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Review: Sarah Hepola’s ‘Blackout’ grapples with the painfully honest

I imagine it’s hard to write a memoir about addiction; as a writer, you’d have to be brutally honest to come even close to being effective. While brutal honesty about addiction doesn’t sound like a very fun read, Sarah Hepola’s “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget” (Grand Central Publishing, June 7) manages to be bitingly funny, while at the same time its painful, unflinching details about alcoholism make your skin crawl.

In “Blackout,” author and longtime Salon editor Hepola traces the evolution of her relationship with alcohol from childhood stolen sips of fridge beers through to her turbulent young adulthood. Her writing style is brash enough to pummel you into the ground, but honest enough to pick you back up after that pummeling. The harsh realities of being a drunken idiot are alternatingly presented as hilarious and shameful in the essays, evoking the actual feeling of a crazy morning-after where you think to yourself, “Did I really do that?” with a combination of incredulity and repugnance. Hepola introduces acerbically humorous situations, only to swap them around on the reader so we become aware of the fundamental panic, discomfort and nervousness inherent to her experience as an alcoholic.

The pairing of disarmingly poignant moments with Hepola’s unwavering dedication to telling the complete truth about her story — both the triumphs and the humiliations — makes “Blackout” one of the most affecting memoirs I’ve read recently. The confessions she makes are sometimes staggering (I literally gasped when, early in the book, she admits to breastfeeding until the first day of kindergarten) but some of the most interesting sections of the book are when Hepola discusses what it feels like to actually “black out.” She goes over the science — the brain shuts down long-term memory generation after a certain level of alcohol is consumed — but the instances she describes of waking up someplace with no memory of getting there were legitimately frightening for me. This anxiety is made even more explicit for the reader when Hepola describes her own real-time reactions to these situations: the casual, sometimes joking Q-and-A with whoever happens to be around in order to put the pieces about her nights back together.

The most compelling part of this memoir, for me, was the fact that all of these deep, dark confessions about alcoholism are coming from a woman. Early on, Hepola writes that she was able to steal beer as a child because nobody expected that behavior from a little girl. That thread runs throughout the story, even through to the end, where Hepola finds her own kind of sobriety to cling to.

Fundamentally, this is a story about overcoming the roadblocks in life that are specifically self-constructed. Hepola’s writing is bombastic and graceful at once, making “Blackout” a must-read for, as she puts in her dedication, “anyone who needs it.”

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