Book Review – “Smashed: Growing Up a Drunk Girl”, by Koren Zailckas. Published by Ebury Press, U.K. 2006.
‘Don’t be put off by the title’ my daughter told me as she handed me this book. ‘It’s really good, you’ll enjoy it’. Normally, I would not have selected this type of book, but as I started to turn the pages, I soon knew exactly what she meant. It is a book that demands to be read. Zailckas expressed herself beautifully, often through poetic prose and in a compelling way. As each chapter unfolded into the next, I had a real sense of foreboding as I found myself caught up in her destructive lifestyle. I felt like I was one of her drinking buddies. A less able writer would have fallen victim to repetitive monotony whilst recalling events of binge drinking, but Zailckas succeeded in chronicling her memoirs in an engaging and very thought provoking way.
Very little was mentioned of Zailckas’s family, except that her parents were very loving towards her as was her sister. She was obviously from an upper middle class American family, who outwardly portrayed an idyllic childhood and lifestyle. Out of respect for her family, she did not reveal too many details concerning them, instead the book targeted her drinking lifestyle, whilst in College and in University. What becomes apparent is a sub culture of young women who enjoy drinking, and even though non-alcoholic drugs are shunned, for some reason this ‘elixir of life’ is accepted as a normal part of society. Alcohol is viewed as a vital part of the ‘rite of passage’. This book raises some alarming questions about the acceptance of binge drinking, which the author has deliberately set out to do by her brutally honest recollection of events. The reader is left wondering, ‘why if she was supposedly from a stable and loving family, did she feel the all consuming need to drink?’
Her drinking career started at 14. ‘Southern Comfort’ was her choice of beverage as she sneaked a drink at her friend, Natalie’s house. By the age of 15 she was drinking considerably more as she details events of partying with friends, losing clothes whilst drunk, and experiencing blackouts. A case of alcoholic poisoning saw her admitted to hospital to have her stomach pumped when she was 16. A night of downing shots of hard liquor had its inevitable consequence. Not only was she fighting for her life in the emergency room, but once discharged, she faced the wrath of her distraught parents. Unfortunately, it did not deter her compulsion to drink again.
Her acceptance into Syracuse University saw her joining a Sorority, ‘Zeta Alpha Sigma’, in her second year. Initiation rituals were part and parcel of the group. Zailckas alluded to the fact that all US campuses were alcohol soaked. She intentionally looked for other drinking companions, and so the destructive spiral of out of control drinking binges reached new highs. Detailing these drinking sessions, she refers to incidents where she stumbled home alone in vomit stained clothing, later waking in bed naked, wondering whether she had lost her virginity and to whom. Blackouts became a common occurrence as she continued to drink herself into oblivion. The blackouts continued to plague her over a number of years, accompanied by vicious hangovers that unfortunately did little to dissuade her from her chosen path. At some point, Zailckas realised the monotonous drinking coupled with the blackouts, date rapes and suicidal thoughts had to stop. She left the Sorority and became a recluse. She finally stopped drinking at 22.
Zailckas felt the need to drink, because she lacked confidence, was acutely self conscious and she felt that she did not ‘fit in’. Alcohol gave her a false sense of wellbeing and whilst under its influence she felt she could cope. She managed to secure a position as a journalist in New York; however, she rejected the notion of accepting outside help to combat her addiction. Zailckas refused to attend ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, because she did not believe she was an alcoholic. Readers may well reach a different conclusion. In any event, her efforts to ‘go it alone’ are highly commendable. To this day Zailckas cannot promise to stay sober, but is trying.
This book has captured a quintessential American girl’s adolescence. The author’s insight into a so called ‘normal’ lifestyle of binge drinking is remarkable. For many years alcohol defined her, and her lifestyle. Zailckas could not cope in social situations without being drunk. She thought alcohol was the panacea for all her troubles, all self doubts. Disturbing statistics were quoted in the book from the Harvard School of Public Health Studies. “Most girls have their first drink by the age of 12, and get drunk by the age of 14; teenage girls drink as much as their male peers, but their bodies process it badly. (They get drunker faster, stay drunk longer and are more likely to die of alcohol poisoning). Research also suggests that date rape and alcohol go hand in hand.”
Binge drinking is a world-wide phenomenon increasingly affecting many societies. For many adolescents, it has become a way of life. For this reason alone, Zailckas’s story should feature prominently in all school curriculums around the world. The insightfulness and engaging prose of Koren Zailckas, will resonate with teenage readers, and will prompt thought provoking questions and introspection. Too many young women succumb to peer pressure, they feel the need to meet high social standards and crave acceptance from their friends. All too often, alcohol is resorted to and abused in the hope of finding the perfect panacea for their perceived insecurities. The tacit acceptance by our communities of alcohol as an ‘acceptable drug’ aided and abetted by the clever marketing of the alcohol purveyors who target the up and coming generation of new consumers, has to be checked. Society can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to this ever growing problem, which is wreaking havoc amongst our children. Therefore, I highly recommend this book and congratulate Zailckas for her honesty, integrity and insightfulness. This is a story that will resonate with many young people at a cross road in their lives, as well as their despairing parents. We ignore Zailckas’s message, at our peril!