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. Continue reading