A good friend of mine recently recommended Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story (1996), which I somehow missed when it first came out. It was a great recommendation–a funny and touching memoir of alcoholism by a writer for The Boston Phoenix, the king of indy media back in the day. (Since I too had lived in Boston in my teens and then again in my twenties in the 1980s and 1990s, we shared some of the same stomping grounds.) She takes you minute by minute into her alcoholic thinking and into her very messed-up life. For example: she points out that one of the problems with drinking to excess is the recycling bin, something that had never occurred to me. But Knapp explains that recycling bins reminded her of exactly how much she was drinking, and describes her elaborate schemes for stashing and then dumping bottles in various trash bins and recycling containers around town in order to hide the extent of her drinking. This is just one of the ways that drinking came to structure and organize her life.
One of the chapters that really interested me was her chapter 6, “Sex,” in which she describes the way that alcohol served to alienate her from her body and her sexuality. At first it alleviated teenage anxieties about her developing body and relationships with boys, but alcohol rather than boyfriends is really her primary relationship. One passage in particular will interest readers who followed the last post, “Just call him ‘Dr. Love‘,” on professor-student sexual relationships. Knapp writes about an experience she had shortly after graduation:
Brown was famous for its lack of distribution requirements and I’d foundered there for my first few years, taking an absurdly random, disconnected collection of courses before settling into a combined major in English and History, and choosing that not because it tapped into some deep reservoir of intellectual interest on my part but because it was a small, new program in which I could stand out. A man named Roger headed that program. He was in his forties, an immensely popular member of the English department, and he had a razor-sharp intellect, and he was the first professor at Brown who made me feel special.
I’d wanted that feeling desperately–it’s another classic impulse among alcoholics, to seek validation from the outside in–and I hadn’t found it in college. . . . Academic achievement was something I’d always sought as a form of reward: good grades pleased my parents, good grades pleased my teachers; you got them in order to sew up approval.
Roger, whom I met as a junior, gave me precisely that brand of approval, and I’d found it familiar and reassuring: he gave me a purpose, someone to please. In my senior year I narrowed my major down to eighteenth-century British literature and history because those were his areas of expertise. He became my advisor, and under his direction I wrote a prizewinning thesis, graduating from Brown with honors.
Two days after my graduation I went out to lunch with Roger, a celebratory gesture on his part. He’d suggested this after the graduation ceremony . . . and he’d called the next day and arranged to pick me up at my apartment.
We drove to a small, sunny restaurant about ten minutes away from campus, and he ordered us martinis. Then he ordered wine with lunch. We ate lobster salads and talked about writing.
After lunch, in his car, Roger leaned over suddenly and kissed me on the mouth. I was startled and scared and confused when he kissed me, but I was also drunk, so I let him. I let him keep kissing me, and I let him put his hand on my breasts, and when he called me on the phone a few days later and asked me to have lunch with him again, I agreed because I didn’t know what else to say.
I must have gotten drunk with Roger six or seven times that summer. We’d drive to a different restaurant each time and we’d have many drinks–usually martinis. . . and after lunch, blind drunk in the daylight, we’d sit in his car and I’d let him kiss me again. I’d close my eyes, panicked inside but numb, very numb, and I’d feel his breath on my neck and his tongue in my mouth and I’d just sit there, not knowing how I’d gotten into the situation and not knowing how in the world to get out (pp. 83-85).
Did I mention that she was living with a boyfriend at the time? When she mentions that her boyfriend will be moving to Chicago at the end of the summer, Roger’s response is, “‘Oh good. . . . Then we can become lovers.'” (Ed. note: who talks like this? “Lovers?”) Knapp reflects on the relationship, and acknowledges that while she never was attracted to Roger, she encouraged his attentions. “[T]he martinis allowed me to indulge in that attraction, to flirt with it, to tap in to a feeling of power I was otherwise too self-conscious and fearful to acknowledge. After the second or third drink I know that I was leaning across the table, interest in my eyes, asking questions, drawing him out,” 86. She explains:
Alcohol puts you in such a box, leaves you with such an impossible equation: you have to sexualize the relationship in order to feel powerful, and you have to drink in order to feel sexual, and on some level you don’t understand it’s all fake, that the power is chemical, that it doesn’t come from within you. So I’d sit there in the car with Roger, and I’d let him touch me and I’d feel completely stuck, just the tiniest stirring of inexpressible rage–at him, at myself–bubbling inside (87).
But because of the alcohol, she couldn’t become an actor in her own life–she remains someone who is acted upon by a man she no longer even respects, let alone is attracted to. She writes later in the book that “[y]ears later, I heard he had died, dropped dead of a heart attack while jogging on the East Side of Providence. I didn’t feel a thing,” 93. Considering the discussion we’ve had in the past day or so, I wonder about the role that alcohol may play in relationships between students and professors, especially considering the age and power differences many of you discussed. How many of these relationships would never have gone beyond (mostly) innocent flirtation were it not for alcohol, especially considering the youth and inexperience of the students involved, and the pathological relationship that many college students have with alcohol? Knapp’s story almost makes me want to assume bad faith on the part of any faculty member who buys alcohol for a student. (Knapp was born in 1959, so she must have graduated from Brown in the early 1980s–that’s nearly 30 years ago, but still well past the era of the three-martini lunch, for cripessakes!)
Many of you may have heard of Knapp already, or know that she died almost exactly 7 years ago at the absurdly young age of 42. Reading Drinking: A Love Story made me all the sadder, because of the loss of such a fine autobiographical writer without a shred of self-pity. I really would have liked to hear her thoughts about life in her 40s, 50s, and beyond.