Blackout by Sarah Hepola

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I’m going to say this up front: Blackout is sold to the reader under false pretenses. The title and the summary on the back cover suggest the book is going to really delve into drinking-induced blacking out—which, I learned in the introduction, is caused by the alcohol in your bloodstream shutting down the longterm-memory-making hippocampus. But that’s not really what the book is about.

And I’m glad it’s not, because Blackout as written is a fucking stellar book.

At the end of the introduction, I worried about what would come next. I could see it jumping from one blacking out episode to another, pairing the braggadocio of Hepola-as-binge-drinker with the painful regret of Hepola-as-author until she hit some life-changing rock bottom moment. Even Hepola, a talented writer, wouldn’t be able to sustain that for two hundred pages. In fact, Hepola seems to acknowledge how impossible such a book would be when she says, “This book might sound like a satire of a memoir. I’m writing about events I can’t remember. But I remember so much about these blackouts.” Thankfully, the book uses blackouts as a jumping off point, not a sole focus.

Here’s what Blackout is about: body image, sexual consent while being an alcoholic, online dating as a late thirty-something, dating while recently sober, the challenge of experiencing your first sober romantic kiss and sexual encounter as a thirty-something, AA, feminism, friendship through alcohol and sobriety, the relationship between alcohol and writing, and more. In short, it’s about an entire life, of which blackouts are a small but significant part.

Which makes me wonder why the focus on blackouts. Is it because the reading public has backed off in its appetite for addiction memoirs, so it had to be something more than just a journey to sobriety (Hepola mentions reading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story with tears on her face and a glass of white wine in her hand)? Did Hepola not have enough writer cred to sell a general memoir à la The Boys of My Youth?

Fortunately, the only moments where I was frustrated by the focus on blackouts were early in the book. Hepola rushes through her childhood to get to the drinking years, not pausing long to reflect on the events along the way. Later, when she brings her dazzlingly brilliant introspection to bear on her adult years, it made me wish that she had given as much attention to the parts of her life less connected to her alcoholism. An eighteen-month stretch of sobriety that involved a lengthy trip to South America gets less than half a page. Similarly, an inexplicable addiction to reality television gets a single paragraph. I wanted more.

I wanted more because when she does take time to fully investigate an aspect of her life, it’s exquisite and raw and intensely funny, teetering on the verge of heartbreaking. This applies to the blackouts and the mornings after, which she describes as CSI: Hangover. She convincingly explains why she kept drinking despite the frequent blackouts:

The blackouts were horrible. It was hideous to let those nights slide into a crack in the ground. But even scarier was to take responsibility for the mess I’d made.

Hepola uses alcohol as a springboard to dissect her complicated relationship with feminism, rape culture, and sexual empowerment. She quotes a friend as saying, about drunks, “Men wake up in jail cells, and women wake up in strangers’ beds.” Hepola adds that, “It’s not like that for everybody. But it was like that for me.”

Hepola convincingly portrays her life as a blacking-out alcoholic, but even more compelling is the picture she paints of sobriety. “Sobriety sucked the biggest donkey dong in the world,” she tells us, and she backs that up. We see Hepola scan an AA room for a potential boyfriend, gain fifty pounds by stuffing food into the hole that alcohol left, and constantly second guess all of her social interactions in a world she’s not used to facing sober. The most beautiful moment in the book is Hepola, miserable in sobriety, taking her elderly cat for a walk through her neighborhood in NYC on a leash. “He lay with his fur against the cool gravel, and I stared up at the sky, two animals finding their way into the wild on a short leash now.”

Hepola works as Salon.com’s personal essays editor, and while this is her first book, she brings the experience of writing for an online audience to this text. The writing is incredibly smart and maintains a level of intensity you don’t often find in long-form memoirs. We get references to Don Draper and genetic alcoholic tendencies described as “embroidered on my DNA”; her first orgasm is “a long, ecstatic sneeze,” and it is an act of love “to remember another person’s life.”

So if the introduction’s academic article quotations about drinking statistics and the biological mechanisms for blackouts put you off, please keep reading. It spirals out in so many fascinating directions, and it’s no coincidence that Hepola shares a journalism background with Caroline Knapp—Blackout often echoes Knapp’s fantastic drinking memoir. Blackout is an enthralling interrogation of a life. Even the most banal moments are beautiful, elevated, and resonate across the human experience.


Graham Oliver is an MFA candidate and writing instructor at Texas State University. He is the nonfiction editor for Front Porch Journal. His work has previously appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Full Stop, Ploughshares' blog, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about family, legacy, and genealogy. You can follow him on Twitter @GRAHAMMOLIVER. More from this author →