Books blog: how feminist bravado fuelled one woman’s descent into alcoholism

Sarah Hepola

I have never, by the grace of God (and I don’t use this formulaic expression lightly), been tempted to become an alcoholic. However, there have been alcoholics in my family and I know the desperation and despair it can lead to. So I found a recently published book, Blackout, by Sarah Hepola (US, UK), an account of her long struggle with alcoholism, absorbing; it is a frank and shocking account of what her life was like for 25 years, roughly from the age of 15 to 40. The good news is that she finally stopped drinking. It was a relief to get to the second half of the book and move beyond her frequent disasters, blackouts and bleakly humorous descriptions of the humiliating episodes that accompanied them.

This is not a book about a religious epiphany, but it is a very human story, full of human emotions like love, shame, guilt and hope. Hepola, a journalist, critic, editor and travel writer who lives in Dallas, annoyed me at first with the demographic categorisation of “young, educated and drunk”. Then I began to see that although she confesses that “I looked up to women who drink” and made certain deliberate choices that affected her behaviour, such as spending too much time socialising in bars, she was also a victim of the more extreme aspect of the feminist ideology that has taken hold in the US and here. This tells women they are the same as men, if not superior, and that there is nothing men can do – like hard drinking – that they can’t emulate.

This is a lie and has brought about many casualties among women, as Hepola found to her cost. She writes, from her US perspective, that “ours is a drinking culture, disconnected from the dangers of alcohol”, adding that “being female”, alongside skipping meals (to lose weight), drinking fast (to keep up with the boys) and genetic predisposition, is a risk factor in alcoholism. She also candidly relates: “I drank to drown those [dissenting] voices because I wanted the bravado of a sexually liberated woman.” In plain English, this meant countless drunken one-night stands with men she didn’t know and didn’t like.

Hepola’s take on AA meetings is also wryly humorous. She had tried AA meetings in her 20s but quickly given up; wasn’t she a liberated young career woman who could (almost) hold her drink, after all? Then, aged 35 and starting to realise that “there was something fundamentally wrong about losing the narrative of my own life”, she admits to her mother that she wants to quit the bottle. She returns to Dallas to be nearer her very supportive family and rejoins AA. She writes: “’God.’ The word made me squirm. Like so many people, I resisted AA in part because of the words ‘higher power’… God was for weak people who couldn’t handle their own lives, and it took me a long time to understand that, actually, I was a weak person who couldn’t handle my own life, and I could probably use all the help I could get.”

Hepola would not describe herself as a religious person, but wanting to change her life and accepting her weaknesses has made her humble. She relates that her “spiritual life is in its infancy” and that in the past she has been put off religion by “the great wrongs perpetrated in the name of God” which has given her an “intellectual allergy to organised religion”. But she also knows that she needs “him”, whoever “he” is. She kneels down every morning and bows “to the mystery of all I don’t know and I say thank you. Does anyone hear me? I don’t know. But I do.” It’s a start.