Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, Slate, Glamour, the Guardian, and The Morning News, where she has been a contributor for more than a decade. She lives in Dallas. Blackout is her first book. She began editing my work at Salon three years ago and I’ve learned much from her incisive edits of my writing. Along the way, I’ve become a huge fan of her writing and her generous way. I received an early copy of her first book, a memoir titled Blackout, and read it quickly over a couple of days, and then started reading it all over again—crowing about it all the while on social media. Sarah’s generosity extends to her writing—she lets us all the way in to her life, holds it close for us to see and in doing so illuminates ours. She is equally generous in this interview where we talk about so many things—including her memoir, fear, sex, writing and the cool kids.
The Rumpus: Your memoir, Blackout, is stunning. There are so many ways to structure a memoir—you chose to create a scaffolding out of the times you couldn’t remember, your blackouts, and the result is magnificent. Can you tell me about that choice?
Sarah Hepola: Blackouts were the scariest part of my drinking, and those episodes brought home my lack of control. If you love drinking like I did, then you scramble to make any potential problems seem all right. “I’m fine, you guys, I’ve got this,” but the blackouts were the splintered plank of wood across the face that said: No, you’re not fine.
It pains me slightly that I didn’t come up with the idea of focusing on blackouts by myself. That was suggested to me by a very smart woman in the publishing industry who read a few early pages and suggested the angle. Once she said it, my hands started shaking, because I knew the idea was so right. Blackouts had ruled my life, and I knew very little about them, which in itself is a good metaphor for a troubled drinker’s blind spots. By the way, I’m still amazed that a woman I barely knew read 20 pages of my story, and placed her finger on the entire through-line not only to my book but also to my drinking life. I kept learning those lessons while I was working on this book, though. I could not do it alone. There were so many times when other people reflected back to me the story I was trying to tell.
Rumpus: You talk about the power of blackouts. The shame and fear they caused in you after the fact. You wrote, “The nights I can’t remember are the nights I can never forget.”
Hepola: It’s a uniquely lacerating punishment to not know what you’ve done. Because it means you could have done anything. I didn’t sleep well when I drank, so I often woke up at 5am, and I would lie in bed for hours torturing myself with what might have happened. “What might have happened” is a list you can build until the stars fall out of the sky. It didn’t help that my past experience taught me my behavior in blackouts could be bizarre. Exhibitionist, aggressive, cruel. I didn’t even have the dignity of assuring myself, “I would never do that,” because I did quite a few things in a blackout that I would normally never do.
So yes, the shock of not knowing is unforgettable. Where am I? What the hell happened? But that sentence has a double meaning for me. Because I was prone to relapse and magical thinking, it’s also a call to awareness. Never forget your own story.
Rumpus: I admire that you wrote about gender, about being a woman alcoholic, throughout the book. That you didn’t carve that out and address it in one chapter, as if gender is something that is separate, other.
Hepola: It’s funny, because I did not think of myself as a “woman drinker.” I would have bristled at those words, the way I bristle at “woman writer,” because drinking is an equal-opportunity pursuit, and unlike many of my other passions—musical theater, or romantic comedies, or anything covered in pink glitter—it wasn’t tainted with the “girlie” brush, so people couldn’t make fun of me for it. I drank a great deal with men, who make for trusty and non-judgmental bar buddies, and when I sat down to write, it didn’t occur to me that I was writing a book about the experience of being female, or my relationships with women, or why drinking is so appealing to us. But the material kept pointing me in that direction.
Also, I was quite influenced by Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, which is a brilliant book about being a woman alcoholic. And I was attending women’s-only recovery meetings, and I was noticing all the ways women spoke differently about their drinking than men, and I was reflecting, probably for the first time in life, on why drinking had been so seductive to me as a female of the species: Body image issues, fear of not being hot enough or sexually liberated enough, fear of being too shy or sensitive or timid with my opinions, a terrible envy of other women. A lot of female stuff. But no gender has a monopoly on those emotions. I’ve heard from a lot of men who related to those things, just like when I read Bill Wilson’s story in the Big Book, and I think: Oh yeah, me too.
Rumpus: Saturday editor here at The Rumpus Arielle Bernstein and I were talking about your book and she raised this question: How does the female alcoholic memoir compare to the male alcoholic memoir?
Hepola: Just for fun, let’s compare two classics of the genre, A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill and Knapp’s book. Hamill’s memoir captures the culture around him: The thrill of daily journalism, the brotherhood of the bar, the excess of post-war America. Knapp’s book captures the world inside of her: A complicated bond with her father, a brilliant psychologist, and the two romantic loves she is torn between. So maybe, to paint in broad strokes, men might be more concerned with status and career, and women might be more concerned with family and relationships.
Female drinkers tend to write more about regret around sex, as in: Why did I sleep with that person? Men tend to write more about regret around violence, as in: Why did I hit/yell at/assault that person? The Night of the Gun by David Carr is a junkie memoir (as opposed to an alcohol memoir), but it’s a profound examination of his long, troubled history of violence. Drunkard is a memoir by a Chicago Sun-Times columnist named Neil Steinberg, in which he writes about hitting his wife. This dynamic reminds me of that old line about drinkers I quote in my book: Men wind up in jail cells, women wind up in random beds.
I want to make an unrelated observation that every addiction memoir I have mentioned thus far, including my own, was written by a journalist.
Rumpus: You write openly about sex, about random sex and sex you don’t remember and sex in and out of relationships, and gorgeously moving sex and awful sex and scary sex and joyful sex. Any unique challenges to that writing?
Hepola: Sex is an attention-grabbing topic, but a divisive one. You’re going to make some readers squirm, especially if their name is “Mom” or “Dad,” so I don’t tread lightly into that territory. We live in a sex-saturated culture, where the loudest messages about sex are usually the phoniest, and it’s exciting to dismantle the cliches. But writing about sex can too easily turn into a performance, just like having sex, and the more you show off, the less interesting your writing will be. You have to shuck the ego. You have to stop trying to suck in your stomach. The crackle of sex comes from the unexpected, the ways the body moves out of sync with the mind. It also comes from vulnerability, from something real being at stake.
That idea—that something real was at stake when I had sex—was one I discovered all over again after I quit drinking. I had honestly forgotten, because I’d numbed myself out so much to the singular experience of being naked in bed with another human. When I got sober, I couldn’t believe how much sex scared me. I’d spent years at that point, hooking up with random guys, making out with strangers. Who cared? None of it mattered. Without the alcohol, though, I was like a 12-year-old nearly peeing herself with fright during her first slow dance. In my story, it was important to show the reader that drunken, performative version of sex, where you make all the right noises and feel nothing, because later I needed to make the long passage to the other side—where you feel everything and might not even make a sound.
Rumpus: When you write about getting sober, you say, “Sobriety wasn’t the boring part. Sobriety was the plot twist.” Tell us more about that.
Hepola: My attitude when I was drinking was: Drinkers are cool, and non-drinkers are uncool. Uptight, lame, probably warped by fundamental religious beliefs that left them judging me for my martini. Having that cool card brought tremendous relief, because I had grown up without it, and drinking was like battle armor on a tender heart. I wanted to be a drinker till I died.
When I quit, I felt exiled from the kingdom of the Cool Kids. My life was boring now. Nobody would want to date me, or hang around with me. Sobriety felt like a dead end.
But with time I could see that my drinking had been the dead end. I want to be careful here, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hanging out at the bar with friends. It’s an amazing way to bond and I remember those years with great fondness. The way I drank, though, I was stuck in re-runs. The same conversations, the same mistakes, the same promises made and broken.
Sobriety was a chance for something different. It was scary, because it required change, and I had to give up a lot of my defenses, including my need to be cool. This still bothers me, by the way — I can actually feel my value sink with certain people when they find out I don’t drink. But much of the second half of the book is about reinvention. We all have to walk through a lonely valley at some point — after a breakup, after a job loss, after the loss of a parent — and the idea I wanted to convey was that you will come out the other side. There is a quote from the memoir Invisible, by Hugues de Montalembert (about an artist who loses his eye sight), that I have taped up in my house: “To despair of life is to not know what life can bring you.”
What strikes me these days is that I drank to be different, to be courageous, to experience life to its utmost—and that describes the way I see sober people now.
Rumpus: You write in detail about your loving, evolving, strong, imperfect 20-year friendship with your friend Anna. I loved the nuance you brought to that writing. Sometimes it seems that women’s friendships are either idealized or cliché in memoirs, or overly sentimental. You avoid that and let a clear portrait emerge.
Hepola: That means a lot to me, because I wrestled with that material quite a bit. I agree that female friendships are idealized, and it bugs the holy hell out of me. At the same time, I have never connected to the stories about female friendships as toxic and conniving. I don’t think I’ve ever had a “frenemy.” I just know that my relationships with women are fraught with disappointments and tiny betrayals and miraculous moments of connection, the same as my relationships with men.
In the friendship you mention, I think I was mislead by those sentimental portraits of sisterhood. I had this college-age notion of: Men may come and go, but we’re together forever! Well, she has a husband and a daughter, and they’re not going anywhere, so how exactly is that going to work? I needed to stop demanding that I remain a number-one priority. I’m still a little embarrassed by how much that hurt to accept.
I thought so much about my female friends when I was writing the book. Nearly all of them drank with me, but most of them didn’t develop a drinking problem like I did, and I wanted to write something that spoke to their lives, too. I wanted to talk about the deeper issues of how to find your voice in the world, or the complications of intimacy, or envy, or performance. All those issues we’ve talked about together, through the years. Some of my favorite nights of drinking were the nights we did nothing but sit in one place for hours, having a conversation so deep we didn’t notice the sun in the corner of the window. We still have those conversations together, although it’s getting much harder for me to stay up past midnight.
Rumpus: I think of Blackout as a call to compassion, a call to forgiveness, a call to understanding, a call to examine our own lives. Not that you wrote it with an agenda to your storytelling, but it certainly inspired those feelings in me.
Hepola: Everything you just said is what sobriety was for me. It was a call to compassion, because I was forced to lock eyes with all these strangers lugging the same heavy load across the sand. It was a call to forgiveness, because I had to forgive myself—not just for how I’d been when I was drinking but for the very act of being myself. It sounds cliched, but I had just never liked myself much, or accepted my own limitations, and by the time I quit drinking, I was radioactive with self-hatred. I had been given so much, and I had run it into the ground. The more I could forgive myself, though, the more I could forgive other people, many of whom I had placed on pedestals from which they were destined to fall. I had to get everything back into perspective: I’m not the greatest, or the worst. Where is my place in the middle?
I certainly felt called to examine my own life, because I needed to figure out: Why did I dislike myself so much? Could I ever change that? I’ve never thought about this before, but if I had to choose a mantra for the first years of my sobriety it might be: Pay attention. Listen to people. Listen to yourself. Notice the details, the slant of the light, this moment right here, this connection right now. I tried to pay attention when I was drinking, too—I’ve tried to pay attention all my life—but so much of drinking feeds the opposite impulse. Tune out. Escape. Block out.
Rumpus: Shame. Lately in my own writing and in the little bit of teaching I do I’ve been talking a lot about killing shame, saying, “Let’s kill shame, shall we?” I feel like Blackout is part of that same ethos. Part of a saying, from some of us, “Here is my story, I am letting go of the shame, as much as I can.” The antidote, I think, to gotcha culture and our own fear. Tell me your thoughts about the relationship between your book and shame and your thoughts on the idea of killing that wretched beast.
Hepola: Shame is definitely having a moment. It’s funny, because I used to associate that word with sex. But in my corner of the Internet, there’s very little shame in admitting your sexual proclivities. All the shaming is around not being a good PERSON: You’re a racist, or a sexist, hypocrite, or a bad mother, or a misogynist.
Shame does serve a social value, because it keeps people in line. People will change ignorant behavior if they think they might lose esteem. A world without shame might be its own dystopia, everyone just acting according to their wants and desires. But this current environment has gotten out of hand. There’s so much whistle-blowing. I think even the whistle blowers are sick of it.
It’s always going to be a fight to tell the truth about your life, though, because truth never falls neatly along political or culturally acceptable lines. All writing is a risk-reward calculation. When you tell the truth about yourself, you risk that others will misunderstand, or judge you, or simply not care—but you can be rewarded by a very special connection with people who do understand, who feel relieved by what you wrote, and who care immensely.
Rumpus: You discuss your evolving relationship with feminism in Blackout and claim it as yours, important, fundamental. I would describe your memoir as a memoir with a feminist sensibility. You?
Hepola: Absolutely. I used to have such an allergy to that word. Much like “sober,” I thought it meant something joyless, and the opposite has proven true. Of course, there’s an ongoing debate about what feminism means, and every time it comes up, no one seems to agree to the terms. Is my feminism the right feminism, and who gets to decide that? I don’t know. But in the long arc of history, I believe feminism is the struggle to be the hero of your own life. My story is definitely about that.
Rumpus: Who are some of the writers who have been influential to you as a writer?
Hepola: Stephen King was the writer who made me want to be a writer. I was a well-behaved, quiet kid, but I was also a closet adrenaline junkie—stealing beer from my parents, reading horror stories. I loved freaking myself out, and I devoured all the early classics: Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary, It. The book that probably influenced my writing more than any other, though, is Different Seasons, in particular a story called “The Body,” which is the basis for the movie Stand By Me. It’s one of his more autobiographical works, about a young boy in Maine who wants to be a writer, and even now when I read it, I can spot phrases and flourishes that I have unconsciously used for years. King also ended his novels with a letter to his readers, which are basically personal essays, and he has a very appealing first-person voice. Funny, self-deprecating, full of wonder. I was stunned when I read On Writing and discovered he had a drinking problem. No way: You too?
Rumpus: What work by other writers do you feel you carried with you into writing Blackout?
Hepola: I’ve talked about Caroline Knapp already, and she was a big influence. Another was Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” columns, which began on this site, so I definitely want to mention her. I was early in sobriety when I first found those columns—which seemed to drift along the Internet, like messages in a bottle—and I was electrified. Her voice was so warm and real and absolving. I wanted the second half of my book to have that feel—a hand reaching through the darkness to take yours.
Rumpus: You’ve been my editor and I know you to be generous, abundant in your assistance. One piece of advice I give to writers—at every stage—is “be generous.” How do we foster that in other writers, in the literary community? Should we be fostering that?
Hepola: “Be generous” sounds like good advice for human beings. I would suggest fostering it anywhere we could, and it comes from the tools we talked about earlier: Compassion, understanding, empathy. I know there’s longstanding wisdom that great writers are assholes, and I have no doubt some of them are, but I’ve met many writers I admire, and a common trait among them is a big heart.
“Be generous” extends to the self, too—I’m one of those perfectionistic writers who can’t forgive herself for a comma splice, and it’s like, hey, put down the hammer and stop bashing yourself in the face. You’ll get a lot more work done.
I have a different piece of advice for writers. “Be rigorous.” I think we need both. I think we have to hold ourselves to higher standards, push ourselves to write better material, and then we need to extend generosity and support to the people alongside us. It sounds like those are contradictory acts, but they work in concert. Intellectual and emotional rigor is a kind of generosity with your work—you are giving the writing the most stable foundation possible.
Rumpus: What are you reading now? What’s coming out soon that we should know about?
Hepola: I’ve been reading The Empathy Exams, which is exactly as good as the hype promised. Maybe even better. I’m excited about Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie, which is about an eccentric movie theater owner on the Lower East Side and sounds like one of those cool books about the evolution of New York’s soul. My friend Jordan Harper has his first collection of crime fiction short stories, Love and Other Wounds, coming out in July. He’s morbidly obsessed in a way that I completely understand. My childhood fascination with horror turned into an adult fascination with true crime.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Hepola: I wrote a personal essay on Salon about this ex-boyfriend I couldn’t get over—actually, he was a homicide detective, speaking of my true crime fascination—and a commenter wrote: “What is Sarah Hepola’s relationship with her dad?” I was like: That is a really good question. It sparked me to think about a larger collection of essays about my relationships with men—wanting to be like men, or wanting to be loved by men, or trying to live without them— and I want to call it “Crying in Restaurants,” which is the name of a Nerve series I did years ago and a phrase which continues to provide a decent window into my emotional life. That’s me: All dressed up at the dinner table with mascara smears and a wad of wet napkin in my hand.