Blackout, nonfiction by Sarah Hepola, reviewed by Erin Flanagan


Blackout follows Sarah Hepola’s life as a drinker, starting with sips in grade school and progressing through her first drunk in junior high, which was followed by many, many more in high school, college, and beyond. This well-written and engaging memoir will appeal to all readers of nonfiction, particularly those interested in addiction narratives, and even more particularly, readers in their thirties and forties. Hepola understands the difficulties of a generation steeped in irony, rape culture, the battle cry of personal acceptance, and the anonymous cruelty of a life online.

The first half of the book, centered on her drinking days, establishes the circular pattern of drinking, blacking out, and recovering the next day. Hepola obviously knows the parlor tricks of heavy drinkers—the “alcoholic doublethink” that justifies her behavior, the “untangling of a mystery” that is a blackout, and the “troubled drinker’s sleight of hand” as she pieces together the mystery of the night before. While she doesn’t romanticize drinking, she does give a thorough and convincing account of its seductiveness, naming it “the gasoline of all adventure.” Hepola recognizes that if there weren’t something wonderful about alcohol—the self-confidence, the ability to speak one’s mind, the inhibitions melting away beer by beer—quitting wouldn’t be an issue.

Because of who Hepola is, the book focuses specifically on the experiences of a Gen-X drinker and a female drinker. Recognizing the mixed messages of empowerment, gendered standards, and stipulations that come with being who she is, she writes:

By the time I was old enough to drink, culture had shifted to accommodate my desires. For generations, women had been the abstainers, the watchdogs, the caretakers—women were a major force behind Prohibition, after all—but as women’s place is society rose, so did their consumption, and ‘70s feminists ushered in a new spirit of equal-opportunity drinking. Over the following decades, as men turned away from the bottle, women did not, which meant that by the twenty-first century, when it came to drinking, women had nearly closed the gender gap.

Here is where so much of Hepola’s strength as a writer comes from: recognizing the contradictions of her generation. She’s told to accept her body but finds it unacceptable and is made to feel bad about that, too; she’s told women can behave like men but then judged for the outcome; she works primarily online and is told not to take the comments seriously, but then is lambasted in personal ways for what she writes. Drinking, in almost all of these situations, helps, or at least makes it possible not to worry in the moment, and eventually alcohol gives her the strength to find her “true voice” as a writer. When she first wrote and drank at the same time, she says, “The wine turned down the volume on my own self-doubt, which is what a blocked writer is battling: the bullying voices in her head telling her each thought is unoriginal, each word too ordinary. Drug users talk about accessing a higher consciousness, a doorway to another dimension—but I just needed a giant fishhook to drag my inner critic out of the room.” That inner critic pertains not only to writing.

The “plot twist” here is that Hepola does stop drinking eventually. She writes, “Quitting is often an accumulation. Not caused by a single act but a thousand. Drops fill the bucket, until one day the bucket tips.” At the turning point in the book, when she does finally decide to quit, it’s after a very average drunk:

I took a bath that night, and lay in the water for a long time and I dripped rivers down my thighs and my pale white belly and it occurred to me for the first time that perhaps no real consequences would ever come to me. I would not end up in a hospital, I would not wind up in jail. Perhaps no one and nothing would ever stop me. Instead, I would carry on like this, a hopeless little lush in a space getting smaller each year.

The second half of the book takes us through Hepola finding her sober feet, relearning all the ways of being in the world as a writer, single woman, friend, and teetotaler, and it’s just as dramatic as watching her tightrope walk from drunk to drunk:

Not taking a drink was easy. Just a matter of muscle movement, the simple refusal to put alcohol to my lips. The impossible part was everything else. How could I talk to people? Who would I be? What would intimacy look like, if it weren’t coaxed out by the glug-glug of a bottle of wine or a pint of beer? Would I have to join AA? Become one of those frightening 12-step people? How the fuck could I write? My livelihood, my identity, my purpose, my light—all extinguished with the tightening of a screw cap.

Where you yourself stand in relation to alcohol and romantic myths of alcohol will surely influence how you read this book. In many ways Hepola’s story might be comforting, since her behavior doesn’t seem that outlandish; she drinks too much, sure, but she’s also incredibly successful: the personal essays editor at with her own essays in Slate and The New York Times. Isn’t this what a New York writer’s life is supposed to look like? But through the tale, Hepola proves the reverse of Tolstoy’s famous assertion that “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” She writes:

I can’t believe I’d once thought the only interesting part of a story was when the heroine was drinking. Because those can be some of the most mind-numbing stories in the world. Is there any more obnoxious hero than a dead-eyed drunk, repeating herself? I was stuck in those reruns for years—the same conversations, the same humiliations, the same remorse, and there’s no narrative tension there, believe me. It was one big cycle of Same Old Shit.

Hepola proves that every drunk is unhappy in the same way, and it’s through recovery and self-preservation that they find unique happiness.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola. New York, New York: Grand Central Publishing, June 2015. 240 pages. $26.00, hardcover.

Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.

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