Book Review: Smashed

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood / Koren Zailckas / Penguin, 2005

First of all, let’s make this clear: Koren Zailckas is not an alcoholic.

She is a young woman who began experimenting with alcohol before starting high school, and continued past her college graduation into her first post-grad job. Her use of alcohol is classified as abusive, but her attachment was complexly emotional and psychological. Any disease, as it were, would be more accurately labelled as dysfunction.

And, oh, how dysfunctional she was.

Not at all the cliched “party girl,” “sorority slut” or <insert pop culture stereotype here>, Zailckas describes a young woman whose wounds are deeply internal, a girl rubbed raw from the inside by any number of amorphous torments. This is to say that her life is devoid of those tired-and-usually-untrue stories: she did not grow up in poverty, and she had no alcoholic parents, abusive upbringing or traumatic life experiences pre- her first encounter with alcohol.

Instead, she’s just a shy kid from the suburbs who happened to develop a (psychological) taste for vodka before she even took the PSATs.

This book details how drinking affected her self-image (positively, when she was drunk; negatively, when she was hungover), her friendships (beer bonds giving way to fights whose origins she could not even understand) and her relationships with men (only possible when socially lubricated). It’s all brutally honest, sometimes uncomfortably so, particularly as she describes a situation or thought that might be familiar to the reader.

And this is why Zailckas’ story is important  (not just as the obvious “cautionary tale”): it reminds us that there is a very wide swath of gray area between those who abstain from alcohol and those whose bodies are physically dependent on it. I’m not sure I’ve read or seen any depictions of alcohol use that really nailed down the phenomenon of abusive drinking as well as this one: somewhere along the way, someone decided that sordid tales of hopeless alcohol dependency were far more interesting than examining lives lead by an emotional, clinging-on to the stuff.

But Zailckas shows us this is not at all true.

Overall: if you’re looking for a superficial string of stories fueled by immature binge drinking, this is not it. Smashed is more deep and emotionally intelligent than it first appears and this, it turns out, is a very good thing.

*Also, for what it’s worth, I think this book would make for interesting and informative reading for a college freshman seminar. It could be easily supplemented with slightly more up-to-date statistics and raises innumerable probing questions: an excellent catalyst for discussion.

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