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Drunk Confessions

Women and the clichés of the literary drunkard.

Dorothy Parker and Marguerite Duras
Illustration by Martine Johanna

What might be called “the artistic temperament” is a subject about which many people have grandiose, romantic notions. All those biopics with people staring hard out windows at beautiful scenes, pen in hand, bearing the fruits of louche genius while maintaining excellent dental hygiene. Whoever the culprit, we clearly like our geniuses to be “consumed” by their craft, and we like them tortured—and if possible, drunk. The idea, broadly put, is that the liquor frees up creative energy. Or else, that an artist drinks to soothe the ravages of creativity on his psyche. 

Artists have rarely wanted to correct the public on this point. This was especially true of writers in the middle of the twentieth century, laboring in the long interval between Prohibition—when writing, celebrity and drink got tangled up at the Algonquin Round Table and in the lives of modernists—and the 1970s. (Hard drugs slipped in after that but began to signify a certain cynicism rather than angst in the writer.) The trite liquor-soaked romance of their craft suited these writers, it seemed; it gave them a handy excuse. However many degenerate nights were lost at a bar, however many times a person might be rushed to a hospital with a suicide attempt, it was worth it. The blackouts and bad marriages and every sordid bit of it could be explained away by art with a capital A. Who wouldn’t trade a few years of misery to write something like Gatsby? Or A Farewell to Arms? Or “The Swimmer”? Or “Fern Hill”? Put that way, the math of art and drink comes out looking attractive, glamorous, in spite of the death and in spite of the suffering. 

But, as ever, the benefits of the myth were doled out unevenly, because there was always a different kind of weight attached to a woman drinker. “When a woman drinks it’s as if an animal were drinking, or a child,” Marguerite Duras once wrote. “Alcoholism is scandalous in a woman, and a female alcoholic is rare, a serious matter. It’s a slur on the divine in our nature.” 

We are mostly beyond the point, in this world of ours, of calling women “divine,” and we are also past the point where a woman alcoholic is truly rare, in the open, public way Duras meant. Women now talk often about drinking and being drunk. Their memoirs on the subject are best-sellers. But the genre of personal testimony turns the role of drinking in writing on its head. Instead of being the engine, it is the subject. 

A key metaphor for alcoholism is that of unquenchable thirst. It sounds simpleminded, I know, but you have to start there to get anywhere at all close to the psychological nihilism of it. When you pour the spirits down your throat, you are pouring them into a void. For a drunk, the emotional equivalent of stomach lining simply isn’t there. The need to drink just goes on and on.

The contours of the void aren’t always obvious, not even after its existence has been seen and reckoned with. That is probably why, in pretty much every alcoholic’s memoir I’ve ever read, the need to drink is described in simple language, even cliché. For Sarah Hepola, in her new, best-selling Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, it’s “a God-shaped hole, a yearning, a hunger to be complete.” For Mary Karr, in Lit, a book governed by a poet’s love of wordplay, it’s simply a “black hole.” For Caroline Knapp, writing Drinking: A Love Story before either of them, it’s a “pit of loneliness and terror and rage.”

The paradox of the alcoholic’s memoir is that the feelings are not less powerful for being described in such a pedestrian way. If you are the right kind of reader for them—which is not to say a fellow alcoholic, as I am not—these books go down easy. It may be in part a voyeur’s thirst for stories of abjection that makes them such compulsive reading—that’s another cliché, a critical one—but good writers can take your curiosity and mold it into an empathetic movement. Empathy needs a supporting note, because it’s a self-help word, and we live in a culture that both guzzles and disdains self-help mantras: The understanding of self and others is obviously the only escape from addiction. If the point is to get out of your own head, then understanding yourself as part of a community is what will pull you out.

A lesser sort of empathy can, of course, be cheaply bought—sentimentally, in the Wildean sense. You can get caught in the trance of your own sad story. But Knapp’s, Karr’s, and Hepola’s books are not self-pitying in this way. Each tracks a process of becoming whole (or at least, more whole). And all three are good writers in different ways, and they are somewhat different drunks, too, as it happens. Knapp has the psychoanalyst’s daughter’s knack for self-diagnosis, constantly tracing her own repressions back to her father’s; Karr cracks jokes in the middle of every miserable anecdote; Hepola has a deeply generous persona. They all get up in front of you with the self-critical attitude of the person at a recovery meeting, eager to describe their past and present selves but frustrated by how they got to this place.

Blackout, the most conventional of the three books, offers the clearest illustration of the appeal of the genre. Here we have the straightforward story of a young, talented, middle-class woman, who nonetheless keenly felt a gap in her soul. At seven, she stole her first beer. All along, one knows what’s coming: Hepola’s book opens as she snaps awake in a strange bed. Hepola deftly manages to preserve the ambiguities of the incident—she doesn’t remember the seduction, if there was one—without forgiving it all. “I closed the door,” of the hotel room, she writes, “and the click of the lock’s tongue in the groove brought me such relief. The sound of a narrow escape.”

There are other horrors, and voyeurs, if so inclined, can drink this book (a metaphor that kept occurring to me as I read) in an evening. But that elegant presentation of the bad incident gives you a hint that Hepola smooths out the events she describes. As a narrator she is always measured and careful. There is a level on which her maturity begins to actually work against her recovery story in a way she can hardly have intended. I began to think to myself: If it will make me seem this grounded and wise and judicious with my imagery and metaphors as she, maybe a few years of getting lost in a void would be worth it.

Of course, I then dismissed that thought. Mostly. 

Maturity comes from self-possession, and self-possession can be a powerful thing for both a drinker and for a woman. It is power, somehow, that makes us see men and women drinkers differently. The “line for decades,” Hepola acknowledges in her book, has been that women hide their drinking, that they are unduly punished for it. Hepola says this wasn’t true, not for her. She “looked up to women who drink.” And gatherings of women, she said, were pools of wine. “Rivers of wine. Waterfalls of wine. Wine and confession. Wine and sisterhood.” In an age when female intoxication is everywhere, drinking is often presented as part of a kind of feminine self-determination. 

She has a point as to popular culture. Her own book is a best-seller (as Knapp’s and many others have been, too), and we needn’t limit ourselves to gauging attitudes that way. Tune in to ABC on Thursdays and you’ll find ur-career woman of the moment Olivia Pope drowning her sorrows in a giant goblet of red, usually Shiraz. The poster for Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, depicting her drinking from a bottle in a paper bag, did not so much as sway in a breeze of commentary. Even Hillary Clinton is happy to be photographed drinking white wine these days. So publicly feminized has the activity of drinking become that The Guardian recently published a defensive article about what it called—and I am not kidding—“brosé.”

Chicagoans celebrate the repeal of Prohibition on December 8, 1933.
John Binder Collection

The implication of all this is that drinking is a way of being an empowered woman. That’s what bothers Hepola. It bothered Knapp, too. Knapp writes uneasily of the way martinis aided her flirtation, letting her “tap in to a feeling of power I was otherwise too self-conscious and fearful to acknowledge.” The feeling, she insists again and again, is real. She wrote about the “drink of deception: alcohol gives you power and robs you of it in equal measure.” The best illustration of this comes in a certain regrettable kind of drunken one-night stand, where an initial bit of bravery at the bar can disappear in the light of morning.

The place where drink makes women less powerful, however, is in the same place that women always get attacked for adopting vice: the realm of high prestige. When Olivia Laing set out to study and explore alcoholism and the great writer in last year’s The Trip to Echo Spring, she ignored women. Faced with such a wealth of famous sots to choose from, Laing canvassed only six: John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Berryman, and Raymond Carver. She explains away her choice of only men with a wave-of-the-hand parenthetical: “(There were many women writers I could have chosen too, but for reasons that will become apparent their stories came too close to home.)” Which is fair enough; The Trip to Echo Spring does delve into Laing’s own family history, and she is deeply critical of the self-aggrandizement and self-destructiveness of these men. 

As though in apology, Laing later published a breezy overview of women writers who struggled with drink for The Guardian. Still, the difference between the deep reading Laing’s book affords those male writers and the much quicker treatment of the women—crammed into a brief article—couldn’t be a clearer example of the double standard, one Laing never directly engages. Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple.

If you are under the impression that that’s too harsh an indictment of literary history, here is a pretty stark anecdote for you: Both drunks, both writers who were actually famous in their own day, Ernest Hemingway and Dorothy Parker were friends, or so she thought. There was one night, though, in 1926, when Hemingway was at a party at Archibald MacLeish’s; Parker wasn’t there but friends were. At some point in the evening, Hemingway decided to recite a poem he’d recently written. It was called “To a Tragic Poetess,” and its 82 lines took shots at Parker’s “plump ass,” her suicide attempts, and her abortion: 

To celebrate in borrowed cadence
your former gnaw and itch for Charley
who went away and left you not so flat behind him
And it performed so late those little hands
those well formed little hands
And were there little feet and had
the testicles descended?

The poem then goes on to contrast her situation to that of men Hemingway considers braver and more honorable in their suffering than Parker. “Thus tragic poetesses are made,” it ends, “by observation.”

How uncomfortable. Parker’s biographers have never been totally sure if she knew of the poem’s existence, though it made the New York gossip rounds. Hemingway’s biographers, if they bring it up at all, tend to skate nervously by. In both cases, people seem to think that Hemingway was being mean, but not… wrong. Here, for example, is how the introduction to Hemingway’s Complete Poems sums it up: “The poem is an attack on a writer who failed, in Hemingway’s estimation, to see, to feel. It is an attack on sham self-destructiveness, especially when it is coupled with a lack of sympathy for others.” 

Hemingway may not have been slamming these women’s alcoholism directly, but those feelings of self-destructiveness are the diggers of our old friend the black pit. This idea of Hemingway’s—and let’s not pretend that it’s just his—is that there is a bright line between real self-destructiveness and the borrowed or observed kind, and that in the aggregate it favors men. So there are real black pits, and there are borrowed ones, and only the former are the proper subject of art.

Academics who have looked at this episode, like Rhonda Pettit, point out that a lot of the early modern men had trouble with what they called women’s “sentimentality.” But looking back at the course of a century of writing, it’s now the men who seem mired in sentimentality, constructed in part by self—hatred and in part by the sort of demand, like “honor,” that in our own time has become more double-edged sword than flaming, self-evident righteousness.

Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was. Yes, Elizabeth Bishop hid her fondness for gin—and literally any very revealing aspect of her personality—in exchange for respectability. I can also think of one famous and beloved woman writer in America whose reputation for drunkenness is much-talked about behind closed doors without being openly stated.

Parker herself, though she went through a period of being stereotyped as a ruinous drunk, is now mostly remembered as a sophisticate. Certain feminist rereadings of her work helped here; if there’s a writer more self-aware of her own penchant for self-destructive behavior than Dorothy Parker, I don’t know who it is. Patricia Highsmith’s sales have never suffered either. In the literary merit stakes, things have also changed: Though Anne Sexton drew severe criticism for being an alcoholic in the 1960s, her confessional poetry still has a popular currency that Robert Lowell’s—her contemporary and teacher—-never reached.

Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art. Trying to calculate or predict literary reputation is about as reliable a science as predicting when it will rain next month, but contemporary attitudes do tend to stick to writers of the mid-century in particular, and women have suffered for this. You can see it in the way we don’t count, alongside Fitzgerald and Cheever, writers like Jean Stafford, Maeve Brennan, and Shirley Jackson. Where those women are covered—when their books are reprinted by the NYRB Classics series, or when a biography like Ruth Franklin’s forthcoming book on Jackson makes it through the pipeline—it is always in a posture of rescue. Reputational politics favor a certain kind of mid-century man, one who wrote fiction, and this in spite of the way all his same pathologies, his self—destructiveness, and self-delusions, operate in his texts, too.

The process of recovery is connected in a very deep way with storytelling. At an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, it is an openness about the contours of one’s life, telling a story to the crowd, that is the first step towards a kind of healing. Knapp’s, Karr’s, and Hepola’s memoirs are governed by that same ethos. The dismissive word for this would be confessional, and that is a word that has been used to denigrate women’s writing. But here we have three books that are not unfiltered documents of abjection; they are instead ambivalent and self-aware about the interaction between alcohol and life.

After all, at some point one realizes that these memoirs are haunted by clichés because it is clichés that their writers know will end up saving them. The halls of recovery, owned mostly by A.A. as they are, are papered over with well-worn sayings: “My name is, and I’m an alcoholic.” Rock bottom. “Let go and let God.” Amends. “Higher power.”

Higher powers, as it happens, are the A.A. cliché par excellence. No aspect of the recovery process draws more obsessive criticism in all the writing about A.A. than its connection to, er, you know, God. Yet Karr’s memoir, in fact, is less about confessing all her drunken sins than about describing the process by which she came around to recognizing her “higher power.” It is about the process by which admitting powerlessness saved her. “Before, I’d feared surrender would sand me down to nothing. Now I’ve started believing it can bloom me more solidly into myself.”

How to process observations like these, which are in every drinking memoir and tread some thin line between honesty and sentimentality? What to do with the implications they have for women in particular, which is that drinking will indeed delude us about the levels of our own power? I don’t know the answer.

But maybe not knowing the answer is the whole point. Towards the middle of Lit, Karr affords us a sidelong glance at another writer struggling with the dictates of recovery:

On the way out, I pass bandana’ed David talking with great speed and animation to the musician. David’s actually holding up his finger in some Confucian posture, saying, It’s a logical fallacy that they’re telling me I have a disease whose defining symptom is believing you don’t have a disease, since this a priori implies that any citizen who denies they have this ailment is no doubt infected… 

Like me, he’s obviously here to educate them to their cult’s fallacious thinking. 

David here is David Foster Wallace, a man who now occupies a greater place in the minds of contemporary fiction writers than Hemingway. In his best moments he abandoned that Confucian posture for a stance more ambivalent about what he knew and what he didn’t. Recovery changed him, and once we all learned of it you could find it everywhere in his work.

More than ten years after the episode Karr records, Wallace delivered a speech at Kenyon College in which he repeated a story he’d learned in recovery, one about two fish swimming along who ask about the nature of water. He said in this speech, “the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.” Then, characteristically, he backtracked. “That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense.” He still went on to say it’s true.

It’s fallen out of fashion, in high-flown literary circles, to like this speech, to think of it as representative of the “real Wallace.” The recoil is motivated in part by the idea that the public, which seized on his words in a viral frenzy, has sentimentalized Wallace. And it’s true, because look around, and you’ll find a line of that speech—“Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship”—quoted for every purpose under the sun. 

Hepola quotes it too. “I worshipped David Foster Wallace once,” she writes. “In some ways, I still do. His suicide is another reminder that all the knowledge and talent in the world will not stop your hands from tying the noose that will hang you.” This, by the way, is as grandiose and romantic as the artistic temperament gets. And yet, like most old saws, and especially like the ones that will actually save you, it does have an element of truth.