In her penetrating memoir Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp compares her romance with alcohol to a doomed, dysfunctional relationship. In the same way that an infatuated lover overlooks the flaws of their beloved, Knapp ignores the many problems caused by her drinking. “When you love somebody, or something,” she writes, “it’s amazing how willing you are to overlook the flaws.”
Like many alcoholics, she rationalizes her destructive behavior: yes, she sometimes drank too much and yes, she rarely went a night without booze but she never drank on the job or got in her car blacked out and killed someone. She was what we call a “functioning” alcoholic: despite her excessive drinking, she (mostly) managed to keep up appearances. Knapp had a car, a house, a job. In fact, she had a prestigious job at the Boston Phoenix and even wrote her own column. Yet despite having achieved impressive heights of success, for many years, she secretly struggled with alcoholism.
As an Ivy League-educated young professional, Knapp found it difficult to see herself as an “alcoholic,” a word associated with cheap malt liquor in paper bags and dirt-smeared homeless men. She didn’t fit the prevailing conception of a drunk: she had never been homeless or incarcerated. Most of her drinking was social: a few innocent glasses of Chardonny with dinner, a cocktail or two with friends. “I’m not that bad” is the logic of the functioning alcoholic. “I might drive my car while slightly intoxicated/instigate arguments with my husband/occasionally do things I regret, but at least I have a job and a roof over my head!”
What causes someone to descend into the hellscape of addiction? What makes someone an alcoholic? Is alcoholism a disease encoded in our DNA or the result of a dysfunctional environment?
Knapp certainly didn’t have the tragic upbringing of many alcoholics. She was born in Cambridge into a well-to-do East Coast family: her mother was an artist, her father was a psychoanalyst. Her privileged youth consisted of formal family dinners and summers at Martha’s Vineyard. She excelled academically and graduated from Brown with honors.
This is why her alcoholism is all the more mystifying. Alcohol didn’t travel through her family like “water over a landscape” or wash across whole generations in a “liquid plague.” There was nothing particularly traumatic she could point to in her childhood— a bitter divorce, a history of neglect or abuse— that could explain her tendencies toward self-destruction. Had her upbringing been defined by disorder and dysfunction, her addiction might make more sense. But I suppose that’s one lesson of Drinking: anyone— rich or poor, a Brown graduate from an affluent suburb or a tough-talking construction worker from South Boston— can be an alcoholic. No one is safe from the tentacles of addiction.
Knapp evocatively describes the sensations of drinking (“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”) and its torturous cycles of shame and self-loathing.
But what I loved most about Drinking was her ability to express the agony and insanity of being addicted to something. As someone who has struggled with several dependences (alcohol, cigarettes, stimulants, shopping), I could see myself in her story with excruciating clarity. If you’ve ever been possessed by an irrational longing for merlot or martinis, you’ll recognize the countless rules Knapp imposes on herself to “manage” her drinking: “I never drank in the morning and I never drank at work…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.”
When I tried to manage my smoking, I made similar rules: at first, I said I’d only smoke in the morning with my ceremonial cup of coffee or on the rare occasion I went out to the bars. But eventually, I made an exception to every rule. I’d only smoke in the morning with my coffee except if I had a stressful day at work: then I could smoke as much as I want. I’d only smoke when I was drunk except if my mom pissed me off. The addict’s rules are violable. No matter how much Knapp tried to “control” her drinking, she couldn’t stop.
Miss Knapp incisively captures addiction’s obsessive quality. Throughout the book, she preoccupies herself with the whos, whats, whens and wheres of drinking. Who should she invite for a casual cocktail after work? What should she drink: a cucumber-infused gin and tonic or an ice cold glass of Budweiser? When could she finally pop the cork on the celebratory champagne? Where could she get a bottle of scotch if she was at her family’s summer home and the nearest liquor store was 45 minutes away?
If she was at a social event— a dinner with her boyfriend’s parents, a family gathering— she rigorously monitored herself. How much cabernet should I pour into my glass? How much time should I allow to elapse before pouring a second? Can Aunt Lucy tell I’m completely smashed? Knapp, like all alcoholics and addicts, spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to keep her drinking to socially acceptable levels.
“A Love Story” is the perfect subtitle to Knapp’s cleverly-crafted memoir. At the height of her addiction, alcohol is her lover, her best friend, her closest confidant. Alcohol is her all-consuming passion, an intense infatuation that constantly intrudes on her thoughts. She savors the smoky quality of Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks, the refreshing crispness of a glass of Sauvignon blanc. Knapp obsesses over alcohol like a childhood crush. But after 20 years of tormented love, she decides it’s time to file for divorce.
However, Knapp’s neurotic love for alcohol doesn’t just dissipate when she decides to quit drinking. In a hilarious moment after she gets sober, she wonders if she’s really an alcoholic— then she realizes only an alcoholic would wonder if they were an alcoholic at 2:30 in the morning.
A reporter and daughter of a psychologist, Knapp often approaches her subject analytically. Because of her journalistic background, she connects her experience to larger issues; at different times, she examines the ways we glamorize alcohol in our culture and includes statistics and facts about alcoholism. As a fanatic for non-fiction, I appreciated how Knapp masterfully balanced confessional memoir and fact-driven journalism.
Intelligently written and unfalteringly honest, Drinking: A Love Story is a vitally important addition to the addiction memoir genre.