Drinking: A young story

Twenty-four-year-old memoirist Koren Zailckas goes beyond blackouts and hangovers to examine the emotional costs of binge drinking for young women.

Published January 31, 2005 9:24PM (EST)

"It's hard to be a gal with a book in this town," says first-time memoirist Koren Zailckas, smiling quickly before looking down at her tea latte with the intensity of someone divining her future in its frothy dregs. When I nudge her to expand on this claim, she blurts out, "No one gets their panties in a twist when Brad Land writes a memoir!"

Zailckas' book, "Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood," will not be published until Feb. 7. But already, she's inhaled a strong whiff of schadenfreude. Twenty-four years old, Zailckas has been out of college for just two and a half years, and labored only briefly in the journalism salt mines -- as an advertising assistant at Men's Journal -- before scoring a $150,000 contract from Viking to write about her life as a hard-drinking Massachusetts teenager and Syracuse University student.

The book is getting the hard sell from its publisher, with a six-city tour -- extremely unusual for a first-time author -- and a trip back to the presses even before publication. Zailckas' editor, Molly Stern, says that Viking printed "hundreds" of extra galleys, sending them to journalists, clinicians, politicians and anyone else who might respond to the alarm she's raising about the hard-partying ways of the nation's young women.

After early starred reviews in Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly (and anticipated reviews in People and USA Today), reporters are eager to talk to this teeny-tiny girl, dressed today in a black T-shirt, sneakers and jeans with cuffs wet from walking through the post-blizzard slush from her nearby East Village apartment. But interest does not always equal adoration. There's already been some sniffy commentary from New York media circles about Zailckas' age. The genre of female memoir, according to a recent New York Post article, "is on the verge of being inundated with confessional memoirs by girls whose main qualification is merely their extreme youth."

But, ironically, what may burn the throats of Zailckas' peers most is the ordinariness of her tale. A reader could easily close the book and say, "That was her big drunken girlhood? I got drunker than her! Where's my book deal?" Many of us have, in fact, been drunker than Zailckas, who quaffed her first tumbler of Southern Comfort with a bad-influence friend at 14. She also had her stomach pumped at 16, an admittedly dramatic turn of events, though not the result of a careening night of Hiltonesque table-dancing, but of naiveté about the time lapse between sip and buzz.

According to Zailckas, this memoir is not supposed to be one of those action-packed chronicles of dissipated wastrels and their coke-and-Prozac antics. "This is not the story of me being bad for badness' sake," she says. "I wanted to use my experience to make sense of the phenomenon of young girls pickling themselves." Indeed, deploying a potent concoction of anger, research and energy for self-investigation, Zailckas' aim is to answer the question of why many young women are unhappy. That answer, she feels, is The Drink.

In "Smashed," Zailckas' start-and-stop boozing from 14 to 22 binds her to other hard-partying women and then drives her away from them. It edges her closer to social ease and then leaves her humiliated. It brings fraternity boys into her life and then makes her hate them. The costs of her binge drinking include weight fluctuation, mistreatment at the hands of men, a feeling that something inside of her is broken, a lack of intellectual confidence, the loss of her place on the college cheerleading squad, a lot of ralphing in bushes, some epic hangovers, and a post-college New York morning on which she doesn't know whose futon she's awakened on.

The temptation while reading her book is to shrug and say, "Welcome to the world, honey." Zailckas is up on me by one pumped stomach, but I think I can take her in the drunken felony department (pouring a bottle of Southern Comfort into the frozen yogurt machine at the ice-cream parlor where I worked in high school, and then serving it to kids). Neither of us has had any headline-news trauma: no death or grievous injury, no falls from buildings or car crashes.

Zailckas says she is not an alcoholic, she is an alcohol abuser. In other words: She's inflicted lasting damage on herself by drinking, but she's not an addict. She has not had a drink in a year and a half, and claims she's not tempted to do so, though she admits that abstinence might not "make sense in 10 or 15 years." In her time on the wagon, she says, she has begun to get over her shyness without the help of social lubricant. Her friendships are "more authentic now." She has a more comfortable relationship with sex than she did in college, when, she writes, she didn't trust men "at all." Her current boyfriend Matt appears at the end of "Smashed," though Zailckas worries that her literary portrayal of him is "too white knight-y." "It wasn't finding a good man that stopped my drinking," she tells me emphatically. Zailckas is a feminist.

When I ask her what her current pleasurable indulgences are, Zailckas grins. She says she loves the Libertines and flew to see them perform at the Coachella music festival in California. She wears their pin on the outside of a black jacket on which she has spray-painted the words "Young and Angry" in red block letters. After thinking about her other nonalcoholic escapes for a few seconds, she offers up photography and reading. "Memoirs are like crack to me," she says casually and rattles off her favorites ("Liars Club," by her Syracuse mentor Mary Karr; "This Boy's Life," by Tobias Wolff; and "Speak, Memory," by Vladimir Nabokov) before moving on to her beloved poets (Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Robert Hass).

She may be painfully shy and, these days, have a taste for nothing stronger than chocolate mint tea. She may be self-deprecating and proud to proclaim that she has written herself as "the biggest asshole" in "Smashed," an assessment that is pretty fair. She may shyly prepare me for the fact that she is going to hug me at the end of our interview. But that "Young and Angry" jacket isn't a joke. Bitty Koren Zailckas is full of rage, and it bites through her mild good-girl aesthetic. She describes her fury as a senior journalism major, when reporters from Time arrived on campus to report on binge drinking and interviewed some of her friends. Zailckas disagreed with the article, which suggested that her female peers were getting wasted in an empowered attempt to outdo men at their own gin-soaked game.

"I thought that was so stupid," she says. She lowers her chin, twirls her straight curtain of brown hair into a rope. "I have been a ballerina, a cheerleader and a sorority girl," she says. "I was the girliest girl alive. No way was I trying to compete with men." But the Time story got her thinking about alcohol and her personal history. She moved to New York, landed at Men's Journal, and continued post-college drinking for a while. Hanging out in dive bars where bartenders tried to sell her expensive cocktails with names like "the miscarriage," she writes about an evening at an all-night diner when a manager taught her to say "I am a drunken little whore" in Portuguese. Upon waking up in a strange man's apartment with a friend, Zailckas flipped. She cut back and eventually stopped drinking, and started focusing on her writing instead. She wrote a short story about having her stomach pumped as part of a proposal for a memoir about drinking. An agent and her Viking contract followed quickly.

She's also angry as she girds herself for her debut effort's reception. We talk about a journalist who suggested on his blog that young female confessional writers including Zailckas, Abigail Vona, Melissa Panarello and Amanda Marquit engage in a "'Bad Girlz' smackdown" in which they "fight to the death, covered in mud or jello (or maybe they could all just make out)." Zailckas snorts as we discuss whether the same language would be used for her male peers. "Yeah, let's have Jonathan Safran Foer and Brad Land in boxer shorts. And they can all make out and have a big orgy," she says. But Zailckas is also pretty ticked at female journalists, who she says have asked her point-blank whether she thinks she got her book deal because she is young and pretty. Her response to me, if not to them, is, "No, I think I got this book because it's about an important issue and I'm a pretty good writer." And if people say she's too young to merit her own memoir? "I wrote it because I'm young. And it's important to have a young perspective. So fuck them."

Zailckas' writing voice is very young. While some baby memoirists (Vona, Elizabeth Wurtzel) rely on the outsize details of their travails, rather than on literary style, to power readers through their tomes, Zailckas moves her "I was soooo drunk" narrative along with prose naked in its poetic ambition and unleavened by irony or distance. "I feel like one of those ratty childhood bears that smells of spit-up and has one eye popping up," she writes. And then later, about a New York hangover, "Summer sun streams through my windows like light through a magnifying glass, and I toss and kick down the sheets, writhing like an ant doused in lighter fluid." She is deft with metaphor and dramatic buildup; but she has also faithfully recorded the ponderous whine of teenage self-examination so earnest (or petulant) that it is often painful to read. "Most days, I wish Anne Sexton were my mother," is the beginning of one chapter section. It's funny, partly because it is so ludicrously morose and wrongheaded, but also because we all probably wished something equally inane when we were teenagers.

"Smashed" is both literary memoir and polemic on young women and binge drinking, a mix that at times reads like a well-crafted term paper. Zailckas obediently footnotes statistics about the percentage of eighth graders who have tried alcohol and the mean age for first drinks, but also dots her text with references to Rilke and Plath. By the time she begins a sentence "In her essay 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,' Laura Mulvey suggests that films and the sexy starlets in them give our dirty thoughts free rein ..." I have to put the book down, because I'm pretty sure that sometime not so long ago, I wrote exactly the same sentence.

When Zailckas writes about seeing girls with beers in Central Park, "I catch a glimpse of what I looked like ten years ago, and I have to look away," she speaks directly to what was painful -- and a little aggravating -- about reading "Smashed." Zailckas is using the matrix of binge drinking, her poetry, academics -- Laura Mulvey! -- to impose order on confusions and fears of young womanhood, and reading it is enough to make any of us who spent years trying to do exactly the same thing -- or, honestly, still do -- suddenly feel like we've taken off all our clothes. She reminds me so much of my younger self that I want to scream at her, and at College Me: It's not just the booze, you silly girl! And it's not just "the gaze"! Anger fades, irony sets in! Don't be naive!

I ask Zailckas if -- a year after finishing this manuscript -- she is already dying to move on, whether she burns with shame when she thinks that part of the book's conceit might already bear the stain of youthful thinking. But she stands by her convictions, which have clearly been preserved partly by her ire at the alcohol industry and university structures reluctant to deal with the dangers of bingeing. In response to a question about what makes her angriest, Zailckas sends me a post-interview e-mail (sweetly signed "Love, Koren Z.") in which she writes, "It's ignorance (more accurately indifference) in the face of obvious suffering." Over tea, she spits out percentages about depression and date rape, about how booze is sold more aggressively to minors than to adults. She brims with fury about Samantha Spady, a drunken 19-year-old Colorado student stashed by her friends in a frat storage room and found there 13 hours later, dead. Five students, including Spady, died in September alone from alcohol-related injuries, she tells me. And a 20-year-old British woman recently became the youngest ever to receive a liver transplant, after years of teenage tippling led to cirrhosis.

Of course, "Smashed" doesn't include transplants or death. But there are some seriously scary close calls: a bad night on the Jersey shore in high school when she loses her girlfriend and later finds her in a beach house with strange men, covered in vomit and dressed in an entirely new set of clothes. Or when Zailckas herself, who assiduously protects her virginity into her junior year, wakes up naked in a frat boy's bed, with no idea of whether she has had sex for the first time or not. They're not tales likely to send shivers of surprise down the spines of most college-aged Americans, though that in itself is perhaps troubling.

Zailckas admits that if booze hadn't been her poison, she could well have whiled away her coltish years cutting or starving herself. She can't put her finger on how hours spent rolling kegs into woods would have been put to better use had she been a teetotaler. But Zailckas still cleaves to the belief that had she not stepped from sobriety's path so early, she would be a better-formed adult today.

She writes in her present, sober voice, "Nine years after I took my first drink, it occurs to me that I haven't grown up ... I should be able to hear my own unwavering voice rise in public without feeling my heart flutter like it's trying to take flight ... I should be able to stop self-censoring and smile when I feel like it. I should recognize happiness when I feel it expand in my gut." About Matt, whom she dates long-distance for a year, she writes: "Another girl might have learned to do this in high school: roosting on the kitchen counter or the fire escape with the phone cradled against one shoulder, soaking up stories, and learning that not all silences are bad."

Well, not necessarily. And if another girl had learned how to roost and cradle, she might not have learned how to write a delicate chronicle of her experiences. It is wishful thinking that one wrong turn or bad habit can keep us from being the self-confident, sexually mature, productive young women we believe we could have been. I don't think that too many screwdrivers are too blame for Zailckas' inability to maintain a steady voice or recognize her own happiness.

But in her tale there lies a larger pattern. Throughout "Smashed," Zailckas periodically lays off the hooch, then starts drinking again. It's a favorite syndrome for women. We quit eating, quit drinking, quit smoking. We quit talking to toxic friends, quit being sluts, quit being prudes. There is power in self-abnegation, deprivation, in foot-stamping "Nos!" But we're always falling off our wagons: drinking too much and loving immoderately, handing control to people and substances that make us feel bad about ourselves, until once again, we clamp down and punish ourselves for having given in. It's a cycle that marks and damages almost all of us, whatever our chosen poison.

Booze happens to be the skeleton on which Zailckas has hung her narrative. She insists it wasn't just a convenient way to sell her book, and I believe her. But if you boiled the alcohol off of "Smashed," you would have a story of a girl struggling with the fact that she feels terrible about herself and her place in the world. The oldest story there is.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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