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.)