Drinking: A Love Story

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Fifteen million Americans a year are plagued with alcoholism. Five million of them are women. Many of them, like Caroline Knapp, started in their early teens and began to use alcohol as "liquid armor," a way to protect themselves against the difficult realities of life. In this extraordinarily candid and revealing memoir, Knapp offers important insights not only about alcoholism, but about life itself and how we learn to cope with it.

It was love at first sight. The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle. The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed. Then it became obsession. The way she hid her bottles behind her lover's refrigerator. The way she slipped from the dinner table to the bathroom, from work to the bar. And then, like so many love stories, it fell apart. Drinking is Caroline Kapp's harrowing chronicle of her twenty-year love affair with alcohol.

Caroline had her first drink at fourteen. She drank through her yeras at an Ivy League college, and through an award-winning career as an editor and columnist. Publicly she was a dutiful daughter, a sophisticated professional. Privately she was drinking herself into oblivion. This startlingly honest memoir lays bare the secrecy, family myths, and destructive relationships that go hand in hand with drinking. And it is, above all, a love story for our times—full of passion and heartbreak, betrayal and desire—a triumph over the pain and deception that mark an alcoholic life. 

Praise for Drinking

“Quietly moving . . . Caroline Knapp dazzles us with her heady description of alcohol's allure and its devastating hold.”Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Filled with hard-won wisdom . . . [a] perceptive and revealing book.”San Francisco Chronicle

“Eloquent . . . a remarkable exercise in self-discovery.”The New York Times

Drinking not only describes triumph; it is one.”Newsweek


“Quietly moving . . . Caroline Knapp dazzles us with her heady description of alcohol's allure and its devastating hold.”Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Filled with hard-won wisdom . . . [a] perceptive and revealing book.”San Francisco Chronicle 

“Eloquent . . . a remarkable exercise in self-discovery.”The New York Times 

Drinking not only describes triumph; it is one.”Newsweek


A love story. Yes: this is a love story.

It's about passion, sensual pleasure, deep pulls, lust, fears, yearning hungers. It's about needs so strong they're crippling. It's about saying good-bye to something you can't fathom living without.

I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings. I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler. I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me.

Our introduction was not dramatic; it wasn't love at first sight, I don't even remember my first taste of alcohol. The relationship developed gradually, over many years, time punctuated by separations and reunions. Anyone who's ever shifted from general affection and enthusiasm for a lover to outright obsession knows what I mean: the relationship is just there, occupying a small corner of your heart, and then you wake up one morning and some indefinable tide has turned forever and you can't go back. You need it; it's a central part of who you are.

I used to drink with a woman named Elaine, a next-door neighbor of mine. I was in my twenties when we met and she was in her late forties, divorced and involved with a married man whom she could not give up. Elaine drank a lot, more than I did, and she drank especially hard when the relationship with the married man got rocky, which was often. She drank beer and vodka, and she'd call me up on bad nights and ask me to come over. The beer made her overweight and the vodka made her sloppy, and she'd sit on her sofa with a bottle and cry, her face stained with tears and mascara. I used to sit there and think, Whoa. I'd sympathize and listen and say all the things girlfriends are supposed to say, but inside I'd be shaking my head, knowing she was a wreck and knowing on some level that the booze made her that way, that the liquor fueled her obsession for the married man, fueled her tears, fueled her hopelessness and inability to change.

But some small part of me (it got larger over the years) was always secretly relieved to see Elaine that way: a messy drunk's an ugly thing, particularly when the messy drunk's a woman, and I could compare myself to her and feel superiority and relief. I wasn't that bad; no way I was that bad.

And I wasn't that bad. I had lots of rules. I never drank in the morning and I never drank at work, and except for an occasional mimosa or Bloody Mary at a weekend brunch, except for a glass of white wine (maybe two) with lunch on days when I didn't have to do too much in the afternoon, except for an occasional zip across the street from work to the Chinese restaurant with a colleague, I always abided by them.

For a long time I didn't even need rules. The drink was there, always just there, the way food's in the refrigerator and ice is in the freezer. In high school the beer just appeared at parties, lugged over in cases by boys in denim jackets and Levi's corduroys. In my parents' house the Scotch and the gin sat in a liquor cabinet, to the left of the fireplace in the living room, and it just emerged, every evening at cocktail hour. I never saw it run out and I never saw it replenished either: it was just there. In college, of course, it was there all the time--in small, squat refrigerators in dorm rooms, in kegs at parties, in chilled draft glasses on tavern table tops--and by the time I graduated, by the time I was free to buy alcohol and consume it where and when I wanted, drinking seemed as natural as breathing, an ordinary part of social convention, a simple prop.

Still, I look in the mirror sometimes and think, What happened? I have the CV of a model citizen or a gifted child, not a common drunk. Hometown: Cambridge, Massachusetts, backyard of Harvard University. Education: Brown University, class of '81, magna cum laude. Parents: esteemed psychoanalyst (dad) and artist (mom), both devoted and insightful and keenly intelligent.

In other words, nice person, from a good, upper-middle-class family. I look and I think, What happened?

Of course, there is no simple answer. Trying to describe the process of becoming an alcoholic is like trying to describe air.

It's too big and mysterious and pervasive to be defined. Alcohol is everywhere in your life, omnipresent, and you're both aware and unaware of it almost all the time; all you know is you'd die without it, and there is no simple reason why this happens, no single moment no physiological event that pushes a heavy drinker across a concrete line into alcoholism. It's a slow, gradual, insidious, elusive becoming.

My parents' house on Martha's Vineyard is in the town of Gay Head, on the westernmost side of the island, in a dry town, a forty minute drive from the nearest liquor store or bar. When I was a teenager, our lack of proximity to alcohol was fine, a fact, something I didn't notice. Then, in my twenties, it became slightly questionable. I'd come for a weekend to visit my parents, and I'd assume my father would have gin for martinis and wine for dinner, and he would, and I'd be somewhat relieved, without really knowing it. And then, after I turned thirty, it became more than questionable; it became a problem, this dry town on Martha's Vineyard, a forty-minute drive from the nearest liquor store.

Somewhere inside I acknowledged that this made me nervous. Somewhere inside I'd become desperately aware that the last time I was at the house, there was only one bottle of wine for dinner--one bottle to share between four or five people--and that the level of liquid in the gin bottle was dangerously low by the end of the weekend. I'd remember, very clearly, that I'd had to compensate for the lack of wine by returning to that gin bottle several times, surreptitiously, sneaking into the kitchen to top off my drink while the rest of the family sat outside on the porch. In some dark place an anxiety about this festered: I didn't want to be trapped there again with an insufficient supply, but I didn't want to let on that I was anxious about the supply either. So I'd debate, without even noticing the arguments and counter-arguments circling in the back of my mind. Should I show up for the weekend with a case of wine, on the pretext that I'd brought it there "just to have it in the house"? Should I forget about the whole thing and just hope someone else had restocked the liquor cabinet? Should I borrow the car and drive the forty minutes to the liquor store, pretending to be off for a solo trek at the beach? In a back corner of my mind I'd notice that this question of what there was to drink in the house had become a big deal, and that fact would nag at me just a little bit, raising a tiny flag, a question about how much I seemed to need the alcohol. The questions would continue: what to do, how to do it, who'd notice, why didn't anyone else drink the way I did? And after a while these voices would start to feel too big and too confusing and too overwhelming, and in the briefest instant I'd just do it: I'd mentally wash my hands of the whole business, and I'd pick up a bottle of Scotch the day before the trip and I'd stash it in my weekend bag.

There. Problem solved.

That, of course, is how an alcoholic starts not to notice it. Just this one time. That's how you put it to yourself: I'll just do it this one time, the same way a jealous woman might pick up the phone at midnight to see if her lover is home, or cruise slowly past his house to check his lights, promising herself that this is the last time. I know this is insane, but I'll only do it this once.I'll just bring the Scotch this one time because I'm particularly stressed out this week and I just want to be able to have a Scotch where and when I want it, okay? It's no big deal: just a little glass in my room before dinner so I don't have to steal into the kitchen and sneak one there. Just a little glass so I don't drink up any more of Dad's liquor. No big deal; it makessense.

And it would make sense, in a certain perverse way. There I'd be, out on the porch on Martha's Vineyard with my family, and I'd excuse myself for just a minute--just a minute, to go to the bathroom. Then, on the way to the bathroom, I'd make a quick detour to my bedroom, and I'd pull the Scotch out from the bag, and unscrew the cap and take a long slug off the bottle and swallow. The liquor would burn going down, and the burn would feel good: it would feel warming and protective; it would feel like insurance.

Yes: insurance: the Scotch in my bag gave me a measure of safety. It let me sit at the table during dinner and not obsess through the whole meal about whether there was enough wine, whether anyone would notice how fast I slammed down my first glass, whether or how I could reach for the bottle to refill my glass without calling too much attention to myself. It let me know I'd be taken care of when the need became too strong.

Reader's Guide

1. Discuss the book's title. In what way is it a love story? What parallels exist between Caroline Knapp's "affair" with alcohol and the way she experienced love throughout her life with family and friends as well as in romantic relationships?

2. Chapter Four, "Hunger,"and Chapter Eight, "Addiction," feature questions that capture an alcoholic's habits and mind-set. How would you respond to these questions? Is there anyone in your family or circle of friends who might be surprised by their responses, or surprised by yours?

3. Knapp mentions many literary figures whose alcoholism is well documented. Do you believe that addiction is more acceptable in creative fields? How do stereotypes of addiction measure up to the real-life profiles provided in Knapp's memoir?

4. What did you discover in Drinking: A Love Story about the similarities among alcoholism and other addictive behaviors, such as bulimia or kleptomania? What challenges are unique to alcoholics? How did your perception of the causes and treatments for addiction change as you read Knapp's story?

5. Knapp writes eloquently of the fears she faced as a child, from her father's clinical, omnipotent persona to her mother's aversion to outward affection. To what extent do you attribute Knapp's alcoholism to genetics, childhood despair, or temperament? How do you account for the differences between Knapp and her twin sister? How were they affected by the knowledge of their father's first wife and the half siblings from that marriage?

6. If Dr. Knapp had come to you for counseling, what recommendations would you have given him? Why might someone with his knowledge of (and access to) first-rate psychotherapy nonetheless have been unable to change his own pattern of infidelity as well as his detachment from his loved ones? What damaging cycles were set in motion by his parents and by the family of Caroline's mother?

7. Knapp recalls the times her mother and sister expressed concern about her drinking. How would you have responded had you been in their position? What are the responsibilities and limitations of an alcoholic's relatives, friends, colleagues, lovers?

8. What does Knapp tell us about the way she and many other addicts viewed intimacy, sexual and otherwise? Why was it difficult for her to recognize and receive love? What needs did her double life fulfill?

9. Discuss the theme of shame that surfaces throughout the book. Why did Knapp, and those she encountered on the road to recovery, feel comfortable in roles that made them feel ashamed and unworthy? Why was she drawn to Julian's perfectionism?

10. In Chapter Sixteen, "Healing," Knapp writes: "At times I've grumbled to friends about longing for a return to Prohibition." Is alcohol too widely available in the United States? What is your opinion of debates over whether to legalize various non prescription drugs? Should distinctions be made between addicts who consume dangerous levels of legal substances (including prescription medications) and those who use illegal ones? To what extent should addiction be criminalized?

11. The book's closing chapters include poignant images of her parents' final days. Do you believe that their death was the catalyst for Knapp to seek help? Was it trauma, fear, liberation, or something else altogether that led her to seek (and accept) help? What did it take for her to reach her "yet"? Why was she so averse to Alcoholics Anonymous when she attended a meeting earlier in her life?

12. What does Knapp capture while describing the Ritualistic Snipping of the Black Lycra Dress in the final paragraphs of the book? What souvenirs from your past would you like to bid farewell to? What objects or emotions could you replace them with?

13. Discuss the approach of Drinking: A Love Story in comparison to other books in its genre. How does Knapp's storytelling approach differ from that of other memoirists? How does her experience compare to that of other authors who have written about addiction and recovery, such as Susan Cheever or James Frey? In what ways has our approach to addiction shifted in the past decade or in comparison to previous generations?

14. Are there any harmful cycles of behavior in your family? What would it take to keep them from being perpetuated in the lives of your descendants? What irrational legacies are the most difficult ones to end?

15. Caroline Knapp's life ended six years after Drinking: A Love Story was published. How does the brevity of her life affect your impression of this memoir? Reminded that longevity is never guaranteed, how should we approach our most daunting challenges?

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