Koren Zailckas spent her teenager years, from age 14 on, drinking everything she could get her hands on, an almost-fatal ongoing binge she chronicles in her memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. Now a sober New Yorker, Zailckas can be found interacting with readers on MySpace (where she claims her book “likes to think of itself a band”), haunting the restaurants and stores in her “Booze-Free Guide to the East Village,” and is slated to appear on 20/20 with women 18-20 talking about alcohol abuse. Gothamist emailed Zailckas just prior to her the start of her tour of the country’s colleges, high schools and libraries with the paperback version of Smashed.
Smashed came out when you were only 24, chronicling a decade of excessive
drinking. At what point did you decide that you had a problem, and when did you start working on the book? Did you know it was going to be a book when you began writing about your alcohol issues?
Around the time I quit drinking and I became preoccupied with this old memory of the night that I had my stomach pumped when I was 16. I hadn’t thought about that night in a long time, but suddenly I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I sat down and wrote what became that chapter in Smashed.
Around the same time, I was hearing a lot in the news about “girls of my generation” and how we were drinking younger and more than generations of women before us. The Harvard School of Public Health was releasing the findings of its college alcohol study. Time ran a cover story about female binge drinkers. And I didn’t agree with what the psychologists and the sociologists, the clinicians and the statisticians had to say, which was: “girls today are drinking more because they’re just so damn liberated, because they’re bursting with confidence and (gag) girl power, because they believe they can match boys everywhere, including the bar.” I thought they really missed the mark. In my own experience, I knew my female friends and I drank largely because it was an expression of our unhappiness or our lack of confidence. It occurred to me that I could offer a younger perspective. I wasn’t as far removed from the realities of college life.
One of the points of contention by many readers of Smashed is that you don't actually identify as an alcoholic. Where do you think that line should be drawn? Is that an identity that should only be self-proclaimed, or can we fairly point to others or quantify them by how much they drink and say "so-and-so is an alcoholic?"
I’ve talked to a lot of addiction counselors who say alcoholism is made up of two things: abuse and addiction. God knows I had that abuse down pat. But I don’t know that I necessarily felt (or feel) that addiction. And so no, I don’t identify myself as an alcoholic. That identity didn’t feel true to me, so I didn’t write it. I didn’t want to fib for the sake of narrative tidiness. That’s where the slippery slope between truth and lies in memoir begins.
I also think the brand “alcoholic” prevents a lot of people, especially young people, from seeking help or even reevaluating their relationship with alcohol. And the whole point of Smashed is to say, you don’t have to be a quote-unquote alcoholic in order to have issues with drinking. You don’t have to hit “rock bottom” to be doing harm to yourself or other people. There’s research out there that suggests some alcohol abusers show the same patterns of brain and memory damage as career alcoholics. So I don’t think any of us is any better off. Abusers, alcoholics, we’re all one big, happy, chemically corroded family.
In an interview, you said, "I always thought that drinking was a womanly thing to do." Can you elaborate on that statement? When you say "womanly," you don't mean feminine, right? Because the drinking in your book can hardly be described as girlish.
Yeah. “Womanly” feels like the right word. Because, to me, “womanly” is the sum of “grown-up” and “feminine.” Historically, I think a woman with a drink in her hand always ran the risk of being seen as masculine. But that’s changed. Especially in the wake of malternative beverages: Smirnoff Ices and Bacardi Silvers, drinks that are sweet and sudsy. In the late 1990s, alcohol companies began manufacturing and marketing “girlie drinks,” essentially. Vodka went vanilla flavored. Packaging turned pink and purple. Drinking is more feminine than it’s ever been. And by the same token, to a young person, it’s still a marker of maturity.
You've been researching drunk girl porn sites, which you touch on a little in the book. What else have you found out? Why do you think those sites are so popular?
Well, I think the “drunk girl” genre really emerged in the porn of the 1990s. The Girls Gone Wild phenomenon had a lot to do with it. That was when guys figured out they could bring their handy camcorders down to Mardi Gras and film anything that happened on public streets, where drinking women were not only inclined to spontaneous breast-baring, but also didn’t have any legal rights to privacy. We all know what followed: the 4 a.m. infomercials, the GGW trucker hats. Joe Francis earned himself a couple mansions, a pair of private jets, and (ahem) more than a few nights in Paris.
Then, more recently, we saw new gadgets that made it possible for amateurs—college guys, frat boys, jocks with their brains in their necks—to publish porn with minimal time, cost and tech savvy. Handheld video cameras got smaller and less expensive. Camera phones became thoroughly pervasive. Blogging made it possible for any html-incompetent to make a web page without knowing code. I think, because more people had access to technology, we started seeing more voyeuristic shots of girls at parties and bars, more photos of inebriated women displaying their bodies for the camera in the kind of gritty, messy, disturbing way that comes with being only semiconscious.
But there is more hardcore “drunk girl” porn too. Like collegefuckfest.com, which features, “100 percent real college girls” who are “a bit shy, but as the night goes on, open up (literally) and get really wild.” I just finished an investigative feature for Glamour’s March issue. I talked to a girl who appeared on CFF’s website. She was 18 at the time. She’d signed a video release form in order to enter a frat party. A guy at the door said something like, “Look you can’t come in unless you sign it. A website’s
shooting here tonight and we need your permission in the off chance you walk in front of the camera.” So she signed it and went in, where she proceeded to get blind drunk with her best female friend. They ended up in a back bedroom, where two camera guys (both barely 21 years old) encouraged them to kiss and helped them out of their clothes. The girls had sex together on the bedroom floor while a circle of guys hovered over them, including the two cameramen, who bossed them around, told them how to position their bodies, and bent down to scream in their faces, “Fucking moan! Moan louder! We can’t fucking hear you!” In the video, the girl I interviewed was laying there with her eyes rolling back in her head. She was that out of it. And so even though the men never laid a hand on her, the whole thing felt downright rapey.
After the girl finished and dressed, one of the camera guys gave her a hundred dollar bill, put her and her friend in a car, drove them to an unmarked office building, photocopied their licenses, and had them sign more video release forms. Three years later, the video is still online. And legally, there’s little chance of getting it down. A lawyer I talked to said the release forms hold.
Now, we all make mistakes when we’re drinking. That’s nothing new. But these sites take advantage of those mistakes; they prey on them; they profit from them. And I don’t think that’s right. You don’t see companies exploiting drinking men in this way. If I recall, Guys Gone Wild wasn’t a sweeping success.
What do you think the drunk girl signifies that the drunk guy doesn't?
Historically, a woman with a drink in her hand has been perceived as sexual. That goes back to early Roman times, when men used to inspect their wives’ breath for wine. The reasoning being, “if she’s a drinker she’s an adulteress.” The two were interchangeable. I’m not convinced we think all that differently. Regretfully, we still refer to our drinking women with the words, 'slut', 'whore', 'dumb' or 'drunk', in any combination. And in terms of date rape and sexual assault, a lot of us still assume drinking women deserve whatever trespasses they have coming to them.
In your newsletter, you use a quote from Betsy Lerner: "Books, like newborns, come into the world screaming their arrival and gasping for breath." What do these words mean to you? Can you comment on the similarity between writing your book and giving birth (even though you haven't done the latter)?
Yeah, I love that quote. And I imagine it’s very true. A book is like a baby, from pregnancy to delivery. Whatever you’re writing always begins as an idea, a little zygote, right? And in the months or years that follow, you can start to hear a heartbeat in your prose. The structure begins to flesh itself out. The book grows in pages. The ideas become more and more developed. When you’re writing a book, it really is in the womb. It’s insulated. It’s protected from critique and/or misinterpretation. But as soon as it’s published, it is its own entity, completely independent of you. It’s out there in the world and it’s open for interpretation. You have to let it go. Cut the proverbial umbilical cord. I also think all writers go through a kind of postpartum depression when the book goes to press. We all feel a certain loss when the writing and editing’s all done. And we’re all in a hurry to get knocked up again.
You grew up in a comfortable home, with a supportive family, and they were largely clueless about your extracurricular drinking and partying. Do you have any advice for parents? At what age should they talk to their kids about drinking, and what message should they be sending? Do you think there's anything more your parents could have done for you?
Yeah. Unfortunately. I made some admissions in Smashed that awed my poor
parents. Before they read the manuscript, they never suspected my friends and I nicked booze from their liquor cabinet. They never knew what my best friend and I really did when we snuck out of a hotel during a family vacation. They didn’t realize how much and how often I was drinking in college, some five hours and three hundred miles away from them. I don’t think this indicates any negligence on my parents’ part. Quite the opposite. As a teenager, my parents felt overly present. They felt omnipresent. It just goes to show what a miserable sneak I was at that time. And it also speaks to how much underage drinking takes place under the cover of secrecy. In the end, I think my parents did everything they could think of to keep me sane and healthy and safe. I had a will to drink, so I found a way to drink.
New York City plays such a big role in Smashed; even though your drinking starts as a teenager and really gets going in college at Syracuse, your descriptions of your life as a newcomer to the city and the struggles that entails are moving and very likely familiar to many New Yorkers. Does living here make it harder or easier to abstain from drinking?
Wow. Both, I think. On one level, I think it is hard to abstain from drinking in New York because, like any place with a glut of bars and public transportation, alcohol is a big part of the city’s culture. In New York, drinkers are freed of the DUI threat. If New Yorkers can remember their cross-streets, they can make it home in one piece. But on the other hand, abstinence is easy because there are so many other things to do in this city. It’s not like living in East Nowhere, where the only place to spend Friday night is the Tin Can Taphouse, where beer is 2 for $2 and wonderbras get in free.
In the wake of the James Frey scandal, how do you feel about the connection between truth and memoir? Were there parts of Smashed that you played up or exaggerated (or couldn't recall precisely), and if so, how did you deal with those?
I’ve gone through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief over the James Frey scandal. Denial first. Before I read the specifics, I assumed the whole thing was just another example of our build-em-up-knock-em-down culture. “Poor guy had the good/bad fortune to be Oprah’s return to contemporary literature and look what happens. He gets his heart ripped out his asshole.”
But then, denial morphed to anger when I read the Smoking Gun Report. (Bullshitting three months in prison is a very deliberate betrayal of one’s readers). And anger turned to blind rage when I watched Larry King Live. I couldn’t believe James was quantifying truth by page numbers. Saying that the total number of pages in question was 18 out of 300-something. According to that logic, a memoirist can write the biggest whopper of all time . . . In my next book, I can say I was born a hermaphroditic Siamese twin. Once separated, I survived. My sister lives in a mason jar . . . And, so long as it only takes up 1 page out of an Underworld-sized 900, then that lie’s fair game. No way. That’s not how it works.
In terms of memoir-writing, I like to think of this Quaker quote that goes, “Everyone holds a piece of the truth and no one holds it all.” I can buy that. I’ve studied and done my fair share of journalism. As a journalist, it’s my job to go out and conduct interviews, get various perspectives, do research and try my damnedest to find the sum of everyone’s truths. As a memoirist, it’s my job to write my piece of the truth, to be critical of it, to pay careful attention to detail, and for fuck’s sake never ever make up characters that didn’t exist or events that didn’t transpire. How are you going to tell the truth about yourself, about your story, if chunks of it are false?
That said, memoirs aren’t true to life. And we wouldn’t want them to be. There’s this line in Eric Bogosian’s latest novel, that goes something like, “life is made up of big moments and filler.” I think good memoirs naturally gravitate toward the writer’s big moments and cut out the filler, the boring stuff, the moments in time when nothing happened that meant anything to us. So the minute you begin to write about one event in your life and not another, that’s a manipulation. But it’s a positive one. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
All said and done, I’m still depressed by the whole scandal. I think it’s such a shame. Something like, what? Three million readers bought A Million Little Pieces. That’s three million people who probably never knew what a memoir was before Oprah selected the book for her book club. That’s three million people who could have been a new audience for the genre. But now, they’re not only not going to fully understand the genre, they’re not going to trust it.
I know Smashed is about you and is geared towards young women, as is your recent research, but can you comment on young men's relationship with alcohol? What is getting smashed doing for them, and how is that different from what it does for women?
As I was writing Smashed, I did hope it would resonate with young people, especially young women. But something incredible happened. When the book was published, I started getting letters and emails from young men who said they drank because they felt the same shyness that I did and experienced the same kinds of consequences. I also got letters from older women, who on one hand, identified with my experiences from their own college days and, on the other, were concerned about their own teenage daughters or sons. I think it just goes to show how universal the experience is. It also shows the pervasiveness of the problem.
Do you drink now at all? How would you describe your present relationship with alcohol?
Nope. I’m squeaky clean. I quit drinking three years ago.
I'm probably not supposed to ask you this, but do you ever miss it? Not the
smashed part, but the buzz, that first slip from sober into not sober? Because when I'm not drinking, that's probably what I miss the most.
Occasionally, I do miss drinking. But when I examine the impulse a little further, I usually realize it’s not that glass of red wine that I crave. What I’m really jonesing for is whatever I associate with alcohol: Relaxation, maybe. Or, yes, a flash of confidence. That first glimmer of a buzz. In those moments, I think, sure, I could order a drink and momentarily feel more relaxed or more confident. But in that case, how and when would I learn to feel those things without drinking?
What's next for you?
This month, I’m going to be on a book tour to promote Smashed’s paperback version, which hit bookshelves today. And I’ll be reading here in Manhattan on February 6th at the Barnes & Noble at 21st and Sixth Avenue. Beyond that, I’m working on a new book about female anger and aggression. As it happens, I spent yesterday at an anger management workshop in Sacramento—embracing my inner child and wailing on a punching bag with a baseball bat.
Photo by Matt Chamberlain
Koren Zailckas will read on February 6th at Barnes & Noble, 675 6th Avenue at 7 pm and on April 3rd at Coliseum Books, 11 West 42nd Street. Visit www.korenzailckas.com and www.myspace.com/smashedbook for more information. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood is now out in paperback.