Book Review: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Audiobook narrated by Sarah Hepola)
“It’s such a savage thing to lose your memory, but the crazy thing is, it doesn’t hurt one bit. A blackout doesn’t sting, or stab, or leave a scar when it robs you. Close your eyes and open them again. That’s what a blackout feels like.”
For years Sarah Hepola ignored her blackouts. She was a young woman with a successful writing career living in New York City. She was empowered, and part of embracing equality was drinking like one of the guys. But while littering her writing with references to drinking and laughing off her drunken escapades, she actually spent her daytimes cleaning up after her blackouts. Figuring out how she scraped up her knees or tracking down her purse. Eventually, she realized that drinking wasn’t making her the life of the party and one of the guys. It was stealing who she was, and it was time to get herself back.
I have a thing for addiction memoirs (and addiction documentaries….movies…tv shows…). But I have often found myself puzzled by the female drinking memoir. Often presented as a woman (usually a wife and mother) who appears to have it all and hides all of her drinking because women don’t drink. I’m sorry, but as a Millennial, that’s not the kind of drinking I’ve seen women in my generation partake in. Drinking was considered unladylike by generations even as recent as the one right before ours (that my brother is in). But in mine? What I often saw was women proving their coolness by keeping up with the guys. These women would never hide wine. They’d take shots and get praised for it. So when I saw this memoir talking about the impact on women of drinking like one of the guys; of how this equality of substance abuse is really impacting women, I had a sense it was going to be something good and insightful, and I was right.
Sarah Hepola shows the reader through a clear lens exactly how the different perceptions of women and alcohol impacted her drinking, and thus how they might impact other women. The book starts with some context of how young women are both encouraged by their peers to binge drink but then are also blamed by them when bad things happen to them when they are drunk. She then moves on to talking about her own childhood when she would steal sips of beer from open cans in the fridge, and how her parents never suspected she was sneaking beer because little girls wouldn’t do that. She then gradually brings us up through time and shows us how with drinking she was subconsciously trying to pursue both fitting in and equality. She drank to fit in and be cool in college. She drank with co-workers on her male-dominated first job to be one of the guys and get the same networking opportunities they got after work by going out for beers. She liked that it wasn’t necessarily feminine. She liked feeling strong and empowered.
By embracing something that is perceived of by the culture as hyper-masculine, like binge drinking, women are seeking to be taken seriously and viewed as equals. Women do this in other areas too. Just look at power suits or the short haircuts preferred by women in positions of power. Our culture devalues what is perceived of as feminine and elevates what is perceived of as masculine. There are many issues with this, which I can’t go into in a short book review, but what matters about this for women and alcohol is that women’s bodies just don’t biologically process alcohol the same way men’s bodies do. Sarah Hepola goes into this in quite some detail, but essentially, women get drunker faster on less alcohol than men do, which means women black out more easily, and blackouts are dangerous. They make anyone vulnerable, but they make women particularly vulnerable to things like date rape.
Sarah Hepola does a much more eloquent job in the book than I am doing here in the review of illuminating how gender and alcohol mix to make the modern alcoholic young woman. And the book doesn’t just detail the dramatics of her youthful drinking. She also goes into great detail about what it was like to stop. To find the empowerment of being completely in control again and not losing parts of herself and her life to blackouts. She talks about her sober life and how exciting it is, and she even talks about finding some spirituality. Most importantly to me, she discusses how women in western culture today are often told we are equal but are able to sense that things that are feminine are just not taken seriously. So they pursue the masculine to be taken more seriously and in some cases the masculine is simply not helpful. It is harmful. Sometimes, in cases like with binge drinking, it’s even more dangerous for women than for men. I believe the book offers some hope when Hepola talks about finding strength in her sober living and in her accomplishments at facing life as a single woman.
Those listening to the audiobook will be entranced by Hepola’s own voice telling the story. I couldn’t stop listening and listened every second I could. One of the more haunting moments of the audiobook is when toward the end Hepola introduces a tape recording she made as a teenager discussing a sexual encounter she had while drunk with a much older boy. Hearing the incredibly young voice of a woman already being drawn into the harmful world of addiction was heartbreaking to listen to and made me want to fix things, even though I wasn’t totally sure how.
This book left me realizing that the reality of women and alcohol has changed, and the cultural narrative needs to catch up with it. Women aren’t drinking in closets to dull their feminine mystique pain anymore. They’re drinking loud and proud because they want to be empowered and taken seriously and yes, even perceived of as cool. While we can talk about finding more positive ways of empowerment, I think it’s also important that we as a culture strive to stop putting innate positive value on the masculine and negative on the feminine. Things should be valued based on their impact on the world and not on the gender norm of who does it. And young women will stop feeling pressured to act like a man when men and women are equally valued. All of these things I am saying play into male drinking as well. If you think zero young men are binge drinking to be seen of as more of a man, you’re very wrong. We just see less of the immediate negative impact of male binge drinking because women black out so much more easily.
Hepola wrote a brave book that illuminates the issue of binge drinking among young women today. It’s both personal and with an eye to the culture as a whole, thinking beyond just the author herself. Readers will be haunted both by the voice of the young Sarah and by the thought of young women seeking to empower themselves actually making themselves more vulnerable. A key read for anyone who works with or cares about these younger generations of women.
5 out of 5 stars
Illness(es) featured: Addictive Disorders
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant to the United States who embraced Anarchism and became an impassioned orator and pioneer in the movement for birth control. She was deported in 1919 for her antiwar activities and spent the remainder of her life moving among multiple countries. This book is a collection of a variety of her essays and includes a contemporaneous biographical sketch and preface. You may read more about Emma Goldman and her life here.
I picked up this essay collection due to my interest in both US and women’s history. It then languished on my TBR pile for years until I heard about how the Emma Goldman Archive at UC Berkeley was going to lose its funding (source). The archive is currently still running thanks to charitable donations, (source) but I still wanted to invest some time in learning more about this important female historical figure, and what better way than by reading her own papers.
The essays in this collection are: Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Minorities Versus Majorities, The Psychology of Political Violence, Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Marriage and Love, and The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought.
The thing to understand about Anarchism (the historic early 20th century kind anyway, I won’t venture to talk about modern Anarchism as I have not studied it at all) is that the basis of Anarchist belief is that there should be no government and no religion.
Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. (page 38)
Emma took this to the conclusion that fighting for rights within the governmental power structure was pointless since the government shouldn’t be involved anyway. Modern readers may thus be surprised at how against women getting the right to vote she was. The reasoning behind it, though was that she thought it was a pointless fight. Like putting frosting on a shit cake. It won’t make the cake any less shitty. It’s interesting reading these papers how much faith Emma had in human nature to do good. It’s the power structures she considered evil.
My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual. (page 34)
What I found most interesting in reading these essays, beyond getting a firmer understanding of Anarchism, is how most of them are still highly relatable today. They have not been particularly dated. Only “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School” and “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought” came across as dated and a bit difficult to read to me. The rest could have been pulled straight from a social justice Tumblr account, with just a few names and places changed. The three essays on women were the most interesting to me, particularly for the rather prophetic predictions that Emma made about the direction women’s rights were heading. In particular, one section discusses that women winning the right to work will just make everything more difficult because women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers. They will just end up working just as much at home and out and about. Emma also pointed out that society would come to expect two incomes, making it impossible for women to not work even if they want to. This has certainly come to pass. Emma’s solution to this is more individual freedom, and her passage of advice to women still rings true today:
Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. (page 132)
Sections that would probably stir up the strongest feelings among modern readers include frequent rants against the Catholic church, hatred of all patriotism or nationalism, very strong anti-military positions, and a strong negative view of marriage. However, if the modern reader keeps in mind that Emma was for 100% individual freedom and individuality, it’s easier to see that it’s not an individual institution she had something against, but rather institutions in general. Think of her as an extreme libertarian, and it’s easier to understand. In the case of marriage, for instance, it’s not that Emma was against love or being part of a couple, but rather against the state being involved in that love.
One aspect I think was missing from these essays was more from Emma on what she thought the ideal world would really look like. How would things work once total individual freedom was won? This is not touched upon very much, beyond Emma’s belief that crime would disappear without crooked institutions and there would be no more war. I found her belief in innate human goodness to be overly optimistic, verging on naive. But I also found it to be endearing that she had so much faith in humanity.
Overall, the modern reader will still find most of these essays highly readable and may be surprised by how modern many of them feel. Readers will realize how little some things change through time and also will come away with a better understanding of the stance of the often feared and misunderstood Anarchists.
4 out of 5 stars
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