I recently read and reviewed Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It was about Caldwell’s friendship with Caroline Knapp—the author of Drinking: A Love Story. Naturally, after that I had to read Caroline’s book, so here we are … and even though I loved it, I think I’ll be taking a break from addiction memoirs for a while now. (I’m counting Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted as one.)
Caroline Knapp (now deceased) was a high-functioning alcoholic. Born into an upper-middle-class New England family, she graduated from Brown University with honors and went on to have a successful career as a respected journalist. What most people didn’t know was that she was harboring a secret: she drank. A lot.
Caroline describes the twenty-odd years of her alcoholism as a love affair with booze. From an early age, she learned to lean on alcohol. She was shy and self-conscious, and alcohol was there like an outgoing friend: there to break her out of her shell at parties, to ease her depression, to allow her to communicate with her father.
But then the wine came, one glass and then a second glass. And somewhere during that second drink, the switch was flipped. The wine gave me a melting feeling, a warm light sensation in my head, and I felt like safety itself had arrived in that glass, poured out from the bottle and allowed to spill out between us.
Many people, especially quiet people, can understand this phenomenon. But with Caroline, alcohol became more than a way to relax and have fun; it become an integral part of her everyday life. Soon she was drinking with coworkers every evening after work, as well as at dinner and alone at her house, needing more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect. She hid bottles of Cognac around her boyfriend’s home. She blacked out, slept with strangers, and lost her car. She began dating two men at the same time and maintained these two relationships, secretly and separately, for years. She could not go a day without getting drunk.
When she finally admits herself to rehab, it comes as a huge relief. Addiction memoirs, like addictions themselves, can be terribly repetitive and frustrating: I drank; a bad thing happened; I continued to drink; more bad things happened; still I continued to drink. But Caroline offers melancholy bits of wisdom and hope in her own way; she doesn’t sugarcoat recovery, but neither does she pity herself excessively. Caroline faces her post-alcohol life with acceptance and a brave, honest face.
Caroline’s memoir is candid and honest, although it is lacking in humor and self-forgiveness. Caroline has spent much of her life being hard on herself—from the anorexia of her twenties to the alcoholism of her twenties and thirties, she runs from, punishes, and dislikes the person that she is.
Whether you’re an alcoholic or a teetotaler, Drinking: A Love Story is worth checking out. It imparts some hard-earned truths about what it means to face the life you’ve been given.