These are perilous times for a writer to tackle the subject of women'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. This would 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 30s as "the first true act of my 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 in sobriety, 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 from my 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.
But this 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 to have 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 that we are not.
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
Grand Central: 230 pp., $26
Gutman is the author of two novels, "Equivocal Death" and "The Anniversary," and a senior facilitator with the OpEd Project.