Perhaps no cultural phenomenon has been as successful at demonizing alcohol as MTV’s The Real World. Watch it sometime. You’ll never want to drink again. The roommates–barely legal, scared, nervous and prone to idiotic exhibitionism–are abandoned in foreign cities, with lots of money and practically nothing to do. They live in close quarters with other men and women, some of whom they don’t get along with, others with whom they want to sleep. They go out most nights and drink their faces off, dancing stupidly up against one another; when they trip home late at night, the mayhem continues. Someone inevitably says something racist, misogynistic or homophobic–or worse, pours out a personal sob story about why they’re so fucked up. All-night, incoherent talks about everyone’s respective “issues” ensue; couples vaguely attracted to each other fall into bed; others fight for no apparent reason. The next day, the roommates are lazy, depressed, gray-looking, slightly violent, filled with self-loathing, unable to remember the night’s chaotic events (thank God they have it all on tape!) and incapable of accomplishing much. So they drink again. It’s a silly train wreck of a show, and at some point, you realize these kids are just plain bored.
It all sounds a lot like college to me. Or, at least, a lot like college as portrayed in Koren Zailckas’s memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. In Smashed the scene of revelry and destruction is Syracuse University, a school that, because of its size, Greek system and paralyzingly cold weather, has long been a hotbed of binge drinking. Zailckas’s memoir is the story of her own pathological debauchery; in college, she drinks about five nights a week to feel better about herself, to laugh comfortably at parties, to muster the courage to hook up with boys. Still, she is not an alcoholic; Smashed remains firmly outside of the addiction memoir genre, falling somewhere between the ugly coming-of-age territory of Mary Karr (Zailckas’s mentor) and the frat-boy-and-violence landscape of memoirist Brad Land (author of Goat). It’s a strange breed of memoir, one that hard-core, longtime alcoholics might sniff at, or that any young writer might disdain–especially given the fact that Zailckas received an advance of $150,000 for it at the innocent age of 23.
For sure, after all the other memoirs, the Real World episodes, the ominous magazine articles and Tom Wolfe’s campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, Zailckas’s portrayal of college-age women growing up and falling down sounds pretty familiar. But what makes Zailckas’s book stand out is not that she drank but that–after some postcollege months of martini consumption in the frat-boy refuge of Manhattan’s Upper East Side–she quit. It’s not easy to say no to a beer at that age, when you’re tremulously just out of college and floundering for a new life. And it’s even harder in New York, where professional and personal activities revolve around bars and restaurants, “getting a drink” and “meeting for cocktails.”
Smashed, written during Zailckas’s initial months of sobriety, is considerably darker than my description of the sodden Real World-ers. In fact, it’s a very somber book, written in a tone of earnest melodrama one would expect from a young person who wholeheartedly believes she’s experienced a uniquely painful life. Her gravity will, no doubt, satisfy binge-drinker alarmists everywhere (and it’s since been reported that her publishers are sending Smashed to politicians, too). But the joylessness of the book might also strike ordinary readers as slightly disingenuous. Is it possible that this woman had no fun at all in high school and college?
It’s annoying to harp on a memoirist’s age, but it’s also hard not to. One cannot help but think that Zailckas, a few years later, wouldn’t have spent four dramatic pages on pointless roommate quarrels or meditations on the way college serves to “categorize” its students. When she vaguely writes, “I am ashamed of my gnarled soul, which is something no surgeon can correct,” you wonder, what’s she talking about? She’s a perfectly nice girl who, according to her memoir, has led a fairly uneventful life. Gnarled soul? But this sense of college as an inherently depressing place as well as this idea of her own badness, she will explain, was mostly due to alcohol.
The pain of growing up is often, in Smashed, due to alcohol. As is, in fact, the pain of not growing up. Zailckas believes that her alcohol consumption stunted her growth and that, emotionally, she remains a teen in a twentysomething’s clothing. The thing is, Zailckas is young (24!). But she doesn’t seem to know that. She’s pretty hard on herself.
Yet the “gnarled soul” comment gets at two main themes–one convincing, the other troubling–of Smashed. The first is that, yes, drinking keeps college kids–if not emotionally stunted in the same way drugs and alcohol do for true addicts and alcoholics–disoriented, incurious and unhealthy, trapped in their own adolescent self-loathing. In Zailckas’s full telling of her high school to college years, the normal, miserable evolution from child to adult feels even uglier in binge-drinking’s distorted, late-night haziness, and in its thick-headed, painful hangovers. (Not to mention what it does to romance; more on that later.) Smashed works as a memoir–both in its readability and its argument–because it successfully describes the author’s own spiral into misery and self-obliteration.
The second shadowy theme of Smashed is that Zailckas, perhaps as a stand-in for many young women (she would certainly hope so), feels an almost incredible, and perhaps equally harmful, amount of shame about this behavior. “I fear some sliver of panic, sadness, or self-loathing will always stay with us,” she writes in her introduction. Shame, not the joy of newfound sobriety, drives her storytelling more than anything else, and through that muddled lens, things like humor and perspective get lost too. But Smashed, for Zailckas, is first and foremost a purge.
The initial pages of Smashed, which cover Zailckas’s childhood, unfurl slowly and predictably; the gritty, fast-paced stuff occurs once she gets to Syracuse. She describes totally normal behavior as a teenager: withdrawing from her family, dressing in baggy clothes, listening to Radiohead songs filled with self-loathing that mirrors her own. Again, that’s the point of Zailckas’s book: that teenage depression can make anyone vulnerable to the high of alcohol. But the childhood section also suggests some of the particular anxieties that girls, and girls alone, endure. At one point, discussing her preteen self, she describes getting ready for a party with her best friend: “We are trying to master what our mothers have taught us about looking ‘put together.'” Zailckas, who thanks her mother in the introduction for alerting her to “women’s issues,” perceives that women are under some special sort of pressure, and that stress might have influenced her later alcohol abuse.
That idea, unfortunately, is never fully explored. In fact, it is unclear what drives Zailckas’s depression and anger–that she’s a girl? that she hates school?–and she doesn’t really try to locate it, a problem that will resurface in the book when she erupts into irrational bursts of violent rage and sinks into depression. “Together, we are like war veterans,” she writes of her college friend Elle. “We both feel horrifically wounded.” (Why? Nothing has happened to them at that point.) “Tears start running down my cheeks during class lectures. My eyes water in the laundry room, on the treadmill, and during student-union screenings of slapstick comedies,” she admits after she’s firmly ensconced in the rhythms of college nightlife. Many of the scenes Zailckas describes resonate, especially with those of us who’ve had similar moments. What’s frustrating about Smashed is her explanation. Is alcohol really the culprit? Or is it just the scariness of maturity? Is it possible these girls are just plain exhausted? Unlike her mentor, Mary Karr, or the writer Caroline Knapp (whose Drinking: A Love Story drew interesting connections between anorexia and alcoholism), Zailckas can’t identify her sadness, or explain it, partly because she’s still too close to how her ordeal feels.
When she joins a sorority, however, the idea that constant inebriation causes these women’s unhappiness becomes gripping, partly because Zailckas tells her story so well. The women starve themselves by day and pig out drunk at night. They are always drinking, and they are always crying. The house feels like a big, swaying ship of unnecessary misery, forlorn prisoners howling from below the deck, ghosts of drunk girls past haunting the kitchens. Inevitably, the messiness of drunken insecurity and the nearby presence of guys collude to make this a house of horrors. Anyone who’s ever blacked out will read Zailckas’s descriptions of “the way the mind remembers forgetting” and shudder–not unlike the way you do the morning after a hard night’s drinking, when a flash of your own stupid behavior suddenly mocks you in your memory. But when that happens and you know you’ve been with a man or woman the night before, the realization is something altogether different. Your body remembers things you do not.
Date rape might have been a major subject of Smashed, yet Zailckas isn’t quite sure that she was date-raped. The first time she wakes up beside a boy, when still a virgin, she doesn’t remember the experience, though her body aches; she fears for what she might have done, or what might have happened to her. And the second time? Well, Zailckas, by that point, feels complicit in her world of drinkers, and we can’t totally trust her memory of what happened. That’s not to say she’s an unreliable narrator, simply that by that point we’re well aware of how often Zailckas blacks out, and shellshocked by her self-hatred and carelessness. Date rape, it should be said, is much more complicated than yes and no, especially when alcohol is involved. To her credit, Zailckas understands that. The scene unfolds with heartbreaking nuance. She thinks she remembers wanting to say no, but doesn’t remember getting the words out. “Sorry about the whole sex thing,” the guy says. Zailckas ultimately writes, “In its hangover, my body reminds me that I am at fault.” But why did the guy apologize? She doesn’t check herself here; surprisingly, she doesn’t seem angry about it. Zailckas’s shame has overwhelmed even her sensitivity to her “women’s issues.”
In many ways, Smashed feels like Zailckas’s letter to herself: The memoir includes statistics on drinking and young women, she relates stories of drinking-related deaths, she blames advertising, she offers advice. She’s bolstering her case to herself: This happened, it’s everywhere, you’re OK, this is what you should do. Yet with that one passage, in which she drops the issue of possible date rape in a few sentences, it’s obvious that Zailckas’s shame still clouds her perception of things. It has her so confused that she can’t even recognize the difference between her mistakes and the possibility of someone else’s. She can’t discern what isn’t the fault of alcohol, because for her alcohol is the reason for everything. And, again, she feels compelled to apologize for drinking too much. It’s that impulse to be sorry, more than anything else she notes in her book about women and drinking, that strikes me as disturbingly girlish.
When she moves to New York after college, Zailckas has one of those powerful moments in which she wishes she were someone else. Or, perhaps, that she wants to grow up already, and shed the self-destructive sloppiness of her college years. “I do want a good life,” she writes. “More than anything, I want to be one of those people I see at sundown on weekdays. I want to be as laughing as the women who window shop with their girlfriends after the boutiques have lowered their steel security gates, or as lovely as the women who curl their hands into their lovers’ coat pockets, or as self-possessed as the women who lope behind their sprightly black Labradors.” What’s impressive about Zailckas as a writer is that, at times, she can evoke such sudden emotion out of these quiet observations.
And what’s impressive about Zailckas as a young woman is not necessarily that she quit drinking at 23–though good for her. It’s that she had the wisdom to realize that unhappiness wasn’t something that happened to her, but rather something of her own making, and that she needed to eliminate whatever it was that was preventing her from having the life she wanted. In that sense, Smashed, despite its marketing as a cautionary tale for would-be binge-drinkers, is a typical coming-of-age memoir, where growing up is about letting go of whatever stupid, unnecessary thing keeps us down.
Unfortunately, life is like that–there will be many more stupid things to let go of down the road. Shame, for Zailckas at least, might be one of them.