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.
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.