The Rookie Reviews: "Smashed" by Koren Zailckas

Have you ever had a day when your stomach will just not settle, when everything seems just a quarter-inch off its mark and although you're really excited about what you have to do, the most you can muster is a queasy kind of enthusiasm? I had that day reading Koren Zailckas' book, "Smashed: the Story of a Drunken Girlhood."

The book describes in vivid language how the author spent nine years of her life, from age 14 to 23, finding her way into the alcoholic culture. She carefully exposes the reasons behind her habit, how it developed from a bonding ritual to a near-daily fact of life. Candidly, Zailckas describes her parents' attempts to help; the way alcohol affected relationships with boyfriends, roommates and strangers; and the steps she took to alternately hide her drinking from and proclaim it to the people around her, depending on what part of her life they involved themselves in. She acknowledges the choices she made and the problems they caused but as a reader I can understand why.

"At the time, I write off these behaviors as a need to adapt... Later, I'll be able to see that this is how it all starts. I concede to shifting my personality, just a hair, to observe the standards I think the situation calls for. From now on, every time I drink, I'll enhance various aspects of myself... The process will be so incremental that I'll have no gauge of how much it will change me. I will wake up one day in my twenties like a skewed TV screen on which the hues are all wrong. My subtleties will be exaggerated and my overtones will be subdued. My entire personality will be off-color."

Through her story, Zailckas shows drinking having strong social connections, for her and all the other young people she knows. Half the story of the book is the author's own drinking and the other half is explaining the people she drinks with: what their favorites are and how she reacts to them, the ways she changes to fit them.

"I sense Natalie has also taken away a part of me, the pure part that used to order Shirley Temples with dinner because my parents' friends thought it was dimpled and darling, like tap dancing with 'Bojangles' Robinson. Still, the loss is worth it because I have won Natalie's respect. I can tell she is proud of me for having endured the burn of the liquor and the risk of getting caught. Her esteem is worth every sip."

"Smashed" describes the adults in the story as unable to help, mostly because they are unwilling to see the problem and wanting an easy solution (which reads like "we caught you so you're not going to do this anymore") so their own hands won't have to get too dirty in fixing it. From a ministry standpoint, the relationships these adults have with the author are too distant and too inauthentic to have a chance of reaching her.

Drinking, in the story, leads to injury, hospitalization, and bouts of vandalism. In college, the whole community joins in and being drunk loses its stigma and fear of being caught. After graduation, in the business world where alcohol greases all the wheels and keeps all the negotiations running smoothly, it is still acceptable. For the church, I hear a strong indictment in this book to face the culture that's set up this way and challenge it fearlessly.

Although all of Zailckas' experiences with drinking damaged her body and mind in some way, only a few discouraged her at all. After nearly a decade of problem drinking, she began to take her first fumbling steps toward leaving the habit behind. And the book lets us know for her it will be a work in progress, a lifelong struggle. What's unfortunate is that she doesn't seem to find people who will support her in her changing, the way she found them to help her start drinking.

This book isn't a manual for dealing with alcoholism; it's a story. It lets us who care look deeply into the eyes of someone who might be any of the students we work with. Where in the book we see gaps, spaces that loving people might have filled and pointed the author away from her destructive path, we can see where to stand in those same spaces for the young people we know.


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