With one stiff sip of Southern Comfort at the age of fourteen, Zailckas is initiated into the world of drinking. From then on, she will drink faithfully, fanatically. In high school, her experimentation will lead to a stomach pumping. In college, her excess will give way to a pattern of self-poisoning that will grow more destructive each year. At age twenty-two, Zailckas will wake up in an unfamiliar apartment in New York City, elbow her friend who is passed out next to her, and ask, "Where are we?" Smashed is a sober look at how she got there and, after years of blackouts and smashups, what it took for her to realize she had to stop drinking. Smashed is an astonishing literary debut destined to become a classic.
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Henceforth, my mother will refer to it as the time I almost died. We'll be sitting in the kitchen, both four and seven years from now. My dad will extend the leaves of the kitchen table to accommodate whatever college boyfriend I've brought home for the weekend. And my mom, while spooning out three-bean salad, will turn and ask him, "Has Koren told you about the time she almost died?"
I'll never know how much of that assertion accounts for melodrama.
Sure enough, it feels like death. On November 9, 1996, I wake up between the Tide-stiff sheets of my childhood Banister Bed and one thought occurs to me: I'm not wearing any underwear.
This is all the information I need to know that something horrendous has happened. At sixteen, I am never naked, save for ten minutes a day under the stream of a morning shower, and even then, I turn away from the bathroom mirror before I drop my towel to step in. Even alone, I am ashamed of the arcs of my own pale skin, particularly in the whitest part that spans between my hips. Given my tendency to thrash in my sleep and kick down sheets, I would never sleep without underwear.
My bed looks like it's been made with me in it. There's not a wrinkle in the comforter; its patched pastel pattern is pulled smooth and tight, clear up to my neck. When I start to unroll my arms and legs from the folds of the sheets, I feel a sharp pain in my elbow, like I've been sleeping on it, and I stop for a moment, trying to decide if that position is physically possible.
I decide to fold back the comforter from one corner, the way someone might diagonally halve a dinner napkin. I do it slowly. It's like opening a hand-addressed letter with no return address; I have a feeling I could find just about anything inside.
What I find under the covers looks like someone else's nightgown. It is a thin, white, cotton smock, stippled with green, and it cuts off at my knees. I can't imagine who I borrowed it from, since my friends and I all sleep in nylon shorts and our dads' XL T-shirts. When I feel around to the breach of cloth above my own pink ass, it dawns on me: I'm wearing a hospital gown.
I'm immobile in the face of my panic. I'm stunned to the point that I don't dare breathe or kick my feet in a way that would make even the faintest sliding sound on the starched sheets. I don't know how many minutes I lay like this, motionless in the small sag that my body makes in the mattress, barely breathing. I can't get out of bed until I've figured out what emergency landed me in this green and white gown. My room is directly above the dining room, and the littlest thump on the carpet can shake the chandelier; I don't want anyone downstairs to see it swinging and know I'm awake.
I feel like I'm arriving at the scene of an accident, like my physical self has been creamed in a hit-and-run and my mental self is the first one to find it. All I can do is run through the basic first-aid checkpoints, the first of which is: Can you move?
I pull my knees into my chest and wrap both arms around them with no problem, aside from the throbbing deep in my elbow. The back of my head is tender against the pillow, and my neck moves in a succession of arthritic-like cracks. But my joints move. I'm not paralyzed.
There are no clues in the form of a cast or a bandage or stitches. Lying down, I can't even make out any discernible bruises. Later, I'll be able to make out the purple impressions of fingers around my biceps, plus a golf ball-sized bruise on one ass cheek, a sort of yellowed half-moon around a raised, blue bump. But for now, the only visible signs that I'm injured are the hospital gown and a pink, plastic wristband that reads zailckas, koren.
The house is filled with the sounds of Saturday morning in motion. Bear is barking to be let in through the side door. There is the sound of coffee mugs clinking on countertops, and I detect the faint smell of bagels burning in the oven. I might even hear the far-off sound of my mother's whirring laughter.
My room appears equal in its sameness. There are dirty socks on the floor and stacks of Seventeen on my desk. On my bureau, there are notebooks on top of snapshots, necklaces on top of notebooks, and dust over just about everything, ever since I barred my mom from my room. Fall light filters through the window blinds and casts sunny stripes across the carpet. I can see my back-to-school sweaters brushing elbows in the closet; the price tags are still stapled to some of them, and I can make out the orange half-off stickers from Filene's juniors' department.
Mentally, I retrace my steps from last night to try to find this dropped memory.
As far as Friday nights go, it was typical. I spent it with my new friend, Kat Caldwell. She is a girl I made friends with a few months ago for no real reason other than we both drink and we're both sensitive. The first night I'd slept over at Kat's house, I saw that her sheets were streaked with mascara, and her Laura Ashley pillowcases retained the outline of her whole face: half-moon of foundation, faint ring of lip stain, black strokes from the flurried beating of her dripping eyelashes. She'd opened the drawers of her bureau to show me the old liquor bottles she hid under her childhood ballet costumes, and I'd laughed at dozens of tiny Lycra bodices, net tutus, and loose sequins that smelled of Tanqueray.
Kat came with a silver cord to more friends, like Abby and Allen, and I'd gone with all of them, plus my childhood friend Claire, to a Friday-night get-together near the lake in the next town over.
A girl whose parents were away in Vermont for a wine-tasting weekend threw the party. Her parents must have warned her not to have friends over while they were gone because she wouldn't let any of us inside her house to mix drinks properly, in cups. Instead, about a dozen of us -- friends, and friends of friends, and neighborhood kids who'd heard that someone's parents were out -- were in the backyard, slugging rum, tequila, and Kahlúa straight from their bottles. At one point, when I asked the girl if I could go inside to use her bathroom, she suggested that I drop my pants behind the hedges across the street.
The whole ordeal hadn't been the least bit thrilling. I'd sat beside Kat on a splintering dock. Our bare feet dangled over the edge of the black, rippling water, where we could occasionally hear fish jump, making plopping sounds like tossed coins. The wind propelled dead leaves across the lake's surface. The clouds swirled themselves around the moon.
I started by taking small sips from the communal bottles. I knocked back a few sips of generic rum, which tasted strong and acidic, and bit my throat. I soothed it with candied gulps of Kahlúa.
I also drank from a thermos filled with vodka that Claire had filched from a bottle in her parents' liquor cabinet. It was the same gallon-wide jug of Absolut that we always stole from, and then added water to, in an effort to recover the stolen inches. After months of adding and subtracting, the vodka had reached a diluted state that rendered it tasteless. It was as cold and wet as springwater, and we drank it fast.
The last thing I remember is telling Claire about the poet Frank O'Hara, the way he'd said that after the first glass of vodka you can accept anything about life, even your own mysteriousness. After that, my own mystery opens up.
There are only so many calamities that could have warranted this hospital gown. My first thought is that I lost my footing on the path leading up from the dock and cracked my knee in the place where it still wasn't fully healed from the surgery. One would think I'd remember that kind of fall, but perhaps the pain of it blacked me out.
For one horrible moment, it also occurs to me that Allen, who had driven, might have had too many sips of straight rum and veered the car off the road on the way home. It was only a month ago that a boy in our class got drunk and drove his car into a lake, where it sunk like an old tire, and he had to unroll the window to swim out. For a moment, I think whiplash could be responsible for my lumped head and stiff neck, not to mention the amnesia. But then I decide I'd surely remember something from the moments before we crashed: gasping, blackness spreading across the windshield, the sound of pine branches scraping the flanks of the car.
I should call one of the girls who'd been with me, to see if they can fill in the gaps. But when I look for the portable phone, someone has removed it from its cradle on my bureau, as if to prevent that from happening.
I step softly to my full-length mirror, using the ballet-walk where you stand only on the balls of your feet.
The image reflected back at me makes me cup my mouth with both hands: I look like a woman in a zombie film from the 1950s. My hair looks like it's been replaced with a Halloween wig; it is teased into a high pile of knots and dusted with dirt and leaves, and something sticky has lacquered the ends together. From this position, I can make out a whole range of fingerprints that wrap around my forearms in shades of brownish-blue and yellow. A cat-scratch is carved into the corner of my eye; aside from that, my face looks slack and pasty, but unmarked.
I can see now that I'm wearing hospital booties with my gown. They are blue ankle-socks with plastic beads on the soles, presumably so you won't slip on the linoleum floors while you're fleeing the ward.
I add another item to the list of possible accidents: psychiatric emergency.
My alarm clock says it's 10:30. That tells me that whatever happened must be serious because no one has bothered to wake me for my poetry workshop. I was scheduled to spend the weekend at a conference for Worcester County's most promising young writers, and it started more than two hours ago. The workshop is one of those college résumé padders that my mother would send me to in any state short of death. (Just two months ago, she forced me to spend a week at diplomacy camp at Washington, D.C., and just to spite her, I'd skipped the lectures on youth leadership to buy forties of beer and drink them with local delinquents on the hill behind the dorm.)
I would stay in my room all day, trying to figure out what happened, if I didn't desperately need a glass of water. My throat is so parched it feels raw, and each swallow is arduous.
I keep the hospital booties on because the morning has the cold nip of fall, but I trade the gown for a sweatshirt and a pair of flannel pants. I try to brush my hair, and realize with one painful stroke that the task could take all afternoon, so instead I wind the whole snarled mess into a lopsided bun. I look at myself in the mirror and wince before heading downstairs to meet my parents with the premonition that I am fucked.
It is my first blackout.
I will never again experience one so comprehensive. I get the details first from Claire, who I find pretending to sleep on the couch in the living room. My parents will rehash them with me again later, as will Kat and Allen and Abby when I see them Monday morning at school. The remaining gaps I'll fill in years later, when I get the courage to ask my father more questions, and when I see my emergency file.
I passed out on the dock in a puddle of my own vomit. I imagine it was mostly liquor because my dad told the doctor I didn't eat dinner that night. Before that, I pulled my shirt up over my shoulders to show my bra to someone's brother because, knowing I was slipping into oblivion, he'd asked me what color it was. I'd also professed a soul-shattering love for an older boy who had taken me for a drunken walk in the woods a few months earlier -- a boy who had pushed my back into the cragged banks of a stream and called me a baby when I wouldn't let him pull off my underwear.
After I tottered and fell sideways onto the planks of the dock, nobody could wake me. Allen, Abby, Claire, and Kat carried me up the hill to the road by my arms and legs, which is why my body bears what look like forty finger-shaped bruises. They dropped me a few times, too, which explains the raised bumps on my butt and the back of my head.
When they tell me this, I envision a dead body -- not my body, but the body of someone in a thriller movie who has just been clubbed with a paperweight and dragged in a bloody streak across the floor by her feet. When I ask them why they didn't roll me up in a rug, no one finds it funny.
The girl whose house we were at brought out a pair of pilled sweatpants because I'd retched all over my jeans. I can't imagine that she would have let me inside, given that I was liable to puke over all manner of Venetian rugs and calico curtains, so I'll come to imagine that they pulled off my jeans outside on the porch, leaving my underwear fully exposed while they struggled to stick my feet through the sweatpants' elasticized legs. Then they draped me across the backseat of Allen's car and drove me to Abby's house.
From what I can tell from the medical records, this whole ordeal took at least an hour. It was around 12:30. Abby's parents were asleep when my friends lugged me in through the front door.
They tried to give me a shower, to clean off the combination of liquor, vomit, dirt, and leaves that was adhered to me. I'll never know if I was fully naked or if they left my under-things on because I am too embarrassed to ask. Nor will I know if Allen was there while they did it, though I don't know how they could have held me under the showerhead without his strength. Afterward, they must have put me back into the sweatpants because they are there in the plastic bag that my dad carried home from the hospital, and they are all but crusted with vomit. My mom will wash them and insist that I return them, in a most undignified moment, to the girl at school on Monday morning.
By the time I was showered, I had already missed my curfew, so Abby called my father to tell him not to worry. She said I'd fallen asleep while we were watching a movie and asked if I could stay the night.
My father hadn't believed her. He asked to speak to her parents, and when she said they were sleeping, he asked to talk to me. I was dangling over the edge of her brother's bunk bed, getting sick again. In a second-long flash of memory, I recall someone shaking my shoulders and telling me to pull it together for two minutes, probably so I could ask my dad if I could stay the night. When they held the receiver to my ear, I slurred, "I'll be home in fifteen minutes, Daddy."
Years later, he will say it was one of those pivotal moments -- he sensed that the whole world swung on whether he went back to sleep or drove to me.
Claire went to the hospital with my father. She was an emergency medical trainee and knew how to calculate heart rates and breaths per minute, which she did throughout the thirty-minute drive.
After everything, it is the thought of Claire answering my dad's questions that makes me feel most guilty. He is intimidating when he's not trying to be, and bloodcurdling when he is. If he puts the full boom into his voice, he can make boyfriends tremble and customer-service reps cry. When he asked Claire what happened, she told him nearly the whole truth. She injected fiction only when he asked where we got the vodka -- she said older boys from the neighborhood brought it, instead of admitting that we poured it from her parents' depository of Absolut jugs.
When the car pulled up in front of the emergency room, my father says, he carried me through the doors the way he used to carry me to bed.
The doctors tested my urine for drugs. According to the doctor's notes, it was the only time I showed signs of life. When the nurse was trying to insert a catheter I kept muttering, "Stop, it's embarrassing," proving that even semiconscious, I was self-conscious. In my chart, there are ten pages of lab results, including all sorts of decimal numbers and strands of letters that I don't understand, but really don't need to. Alcohol alone was responsible for knocking me out, a combination of rum and vodka and coffee liqueur. On one page there is a long list of chemical compounds for which I came up nondetect.
Claire tells me the doctors seemed certain they would find some substance, besides alcohol, sweeping through my system. It is the year that everyone first read about Rohypnol, the brand name for flunitrazepam, the tranquilizer used to treat sleeplessness, anxiety, convulsions, and muscle tension. Four months earlier, two women who had been raped after someone slipped them Rohypnol testified before Congress to urge them to take action against the vast numbers of people who were smuggling the drug into the United States. One of them said of the man who raped her, "This guy could have sawed me in half and I wouldn't have known the difference." A classification known as "date-rape drugs" had emerged. And everyone in the ER thought I was on them.
My dad will say later that the doctors were far less compassionate when my test results revealed I was just another teenaged girl who'd nearly poisoned herself by drinking. I will always wonder, though, if the staff's lack of sympathy had more to do with another brief flash of a memory, in which I clawed at the tubes tethered to my arm and screamed at the faint impression of a woman, maybe a doctor or nurse, calling her a "dumbass bitch."
No one could imagine that I'd done this to myself. My dad, particularly, was convinced that someone held a gun to my head. It was beyond his comprehension that I'd willed myself to this level of past gone. I was an A student in English, psychology, and art. Sure, math and science were touch-and-go, but that just meant I was right-brained. As far as he knew, will was what I reserved for the PSATs and ballet auditions. It was what I used to solicit cash for the mall.
My charts say my skin was cold and clammy, which is one of the signs of alcohol poisoning, as is the fact that I was only semiconscious. When my tests came back they showed my blood alcohol content to be 0.25. A 0.4 BAC is considered lethal for the average person, but it can take less for young people and first-time drinkers.
At sixteen, I'm 5'2" and 105 pounds with a ski parka on, which means it would take about one hour of downing eight to ten drinks to kill me. Claire told the doctors I'd been drinking for an hour and a half. I'd had half a thermos of vodka, plus immeasurable sips of rum and Kahlúa, straight from the bottles. As the doctor told my father, a few more drinks and I'd have fell into a coma or died right there on the dock.
No matter how many ways I go over the story, I'll never know if some part of me sought that kind of close call. A good bit of it was inexperience; it was not waiting for all those gulps of liquor to absorb into my system, but just expecting to feel them right away. But I also wonder if that night wasn't the first glimmer of a budding death drive, what Freud called the instinct we all have to return to the perfect stillness we felt before birth. Other girls my age steered into that urge with starvation diets or razor blades, but I chose alcohol because it seemed far less fanatical. On nights when I felt sad, particularly, I could feel my drinking accelerate.
I'd been saddened a lot lately, and stressed. Even with new friends like Kat, high school was a nightmarish system of checks and balances. It required observing yourself constantly, making sure you distinguished yourself enough to be accepted, but not to the point where you might garner resentment. Schoolwork required inscribing index cards for hours, all the while maintaining the illusion that you didn't give a shit about the decimals of your GPA. Getting a date required acting just disinterested enough to make a boy interested in asking you. Every consideration required reconsideration. I'd begun waking up at 4:30 a.m. so I could reappraise my outfit for the school day; the fate of the next two years seemed to weigh on whether I chose suede cowboy boots or Adidas sneakers.
My parents always swore that in my childhood they had to let me win at board games. If, by the lucky stroke of the plastic wheel, my father would accidentally beat me at Candy Land, I would fly into fits of bawling that I'm told would last for hours. If I couldn't triumph, I didn't want to play. I would pack up my toys and go home. This was perhaps how I felt about being sixteen.
But I'll never know if I intended to forfeit. They pumped my stomach, and I sprung back to life that morning in my bedroom. I went directly back to homeroom. I did not pass "Go." I did not collect $200.
Saturday, at breakfast, my parents seem almost serene. The coffee is still steaming. The Saturday Boston Globe is still spread out beneath us, in sections. My dad is sitting across from me, with his elbows folded on the woven tablecloth my parents bought in Greece early in their marriage. My mom is at the head of the table, with her hands crossed on the paper's business section. Bear is pacing the floor by our feet, hoping for a dropped cube of cantaloupe. The seating arrangement makes me feel like a fox in an English hunting painting. It feels like everyone is closing in around me, and I feel the terror of being surrounded.
My mother starts the conversation and I end up turning sideways in my chair to face her. From this position, I can avoid the gaze of my father, which is sterner on account of his being at the hospital. My mom doesn't try to recap the time line. Instead, she says, "I assume Claire filled you in."
It makes me wonder if my parents had had Claire sleep on the living-room couch because it spared them the awkwardness of rehashing the gory details for me. In fact, we'd waited to have this discussion until my dad and I had driven Claire home. Even with the babble of NPR, the car was so silent I could hear the engine purring.
My mom says the problem is not that I've been experimenting with alcohol; she'd made it clear in Ocean City that I am old enough to do that. In fact, she says, it is probably a good idea for me to toy around with drinking now, while I still live at home, instead of waiting until I get to college, where the environment makes inexperience even more risky.
She says she wouldn't have cared if I'd been drinking at home last night. I could have drunk myself into a similar stupor, she says, gone upstairs, and passed out in my bed. At home, she would have known I was safe. But anything could have happened to me on that dock. She says, "What if you fell into the water and drowned? What if you had been raped?"
My dad says hardly anything. He sets his reading glasses down on top of the front page and looks at me with eyes I don't know how to interpret. I can't remember the last time he looked at me this unremittingly. The moments we spend together usually revolve around some type of project. Typically, we talk while we cook, spray-paint patio furniture, or make candles out of melted-down crayons. Those times, his eyes are focused on the peppers in the wok, or the jet from the paint can, or the bottle we fill with hot wax. He is the type of dad who expresses concern by constructing things, or cooking, or shopping for gadgets, by making sure I have a full stomach, a computer Zip drive, and Gore-Tex boots come spring thaw. I've never seen the expression he is giving me now. It's not outrage, really, or disappointment. It is the look of crude disbelief.
The only concern he voices aloud is about my missing the young writers' conference. He asks (rhetorically, of course), "Do you see how drinking makes you miss out on other fun activities?"
My mother cries a little, which always makes me cry, too. I've always been like a dog in the way that I absorb her moods. I have been listening to my parents speak with a tension like a rock in my throat. As my mother cries, I have to keep swallowing. In the end, I give up and bawl soundlessly. I use the sleeve of my sweatshirt to wipe the wetness from my face.
At the time, I think my mother cries solely because I've frightened her. But years from now, more drunken sons and daughters will surface among her relatives and friends. There will be comatose daughters on respirators, daughters laid up in hospitals with broken cheekbones, car accidents, DUI charges, and sons whose early admissions to Ivy League universities are threatened by alcohol-related suspensions. Years from now, my mother will explain more to me. She'll say, "When you choose to stay at home to rear your kids, a dead-drunk daughter makes you question an entire decade's worth of motherhood -- you wonder if the career you gave up made the slightest difference in the personalities you've been shaping."
My sister is eleven. As luck would have it, she is spending the night at a friend's house, so she misses all the clues that point to this black crime. My mom won't tell her about it until she's eighteen, when it's used as a cautionary tale to warn her off drinking, and by that time the handles of the liquor cabinet will wear a silver luggage lock. My sister will be appalled. But mostly, she'll mourn the fact that, as the youngest, she's always the last to know.
There is not much to say in my defense. There is no point in telling a fraction of the truth because there is no gray area in which to weasel. All the facts of the night are laid out on the table, like plates of fruit and toast.
While my parents talk, I nod like a dashboard Chihuahua and say, "I know, I know, I know." I certainly say I am sorry; it's the only thing I can think to say with the hospital bracelet still sliding up and down my wrist.
I am hangover-free due to the large bags of saline pumped through my forearm's thin veins. Still, I climb the stairs back up to my room and sleep for the rest of the day. It's like slipping back into the hole of the blackout -- in sleep, I can forget again.
Tomorrow, I'll go for the second day of the young writers' conference, telling the tweed-jacketed director only that I've been sick. In a low-lit corner classroom, I'll try to write a poem I decide to call "Lush," but I won't be able to come up with more than a few first words, scarred by cross-outs.
I know the whole ordeal needs to be written about. But two days afterward, I am still far too close to the night to see it clearly. I am looking only at the incident, and the result is a lot like the pictures in our biology textbook, taken at microscopic range, the ones that look like billowing clouds until you read the caption and realize you are looking at magnified cotton swabs. Years will pass before I can see the night of my stomach-pumping
Excerpted from "Smashed"
Copyright © 2006 Koren Zailckas.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsPreface
All You Can Drink
You're Pretty When I'm Drunk
Love in the Time of Liquor
Ascent and Decent
The End Has No End
What People are Saying About This
"Bookstores are flooded with boozy bios by former girls gone wild." This one rises to the top. -People
"Poised and elegiac... Smashed goes down with a slow, genteel burn." -The New York Times Book Review
"A mortifyingly credible story." -The New York Times
"Brilliant and horrifying." -The Baltimore Sun
Reading Group Guide
“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.
ABOUT KOREN ZAILCKAS
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.
A CONVERSATION WITH KOREN ZAILCKAS
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.