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by Koren Zailckas
Viking, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Mar 30th 2005

Smashed

It is very difficult to write a readable memoir of excessive drinking because the protagonists insist on lying to themselves and hurting themselves.  Authors are caught on the horns of a dilemma.  Either they write so that is easy to identify with the main character, in which case it is painful to read how he or she behaves so self-destructively, or else, they make it hard to sympathize with the main character, in which case the drinking just seems annoying.  So it is impressive that Koren Zailckas manages to make her memoir of her teenage and college drinking so engaging.  She grows up in the Boston area, in a basically normal family with no major problems as far as we can tell, but she feels awkward with her peers much of the time, and finds that drinking helps.  She starts drinking in her early teens and soon she is getting drunk on a very regular basis and she even ends up after one night of excess in the local hospital.  Her parents are very concerned and take a firm stand with her, but she goes on drinking anyway.  She gets through high school and goes to college at Syracuse University, and soon she is drinking to excess on an even more regular basis.  She joins a sorority and her drinking gets worse.  But she gets through college and gets a job in advertising in New York City, and engages in even more risky behavior, passing out in strangers' apartments.  But at the age of 22, after a number of previous attempts, Zailckas comes to realize that she needs to stop, and she does, without the aid of alcoholics anonymous or mental health professionals. 

It is interesting that Zailckas never categorizes herself as an alcoholic.  She thinks of alcoholism as a genetic disease, while she thinks of herself as someone who just got into self-destructive habits.  While she includes some discussion of studies of patterns of drinking in girls and college women, she says little about the scientific study of excessive drinking and nothing to justify her definition of alcoholism.  It is clear that she would count as a person with a substance abuse problem according to the criteria in the DSM-IV-IR, and it is worth remembering that the DSM manual does not include any category for alcoholism.  Yet Zailckas seems to see herself as very different from people with the disease of alcoholism.  She portrays herself as a rather typical representative of a large group of young women who drink too much because it makes it easier to deal with the pressures of school, because it is a way to gain approval and popularity, and of course it is a way to lose one's inhibitions.  One can behave badly and then blame it on the alcohol the next day.  She eventually emails an addiction expert about her drinking, and he writes back confirming her view, saying she seems more like an alcohol abuser who has some control over her behavior, rather than an alcoholic who has no control. 

Along the way of her story, Zailckas points out modern trends among American girls and young women in drinking, and has some angry words for how alcohol is promoted in the media, as well as the ineffective education programs that schools and colleges conduct in a futile attempt to reduce excessive drinking.  She is also critical of the disparity in the government funds directed at the war on drugs compared to the meager amount spent on trying to reduce alcohol abuse.  She makes good points, and they make the book more interesting.  Ultimately though, it is much more a work of personal story-telling than political commentary, and it is Zailckas' writing about her own life that pulls the reader in even when she seems an unappealing character. 

  Zailckas is now in her mid-twenties and stopped drinking a couple of years ago.  Readers who are past their mid-twenties may be surprised by Zailckas' tendency to discuss events that happened a few years ago as something from her distant past, like a young child looking at a baby and saying he was like that when he was little.  Zailckas also makes repeated admiring references to the work of Sylvia Plath, which adds to the sense that she is still young.  She herself says that she looks young, and is sometimes taken to be in her mid-teens.  The authority of the book derives not so much from her wisdom but rather because the events are relatively fresh in her memory. 

It is alarming that so many young women are binge-drinking so often, and are very likely causing themselves even greater problems by having sex with boys or men they would not even talk to when they were sober.  While the phenomenon of getting drunk and doing things you would regret the next day if you could remember doing them is hardly new, it seems to be becoming an acceptable part of youth culture.  Not only do a good number of youth reality TV shows implicitly promote the behavior, but also there is a whole industry devotes to selling websites and DVDs featuring drunk girls.  Parents of teenage girls who read Smashed will want to lock their daughters at home for the next ten years. 

 

Link: Author website

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved. 

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.