Sarah Hepola: Detective Work on Your Own Life

Blackout

Sarah Hepola’s new memoir, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, begins with the sound of her high heels clicking down a corridor in a Paris hotel lobby after an evening spent downing cognac, wine, and oysters on assignment with a hefty per diem. Anyone watching her, she writes, would “simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory had just snapped in half.”

“When the curtain lifts again,” she writes, “this is what I see. There is a bed, and I’m on it. The lights are low. Sheets are wrapped around my ankles, soft and cool against my skin. I’m on top of a guy I’ve never seen before, and we’re having sex. A blackout is the untangling of a mystery. It’s detective work on your own life.”

Blackouts are common among heavy drinkers. (Writes Hepola: “Behold the risk factors for blacking out: a genetic predisposition to holding your liquor, drinking fast, and skipping meals. Oh, and one more: being female.”) But in Hepola’s telling, they also become a metaphor for all that is lost through drink, which makes her story feel like an instant classic, entirely equal to, and yet distinct from, the most-loved stories of young women who drink too much, including Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, and Kate Christensen’s novel In the Drink.

As her drinking escalates and her friends begin to tell her stories that sound “like the work of an evil twin,” she finally decides to get sober. But once she does, the detective work on her past becomes the heart of her first book.

As it happens, I knew Sarah in her drinking days. She was my most trusted editor at Salon.com, where she edits personal essays to this day, and my neighbor in Brooklyn. The two of us often had long, intimate conversations about writing and men — and drinking (looking through our long, funny emails before this interview, I found a particularly prescient one in which the two of us compared how much dinner we had before a media party that ended in wee hours. I had peanuts; Sarah, a slice of bread and hunk of cheese).

Hepola stopped drinking five years ago. She moved out of Brooklyn to a tiny, beautiful apartment on Jane Street in Manhattan, then a year later back to her hometown of Dallas, Texas, where she is tearing up the town writing for local and national publications, and still editing essays for Salon. When we spoke last week, she was back in New York, and I was in Berlin. — Amy Benfer

The Barnes & Noble Review: So where are you now?

Sarah Hepola: I’m at the Jane Hotel, only two blocks from where I used to live on West Fourth and Jane. You can look out over the Hudson. I’m looking out over the Hudson right now. This area is where I spent the first year of my sobriety. You know when you are just in a place of total despair, and you need water, or mountains, or ocean or something? Getting your ass into nature will give you some sort of relief. I booked a hotel here because I always liked it here.

BNR: I remember that place!

SH: I’ve had so many lives in New York.

BNR: You were sober once before in New York, right? Twice? I knew you during those years. What I remember was you sort of going back and forth.

SH: While I was friends with you and living in Brooklyn, that’s when I had started trying to quit. I was going in and out of AA meetings. I’d get two weeks and I’d quit. All this gets condensed in the book. When I talk now about “my first year of sobriety,” I’m talking about five years ago when I finally committed to the program. For the two years leading up to that, I was in that terrible place: “I’m sober! No, I’m going to drink tonight! No, I’m not! Don’t let me drink! No, let me drink!” I was at the point where I knew I was going to have to quit, but I didn’t want to. It was basically a two-year mourning period for the change I was going to have to make.

BNR: You have written many times about actually drinking while working (I love the line in your Cat Marnell piece in which you talk about feeling like your computer was levitating in your apartment). Were you actually able to write while drunk? Why do you think that is? And was it good?

SH: Drinking was a way to lower my self-doubt and quiet the voices of criticism, which are the things that conspire to make writer’s block. I had some leveling bouts of writer’s block. I just couldn’t get started. Blank page for hours. And much like I talk about with dating, I needed the booze to nudge me into action. Just get me out there.

I became experimental. I lived alone, in this funky little garage apartment, and I would get really drunk and write, kind of the way musicians get loaded and play their instruments. It feels good, this rhythmic motion. But you also want to find out if the substance allows you to access alternate dimensions, which is probably way too much credit that I’m giving to Yellow Tail Merlot. Because the answer is no, the drinking never made me a better writer. Never. What it did was it allowed me to speak without fear of judgment. It loosened my inhibitions, and I was one deeply inhibited young writer. A better, more sustainable solution is to find other ways to lower your inhibitions. Don’t rely on power that comes from a glass.

BNR: People really want to read young women writing about their sexy, dangerous escapades, and yet they also punish them or refuse to take them seriously as writers for writing about their sexy, dangerous escapades. You and I both came up as women writers on the Internet, particularly Salon, known to have some of the meanest commenters of all time. Did you find it scary to write a book that tells such personal stories about your life?

SH: Amy, I open my book with me naked, on top of a guy, having sex. What have I done? What have I done? I think about this all the time. You know I do. I wanted to open with that scene, in which I was so numb, because I also wanted to spend the rest of the book showing the emotional stakes of that moment, what had been lost and what needed to be discovered again. I wanted to take the reader along with me to the place in sobriety where the opposite was true: I was so scared to be seen and touched, I was terrified of physical closeness. One of the biggest challenges of my sobriety was to be held and to hold another without any anesthesia to calm me. Because that is true and meaningful intimacy — understanding the risk, and taking the jump anyway. Not drinking yourself to the place where you don’t care whose bed you trip and fall into.

BNR: Blackout is the title of your book, but it also works well as a metaphor to tie all themes of the book together. In the book you talk so beautifully about being a detective in your own life, trying to figure out things, where the people around you know more things about your life than you do.

SH: That phrase that you said is so true, and it still troubles me even today: People around you know more about you than you do. When someone talking to me about how to focus the book said the word “blackout” to me, it was like a lightning bolt. It was like, Oh my God, you just put your finger on the through-line to my entire life. “Blackout” is also such a good metaphor for the denial of the problem drinker. I didn’t experience the evening; I didn’t remember it. That didn’t exist for me. But what you have to eventually realize is that it does exist.

You don’t have to remember something for it to have a profound effect on the people around you, how they see you, what they think of you. That’s really hard to take. Like most human beings, I’m really invested in what other people think of me. I want them to think well of me. I want them to think I’m a good person. I want them to think I’m a together person. There were all these episodes in which I was presenting a self that I didn’t even remember the next day.

Over the years, that detective work on your own life, that is the blackout: You have to wake up and say, What did I do, where are my text messages? I’m so glad, by the way, that I stopped drinking before the real age of social media, so I didn’t have to think, Oh my God, what did I put on Facebook, what did I put on Twitter? All these things are so public. That is the evidence trail that people immediately go through now: You go to Facebook, you look at your text messages, you look at Twitter, you dig through your receipts, look at your credit card statements.

BNR: People really don’t understand blackouts and sometimes confuse them with passing out. But that’s the thing, right? You don’t know you’re in a blackout, and your friends don’t know you are in a blackout — you are still awake, you are still moving, you can be articulate. But if you’re blacked out you can do a hell of a lot more damage.

SH: There’s something so wheels-off about a blackout. Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in his book, “I felt as if I’d been let loose on the town.” It does have that feeling of whoa, that was me without any of my governors. I was just walking and talking and interacting and what the hell?

But, yes, it’s incredibly important to realize the person experiencing a blackout doesn’t have awareness of it, and your friends don’t necessarily know you’re in a blackout. People keep asking me, “Well, is it kind of like sleepwalking?” I needed to talk to a researcher to find out what the neurological similarities are there. Aaron White at the NIAAA, who I spoke to for the book, compares it to early Alzheimer’s. The person thinks they are in engaging, it’s just that their brain is not recording. They have no indication they are in a blackout at that moment.

There are signals. I was talking to someone recently, and I knew they were in a blackout, because every ten minutes that person would tell me the same thing they had said before. You can really tell, That person is really not home right now. They’re talking, they can engage, they can have real feelings. I know I used to do this to people all the time. They’d have very long conversations with me. I would tell them intimate things. They would have no idea that the next day I would have no memory of it.

BNR: As you point out, blackouts have physiological roots, and women are more susceptible to them, because we are generally smaller, women tend to worry about their weight and thus eat less before they drink.

SH: There’s two things: We metabolize our alcohol differently, which means we can get drunker faster, even if we’re the same size as a man. And we’ll skip meals. We’ll say, I don’t want to eat dinner because I’m going to go out drinking. College girls do that all the time.

Also, Amy, I did not know how a blackout worked. I had dealt with the chaos of it all those years, but I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know the risk factors. I kind of developed my own theories. I knew if I didn’t eat, I could more easily black out. And that is indeed a big risk factor: skipping meals. But I had this idea that, you know, red wine makes me black out. I ascribed it to certain liquors.

BNR: “No more brown! Only beer!”

SH: Like, my body gets along with vodka, but not bourbon. In a sense, that’s sort of true. Bourbon did make me kind of a mean drunk. I do think alcohol has different personalities. But I would black out on vodka, too. That’s the problem — you can’t say, Oh, vodka is a safe space! No, it’s also liquor. It’s how much you drink and how fast you get drunk. That is what shuts the hippocampus down. And also this genetic predisposition, which I clearly have.

BNR: Right. There’s this really sweet moment in the book when you talk with your dad years after you’ve quit, and he says that he had a problem with alcohol.

SH: It’s funny, because in my college years, my dad would sometimes drink a bottle of wine a night, and my mom would say to me, “You know, I think your dad may have a drinking problem.” And I’d be like, Mom! You’re not a drinker! You don’t understand how people drink! Leave him alone!

But I cared when my dad said those words to me, when it was not me or my mom putting our labels or interpretations on him, but him saying, I think I have these alcoholic tendencies too.  It was one more piece of data about these genetic links, which I already knew because, come on, I’m Irish and Finnish. And it showed me how much I didn’t know my own father. I thought, I’ve known you for forty years, and you’re still a stranger to me.

BNR: And there’s definitely different ways it manifests itself. It’s very different if you’re a quiet suburban father drinking alone at night in your living room than if you’re a young, urban woman out in the city.

SH: Absolutely. My father was the kind of guy who just sat quietly in his armchair. He didn’t party his way through college. He had to work at a freaking paper route in college so he could pay for it, because he was a child who grew up in the housing projects. I was a child of privilege, even though I never saw it that way, because I was surrounded by extreme wealth.

BNR: We used to talk about doing this story for Salon one time we kept calling “The Drinking Class” — the idea that educated, urban overachievers and college students have this heavy drinking culture.

SH: Man, we were given so much. And we just — I just — drank it away apparently. I took my freedom and ran it into the ground. It’s interesting that in America, drinking is a sign of affluence among women. Globally, it’s associated more with lower socioeconomic status among men. Basically we have the luxury of free time. Leisure, right?

BNR: But then you have that terrifying line: “Men do things to other people, women have things done to them.”

SH: Which is Aaron White’s line. When he said it, I felt chills run through me.

BNR: In the book, you write about a lot about sex you don’t remember, including that opening scene in which you basically come out of a blackout in a stranger’s bed in a hotel room in Paris, not knowing how you got there. In the few years since you began writing the book, the issue of whether a drunk person can even consent to sex has become a huge cultural and political issue. What are your ideas about alcohol and consent? Have they changed since you began writing the book?

SH: One of the potentially controversial situations around this book is consent, and I know some people will say the opening scene of my book is a rape. During the years I was working on the book, this conversation became explosive. It startled me, because I was seeing a way of thinking about it that had not been what I had thought before. That’s what a new generation of young people does, right? They challenge the way you see the world: I draw the lines this way; they draw the lines that way. Which part of their lines are smarter and better?

I don’t believe that one generation gets it right and one generation gets it wrong. The great thing about all of this is that we are talking about alcohol and consent, which throughout my drinking career was not a conversation. And I don’t know if that represents a generational trend or if that represents a personal blind spot. I was never asked the question, Were you too drunk to have sex? Instead, it was more like, High five! You go! You just had a drunken one-night stand with a British guy! Good for you.

BNR: One of the reasons drinking and consent may be so fraught for those of us who came of age in the ’90s and early 2000s is because drinking and casual sex was a kind of parity with the guys. And not being all girly and needy about it was considered a point of pride.

SH: Exactly. The spirit is: You’re not going to date that person. You’re not going to fall in love, you just fuck that person. Now move on. I would really like to see a man write with honesty about drinking and consent. I don’t know if we’ll ever see that. But I’ve had conversations with my guy friends who have said, “You know that period when women decided that the greatest thing was to get really drunk and sleep with whoever they could? That was the greatest period in history for men. We didn’t even have to try anymore.”

BNR: Clearly, we all agree that a passed-out person who is actually unconscious cannot consent to sex. But the blackout is literally the gray area — a person who may be walking and talking and actually give enthusiastic consent, but it’s more difficult to see the signs that they are, as you say, not really home.

SH: I agree with you completely. When a woman is unconscious, clear line in the sand: She cannot consent. Anything that happens after a woman is unconscious is rape.

But blackout is the gray zone of consent. When you are in a blackout, someone else can’t necessarily tell. As far as the law is concerned, when someone is in a blackout, they are still responsible for their crime. For instance, if I rob you in a blackout, that’s not a mitigating circumstance. The question is: Should there be a different standard for consent? That’s a tough and interesting question. The way my sense of justice works is: If men are responsible for what they do in a blackout, women should be too. Unless they are visibly incapacitated. The law says that anyone who is incapacitated is unable to consent, and when someone is in a blackout, they certainly can be. Vomiting, falling down stairs, as I sometimes did. They can’t walk, they can’t talk right, they’re a mess. Some blackouts look like that. But a lot of the other blackouts I was in, I was presenting as a person who was drunk, who was going after what she wanted. To me, that is still valid consent. I know people will disagree with me. But that’s how I shake it out in my head. I am more interested in the conversation about why women like me found it so necessary to get drunk to become sexual and why that became an imperative prop in my romantic life.

BNR: And have you figured it out?

SH: I have a ton of theories, and one of them is a huge body-image consciousness. I did not feel comfortable in my own skin, and I needed to drink myself to a place where I could be. The other is that I have neurotic tendencies. When I’m with a guy, I’m constantly like, Ah, nose hair! And that will keep me at a distance, sitting on my couch with my Netflix. I was always trying to nudge myself to get out there. Alcohol became a way to do that. And then sometimes you take it too far, and that’s when you lose control of it.

Sobriety is also detective work on your own life. You quit drinking with certain assumptions. One of the main assumptions I made was that my drinking didn’t affect anyone but me: I’m living alone, and I’m taking care of shit. So I’m fine, y’all. It doesn’t hurt anyone else but me.

One of the things I’m having to learn over the last five years, and I’m still learning it, because of this damn book, people are still reaching out to me and saying, “I was so worried that night.” I’ve had to say “I’m so sorry” so many times. Not only that I made people worry, but I made them take care of me. I prided myself on being this independent person.

But when I quit, I realized, Your drinking affected everyone who was close to you in your life. Not only because they had to take care of you but because they worried about you, because your death, or anything that happened to you would have affected them deeply. My parents, who didn’t know about a lot of this stuff, because I didn’t let them know, who only have one daughter, would have given me anything in the world if they thought it would keep me out of pain. And I continued, and continued to put myself in harm’s way.

I saw a piece — I have a Google alert for binge drinking — about a young woman who fell over a rooftop in Manhattan and died. Just that week, I had posted this story in Salon about all the stairs I fell down, including one night when I saw my friend Allison who told me, “You fell down my stairs, and the stairs were marble.” I have no memory of this. I don’t even remember being physically hurt by this, which is crazy.

A week before that woman fell off her rooftop, she had posted a picture on Instagram of her feet dangling off the rooftop balcony, and one of her friends had commented on the picture, “That scares the bejeesus out of me.” She responded, “Well I have a lot of whiskey to help me out.” I cried when I saw that. I just kept looking at her face in the photograph, and she was very young and beautiful. And I thought, that could have been me.

BNR: One of my favorite memories of you in New York was the night Obama got elected. The two of us were in Commonwealth, one of my favorites bars in Park Slope, everyone was in the streets, all our friends were packed into this bar, and when they announced the election results on the TV, I remember the two of us standing on this bench, holding hands. When I think of bars, I think of community and friends and adulthood. Do you miss these kinds of highs? Have you found that you have replaced them with something that feels more real?

SH: Oh my God, that night. It was in my book in one of the early drafts, because it was filled with such beautiful communal transcendence. Everyone from the bar spilled into the street, and we were all holding hands, drunk and dancing in a circle, holding up traffic. I loved everyone, and everything was happy and new, and history had cracked open, and you know what? As gorgeous as that memory is, it’s also indicative of the delusion of the drinking life. Everything is going to be better now! I love you all! Well, no, we’re still a country stuck inside our own mistakes, and I don’t love you all. Some of you are probably not good people. So yes, I miss that feeling, but I still get it, just in different places. Two of the women who helped me in my first year of sobriety came to my reading in New York, and we were hugging each other with tears spilling out of our eyes. No words, just pure joy. It was like: Oh my God, we made it. We’re here. Isn’t life crazy?