Book review: Memoir recounts struggle with alcoholism
“Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” by Sarah Hepola
While reading Sarah Hepola’s memoir “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” I was moved by the author’s vulnerability. It must have taken immense courage to write this story. But I think the writing of “Blackout” also took power, the same kind of power it took for Sarah Hepola to stop drinking alcohol and become sober. When I say power, I don’t mean strength, though people often talk about alcoholism in terms of weakness and strength. Instead, power means you get something back.
What Sarah Hepola got back was her writing voice: an original and powerful voice — original in its vulnerability and powerful in its compassion.
When Hepola was younger, she viewed drinking and writing “as fundamentally opposing activities — like eating and swimming.” Later, she became a journalist with a good job, and she tells us her drinking became a necessary part of her creative process. Drinking was a “giant fishhook dragging my inner critic out of the room.”
In this memoir, fear becomes a plaything, a creative companion Hepola has turned into a bestselling story. It’s her own story, following “the greatest, most important relationship of (her) existence” from the time she was 7 years old, putting her lips to her mother’s beer cans in secrecy, to her first time getting drunk and blacking out, through her searing experiences as an adult alcoholic.
The story turns on an experience Hepola had one night in Paris while on a work assignment: She blacked out and woke up in bed with a stranger. Later, in her sober years, she returned to Paris to the same hotel, searching for something she lost.
Loss is the most enlightening theme of Hepola’s story. She had to let go of the lightness she had found when she was drunk — a lightness and honesty others loved and found funny. Her even editor encouraged her to “drink more at work.” When she agreed to perform at a comedy improv event, she drank, blacked out and performed wonderfully. People thought she was hilarious.
About finally stopping drinking in her 40s, she writes: “Not taking a drink was easy. Just a matter of muscle movement, the simple refusal to put alcohol to my lips. The impossible part was everything else.”
She recounts her struggle with sobriety so fully that it fills us with compassion — not pity — for her. Between her lines, we read so much hope.
Hepola describes what eating, sex, dating and writing are like now that she is sober. Her slowly fading “cravings and crawlings” for a drink and her slow opening into this new world: “Sobriety is full throttle. No earplugs. No safe distance. Everything at its highest volume. All the complications of the world, vibrating your sternum.”
Doesn’t that sound wonderful?
This book is available at Off the Beaten Path and Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Ella Salvator is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.
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