HER LIFE AS A DRINKER

Sarah He­pola spikes darkly hu­mor­ous ‘Black­out: Remembering the Things I Drank to For­get’ with emo­tion

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Amy Gutman Gut­ma­nis the au­thor of two nov­els, “Equiv­o­cal Death” and “The An­niver­sary,” and se­nior fa­cil­i­ta­tor with the Op Ed Pro­ject.

Black­out Remembering the Things I Drank to For­get

Sarah He­pola

Grand Cen­tral: 230 pp., $26

These are per­ilous times for a writer to tackle the sub­ject ofwomen’s drink­ing, en­twined as it’s be­come with the trip­wire top­ics of rape and sex­ual con­sent.

But in her memoir “Black­out: Remembering the Things I Drank to For­get,” Sarah He­pola heads straight for the dan­ger zone. Her story opens with a Paris mag­a­zine as­sign­ment, which is, she as­sures us, “ex­actly as great as it sounds.” That is, un­til it’s not. Her fi­nal co­gnac-in­fused night in the city ends with her wak­ing in a stranger’s bed and no mem­ory of how she got there.

And yet, aware as she is of the fem­i­nist view that this is, by def­i­ni­tion, rape, He­pola can’t quite get there. She’s on top and “mak­ing all the right sounds,” and at the end she weaves her legs through his— an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant. She has no idea who he is, but “he has kind eyes.”

This is just one ex­am­ple of how He­pola re­fuses to un­com­pli­cate the com­pli­cated, one of her memoir’s great­est strengths. Yes, we see the fa­mil­iar re­cov­ery story arc— I drank too much, I hit bot­tom, I found AA — but with it comes a deep dive into the shame, fear and per­fec­tion­ism that tilt so many women to­ward de­fi­ant self-de­struc­tion with the goal of an­ni­hi­lat­ing the con­fused flawed self to emerge dif­fer­ent, bet­ter. In­vin­ci­ble. Re­flect­ing on the fan­tasies that suf­fused her drink­ing years, a newly sober He­pola comes to see that they “all had one thing in com­mon: I was al­ways some­one else in them.”

As He­pola notes, al­co­holism stems from a ge­netic pre­dis­po­si­tion trig­gered by cir­cum­stance, and early on she at­tempts to trace her path from child­hood to that stranger’s Paris bed. The mark­ers are fa­mil­iar: Life­long feel­ings of not hav­ing or be­ing enough (fu­eled by her fam­ily’s out­sider sta­tus in the wealthy Dal­las neigh­bor­hood where she grew up), a preter­nat­u­ral sen­si­tiv­ity com­bined with se­crecy and self-ab­sorp­tion, and an early at­trac­tion to al­co­hol it­self— she was only 7 when she started sneak­ing sips of leftover beers, and her first ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing drunk (and first black­out) came just two weeks be­fore her 12th birth­day. This­would be the first of count­less times she came to with “a blank space where piv­otal scenes should be.”

For all the wrest­ing with hard truths, He­pola is a funny writer, and the book is shot through with a black hu­mor that will be fa­mil­iar to her read­ers on Sa­lon.com where she is the per­sonal es­says editor. In one scene, on the way to a football game with col­lege friends, a three sheets-to-the-wind He­pola gets it into her head to moon pass­ing cars. In a traf­fic snarl on the in­ter­state. In broad day­light. Which, as she puts it, is “a lit­tle bit like moon­ing some­one and then be­ing stuck in a gro­cery line with them for the next ten min­utes. Hey, how’s it go­ing? Yeah, sorry our friend is moon­ing you right now, she’s re­ally drunk. Ex­cited about the game?”

He­pola de­scribes get­ting sober in her 30sas “the first true act ofmy adult­hood,” but she leaves no doubt about just how hard such a change can be. She hides out in the closet of her 250-square-foot stu­dio apart­ment. She strug­gles with AA (there’s a whole chap­ter ti­tled “Isn’t There Another Way?”), with binge eat­ing and di­et­ing (which un­leashes yet another tor­rent of in­ner con­flict), and with the seem­ingly unimag­in­able no­tion of kiss­ing, let alone sex, with­out al­co­hol.

Sto­ry­telling has been a main­stay of mod­ern re­cov­ery ever since the 1939 pub­li­ca­tion of “The Big Book” of Al­co­holics Anony­mous, the alchemy by which the worst mo­ments of a drinker’s life trans­mute into the sources of life’s deep­est mean­ing. Ul­ti­mately this is where He­pola too finds so­lace and hope. Hav­ing once used al­co­hol to break down writer’s block, writ­ing be­comes the means by which she grounds her­self in­so­bri­ety, mak­ing sense of the puz­zle pieces of her past and forg­ing a new life built on hon­esty and mean­ing­ful con­nec­tions.

At one point, He­pola won­ders if dif­fer­ent life cir­cum­stances might have stopped her from be­com­ing an al­co­holic and con­cludes that she can’t know, which points to an is­sue that I strug­gled with at times. So many data points and side trips to map a chain of cause and ef­fect that will al­ways be some­thing of a mys­tery.

While true to the ex­pe­ri­ence of get­ting sober (and I speak frommy own) the cost is an oc­ca­sional loss of nar­ra­tive mo­men­tum. To take one ex­am­ple, did pro­longed breast­feed­ing, un­til she en­tered kinder­garten, pave the way to He­pola’s drink­ing ca­reer? It’s an idea that’s floated, then gone, more dis­trac­tion than il­lu­mi­na­tion.

But­this is a quib­ble with what is both a riv­et­ing com­ing-of-age story and an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to the grow­ing body of writ­ing about women and drink­ing, with en­tries in­clud­ing Char­lotte Davis Kasl’s pi­o­neer­ing “Many Roads, One Jour­ney: Mov­ing Be­yond the 12 Steps,” the late Caro­line Knapp’s lu­mi­nous 1996 memoir, “Drink­ing: A Love Story” (which He­pola read three times be­fore get­ting sober, a glass of white wine in hand), and more re­cently, Ann Dowsett John­ston’s heart­felt and heav­ily re­searched “Drink: The In­ti­mate Re­la­tion­ship Be­tween Women and Al­co­hol.”

In her in­tro­duc­tion, He­pola quips that she could be said to­have writ­ten a satire of memoir, fo­cused as it is on events she can’t re­mem­ber. In fact, she re­calls a stun­ning amount.

While few may share He­pola’s ex­pe­ri­ences with black­out drink­ing, many are likely to iden­tify with the com­plex of feel­ings be­hind it. In this ac­count of the years when she felt most alone, she re­minds us thatwe are not.

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