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by Caroline Knapp
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on May 31st 1999

Drinking

Caroline Knapp is a high achiever, despite her alcoholism. What she does, she does well, and her book Drinking: A Love Story is no exception. I turned the pages quickly, drawn into her story and her reflections on the life of alcoholics, enjoying the insight of her observations. She helps the reader to get an intuitive understanding of how she saw life when she was an active alcoholic, and how that led her to keep on drinking. She also writes informatively about her experience with Alcoholics Anonymous, and how meeting people who have gone through similar experiences has helped her.

The central theme of Knapp’s book is that she fell in love with alcohol, and this led her to forsake her other relationships, causing pain and risk to others. Her relationship with alcohol became more important to her than any other. She lied, cheated, and broke promises to the people closest to her, including her dying parents. She relates the many incidents where she does this without self-pity, and without bitterness towards her former self. She manages to convey a sense of ‘telling it like it was.’ While she eventually joined AA and believes in AA’s potential effectiveness as a solution to drinking problems, she is not blind to the high rate of relapse of alcoholics, and she never sermonizes about the lessons she has learned.

What she does attempt to do is banish some of the stereotypes of alcoholics. She explains that she never missed a day of work due to her drinking. As a journalist, she found herself among colleagues who also liked to drink, and so her behavior rarely seemed out of place. Even her close friends had little idea how severe were her problems. Moreover, she takes herself to be relatively typical of the people she has met in Alcoholics Anonymous. She managed to hide her problems from most of the people around her, and from herself.

You might think that it would be hard work to read a memoir of drinking from her early teenage years into her thirties, through which Knapp suffers emotional troubles, including the death of her parents, an eating disorder, several years of dysfunctional relationships with her boyfriends, and endless self-deception and rationalizations of her behavior. However, Knapp’s writing skills make her story always interesting. She brings alive her thought processes from her drinking days, and provides her perspective on them now as a recovering alcoholic.

As an ethicist, what I find most interesting about her book is that it hints at the possibility of finding a way to help our understanding of alcoholism. The normal debates about alcoholism tend to center around the question of whether, on the one hand, it is a freely chosen form of self-destructive behavior or whether, on the other, it is a disease. Knapp herself often moves within the space of a page or even a paragraph, from saying that she acted she did because she liked alcohol so much, to saying that she was unable to stop. But describing her relationship to alcohol as love may help us to see how neither option, free or unfree, is adequate. Of course, we often find difficulty in accounting for our behavior when we are in love too, so it does not clear up all the problems. Nevertheless, it does suggest that maybe some language is already available which allows us to describe an alcoholic as both consciously deciding to drink and somehow blinded to the alternatives.