichés, she realizes, can serve the same purpose as mantras or prayers; their familiarity is a source of solace. They point to another way in which the individual can recede. “You weren’t responsible for what got said, because you were all parts of a machine bigger than any one of you…. Clichés were the dialect of that machine, its ancient tongue.” As for the repetitiveness of the testimony, Jamison begins to cherish the resemblances between her story and those of others who shared the same struggles and overcame them. “Our stories were valuable because of this redundancy, not despite it.”

In writing The Recovering, Jamison reveals, she wrestled with these challenges: not only how to tell a story that has been told many times before, but how to reconcile her literary impulse for originality with her newfound appreciation for the virtues of clichés and redundancy. Part of her answer is to incorporate this conundrum into her inquiry. She salutes the value of unoriginality but does not embody it. Her analytical sharpness and assiduous attention to words are the very reverse of reaching for the nearest truism.

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A running theme throughout The Recovering is the relationship of alcohol to truth. “In vino veritas was one of the most appealing promises of drinking: that it wasn’t degradation but illumination, that it wasn’t obscuring truth but unveiling it,” Jamison writes. For her, at least, that promise proved illusory. But as Pollan’s book argues, psychedelics really can deliver illumination. While they have acquired associations with visual hallucinations, users overwhelmingly report that they don’t distort reality so much as reveal it for the first time. The other, related hallmark of the psychedelic experience is the dissolution of the ego, the melting of boundaries between the self and the world. These two features make psychedelic trips revelatory, sometimes mystical experiences that can affect their beneficiaries for years.

Pollan’s oeuvre is usually associated with food, but his subject, really, is broader: the intersection of humanity and nature. His second book, A Place of My Own (1997), took on building and architecture: how people convert the planet’s materials into shelter. And now his latest book explores how certain earthly substances can change our consciousness in astonishing ways. (LSD, which we think of as the most “synthetic,” originates in a fungus known as ergot, Pollan reports.)

Pollan always researches his subjects exhaustively and doesn’t shy away from getting his hands dirty, often literally. For his book on architecture, he built a hut in his backyard; for The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he shot a pig. For this book, it was probably inevitable that he would seek to acquire firsthand knowledge of the wonders of psychedelics, although doing so pushed him outside his comfort zone. “I generally prefer to leave my psychic depths undisturbed, assuming they exist,” he writes. Still, he overcame his trepidation to embark on several psychedelic “journeys.”

Pollan has also long demonstrated an enchanting facility with the English language and a knack for conjuring the offbeat characters he encounters in his research and reporting, from Johnny Appleseed to the entrepreneurs of organic farming. As opposed to Jamison’s quotable one-liners, his gifts manifest in a playfulness whose magic accretes over paragraphs. This virtuosity and charisma are less evident in How to Change Your Mind (starting with the title, which is no Omnivore’s Dilemma). Perhaps ironically, given the topic, the writing is more, well, sober. But it is always lucid, and there are parts—such as his portrayal of an eccentric mycologist who considers mushrooms to be a virtual panacea for the world’s ills—where his old mischievous charm reappears.

Pollan starts by reviewing what he calls a “renaissance” in the study of psychedelics. A rich body of research was conducted by scientists in the mid–20th century. But after Timothy Leary famously urged an entire generation to drop acid in the 1960s, and the drug escaped the bounds of the lab, panic ensued. Before long, federal funding dried up for research on these substances, which were now seen as unacceptably subversive.

Starting in the early years of this century, however, the US government began to quietly sanction new research into these drugs. The new studies have corroborated the findings of past work and extended them, revealing the power of psychedelics to ease the fear of dying, to break addictions, to overcome depression, and to occasion spiritual experiences in that part of the population known as “healthy normals.” Crucially, the subjects in these experiments take the drugs under controlled conditions intended to maximize the likelihood of a “good trip.” They do so in comfortable rooms, with vaguely New Age interior design, often lying on couches, wearing eyeshades, and listening to music. Most important, their trips are overseen by trained guides who gently give instructions such as “Trust the trajectory” and “TLO—Trust, Let Go, Be Open.”

Pollan interviews a number of subjects and researchers, and they unanimously rhapsodize about their drug-induced odysseys. A researcher named Bill Richards tells Pollan: “‘Awe,’ ‘glory,’ and ‘gratitude’ were the only words that remained relevant.” Like Jamison, Pollan sometimes winces at the clichés he encounters, though he recognizes that the problem lies partly in the inadequacy of language to capture these ineffable experiences. Sometimes the people providing the reports are themselves self-conscious about this. One researcher wrote: “I have at times been almost embarrassed by them, as if they give voice to a cosmic vision of the triumph of love that one associates derisively with the platitudes of Hallmark cards…. Love conquers all.”

Pollan came of age in the 1970s, in the midst of the LSD backlash, and his exposure to psychedelics was limited to a couple of mild trips on mushrooms. Now approaching 60, he takes a series of trips, all but one under the supervision of underground guides. (He had hoped to participate in a study, but a suspension of research in “healthy normals” eliminated that option.) While apprehensive, he is reassured by his research: Psychedelics are actually very safe; there is no known fatal dose, nor are they addictive.

As we might expect from a writer of Pollan’s caliber, his accounts of his trips largely avoid the generalities and platitudes that characterize the typical descriptions. He tries valiantly to chronicle his experiences with fidelity and specificity. “The word and sense of ‘poignance’ flooded over me during the walk through the garden,” he writes of a mushroom trip. “[O]ne’s usual sense of oneself as a subject observing objects in space—objects that have been thrown into relief and rendered discrete by the apparent void that surrounds them—gave way to a sense of being deep inside and fully implicated in this scene, one more being in relation to the myriad other beings and to the whole.”

Pollan goes on to have more intense experiences at higher doses. He is flooded with love for his family, compassion for various people from his past (his beleaguered fourth-grade music teacher makes an appearance), and gratitude not just for his life but “for the very fact of being, that there is anything whatsoever. Rather than being necessarily the case, this now seemed quite the miracle, and something I resolved never again to take for granted.”

Other than the insights commonly delivered by psychedelics, Pollan arrives at several additional conclusions. He learns that one unusual aspect of the effects of these drugs is their durability. It’s not the chemical reaction that matters; it’s the resulting experience, which, afterward, remarkably, continues to seem legitimate. Users consistently believe, after the chemical has worn off, that they’ve been granted access to great truths, and often the revelations stay with them and change their lives in profound ways. To increase the odds of such outcomes, Pollan comes to believe in the critical importance of a set of rituals, guidelines, and authorities to direct the powerful experiences unleashed by these molecules. Indeed, other societies that sanction the use of psychedelics have typically put such protocols into place. The imperative to do so, he realizes, might have been the key lesson of the 1960s.

Pollan also revises his understanding of the word “spiritual.” He had always associated it with a belief in the supernatural, which he didn’t, and still doesn’t, possess. But his psychedelic excursions showed him the possibility of transcendence that required no faith; it was a matter of seeing and feeling more deeply and of loosening the grip of the ego. “The usual antonym for the word ‘spiritual’ is ‘material,’” he writes. “Now I’m inclined to think a much better and certainly more useful antonym for ‘spiritual’ might be ‘egotistical.’”

Finally, another peculiarity of psychedelics, Pollan shows, is that they often lead their enthusiasts to become evangelical about their potential usefulness for all of humanity. This impulse makes sense, and not just from an altruistic perspective. After all, people convinced of the unity of all beings and the supreme importance of love don’t typically become terrorists or Twitter trolls. “I believe this could revolutionize mental health care,” one researcher tells Pollan, an opinion prevalent among psychedelic researchers.

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For many who are familiar with psychedelics, it is intuitive that they could help ease anxiety about dying and lift depression. Less intuitive is the notion that a drug might hold the key to surmounting addiction. And yet psychedelics seem to hold great promise in that regard as well. The mechanism appears to be a kind of “reboot of the system—a biological control-alt-delete,” one researcher says. A potent experience can shake addicts out of ingrained mental patterns and grant them new flexibility, while putting the cravings of the self into a larger perspective.

Pollan speaks to several participants in a smoking-cessation
 study, which offered cognitive-behavior therapy followed by the administration of psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”). It was a small study, but the results were striking. Six months after their trips, 80 percent of the participants had not resumed the habit. (A year later, this figure had dropped to 67 percent—still better than the results obtained by established methods.) One participant told Pollan: “It put smoking in a whole new context. Smoking seemed very unimportant; it seemed kind of stupid, to be honest.” As for alcoholism, the evidence is similarly intriguing, although more research is needed. In the 1950s through the ’70s, thousands of alcoholics received psychedelic treatment, but many of the studies had flawed designs. A 2012 meta-analysis of the best studies, however, did find a “significant beneficial effect on alcohol misuse” from one dose of LSD, lasting up to six months.

Here we return to the parallels between psychedelics and AA, some of which Pollan notes. Both involve a recognition of a power beyond the self (not necessarily supernatural); both encourage a diminution of the ego and an embrace of connection with others. An integral part of AA is helping others to achieve sobriety, just as the evangelists for psychedelics seek to promote the benefits of these extraordinary molecules.

But, of course, psychedelic trips and the work of a 12-step program are also very different. A trip on mushrooms or LSD is passive: You feel that “the doors of perception,” as Aldous Huxley famously put it (borrowing a line from William Blake), are opening for you. And this state of mind is not sustainable; even if the insights can stay with us, it would not be practical to cry with joy all day as we floss our teeth and drive to work and help our kids with math homework. AA, by contrast, is mundane and involves effort—sometimes very painful effort. It’s about showing up even when you don’t want to. It’s about drinking bad coffee in unpleasantly lit church basements. It’s about going through the motions on the days when you’d really rather knock back a martini or six. It’s about realizing that external actions are sometimes more important than your internal mind-set—and that the former can change the latter. As Jamison beautifully puts it, “Action could coax belief rather than testifying to it.”

A distinction is frequently drawn between religion and spirituality, two different but overlapping spheres. In this context, it seems to me that psychedelics embody a certain form of spirituality—direct access to revelation, a realm where words are both inadequate and unnecessary—while AA typifies religion, meaning a set of rules and rituals performed in the context of a supportive community. In a religion, words are essential: the text of the sacred scriptures (AA’s Big Book, the 12 steps, the sayings) as well as the primary means of communicating with co-religionists (recovery stories).

Perhaps that’s the lesson we can derive from both of these books: We need the epiphanies and the rites, the inward reflection and the community, and perhaps part of the problem with modern life is that these are so often missing. The paths of these two authors may differ, but both offer us some equipment for living in a fuller and more authentic fashion. Psychedelics are not the only route to mystical experience, but they provide an unusually reliable introduction to that state of mind. AA tells its members to acknowledge the limits of their autonomy, to commit to unsparing honesty with themselves, to dedicate their lives to helping others. We could all do worse than to live by these principles—even those of us who can enjoy a single glass of Pinot Grigio and call it a night.

Source: The Nation

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All content copyright © 2004-2018 Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow unless otherwise indicated.