At least half – if not two-thirds – of the essays in Drinking Diaries (a newly published book spawned by the blog of the same name) are downers. That stands to reason: alcohol is a depressant, and as I’ve written before in this series, historically women have borne its consequences more severely than men.
If the book sometimes feels like a long self-help meeting—with one story after another about hitting bottom, living with the consequences of a parent’s or friend’s drinking or simply realizing it’s time to slow down—there are also moments of complexity and nuance. Rita Williams’ lyric essay, “The Root Cellar,” is hardly about drinking at all: it’s actually about class and racial identity, and how her failure to deliver a bottle of homemade dandelion wine on time bore disastrous consequences for a coworker. Jane Friedman’s “Drinking as a Genuine Vocation” made me want to be her friend for life, and Samantha Dunn’s “Slake,” about her mother’s death due to alcoholism (that is, but due to an untreated infection from falling on broken glass) resists easy answers about the causes of her mother’s thirst for booze.
Lianne Stokes’ “The Baby Shower” centers around the time Stokes got blitzed at, yes, a baby shower—at the kind where gifts include sailing lessons and a helicopter ride. Stokes shouts, “I’ll come back when any of you have seen the inside of a soup kitchen!” (noting that she herself hadn’t been inside one herself) before passing out in a bedroom. I expected Stokes’ story— which begins with the admission that she was unemployed and deeply unhappy at the time of the party—to be a funnier-than-usual one about hitting bottom and making amends. She apologizes to the host, but drifts apart from her afterward, instead befriending the host’s gay cousin and his boyfriend, who tell her, “You said just what we were thinking!” and take her out for Bloody Marys the following morning. That is to say, she still doesn’t like her friend’s rich friends, but rather than drink so she can tolerate them, Stokes simply avoids their company. The lesson, it seemed to me, was that if you find yourself drinking to alleviate unhappiness, it’s not enough to quit or cut back; you’ve got to remove the source of your misery. In her case, it was condescending women in white gloves, and if she apologizes to the host of the party for being rude, she never apologizes for disliking the host’s friends so intensely. It appears near the end of the book, and I found the essay’s very unevenness, its lack of a tidy ending or thorough self-flagellation refreshing, after a few too many “and that was when I realized I’d had one glass of sauvignon blanc too many” tales.
Some of the most interesting stories talk about the intersection of alcohol, ethnicity and race. Daphne Merkin writes about the first time she called her mother sounding audibly drunk; she’s an adult, but her mother scolds her, saying, “Jews don’t drink.” Asra Q. Nomani writes beautifully about the complex relationship between Muslims and drink, from the scorning of booze within her family to the prevalence of alcohol in the Muslim world. While on assignment in Pakistan, she notes, she and her colleagues had to rid the apartment of alcohol and empty bottles after reporting their colleague Daniel Pearl missing, knowing that police would visit the apartment and could possibly arrest them for possessing alcohol. (Nomani also notes that Pearl bought her first “good-girl beer” and that even after bearing a child out of wedlock and making a series of other non-traditional choices as an adult, she was afraid to write the essay, because it meant admitting to her parents that she drank.)
Few of the writers in Drinking Diaries talk about the gendered politics of drinking, though Laurie Lindeen – the former lead singer for the ’90s all-woman rock band Zuzu’s Petals – writes the most explicitly feminist essay in the book. Lindeen notes that heavy drinking helped her bandmates and herself, dubbed “The Slur Girls,” earn rock-star cred with sexist stage crews while they toured—but also that eventually, watching friends die due to substance abuse or get hooked on drugs sucked the fun out of getting out of control. Apart from that, Lindeen writes, getting older means having to reduce the number of drinks she has before her now-rare forays onstage, not just for physical reasons, but because of a double standard applied to male and female performers as they age. “I am, in middle age, mindful not to overdrink, mostly because hangovers become increasingly brutal with age, but also because drunk, oldish women are viewed unfavorably. Drunken male musician onstage? No big deal. Funny. Caddish. Charming. Drunken chick onstage? Pathetic. Sad. Out of control. So many things are still unfair.”
Some of the other essays tend to preachiness – Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “Kids, Thank You For Pot Smoking” comes to mind—and too many other contributors overexplain or apologize too much for past behavior, rather than just telling stories and letting the reader draw her own conclusions. In a culture that constantly second-guesses women, puts them on the defensive, or ridicules and concern-trolls them rather than winking back when they drink too much, it’s not surprising that an anthology full of women’s drinking stories contains more writing with a self-lacerating or moralizing tone than a similar book written by men might. But that’s fine: if I think some of the writers in this book could stand to rein in their self-judgment and just let a glass of wine be a glass of wine (or a hangover be a hangover), I think plenty of male writers (particularly those whose drinking is central to their personae) could turn inward and apologize a little more often.
That the editors gave voice to so many female writers, both novices and polished pros, on a topic so much more frequently discussed by men, itself is worth raising a glass to. I hope to see the web project continue, and if the book spawns sequels, I’m more likely than not to pick up a copy.