Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (2015)

Blackout opens in Paris, where journalist Sarah Hepola has been sent on an assignment. She remembers drinking cognac, smooth and sophisticated in its distinctive snifter. She has flashes in the cab back to the hotel, walking carefully across the foyer so as not to display her drunkenness to the concierge and then...nothing.

This happens to me sometimes. A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching me wouldn't notice. They'd simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.

Hepola blacked out, and when she woke up, she was having sex with a stranger. Hepola is an alcoholic, a blackout drinker. She describes a blackout as:

..the untangling of a mystery. It's detective work on your own life. A blackout is: What happened last night? Who are you, and why are we fucking?

A blackout occurs when a person's blood alcohol is so high that their brain simply stops making longterm memories. The person doesn't pass out - they can still talk, dance, (fuck...) but they have no memory of it the next day. Hepola was a blackout drinker: her Saturday mornings were characterised by questions like the ones in the quote above. But while blackouts may have been common for her, she was also an alcoholic: she drank often and she drank a lot.

Blackout: Remember the Things I Drank to Forget is an account of how Hepola became an alcoholic and then came out the other side, alcohol free. It starts when she was a child, transplanted from Philadelphia to Dallas, Texas. Her childhood is characterised by poor self-esteem and a lack of ability to fit in: as the poorest kid in a rich district, other kids were making fun of her house and her parents car. She also grew up with an often-absent mum and an extremely unexpressive father, although she does not blame them for what happened to her. By the time she was a teenager, she was sneaking sips of beer from half-opened cans her parents left in the fridge. It was by drinking that she was able to make friends at school, with alcohol breaking down the barriers between different social groups. Hepola used alcohol to give her courage; to let the wild child within out. This continued through college and into her working life until, 20 years later, she reaches rock bottom while living in New York City.

I have written before of my deep and abiding love of the drunk memoir, and this is one of the best. Hepola's writing style is honest but not brutal. She describes perfectly the conflicting feelings of being cripplingly shy and wanting to be famous at the same time. She is genuinely funny without being flippant, which is a fine line to balance with this subject matter. I really enjoyed reading this book - even the bits after she sobers up, which are usually the boring parts. Obviously the references to AA and a higher power were fairly eye-roll-causing (AA really does rub me up the wrong way) but I felt happy that it helped her and that she was able to recover from her years of pain.

In the final chapter of the book, Hepola returns to Paris to try to find out what happened that fateful night but she couldn't: all the people she met then had left. It's a fitting end for a great book about learning to accept the person one is and the pain one carries - these things can't be changed or fixed but they do need to be lived with. An excellent drunk memoir; four stars.

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