At the heart of Salon editor Sarah Hepola’s edgy, funny and booze-soaked debut is an evening in Paris during which the author gets very drunk. After guzzling cognacs with a friend, she goes home to her hotel, greets the concierge, teeters cautiously across the marbled lobby floor, and then —
“A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark.” The entire night wiped clean. “My evenings,” Hepola says, “come with trapdoors.”
The bed she wakes up in and the nameless man beside her prompt the author to wonder, “How did I get here?” It’s the metaphorical question Hepola answers in the aptly-named “Blackout,” a memoir so wildly likable you’ll be tempted to shotgun it in one night.
Before chronicling the perfect storm of her lost years, Hepola shoots straight with the statistics on her generation of women who drink, the prevalence of binge drinking, the role of alcohol in rape culture, its importance as “social glue.” She raises complicated questions about the issue of consent: “I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, but I woke up a person who cared enormously,” she writes. “My consent battle was in me.” She walks the reader through the mechanics of a blackout — the blood level saturation, the shutdown of the hippocampus, the “surprisingly functional behavior” that passes for consciousness.
Her blackouts, she explains, came in many different forms. “Some blackouts were benign,” and turned part of the evening “into a blurry strobe. Others were extravagant,” lasting hours and ending in someone else’s house (or bed).
Some were fragmentary — “perhaps you remember ordering your drink, but not walking to the bar.” Most couldn’t be detected: She would “talk and laugh and charm people at the bar with funny stories of [her] past” but never remember a word. She could “sing the (expletive) out of ‘Little Red Corvette’ on a karaoke stage.”
Not so funny, though, when you add in falling down stairs and waking up with bruises. Or when a leading expert on blackouts offers this chilling observation: “When men are in a blackout, they do things to the world. When women are in a blackout, things are done to them.” Sobering indeed.
As is Hepola’s history with alcohol. Growing up in Dallas, she samples her parents’ beers at 7, gets drunk and experiences her first blackout at 12. She gains weight, binge eats. First diet, first hangover, first blackout — and she’s not even a teenager. Self-conscious, shy, longing for acceptance in high school, beer emboldens her; in college, where she begins to write, drinking lowers the volume on her self-doubt.
Hepola’s candor and self-deprecating, often raunchy humor buoy the downward spiral of an escalating dependency that begins in junior high: Boyfriends and friends who can no longer put up with her. A dream job writing for Salon that finds her losing her nerve and drinking more. Humiliating exploits — she once mooned people in bumper-to-bumper traffic — that cancel out the fun.
It’s hard to recall any writer who has written more knowingly of alcohol as comfort food for the shy and shaky among us. “Alcohol is a loneliness drug,” Hepola notes. “It has many powers, but … none was more enticing” than the feeling of connection it offered. “No one had to be an outsider anymore.”
The downside of that intoxicating belonging will resonate with anyone who has ever downed a drink (or 10) to feel at ease. Drinking away “my self-consciousness, my loneliness, my insecurities, my fears,” Hepola says, “I drank away all the parts that made me human.” Reconnecting to those parts without alcohol is what “Blackout” wants to teach you.
Nothing special heralds the day she wakes up in her own bed and finally quits: “Just another chunk of my life, scooped out as if by a melon baller.”
Sobriety, however, scoops out the roller coaster of thrills and bruising spills. “I never liked the part of the book where the main character gets sober,” she admits, and to be honest, the crazy drinking and the risky behavior, the jokes and the one-nighters, her steadfast, awe-inspiring crush on booze — it’s part of why we’re along for the ride.
But Hepola’s talented enough to keep the party going, never losing the “last-call honesty of someone pulling the listener close” that alcohol once summoned. The second half of “Blackout” doubles as an unusually confessional self-help manual, as the author drags herself back to Dryville, beginning by barricading herself in a closet and enduring “the slow and aching present.”
Without a drink in her hand, she can’t tell her friends about the “emotional splatter paint” in her chest. She’s “horrified by the vulnerability” that sex entails. Her self-hatred is voracious, and she fantasizes killing people on the subway. But these are also the days of finding that girl she left back in Dallas, of learning “to stay quiet for a while,” to walk with her shyness, to write sober — even to fill “the God shaped hole.”
“When I think about my own failure to take care of myself,” Hepola, now 40, writes, “I wonder sometimes if I wasn’t unconsciously waiting for someone like me to come along.” In addition to taking its place as one of the best recovery memoirs to date, “Blackout” may offer exactly that kind of help — for those who didn’t even know they were looking for it.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.