Much is made of the therapeutically self-limiting idea that society is colluding to make young women vulnerable; not enough is made of the odds that a girl will respond to bullshit by coming up tough. Female grit is believed to be rare and loud and somewhat mythological when it’s just as often the opposite, and the idea in general is due more serious credit, consideration, and concern. Luckily for us, it gets a good working-out in Sarah Hepola’s Blackout, a burnt-out sparkler of an alcoholism memoir and an immediate New York Times bestseller. The book makes a case for toughness as both a valuable alternate default for women as well as a terrific conduit to self-destruction—just as much as vulnerability, and perhaps even more so.
Hepola, who’s the personal essays editor at Salon, knows her way around the formulas of first-person writing: the performance of shame as a preface for redemption, the expectation (at least of female writers) that the narrator be vulnerable almost to the point of constant apology. She writes, “Personal essays work on this principle of inverted expectations. A writer friend described the arc like this: Let me tell you why it’s all their fault. Now let me tell you why it’s really mine.” That, neatly, is also the structure of the addiction memoir, whose first half draws on the things that get people addicted—the danger, the recklessness, the escape—and whose second half flattens out into something uncomfortably close to self-help. There’s something mealy about goodness, something gestural about the redemption that often closes out an arc.
In Blackout, Hepola can’t fully escape the narrative downside of sobriety, but her edit-sharpened instincts do a lot of work. The sober chapters that end the book do so quickly, and the blackout drinker in Hepola is still there, cracking jokes. Her style is bright, salty, cutting: when she writes about the year in Texas that she learned to bang out great stories by getting dead drunk first, she describes her work as having the “last-call honesty of someone pulling the listener close.” Sober, she’s retained that urgent tone.
But half of the grace and most of the draw of first-person writing is the way it can serve as vicarious fuck-up. You’ll read Blackout for the booze section, which is electric. Hepola grew up in upscale Dallas, “the land of rump-shaking cheerleaders and Mary Kay.” She was seven when she started sneaking beer from the refrigerator, her tiny synapses coming alive to “the fizz. The left hook of it. That wicked ka-pow.” She goes “woozy with rainbows.” She gets drunk for the first time on her sixth-grade summer, in an “arcade so epic it was called Star World. Dark rooms lit by neon, full of clinking machines and 25-cent shots at redemption. A bar for people who can’t drink yet.” She blacks out, “pierced with divine light.” It’s the first time she realizes what will become a defining factor of her shakily functional addiction: that you can go blank and keep cheerfully partying, and no one, unless they really know you, will know.
In college, at the comparatively liberal University of Texas, her reckless independence gets directed towards a cause. “Under cover of night and Keystone tall boys, I was full of righteous fire and brimstone,” she writes. A nascent feminist, she was “done sucking up to men.” But, as a college girl who drank too much, she had just started trying to fuck them. “I wore clothes that stank of hamper and Marlboro Lights, and it seemed to me that men got off on this new uncorseted persona,” Hepola writes. And it’s in college that she has her second big blackout and first monumental public embarrassment: on a game day, when she pulls down her pants and moons a car of friends in bumper-to-bumper traffic, waking up naked in her parents’ house under a ripped-down poster of James Dean.
It’s a mess, a “humiliation buffet,” and it’s just the beginning. But both in the book and in the events it narrates, Hepola’s resilience and sharp humor keep the events somewhat irresistible, even as they become increasingly dark. She goes on to fall down marble staircases, pass out in a stranger’s dog bed, perform forensics on a corn dog when she finds it in bed in the a.m. She steals the mic at karaoke; afterwards, the bartender cuts her off. “Cut off? Why? For nailing that fucking Prince song?” Hepola writes.
Her friends laugh along for a minute, but they get distant and exhausted with their loud mess of a drinking buddy, who, even when she gets to almost-burned-the-house-down territory, keeps mistaking her greatest problem for a cure. On the grudging brink of sobriety, she writes:
Drinking had saved me. When I was a child trapped in loneliness, it gave me escape. When I was a teenager crippled by self-consciousness, it gave me power. When I was a young woman unsure of her worth, it gave me courage. When I was lost, it gave me the path: that way, towards the next drink and everywhere it leads you. When I triumphed, it celebrated with me. When I cried, it comforted me. And even in the end, when I was tortured by all it had done to me, it gave me oblivion.
And the thing is: she’s not wrong. Drinking helped her until it didn’t. It was equal parts solace and armor, and maybe this is my own essay-ridden job talking, but it was specifically gendered armor on top of that—a chain mail suit for a last-call Joan of Arc. Booze made a girl who hated her weaknesses lose sight of them entirely; it made Hepola, already tough and adventurous and independent, even more so. About her childhood beer binges, Hepola writes, “There is ecstasy in the room you are not supposed to enter, the room no one knows about. Ecstasy when everyone is gone and still you are held.”
Blackout is most fascinating at this line—where salvation and downfall meet, personal and political and back again. It’s also where the book tugs out most on gender. Hepola notes that by the late ‘00s, “bumbling, blotto heroines were a staple of our narratives.” There was “nothing edgy or remotely shocking about a woman like me reporting that hey, everyone, I fell off my bar stool.” But girls night and wine becoming acceptably synonymous is a liberation partial at best, and with a glass in hand, Hepola dodged the expectations that were and are still remaining: that a woman should be responsible, sweet, well-behaved, apologetic; that she’d find happiness in a partner, and think of other people’s convenience before her own. Hepola writes about late nights at the houses of her Dallas coworkers, a wife cleaning the kitchen while she stays in the living room with the dude, her equal, laughing and finishing the bottle at hand. She was an alcoholic, and she was onto something.
Hepola’s refusal to be put in any sort of place is part of the reason her self-destruction takes so long to play out. She’s not embarrassed about any of it. either—not till she sobers up, at least, and counts the corn dogs—and this is another point where Blackout works against the presumption of female vulnerability. It’s a familiar line about women that we’re all being shamed constantly, but, sorting through the monstrous zoo of self-interest that is my inbox, I frequently think that plenty of us are not shamed nearly often enough. Hepola writes about this: “Women are so careful with each other’s feelings. We know the world shoots poison daggers into our egos—and we shoot them into ourselves—and so we rush to each other’s sides for triage.” What this resulted in, however, was a situation where no one sat Hepola down and told her get it together, you fuck. For so many reasons, it is bad to assume universal delicacy in women. “My problem wasn’t a deficit of acceptance,” she writes. “It was too much.”
There’s a side of this perspective—of Hepola’s innate temperamental ability to handle chaos—that feels somewhat uncommon and also politically necessary. An inevitable part of a memoir about blackouts is the sexual complication: Hepola’s told the truism that “when men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.” Versions of this narrative recur in her life; though only a few incidents are truly unsettling, she repeatedly has sex with people after blacking out what she presumes to be a yes. There’s a strain of thinking that would insist that she was raped, over and over—that she couldn’t have consented while blackout. That’s a hard line, with no room for the nuance of this memoir; it’s also not Hepola’s reading, and Hepola’s is the reading that counts.
She addresses this topic most directly in a section towards the end of the book, where a childhood friend plays her an audiotape she made at age 13. Sounding much older, she narrates a sexual experience that could feasibly have led to a common revelation among women, in which you realize—am I right, ladies—that some early sexual experience was fairly close to rape. It’s a vital realization, but it’s equally important that Hepola knows she was “the kind of 13-year-old girl who didn’t want to be protected.” Defining victimization is not always interesting at a personal level; understanding what exactly about you is engaged and altered by danger, transgression and violence, on the contrary, is.
“My consent battle was in me,” she writes: six words, and some of the smartest on the issue I’ve seen. For Hepola, it was her toughness—just as much as the alcohol and the gender politics—that got her into and out of and through that bedroom. Even at 13, she had an urge to be unfazed, to be able to handle anything. In the transcript of her narration, you can hear how quickly the grit in teenage Sarah Hepola took over. It’s already helping and hurting her without her knowing it. The particular fights of the tough girl are already in her blood.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, image from Grand Central Publishing