by Sarah Hepola
Hachette Audio, 2015
Review by Christian Perring on Feb 9th 2016
An alcohol-related blackout occurs when a person has drunk so much that their brain loses to ability to record what the person is experiencing. They are conscious at the time of the blackout, but like a person with late stage Alzheimer's, they can't remember what just happened. After the drinking is over and the person has sobered up, they can't remember what they did when they were drunk. Sarah Hepola discovered in her first blackout, before she was even a teen, that she acted very different from normal when she was that drunk. She would take her clothes off, become convinced her worst fears were true, or, later on, have sex with strangers.
Hepola grew up in Dallas, where her parents didn't feel in place. They argued a lot. Hepola started drinking when she was just a young girl, and she got away with it. Drinking became a part of her life very early, long before high school, and she never got busted. Her consumption increased in college, and then she chose a profession that prized drinking, journalism. Drinking structured her whole life. But she was a successful writer, and her drinking didn't seem to hold her back at all. It might have had an effect on her romantic life--she was living in New York City, and didn't have a long term relationship. But that's hardly unusual for women in big cities, and she hadn't been craving to be married. Apart from the threats to her health, and she was often falling down and hurting herself, the main problem was that her close friends found it very difficult to watch her drink herself into a stupor every night.
Just as Hepola describes alcohol as a part of her life, she also describes giving up alcohol as a process of changing her habits. She mentions going to some AA meetings and seeing doctors, but she does not talk about going to rehab or seeing an addiction specialist. Giving up alcohol was largely about finding something else to do. Hepola takes no stand on whether alcoholism is a disease, but she does not focus much on any medical approach in changing her life. She also seems to do it pretty much on her own. She of course was not on her own: she was working with others and she was making new friends and making new connections. But she describes her life change as a long process that she initiated mostly on her own, and pursued on her own too.
One of the best parts of this memoir is Hepola's discussion of sex and romance once she has given up alcohol, and her reflection on the role that alcohol had played in her romantic interactions with men when she had been drinking, which had been her whole life. Every first kiss had been under the influence of alcohol. Intimacy was difficult without it, and much easier with it. One of the more harrowing passages in the book is when Hepola sets out a recording of herself made when she was thirteen describing an interaction with an older boy, when he nearly had sex with her, and she was worried that he would not have been pleased with her. She considers whether she was doing what she wanted, and the insecurities she had at that age. She didn't really know what she wanted and so she wasn't in a position to really consent. She gave the boy a hand job so he would not be disappointed.
This audiobook is performed by Hepola herself, and she does a great job. The most dramatic part is when she actually plays the tape of her thirteen year old self talking about this sexual experience. It's just very surprising and unsettling to hear the young girl's mixture of sexual knowledge and cluelessness. Hepola's adult self reads with great confidence, and brings alive her experience of a life lived with alcohol, and a new life started without drinking.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York