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Smashed ~ Koren Zailckas

January 8, 2010

Genre: Memoir

Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)

368 pages

ISBN: 9780143036470

Two white, privileged fourteen year-olds raid a parent’s rum cabinet before a birthday party. Several high-schoolers get wasted one night at a bonfire on hard alcohol provided by an older sibling. A dorm of freshman girls run wild through the halls, nightly, swigging wine and stealing couches from the lounge. A sorority pledge event involves massive alcohol consumption and fraternity heckling with underage students. Manhattan interns are invited to lavish corporate parities where older executives are blasted off of their toes on $39 martinis. Young corporate fledglings begin to follow in the footsteps of older office-mates who come in red-eyed and disheveled after launch parties and “business dinners”.

While all disturbing in their own way, these are hardly newsworthy headlines. We, as a drinking, partying culture, observe, dismiss and even celebrate alcoholic excesses as rites of passage, matters of fact and facts of life. This is Koren Zailckas’ thesis in Smashed. From parental negligence, or sometimes even encouragement,  to Budweiser ‘s sexualization of the drinking girl, to general pressures of society, we, especially as women, notes Zailckas, are born, literally, into a culture doused in ok’d abuses.

Her own drinking life is chronicled from pre-highschool through recent post-grad. It is an interesting take on the way many many people go through their teen years, young adulthood and even sometimes into later adult life. In short, I enjoyed many parts of it.

Now the big however.

I finished this book almost a day ago and still can’t tell you how I feel about it. On some levels, I thought it was fantastic. On some levels I wanted to throw it across the room. Did I want to throw it across the room because some of it, substance related or simply reflections on society, hit a little bit close to home? Maybe. But still, there were some reflections masquerading as truths that I found to be wholly subjective, rather than objective.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that the alcohol industry plays a role in how we view the act of drinking. Just like selling candy and junk food to kids who watch children’s programming may lead to obesity and the constantly shrinking runway model/hotel heiress may lead to disordered eating, the barrage of The Party Girl on MTV, in Vogue, on billboards, are only part of the problem.

Certainly, there are double standards. If a drunk frat boy has relations with a drunk sorority girl, he’ll be labeled a stud and she’ll be labeled easy. It was her fault she got drunk. It wasn’t his fault because he was drunk. She wanted it. Alcohol is marked to men and women differently, playing on feminine “weakness” and male “vitality”. We’re all aware of these cliches.

I don’t, though, think that any of these ideas or truths are legitimate cause or excuse for lack of responsibility. I found that a good deal of the book meandered along, waiting for a “reason to stop”, waiting for friends, sisters, magazine ads and coworkers to stop their silly games so  she could stop hers.

I also found it hard to watch Koren go through several near death experiences (some of theme as harsh as stomach pumping and nonconsensual sex, others as “mild” as daily vomiting up blood) and numerous failed attempts to drink moderately, to have her repeatedly cry out that she was not an “alcoholic”; she just abused alcohol, simply because she had no known family history of alcoholism. For me, this seems like a big fat slice of denial as most of her drinking seemed uncontrollable and emotionally fueled, but, that, I suppose, in itself, was not a deal breaker for me. I am not her sponsor. I am not her therapist. I am not her mother and I am not her.

Criticism aside, I enjoyed the book. It did shed light on a large portion of culture that goes uncriticized as it simply allows “girls to be girls” or “boys to be boys”. The writing, itself, was great and I’d like to see Zailckas turn out fiction in the future. Over all a good start, albeit, a tad subjective. But hey, I dislike memoirs, as a general rule, so the fact that I read it and have positive things to say, means it was pretty good.

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