Sunday, March 30, 2014

Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston (2014)

The reason I borrowed this book was fairly simple. It was a Friday night and I was stuck at work with no hope of leaving soon. To take a quick break I checked out my library’s “new to the library” ebook section and when I saw the title Drink while wishing I could leave my office and have one, it seemed serendipitous. However, after realising the subtitle was “The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol”, I wished my motivation had been a bit more intellectual and a bit less about wine…

Like High Sobriety by Jill Stark (which I loved, review here), Ann Dowsett Johnston is a heavy drinker whose writing of this book was inspired in part by her own problematic relationship with alcohol. A key difference between the two, however, is the age of these writers – Stark was on the cusp of 30 while Dowsett Johnston is closer to 60. This affects how they frame their narratives: for Stark, the concern is what she might become if she continues her current drinking pattern while Dowsett Johnston is an alcoholic who is no longer drinking.

Both of these books place drinking within a cultural context (for Stark, Scotland and Australia and for Dowsett Johnston, Canada and the US) and the personal experiences of their authors are supported by sociological research. The research that Dowsett Johnston presents is alarming. For example, there is a consistent increase in the amount of alcohol college students drink when they go to university. For the teenagers who have a drinking problem before they go to uni, this increase means that their drinking shifts from problematic to alcoholic while, for others, it encourages and normalises binge drinking and negative relationships with alcohol. This is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed but, as is discussed in the book, how to best do this?

Dowsett Johnston’s focus is on women and alcohol. In part, this is because women are the group of society whose drinking has increased the most over the last 30 years and in part because she herself is an alcoholic. Some of the connections between woman and alcohol noted in Drink are interesting; for example, that women drink because of the pressure to “have it all” caused by their increased presence in the workplace without a decrease in their responsibilities at home. She also identifies a common trend with female alcoholics: they often suffer abuse or trauma at a young age, start drinking in their teens and, as they grow up, their drinking becomes worse.

The way Dowsett Johnston discusses these two contributing factors is my biggest problem with the book. While I think it’s both valid and true to say that the “have it all” myth is incredibly damaging for women, I got the strong sense that Dowsett Johnston was blaming women for this being so rather than addressing the social and cultural gendered expectations of women that contribute to the creation and perpetration of the myth itself. After identifying the trauma-teenage drinking trend, Dowsett Johnston interviews many many many many women whose stories all follow the same trajectory. I’m not sure if it’s because she felt obliged to use every interview she got or if she thought her reader was a bit simple, but after the third interview in which a woman with glowing eyes and clear skin detailed the horrible things that were done to her and that she did herself before becoming sober, I felt both depressed and (as awful as this sounds) a bit bored.

Dowsett Johnston is an experienced journalist and a skilled writer. While this means the book is well written, easy to read and its arguments are presented persuasively, it is certainly not an unbiased book. After spending a considerable amount of words discussing the alcoholic behaviour of her mother and the women I mentioned above - some of whom Dowsett Johnston scorns for wanting to remain anonymous – the drinking that Dowsett Johnston says was so bad that it led to her leaving a job and her relationship breaking down is only coyly referred to, leading me to question why the drinking of others is fair game for discussion but hers is not. I also found very problematic the endorsement of Alcoholics Anonymous given the organisation’s religious agenda and past treatment of women. So, while Drink is an interesting book, I think High Sobriety is a more honest evaluation of the issues of alcohol and society and I think Stark, while a less skilful writer and journalist, is also much more fair and less judgemental than Dowsett Johnston.

Three stars.

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