Pass the Angst: Kicking is the new kick.
Addiction and Addiction
By Hannah Strom-Martin
Koren Zailckas and Susan Shapiro are both New Yorkers. Both are memoirists who have suffered through addictions and come out the other side. Zailckas' book on addiction is called Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (Viking; $21.95). Shapiro's is called Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex (Delacorte; $22). Save for geographical circumstances and some hard-to-kick monkeys on their respective backs, seldom have two authors expressed so completely the yin and yang of a single subject.
Released within months of each other, each woman's memoir is compelling and completely different, covering a spectrum from the hysterical to the hysterically funny. Welcome to the year's most intriguing literary double-header--and pass the angst.
Anyone who has read Shapiro's previous memoir (Five Men Who Broke My Heart) knows to expect a warm, personable heroine who invites you into her living room like an old friend. Formerly from Michigan, now a teacher at NYU and a freelance writer for The New Yorker and Cosmopolitan magazines, Shapiro possesses that special blend of small-town neurosis and street-wise savvy we have come to expect in any Manhattanite worth her salt. It's a combination that drags you irresistibly into her latest true-life dilemma, overcoming such hurdles as the-New-Yorker-with-a-shrink cliché and making you a giggling witness to her wacky, glamorous world of withdrawal. Yes, we are dealing with your typical girl vs. shrink story (the complex give and take of Shapiro's sessions with the flaky yet demanding Dr. Winters drives the narrative from page one), but those who can accept their fate are in for some glorious kvetching.
A smoker since age 13 (she stole her first cigarette from her oncologist father), Shapiro has, by the beginning of Lighting Up, amassed 37 years' worth of oral fixations, from Entenmann's fat-free brownies to bubble wrap. Each substance she succeeds in quitting is replaced by another, from harmless Chiclets (she replaces them with bread) to paranoia-inducing pot (the passage in which she attempts to mail herself a packet of roaches so she can get high at a family gathering involves heightened security, Pokemon stickers and a SpongeBob SquarePants doll).
Unlike many of the friends we encounter over the course of the book, Shapiro is never what we would call unhealthy. But anyone who has ever spent a night alone with a box of leftover birthday cake would have to be dead not to sympathize with her agonies as she slowly gives up everything she has depended on for oral pleasure--one ass-kicking step at a time.
Yet in the greatest comedy tradition, her pain equals genius, and manages to capture the hard truth of addiction in all its idiosyncratic weirdness. "I felt competitive with Roger's extra-nicotine addictions," she notes, observing a friend. "His former coke, booze, pot, pills and accidental heroin use clearly trumped my pot, gum and bread." Later, describing a family reunion in which she finds herself obsessed with the bread and fried foods her relatives are consuming, she quips, "Was I the poster girl for clean living, or the dartboard?"
One may not feel the same fascination or gratitude as Shapiro does toward the aptly named Dr. Winters (a man who demands she abandon even the scant pleasures of fat-free Oreos). A nonNew Yorker may not understand why, for instance, in her shopping-addiction phase, she decides to gift him with a $300 pen. But petty shrink issues aside, this is neurotic gonzo journalism at its finest, Shapiro's self-portrait so humbling and human you can't help but laugh.
It would be interesting to see the post-9-11 Catcher in the Rye that Koren Zailckas' Smashed would have been if she had taken a tip from Shapiro and practiced some self-analysis before she began to write. Her story, which takes a postmortem knife to the (primarily female) culture of binge-drinking, is well-written and disturbing, but suffers from a pivotal lack of explanation in the opening chapters. Just 24 when her book was published, Zailckas never tells us what spiritual wound caused her to begin binge-drinking--a habit that results, among other horrors, in her losing her virginity to a near stranger without being able to remember the act.
This omission makes a reader continually wonder what caused her withdrawal. What went wrong in her soul, her mind, her family that would cause her to pick up a bottle at the age of 14 and continue to drink herself into stomach-pumping oblivion until the age of 23? As we are never told, the first half of the memoir is an experience akin to listening to Radiohead's Amnesiac without knowing about Thom Yorke's divorce--and one has to wonder if Zailckas' drinking originated as a symptom of a more intangible pain.
However, the book improves drastically in the second half, when Zailckas takes her scalpel to the origins of college binge-drinking, dissecting the urge toward self annihilation from an acute sociosexual angle. Alcohol, she says, "feels like something we've stolen from the boys. And while we were attempting to harness its power, we fell in love with it." She is at her best in passages like these, her observations highlighting, among other things, an undeniable alcohol-fueled gender war as scary as any night of blackouts. While noting the new type of girl who is more apt to take the drink and blow off the guy who bought it for her, Zailckas also observes the rise of Internet porn sites (she estimates some 45,000 at least) that feature dead-drunk girls being raped in gang bangs.
"I don't think people realize that drunk girls are themselves a fetish object," she writes in one of the book's most disturbing passages. It is an observation like this that elevates the earlier morbidity of the book to the level of a must-read. Unlike Shapiro, Zailckas has lived with a life-threatening addiction for nearly a decade, her memoir taking into consideration every hidden facet of binge culture and revealing its dangers to be much more encompassing than we dare admit.
In the second half of the memoir, she transcends her own struggle by bringing to light the greater demon that continues to threaten young people of either gender, robbing a generation of any identity save the one they find in a bottle. Drinking becomes a symptom, once more, of some greater spiritual emptiness, as pressing as the bingeing it inspires.
Smashed should be a wake-up call to anyone who has ever pursued alcohol at the expense of health or naked introspection. It proves that addiction, while it can make for agonized comedy or black annihilation, is never a laughing matter.
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From the April 13-19, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.