“A drink is my beloved,” writes Koren Zailckas of her younger self, in Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. In this searing chronicle of alcohol abuse, Zailckas provides an insider’s eloquent exposé of the role that drinking plays in the lives of American youth—especially American girls. With honesty, humility, and dazzling language, she describes how her youth was lost in a dizzying pattern of partying and binge drinking.
A prescient documentation of a devastating cultural phenomenon, Smashed is also the brave personal story of a sensitive girl who finds in alcohol the means to be the confident, assertive modern party girl that society so wants her to be. In the emptiness of the environment around them and the lack of sustained encouragement to develop themselves in any other way, Zailckas and her peers turn to binge drinking. For them, drinking is a substitute for love, for study, for developing hobbies and pursuing interests, and simultaneously camouflages insecurities and doubts. Behind the closed doors of Zailckas’s alcohol abuse there is a gifted young woman, a poet and journalist, intelligent but shy, thoughtful and ambitious. Yet she embarks on a self-destructive, even suicidal, pattern enabled and made palatable by alcohol. As her behavior continues, drinking hampers her emotional growth, stunting her in a permanent teenagehood of zero responsibility and immature relationships.
It is in college that the teenage Zailckas finds the perfect environment in which to nurture her burgeoning passion for getting drunk. She notes that “in college, we can wear our alcohol abuse as proudly as our university sweatshirts; the two concepts are virtually synonymous.” Contrary to what university culture and the media seem to suggest, drinking does not empower Zailckas or the other young women she knows. Instead, being drunk undermines her studies, endangers her physical health, and makes her vulnerable to sexual aggression. She reveals a party atmosphere in which men are enabled to violence just as women are set up as victims. In her intelligent and outraged discussion of the relationship between media depictions of drinking and the sordid reality, this becomes a cautionary tale about a society that encourages excess and in the process damages the prospects of its future generations.
Smashed is a book for everyone who has woken up in the morning and wondered why they behaved the way they did the night before. It is the gripping story of a typical girl caught up in an underworld that professes to be mainstream, and of her slow but sustained effort towards self-knowledge. Zailckas’s intention, she says, “is to show the full life cycle of alcohol abuse,” saying “[I] found alcohol during my formative years. I warmed to it instantly. Like a childhood friend, it aged with me.” How she broke off her love affair with drinking—a romance that went from early passion to full-fledged relationship to sour ending—is the tale of an ordinary young woman who found the courage to stand alone and of a poet who found her voice.
Koren Zailckas grew up in the suburbs of Boston. She studied under Mary Karr at Syracuse University, which was featured in a Time cover article about young women and drinking. This is her first book.
How difficult was it to look back on these events? Was the writing a cathartic process?
The process of remembering always feels like hemorrhaging from the head. When you’re writing memoir, you not only have to relive past events, but you’re forced to refeel them or, in some cases, feel them for the very first time. In the moment, life doesn’t give us time to stop, take stock, and derive meaning from the things that are happening to us. But in writing about our life’s stories, we’re forced to think about them in context, with some measure of clarity. That’s why I value the genre. It’s a literal attempt to make sense of the world. A memoir is based on a life, but it’s more than a life. Life is chaotic. It’s messy. It’s senseless. And memoir can’t afford to be.
That said, scenes that involved drinking and sex caused me the most heart palpitations. Those memories were the most repressed. I’d never really felt them before. And I’d certainly never talked about them—not to my friends, not to my parents, not to some uh-huh-ing shrink. But as I was writing the first draft of Smashed, I came to a crossroads early on. It had to do with a blackout I’d had when I was nineteen. One morning, I’d clicked awake, naked, with a hangover the size of large Slavic country, and no idea whether I’d lost my virginity the night before. I knew it would be devastating to write about that blackout. The story, in its details, had the potential to hurt and embarrass my family. It would expose me to criticism from people who believe that drinking women deserve whatever trespasses have happened to us. But, at the same time, I knew the book wouldn’t feel honest if I omitted that incident. Assault, date rape, sexual coercion: these consequences are specific to drinking women. If I’d scratched the story because it made me uncomfortable, the book wouldn’t be a truthful account. So I cried, hyperventilated into my hot little hand, and wrote the whole thing in one shot.
All said and done, I’m reluctant to say writing Smashed was “cathartic.” For one, I think we assign that term to women far more often than we assign it to men. All too often, men’s works are deemed “literature” and women’s are dismissed as “therapy.” On a personal level, yeah, it’s easier to discuss old indignities. Talking about the above blackout doesn’t rattle me the way it used to. (To be honest, it moves me little more than talking about today’s chance of rain.) I’m not convinced I’ve come to term with old aches as much as I’ve had to numb myself to them for the sake of spreading the book’s message. Ultimately, I think a memoir leaves its author with more terror than comfort, more questions than closure. I didn’t feel absolved when I finished writing Smashed. I didn’t feel unburdened when I first showed the manuscript to my parents. And I didn’t feel particularly liberated when I first saw the book on store shelves. More than anything, I feel a growing breach between “me” and the “me” on the page. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess. I feel exiled from my own experiences.
Were the specifics of your abuse a revelation to your parents, particularly what you reveal about the years you were living at home? Why do you think you were able to hide it so well and for so long?
Yeah. Regretfully. I made some admissions in Smashed that awed my poor parents. Before they read the manuscript, they never suspected my friends and I nicked booze from their liquor cabinet. They never knew what my best friend and I really did when we snuck out of a hotel during a family vacation. They didn’t realize how much and how often I was drinking in college, some five hours and three hundred miles away from them. Come to think of it, my mom never even knew I smoked cigarettes. Some ten years earlier, I’d convinced her that the smell of smoke gave me migraines.
I don’t think this indicates any negligence on my parents’ part. Quite the opposite. As a teenager, my parents felt overly present. They felt omnipresent. It just goes to show what a miserable sneak I was at that time. And it also speaks to how much underage drinking takes place under the cover of secrecy.
Drinking isn’t a spontaneous act when you’re fifteen years old. It requires planning, alibis, stuffed beds, and well-drawn contingency plans. As teenagers, my friends and I were always scouting locations—an abandoned house or a secluded stretch of woods—looking for the privacy that drinking required. We were always hunting for access to alcohol: uncounted beer cans in a basement refrigerator, a U Mass-age brother who’d host a keg party, that fellow in the liquor store parking lot who’d buy vodka for a small finder’s fee.
In the end, I think my parents did everything in their power to keep me healthy and safe. The deck wasn’t stacked in their favor. They were up against billions of dollars worth of advertising from a shifty, slick, and shameless industry. My parents didn’t have all the information that they needed either. They didn’t know to tell me that alcohol can stop development in the frontal lobe, which is a part of the brain that’s (hopefully) growing and ripening throughout our early teens and well into our mid-twenties. That’s a recent discovery. Not even neurologists had that information ten years ago, back when I started drinking.
You describe a youth culture that is inundated on all sides by media that encourages alcohol use. Do you think there should be more laws to stop such influential marketing? Why is alcohol abuse, in spite of its evident drawbacks, still so attractive to young people?
I’m not convinced drinking’s drawbacks are evident to the average young person. Or at least, they weren’t obvious to me.
Suffice to say, my alcohol education taught me the drawbacks of drinking and driving. At sixteen, I could tell you the legal limit for intoxication (.02 for drinkers under twenty-one). I knew how long I’d have my license revoked (three years) if I ever got a D.U.I. In Driver’s Ed class, I’d watched hours of stomach-churning, jaws-of-life footage (doctors tweezing slivers of windshield out of drunk drivers’ brain stems). But I didn’t know what alcohol poisoning was until I had my stomach pumped. My high school health teacher never told me that, because I’d had my first drink at age fourteen, I was five times as likely to become an alcoholic later in life, four times as likely to suffer from depression, six times as likely to attempt suicide. No one ever told me that my body metabolized alcohol differently than boys my age, based on the fact that I weighed less and had fewer of the stomach enzymes that break down alcohol. As a result, even on the nights when I was so drunk that I couldn’t hold my eyes open, it never occurred to me that I could be endangering myself or anyone else. As long as I wasn’t behind the wheel of a car, I felt safe. That one risk—drinking and driving—eclipsed a dozen others.
In the end, I think alcohol is attractive to young people for the same reasons that it’s attractive to adults. Ask a teenager why she drinks and she’ll give you the same knee-jerk responses that many adults do. She’ll say, “I drink to socialize,” or “to celebrate,” or “to relax.” On top of that, we live in a culture of consumerism, where we’re taught that all that stands in the way of our deranged happiness is the right stuff. We’re taught that if we dress the right way, if we smell the right way, if we wear the right contacts, and, yes, drink the right drink, people will desire our company. We’re all guilty of that kind of Western logic. Teenagers are even more so. As a teenager, what is your #1 concern if not alienation (followed closely by dejection, rejection, Chemistry 1, and failures of dermatology)?
The alcohol industry surely plays off this fear. It’s not often that you see a single person in an alcohol ad. Ads typically feature a group of drinkers. The model with the bottle is positioned dead center and everyone else is vying for his attention, trying to kiss him, to talk to him, to muss up his hair, or jump on him piggyback. It’s a ridiculous scenario. But as a teenager, those images are effective, if not only because you feel so damn alienated at that point in your life. As a fifteen-year-old, I remember decorating my school locker with Bacardi ads. In the 1990s, there was this “Buttoned up by day, Bacardi by night” campaign that I really identified with. It featured women who were meek and bookish by day—librarians, accountants, schoolteachers—and impulsive by night when they were downing Bacardi. It made me think there was hope for me. I just needed to get my hands on a bottle with that little bat logo.
Unfortunately, in the wake of alcopops like Smirnoff Ice or Bacardi Silver, drinks that have rum flavorings, distilled alcohol, and a whole lot of artificial color, flavoring and sugar, kids today see even more alcohol ads than I did in my day and age. Georgetown’s Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) found that girls see 95 percent more magazine ads for alcopops than women of legal drinking age. Young people see more television commercials for alcoholic beverages than they do for jeans, sneakers, or acne creams. In one study, alcohol ads appeared during thirteen of the fifteen most popular shows among teenagers, including Seventh Heaven and Gilmore Girls on the WB.
I don’t think there’s much that we can do to change the content of alcohol ads. But we can teach young people to be critical of the messages they see. We can also take community action. We can remove local advertising, such as billboards. If you’d like to know how to file a complaint to the industry, you can find instructions on CAMY’s Web site at:http://camy.org/action/complaint.php .
What do you think sororities and fraternities could or might be like without alcohol? Do you think they are salvageable institutions, or are they too corrupted by years and years of focus on substance abuse in their rituals and traditions?
The motto of my sorority, the motto of all sororities really, is “to further the advancement of women” in academia. That’s positive. That’s admirable. Unfortunately, I think that objective is too easily forgotten, especially after three cups of jungle juice at a Phi Chi Omega mixer. But I don’t think it’s hopeless. Sororities have the potential to be powerful vehicles. I’d love to see one that’s subversive—a Greek letter organization that’s all about feminist activism. Can you imagine? A sorority that hosts activist art endeavors, produces short films, forms an ass-rockin’ all-girl band and publishes its own ’zine? A sorority that fights for rape prevention; access to emergency contraception; salary equity, promotion, and tenure for a university’s female professors? Perhaps we should charter one. We’ll call it Gamma Rho Rho Rho Lambda (“Grrrl,” approximately).
You suggest there is a vacuum in our country, in our young people’s social lives, that is being filled up by drinking. What other options are there for filling this void, and how can they be advocated for more clearly?
I think there’s a void in all of us, whether we’re young or old, addicted, abstinent, or otherwise. And we find just about anything to fill it: career, religion, relationships, daydreams, exercise, illegal substances, you name it.
There’s this Buddhist philosophy I really love. Essentially, it says anything that’s an authentic source of happiness can never be a source of misery. For a long time, I took my confidence and identity from being a girl that (I thought) was fun to go out and have a drink with. And needless to say, that model made me pretty damn miserable. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me: I’m a reader and a writer. I can take my sense of self from those things. As young people, I think the sooner we can figure out what it is that lights us up and makes us genuinely, authentically happy, the better. Whether that’s guitar distortion or acrylic paint, sacking someone on the football field or reading Nabokov under the covers.
And as adults, we ought to help kids find other kids who share their interests. Unfortunately, the drinkers are the more visible population, especially on college campuses. I mean, the drinkers the ones who are running half-naked through the streets at 3 AM, singing, screaming, puking alcopops in the bushes. It’s harder to find people who share your love for kung fu cult cinema or Hungarian acid jazz.
More pressingly, what do you think we can do to stop alcohol abuse among young people in America? What might substitute for drinking in their social lives? How might we begin to implement such a cultural shift?
I think we need to change our approach to prevention. Prevention can’t be about scare tactics. No one, I repeat, no one, relates to pictures of people who are bloodied from drunk driving wrecks or alcohol-related falls off of balconies. No one identifies with images of people who are laid up with alcohol poisoning, vomiting, in various degrees of unconsciousness. When we see that kind of footage, some tiny voice in each of us thinks, not me, not me. I feel for you fella. But you’re not me. It’s a human defense mechanism. We’ve all got it.
Likewise, I think prevention can’t only be about limiting young people’s access to alcohol. If young people have a will to drink, they’re going to find a way to drink. There was a study by the American Medical Association last fall that found kids have more access to alcohol than adults realize and girls are even more adept at finding it.
In the end, I think prevention has to be about eliminating that will to drink. We need to start talking about alcohol like it’s a drug (it is), something with addictive properties. We really need to postpone the age at which kids take their first drinks. Kids who have their first drinks by age fifteen are five times as likely to become alcoholics or suffer the periods of alcohol abuse that I did. Each passing year increases kids’ odds. Eighteen is better than sixteen, which is way better than fourteen.
Think about the rate at which our bodies were growing when we were fourteen. Our parents could barely keep us in shoes! Now think about all the ways that we are growing emotionally at that time in our lives. At fourteen, with any luck, are learning how to express romantic interest, how to make new friends and bond with the cohorts that we already have. We’re developing a social identity for ourselves, one that’s independent of our families. If we come to rely on the social lubricant of alcohol, when do we learn these things without it?
What do you think about parents who encourage their teenagers to drink at home, in an effort to give them a more responsible, “European” approach to drinking?
Ah yes, the ever-elusive “continental” style of drinking. I have no idea how to achieve it, how to drink like France, how to drink like Spain, how to drink like Italy. It’s not a matter of the legal drinking age. Look at the U.K. Their legal drinking age is eighteen and binge drinking, especially among young women, is still what Tony Blair’s called “the new British disease.” It’s a matter of national culture. And I don’t think that culture can be imported. Expecting Americans, especially teenagers, to collectively, spontaneously adopt continental drinking in place of our current drink-for-the-effect, drink-to-get-drunk mode, is like expecting Americans to wake up one morning and intrinsically know the Sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, and adopt it as part of their daily routine. I’m afraid it’s just not that simple.
Personally, I’m not sure it’s possible for teenagers to drink “responsibly.” For a start, I’m wary of that language because it comes directly from the alcohol industry. And the industry isn’t the most impartial party. What’s printed in fine print at the bottom of every alcohol ad? “Drink responsibly,” right? That’s pretty vague, as far as disclaimers go.
I was talking to an expert from Duke a while back. And he was saying that the average person’s desired blood alcohol content, the buzz that the average drinker most enjoys, is 0.15. Which is crazy, considering a 0.3 BAC, twice the ideal dose, can kill us. That’s a pretty fine line. And we expect young people to be able to find that line? To know their “limits”? Young, inexperienced, physically small drinkers don’t have limits. Their limits are always changing, especially if they’re female. There are so many factors that affect the rate at which girls’ bodies metabolize alcohol. Even things like where they are in their menstrual cycles.
Your work as a writer pops up from time to time throughout the memoir, often providing the only bit of hope in an otherwise hollow life. How much were you writing through all of this? What did it mean to you?
In retrospect, I can see I was always a writer, always a reader. When I was eight, I remember falling in love with an Oxford poetry anthology, fat as my thigh, that I found in a cardboard box in my parents’ basement. Blake was my favorite. I didn’t understand a goddamn word of it. I spent the better part of fourth grade trying to define the word “furze.” But I loved the music of the language. I started writing poetry that year. I also started sneaking out of math class to go read paperbacks in the school library. Writing, culling and arranging words, always came naturally. And maybe, because of that, I never gave writing much pause. Where I’m from, girls are still taught writing’s a hobby, not a viable vocation. (Dental hygenistry is a viable vocation.) I learned to keep language to myself. I committed poems that I read to memory. I stashed my writing in a heavy-gauge lockbox. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could make a career of it.
What are you working on now? Are you writing poetry or more nonfiction?
Right now, I’m working on another book of nonfiction. It’s mostly narrative, equal parts memoir and storytelling. It’s about the women in my family and our experiences with anger and aggression. It’s another subject we don’t talk about: female anger. We try our damnedest to deny it.
As women, we’re allowed to sob our eyes out. Bawling confirms our femininity. But lord help us if we get angry! Men, on the other hand, are allowed to get as pissed off as they like; they can put their fists through windows or other men’s teeth. In society’s eyes, anger makes them even more masculine. But crying, for men that’s unacceptable! It’s a fascinating topic, anger. I’m not sure we fully understand it in this culture. All the language we have to talk about rage is pretty vague. And our approaches to dealing with it—all the punch-a-pillow philosophies—are pretty embarrassing, pretty cheesy.
That said, I’m always writing poetry and I’d love nothing more than to publish a volume of it. That’s my biggest hope not yet realized. I don’t want to win American Idol. I just want a slim little volume with my name on it. Something stapled together in somebody’s basement, put out by Ma ’n’ Pa Press.