Caroline Knapp Criticism - Essay

Irene Sege (essay date 1 May 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 mother was so preoccupied with her own long battle against breast cancer that she hardly noticed her daughter's starving-for-attention anorexia. Ms. Knapp's twin sister responded to the family dynamics by becoming a doctor, while the author retreated into drink.

Ms. Knapp was inspired to sober up and write by Pete Hamill's memoir, A Drinking Life. But while she can be a talented stylist, she hasn't recognized one basic fact: other people's hangovers are boring. Her book rambles, and too many stories of fellow drinkers begin, annoyingly: "A guy I know named William," or "A drinker I know named Mitch." The reader is grateful that Ms. Knapp is no longer careering drunk in her car through Boston, hopeful that her recovery will last and curious to see how she does tackling a topic larger than herself.

Elizabeth Houghton (review date 9 June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 bottle? But in this compelling memoir, Knapp, 37, a columnist for The Boston Phoenix, avoids assigning blame for her own anguished 20-year duet with alcoholism. Instead, she describes with heart-breaking honesty the disease's insidious stages: the early infatuation, when liquor served as a "liquid bridge" to intimacy; the downward spiral ("You have to see all those bottles … and that can be a disconcerting image"); and the final debacle, when her life was a shambles and her taste for booze had become "the single most important relationship in my life."

In A.A. parlance a "high-functioning" alcoholic, Knapp never woke up in a gutter, so she denied the magnitude of her problem for years. Sober since 1994, when she went into rehab, she does not deny the pull her former passion still has on her. "The attraction doesn't die," she writes, "when you say goodbye to the drink." Like all good tales of unrequited love, Drinking is addictive.

James Marcus (review date 18 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 very hard to accept that the insides, the pieces of you that have to do with integrity and self-esteem, are slowly rotting away." This acceptance didn't come to Knapp until the early 1990s, when she finally entered a rehab program.

Drinking, then, is a tale of recovery, with the emphasis on Before rather than After. When Knapp sticks to her own story, her writing is lucid and uncontaminated by self-pity. Her account of the way that alcohol "travels through families like water over a landscape" convinces us by its very specificity. Often, however, Knapp is unsure of whether she wants to write a literary memoir or a more general discussion of alcoholism. Over and over she interrupts herself to splice in statistics and vignettes she's collected from other drinkers, and while she delivers this stuff with requisite professionalism, it robs the book of its focus. Her story, she seems to suggest, approximates those of the other 15 million alcoholics in America. But approximations are exactly what we don't want in (as Knapp herself calls it) a love story.