Caroline Knapp Essay - Critical Essays

Knapp, Caroline

Introduction

Caroline Knapp Drinking: A Love Story

Born in 1959, Knapp is an American journalist and memoirist.

In Drinking: A Love Story (1996) Knapp traces her experiences as an alcoholic from the time she took her first drink as a young teenager until she checked herself into a rehabilitation center at the age of thirty-four. Influenced by Peter Hamill's book A Drinking Life, Knapp wanted to write about the effects of alcoholism and addiction from a woman's perspective. Knapp notes in her memoir that she was not the stereotypical alcoholic; she was born into a wealthy and privileged family in Massachusetts, graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, and became a hardworking and successful columnist, writing under the pseudonym Alice K., for the Boston Phoenix. The often personal matters Knapp wrote about in her column may have prepared her for the revelations made in Drinking, in which she examines her relationships with various family members, particularly the one between her and her father, a psychiatrist, also an alcoholic, who was often distant and unemotional. He died in 1992 of a brain tumor; shortly after, Knapp's mother, an artist, died of breast cancer. Knapp notes that the deaths of her parents caused her to drink even more until she eventually sought help in 1994. In addition to her alcoholism, Knapp writes about her struggles with anorexia and the emotional impact of having an abortion and engaging in an affair. Critical reaction to Drinking: A Love Story has been mixed. Some reviewers have faulted the work for a lack of focus and detached, unengaging portrayals of other alcoholics. Other critics, however, have lauded Knapp's honesty, introspection, and focus on self-discovery as well as her prose style; Walter Kirn, for example, called Knapp's sentences "measured, hand-cut gems."

Principal Works

Alice K.'s Guide to Life: One Woman's Quest for Survival, Sanity, and the Perfect New Shoes (journalism) 1994
Drinking: A Love Story (memoir) 1996

Criticism

Irene Sege (essay date 1 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Her Time in a Bottle: Caroline Knapp's Memoir Recounts Her Painful Love Affair with Alcohol," in The Boston Globe, May 1, 1996, p. 61.

[In the following essay, Knapp discusses with Sege why she wrote Drinking: A Love Story and details her experiences as an alcoholic.]

Honestly, can you imagine a man describing his alcoholism like this?

"It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out."

Well, that is how writer Caroline Knapp opens her memoir, titled, femininely enough, Drinking: A Love Story.

The Boston Phoenix columnist, who is 36, had her first drink as a young teenager, 13 or 14 years old, and her last a little more than two years ago. In those intervening years she graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and has worked as a journalist. She never wrote drunk, but she has written nursing a hangover.

Knapp is—and was, through all those years of drinking—well bred and high-achieving, a closet imbiber who hardly fit the stereotypical picture of the two-fisted drinker, the two-fisted male drinker, who loses everything to too many bottles of gin. More than two-thirds of the nation's estimated 8.1 million alcoholics are men, but that still leaves 2.5 million women with drinking problems.

That is one reason Knapp wrote this book.

"I was moved and influenced by Pete Hamill's book [A Drinking Life], but it was such a guy story and such a guy experience with drinking," she says. "He was the boisterous hard-drinking reporter, out covering wars. There was not a lot of the stuff that women I know struggle with when they become addicted to something and try to get out of it. Fears and self-doubts and self-loathing and all that stuff.

"I felt if I had read something from a real female perspective during my own drinking it would have been really helpful to me."

The other reason that Caroline Knapp wrote this book is that what Caroline Knapp does is write about herself, and this, quite simply, is the time when finally she could tackle one of the biggest forces in her life. She is Cambridge-raised, the daughter of a psychiatrist and an artist, and her writing melds the examined life and the creative life.

Knapp has bantered in print (often through her alter ego, the thoroughly modern and perpetually insecure Alice K.) about orgasms and suntans and being a grown-up. She has written seriously about her experience with anorexia and the deaths of her parents.

But, other than a brief mention of her own alcoholism in a 1995 column on the "moderation" movement, Knapp has not written about her bout with the bottle, with the roots and comforts of her alcoholism, with the way she took to liquor like a lover, then mourned its loss.

Now that she has, all her experience with self-revelation is proving a flimsy shield against the fear with which she awaits the publication of her book this month by the Dial Press.

"I'm really scared," Knapp says. "I'm more anxious about it than I feel I have a right to be. I've written personal stuff for so long, but it's always been a fairly small audience and a more limited way of being personal. This just feels much bigger. It makes me feel terribly exposed.

"There's still a stigma around alcoholism. A big one. This is not a lot of fun to imagine people I used to drink with or work with or friends of my parents opening up the paper and saying, 'Oh, gee, look, Jean and Pete's kid is an alcoholic.' It strips away a level of privacy I'm very used to having. It was a relief to write it, but mostly right now I'm just scared."

Knapp is sitting at the kitchen table of the house, or rather the half of a side-by-side duplex, that she bought in 1994, four months after she quit drinking. Her dog, Lucille, a German shepherd mix, her other major post-drinking acquisition, "something in my life that would have been impossible were I still drinking," is sprawled on the sofa in the living room.

Knapp lights a Virginia Slims menthol—no way she's ready to tackle another addiction yet—and sips herbal tea. Her blond hair hangs to her waist, much as it did when she was a girl, and when one sees her sitting here, her knees curled to her chest and her arm curled around her knees, one can imagine her as the child she describes in her book who found solace rocking herself, obsessively, addictively, long before she ever found solace in wine.

"I still feel newly sober," she says. "Two years isn't that long. I still feel kind of raw. In some ways rawer than in the beginning. The first year you sail through on the novelty of it and the understanding that you're doing the right thing and moving in the right direction and all that. The second year and the beginning of this year have felt a little more real and a little more raw."

In her memoir, Knapp describes a childhood of privilege and intellect, in what her father used to call the "small world" at the top. Knapp never saw her parents fight and never heard them say "I love you." Her father, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, was intense and...

(The entire section is 2194 words.)

Meryl Gordon (review date 2 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Hitting Bottom," in The New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1996, p. 34.

[Gordon is an American author and editor. In the excerpt below, she offers a negative assessment of Drinking: A Love Story.]

Caroline Knapp, a journalist from a well-to-do Massachusetts family,… believes that her alcoholism is partly inherited, but in Drinking: A Love Story she nonetheless settles the score with her now-deceased parents. Ms. Knapp, a magna cum laude graduate of Brown who uses frequent literary references, describes her household as "an Updike family, a Cheever clan." Her cold and remote father, a noted Cambridge psychoanalyst, had a long-running affair; her...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Elizabeth Houghton (review date 9 June 1996)

SOURCE: "The High Life from the Bottom of a Bottle," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 9, 1996, p. 6.

[Houghton is an American writer. In the mixed review of Drinking: A Love Story below, she praises Knapp's depiction of her own addiction but faults her portrayal of other alcoholics.]

A love story dances on water. The music moves us farther from shore, starts a twinkle in our eyes, and we are new again. Bottle that feeling and you could be King. It's the Holy Grail to an alcoholic. Caroline Knapp is the latest to throw her hat in the ring, dazzling us with her heady description of alcohol's allure and its devastating hold, a high that is near impossible to...

(The entire section is 1119 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 13 June 1996)

SOURCE: "Two Lives, One Lost to Alcoholism and the Other Surviving It," in New York Times, June 13, 1996, p. C18.

[In the excerpt below, Lehmann-Haupt states that Knapp's account of her alcoholism "is a remarkable exercise in self-discovery."]

In Drinking: A Love Story, an eloquent account of her own experience with alcohol, [Knapp] writes, "The knowledge that some people can have enough while you never can is the single most compelling piece of evidence for a drinker to suggest that alcoholism is, in fact, a disease, that it has powerful physiological roots, that the alcoholic's body simply responds differently to liquor than a nonalcoholic's."

...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Kim Hubbard (review date 1 July 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Drinking: A Love Story, in People Weekly, Vol. 46, No. 1, July 1, 1996, p. 33.

[In the positive review below, Hubbard lauds Knapp's "heart-breaking honesty."]

Even as a child, Caroline Knapp liked the cocktail hour. The daughter of a stern, distant psychoanalyst and his self-contained painter-wife, she looked forward each evening to her father's first martini, when his reserve would dissolve "as though all the molecules in the room had risen up," she writes [in Drinking: A Love Story], and "rearrange themselves, settling down into a more comfortable pattern."

With a transformation like that, who wouldn't hit the...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

James Marcus (review date 18 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Drinking: A Love Story, in Salon (online publication), September 18, 1996.

[In the following mixed review, Marcus questions Knapp's focus and intention in Drinking: A Love Story.]

Caroline Knapp started drinking when she was 14, and spent almost 20 years as an alcoholic. Throughout the 1980s she maintained a good front, holding down a high-pressure job at the Boston Phoenix and keeping her addiction under wraps. Much of the time she managed to hide it even from herself: "You know and you don't know. You know and you won't know, and as long as the outsides of your life remain intact—your job and your professional persona—it's...

(The entire section is 305 words.)