Review by Jules Barrueco
These are among the questions Sarah Hepola has asked following an alcohol-induced blackout, after her long-term memory has shut down and a “curtain fall[s] in the middle of the act.” Whether she awoke in a stranger’s bed, her childhood bed, or a dog bed, Hepola often faced the same morning ritual: trying to recreate the hours she lost in the dark. “A blackout is the untangling of a mystery,” she explains in her new memoir Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Grand Central Publishing, 2015). “Close your eyes and open them again. That’s what a blackout feels like.” After decades of drinking, Hepola opens her eyes for good and attempts to untangle the unsolved mysteries of her life.
To appreciate what this book is about, you must understand a simple but often misperceived fact: blacking out is not the same as passing out, or losing consciousness after too much booze. In a blackout, Hepola explains, you can talk and laugh and charm people at the bar, sing karaoke, “run your greedy hands over a man whose name you never asked.” And you won’t remember any of it. When your blood alcohol content reaches .20, your hippocampus might stop recording memories, and information never stored can never be retrieved. This story involves a life lived and forgotten, as though Hepola self-induced Alzheimer’s each time she threw back too many drinks.
Despite that Blackout contains many drunken anecdotes from Hepola’s past, it’s more than a collection of stories about a wasted woman who once mooned cars in standstill traffic. Although she investigates one haunting night to discover whodunit with her in a Paris hotel, her detective work extends far beyond her individual offenses. Hepola explores how her relationship with alcohol affected her relationships with mortals—friends and boyfriends, colleagues and family, her beloved cat Bubba and herself. And at the heart of this book she investigates the two broadest questions that she asked along the way: “How did I get here?” and, “How do I get out of here?” Hepola’s captivating story combined with her gallons of talent results in an addictive memoir, which left me craving more long after I reached the end.
There was hardly a time when alcohol—real or imaginary—wasn’t part of Hepola’s life. As a child she played cocktail party instead of tea party, stole sips of her parents’ beer, and snuck swigs from liquor cabinets at sleepovers. When she was eleven, she got so wasted at a party that she threw up seven times, cried, and took off her pants.
Each time she entered a new phase of life, booze was her trustiest tool. One day she sparkled in shimmery eye shadow; the next she wore her father’s clothes inside out and smelled like cigarettes and hamper. As she tried on different personas, alcohol gave her permission to do and be whatever she wanted while safe from fear and judgment. It also served as the social glue, the mechanism of bonding, and the great equalizer. “Everyone liked everyone else when we were drinking, as though some fresh powder of belonging had been crop-dusted over the Commons.” She captures the hold alcohol had over her confidence in a painfully relatable way.
But even though she was “always, always drunk,” life wasn’t always a party. She fell—a lot—in bushes, off curbs, down flights of stairs like a rag doll. She lost her apartment after a drunken cooking mishap, alienated friends and boyfriends, and gained so much weight she stopped wearing clothes with zippers. “I had wanted alcohol to make me fearless,” she wrote. “But by the time I’d reached my mid-30s, I was scared all the time. Afraid of what I’d said and done in blackouts. Afraid I would have to stop.” As she contemplated sobriety she catalogued those fears: how could she talk to people? How could she write? What would intimacy look like without the confidence of six beers? Hepola conveys her primal need to hold onto alcohol and how debilitating sobriety would be. Although not universally considered a sympathetic problem, I felt her terror at knowing her identity, her purpose, her light—as she knew them—would all be “extinguished with the tightening of a screw cap.”
Like most books of its kind, there is no surprise ending: Hepola stops drinking. And although her initial suffering was palpable—like each time she curled up on the floor of her closet, her “very own panic room”—she lives happily ever after in some predictable ways. She lost fifty pounds, took up yoga, and learned to play guitar. She realizes that being an alcoholic is one of the best things that ever happened to her. And she ends the book after she looks up one day and discovers that she is something approaching the woman she might like to be. As a human, I felt thrilled for her success and happiness. As a reader, I craved more originality at the end of this otherwise-exceptional book.
Blackout is extraordinary nonetheless, in part due to the storyline involving the chunks of Hepola’s life “scooped out as if by a melon baller.” Just once, she refers to herself in the third person—“whoever picked up this man, she did an OK job” —and that brilliant use of a pronoun sums up so much of her story. It was as though her actions during a blackout were those of a stranger, albeit one who inhabited Hepola’s body. Blackout both captivates and disturbs with its exploration of the evil twin locked up inside us, hiding undetected until we let our guard down and she escapes into the night.
Even more compelling than her story is the magnificent way she tells it. Hepola risked worry lines for nothing when she feared she couldn’t write well sober. I paused to marvel at countless sentences and admired slivers of brilliance tucked throughout. If her worst transgression as a writer was ending the narrative with her super-successful new life, we should all absolve her of that crime.
If you’ve ever experienced “the thunderbolt of waking up to discover a blank space where pivotal scenes should be,” I urge you to read this book. And even if you’ve never fallen through your own “trapdoors,” as Hepola calls them, this is still a moving, worthwhile read. Blackout is about more than alcoholism and recovery. It’s about admitting when a critical component of your identity is the very thing destroying you. It’s about choosing change, finding the strength to follow through with it, and maintaining that strength through the end of the marathon and beyond. “Not taking a drink was easy,” Hepola explained. “The impossible part was everything else.”
In this age of oversharing, Hepola proved that revealing your darkest moments—some so dark that you can’t even see them—can be done with purpose and grace. And while good stories make you laugh and cry, great ones, like Hepola’s, make you do all that—and think.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Reviewer’s note: I had the pleasure of meeting Sarah Hepola and hearing her read from Blackout at McNally Jackson in New York on Pub Day. Hepola was charming and lovely, did not appear to be wearing her father’s clothes inside out, and neither smelled like a cigarette nor a hamper. She seemed to be living a beautiful life, and I felt honored to support her on her monumental day. R.I.P., Bubba.[boxer set=”barrueco”]
AUTHOR IMAGE PROVIDED BY REVIEWER.