Home / Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. By Koren Zailckas. Viking, 343 Pp., $21.95

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood. By Koren Zailckas. Viking, 343 Pp., $21.95

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By Carlo Wolff

Koren Zailckas had her first drink at 14, was continuously hammered by 16, had a sexual misadventure at 19, and sobered up two years ago. She’s 24.

Her memoir, one of the more garish entries in the burgeoning modern youth confessional, might give you a hangover. It also suggests that now that Zailckas has purged herself of her all-too-lurid and remarkably packed past, she might well write good fiction.

Considering how she squandered her memory, she has an eye for detail – and statistics – to justify her cautionary tale.

“In the past decade alone,” she writes in the preface, “girls have closed the gender gap in terms of drinking. I wrote this book because girls are drinking as much, and as early, as boys for the first time in history – a 2001 study showed 40 percent of college girls binge drink.”

Among the no-nos Zailckas describes in Technicolor: Syracuse University, where you might not want your kid to go unless he or she hooks up with an inspiring teacher; sororities and fraternities; alcohol advertising, which Zailckas claims undermines every effort to gain emotional strength, particularly in women; and a society that treats alcohol as far less harmful than illegal drugs.

Writing “Smashed” was clearly therapeutic for Zailckas, who quit booze without Alcoholics Anonymous. That she found a good man may have helped, but her will and pride were paramount. God knows she went through self-imposed hell before she saw her way clear.

“It is my first blackout,” she writes after waking up in a hospital, her hair matted and arms bruised, her co-dependent friends eager to clarify what happened.

“I will never again experience one so comprehensive – I passed out on the dock in a puddle of my own vomit. I imagine it was mostly liquor because my dad told the doctor I didn’t eat dinner that night. Before that, I pulled my shirt up over my shoulders to show my bra to someone’s brother because, knowing I was slipping into oblivion, he’d asked me what color it was.”

The picture doesn’t get prettier.

Relive the ’80s and ’90s as Zailckas bluffs her talented, loner way through grade school and high school, her parents concerned but also enabling (to be precise, her mother is shaming, her father indulgent).

In her acknowledgments, she thanks them for sticking with her. But in the book, they treat her abuse by socializing it: When she and a friend get hammered – and discovered – her parents don’t give her the expected lecture; rather, they order her a beer.

Relive the last five years, all vivid and gray, as Zailckas attends Syracuse, where it snows so much there are no snow days. If campus life is claustrophobic, particularly at Zeta Alpha Sigma, spring break is no better:

“While the girls I came with still manage to get afflicted, I just get a headache. I keep thinking that if I were drunk, perhaps I would feel as insulted by the lewd promotions going on at every beach and in every bar: people flashing their private parts and tonguing shots off one another’s necks; men nibbling cupcakes off girls’ laps to win bottles of liquor; girls sucking suggestively on frozen bananas for the sake of free T-shirts.”

Join Zailckas in her anger at ad campaigns that demean women (she singles out Svedka Vodka and Wet gin by Beefeater, but doesn’t blast those jiggly twins from a Coors beer campaign). Join her in her pride and her perception that “alcohol is a man who has courted us all.”

Other kinds of love are on her plate these days, including self-love. Reading “Smashed” isn’t fun, but its blend of the purgative and the cautionary is heartening.

Versions of this review were published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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About cwolff

  • Great review, Carlo, of an alarming tale. I spent my undergrad days at Binghamton University, about an hour south of Syracuse. Lots of drinking, everywhere, a culture of it really. Of course there were the heads, who had their own sub-culture, but drinking was the prevailing activity, particularly through the long and bleak winters in mostly rural Western New York.

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • martin

    23 year old male from ireland, i was on the verge of having a problem.
    Started reading and running to take my mind off ‘going for a pint’. Picked up Smashed saw the picture of Koren and she looks so familiar.
    Add a DUI, a nite in a holding cell to the book and it could be my about me.
    2nd book ive read outside collage, very good stuff….

  • I think this book relates to a lot of people who read it. I’ve read a few reviews and I’m no longer surprised to hear “this sounds just like my life”. I’d even have to agree to that. For the first part of this story, I thought it all sounded just like everything I went to. Although I think reading the story let me see what could happen to me, and also, what probably happends when I’m drunk, I’ll probably continue to drink until I go through the realization that Korene when through. I know it sounds bad, but I haven’t taken it as far as she did.
    I’m still debting if I liked the ending. In a way, it finishes well, but she makes it seems like drinking is a girls problem. She mentions how girls should stop when she should really be talking to everyone.
    All in all, it was a pretty good story and very well written!
    I’d recommend it to friends, especially my drinking buddies.

  • JJ

    I am a Dad of a 14 year old girl. Last Friday night a trip to hospital by ambulance for alcohol poisoning was a huge wake up call. Sad, but I had read Smashed, and also had discussed the dangers of alcohol with my daughter. My daughter did not know the boy who supplied the water bottle had used Everclear. There were three other girlfriends there too. It was a nightmare. We did not offer her a beer. Instead she owes us 50 hours of work to include working for charity. She lost our trust, but we want to help her earn it back. Your story will continue to help us look forward and make plans. Your courage for telling about your relationship with alcohol can only help us. Thanks. It would be neat to have you meet my daughter and her three friends. We hope you are enjoying life in a wonderful way! Smile, you made a difference in spite of yourself.

  • Ashley H

    I am a current college freshman and was made to read this book by my school. It is not a book that I would pick up on my own to read, but when I started to read this book I just loved it from cover to cover. I never wanted to put it down. It’s going to help me be smart when it comes to alcohol.

  • JimSixPack

    As this girl matures, she may well reconsider her conclusion that she is an alcohol abuser rather than an addict. In one way, the book is a work of classic denial, where after a gut wrenching history of drinking, she comes to the conclusion she is an abuser…..and no followup treatment is sought. I actually think this is a poor example for those struggling with abuse or addiction. It is in a way, dishonest.

    I respect how the book addresses some women’s issues as they relate to alcohol abuse. However, I am lost after seeing the author’s identification of her symptoms as ’abuse’. The criteria is met for addiction rather than abuse…..for example, time spent recovering from drinking, anticiipating the next binge, the history of binges, hospital episodes, treatment episodes (she had at least one, since she mentioned an addictions counselor)…blackouts, accidents, depth of self-destruction..etc etc. If she doesn’t meet the critieria for alcoholism (addiction rather than abuse) then the DSM should be rewritten. THe book fails in a large way on this score. Granted, alcoholism is a self-diagnosed illness (at least as far as AA participation goes) but medically she seems to meet the more serious criteria…..especially when blackouts are introduced (a physical addiction can be argued with this symptom). SHe says she is not an alcholic because she never had a DUI and never drank alone. Ridiculous. Did she ever drive drunk and just didn’t get caught? Did she obsess about alcohol and her next using episode in the privacy of her own thoughts, when she was alone? Her use is compulsive, combined with an extensive history and various serious symptoms. The blackouts tell the real story…..a ’phyical illness’. I respect her right to self-diagnose and find healing however she needs to. …I just wish she didn’t promote a book which creates a cloud of confusion by not calling the illness alcoholism and an addiction. Certianly she is an alcoholic!