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.