University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Book Review of Drinking
Caroline Knapp writes eloquently and honestly, yet often starkly, about her life as a “functioning alcoholic. ” Ms. Knapp graduated Magna cum laude from Brown University, was a contributing editor at New Woman magazine as well as the Boston Phoenix. She wrote for many other magazines as well and was the author of Alice K’s Guide to Life. She was born into an upper-class family, one of two twin girls, daughter of a psychoanalyst father and an artist mother. Yet despite all the gifts seemingly bestowed upon her, from her earliest memories Ms.
Knapp felt that she was different in some way; that she needed something to sustain her and help her travel through life; her particular crutch became alcohol. Carolyn’s family, though a model of respectability and stability on the outside, had their own particular demons to deal with. Carolyn’s father was described as “cold, remote, and inaccessible, an alcoholic involved in extramarital affairs. ” (Handrup, 1998, p. 1). Her mother seemed to be “preoccupied with breast cancer throughout much of Knapp’s childhood,” and “was seemingly unaware of the inner life of her children.
” (p. 1). Carolyn relates stories of her father’s previous marriage which produced three children, and the confusion that came along with the ex-wife and the younger son who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and whose erratic behavior frightened Carolyn. The theory of nature causing alcoholism pretty much goes out the window on this particular case as Carolyn’s twin sister Becca never turned to alcohol or any other addictive behavior to cope with a life that virtually mirrored Carolyn’s own.
The disability of any alcoholic seems to be an intense need for protection; an inability to weather the storms of life alone, the absolute craving for a friend, a lover that will carry them through the rough times. In fact, Ms. Knapp felt about alcohol the exact same way she imagined others felt about their lovers. It was something she craved, obsessed over, and thought about constantly. Ms. Knapp’s “rough times” in life soon translated into absolutely anything at all, good or bad.
The sun was shining, or it wasn’t, the cashier at the grocery store was unfriendly, or perhaps too friendly, somebody died, a baby was born. Every nuance of life became too difficult to deal with, the emotions that accompanied normal day-to-day living were too much to process without a drink—or two, or three, or four. Ms. Knapp wryly notes that living without alcohol is like being “forced to live alone without the armor. The armor, of course, is protection from all the things we might actually feel, if we allowed ourselves to feel at all;” (Knapp, 1996, p.
113) Comfort became an absolute necessity, and Caroline remembers that from the time she was able to sit in her mother’s lap she would rock herself back and forth, and that this bizarre behavior continued for more years than she cared to remember. “Later I developed a more elaborate system: I’d get on my knees and elbow and curl up in a ball on the bed facedown like a turtle in its shell, and rock away, for hours sometimes…I was deeply embarrassed that I did this, ashamed of it, really, but I needed it.
I needed it and it worked. The truth? I did this until I was sixteen. The rocking was just like drinking. ” (Knapp, 1996, p. 62). So, from the comfort she derived from rocking–for hours sometimes– Caroline “graduated” to a more sophisticated form of self-comfort—alcohol. She never came to a satisfactory conclusion as to why that comfort was so essential to her. “I still don’t know, today, if that hunger originated within the family or if it was something I was simply born with. In the end I don’t suppose it matters.
You get your comfort where you can. ” (p. 61). While Knapp faced few serious medical issues as a result of her alcoholism, she nonetheless suffered through the physical challenges her addiction brought such as the soon-daily hangovers, headaches and nausea. She suffered blackouts on occasion, and another woman one day remarked about all the tiny broken blood vessels on her nose—a classic sign of the habitual drinker. Knapp combined two addictions for a period of time; anorexia and alcoholism.
She felt like the anorexia gave her control over her life, and the alcoholism made it possible for her to continue the anorexia. She notes during her anorexic phase that “I simply couldn’t stand the starving anymore, couldn’t go on without some kind of release from the absolute rigor and vigilance and self-control, and I’d go out and eat like crazy and drink like crazy. These episodes were usually preceded by some glimmer of insight into my own loneliness, some gnawing sense that my hunger was more than merely physical. ” (Knapp, 1996, p. 141).
The psychological consequences of this intense need for protection in the form of alcohol were many; Knapp notes several times how impossible it was to maintain any type of intimacy in relationships when she had a whole secret life that nobody else knew of. She felt she was one person at work– the responsible, hard-working, intelligent and dedicated writer– another with each of her boyfriends, another with her parents and siblings, and perhaps could only let her true self come through when she was alone with her lover, her glass of bourbon.
Caroline felt an emptiness deep inside, that nothing could counteract except alcohol. She also felt an enormous sense of powerlessness in her own life, and described it in this way: “As a rule, active alcoholics are powerless people, or at least a lot of us tend to feel that way in our hearts. ” (Knapp, 1996. p. 178). Perhaps because she was a classic example of the functioning alcoholic, few people in Caroline’s life ever mentioned her drinking to her as being a problem.
When her mother told her that perhaps she was drinking a bit too much, Caroline promised she would only drink two drinks a day, no matter what. When she was unable to keep that promise, she found one excuse after another. Her own sister, while realizing the problem, skirted the issue with Caroline. While Becca didn’t come right out and say that she thought her sister was an alcoholic, Caroline felt shame because she knew on some level her sister knew. Friends and boyfriends alike, seemed to accept the fact that Caroline drank, never seeing much below that superficial level of awareness.
Although there were moments of clarity when Knapp realized she must stop drinking, (such as the time she was drunkenly swinging her best friend’s two daughters around and fell down, narrowly missing injuring the children), in the end it was no one thing that prompted her to enter rehab. She felt that it would take “great courage to face life without anesthesia,” (Iaciofano, 2004, p. 13) yet, in the end, she was able to pull that very courage from somewhere deep inside herself. Ms.
Knapp’s story, full of bad relationships, years of self doubt and pain, strong addictions and family issues, psychologically goes far beyond the disease of alcoholism itself, and offers tremendous insight into the gut-wrenching need for something to ease the pain that life inflicts. Ms. Knapp notes that “You take away the drink and you take away the single most important method of coping you have. How to talk to people without a drink….. How to experience a real emotion—pain or anxiety or sadness—without an escape route, a quick way to anesthetize it.
How to sleep at night. ” (Knapp, 1996, p. 254). References Handrup, Cynthia Taylor. (July-September 1998). Drinking: A Love Story. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. Retrieved April 20, 2006, from http://www. findarticles. com/p/articles/mi_qa3804/is_199807/ai_n8791537/print Iaciofano, Carol. (June 16, 2004). Lyrical Essays Trace a Woman’s Short Yet Rich Life. Globe. Retrieved April 21, 2006 from http://www. arlindo-correia. com/061203. html Knapp, Caroline. (1996). Drinking: A Love Story. New York, Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House.