Koren Zailckas is a girl I’ve never met yet someone I feel l’ve known. Like me, she’s a girl with a name no one can pronounce, who — too often than not — has felt uncomfortable in her own skin.
Although more than 10 years my senior, Zailckas is someone I could have known. Someone who prided herself in crafting the perfect 30-word lede, or in writing articles for the school paper. Like me, she’s a storyteller — one who can recall F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Tennessee Williams’, Silvia Plath’s or Edgar Allan Poe’s words almost as vividly as her own.
Zailckas’ story is one that I can relate to not because I was her during high school, college or post-grad, but because I could have been.
Her first memoir “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” is one that too many girls experience. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 696,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who’s been drinking; 97,000 students experience alcohol-related rapes or sexual assault; and 1,825 students die from alcohol-related deaths per year.
Unlike Zailckas, I’ve escaped the statistics. I’ve never woken up naked in another man’s bed without remembering how I got there. I’ve also never woken up in a hospital room after my stomach’s been pumped from alcohol. However, “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” leaves me feeling raw and uneasy because it’s a haunting alternate reality of what mine could have been.
The statistics Zailckas presents are as horrifying as her drunken escapades. “Plus, a study by the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the UK that polled a thousand women found that a third of them had unprotected sex after drinking too much, and almost half had a one-night stand they wouldn’t have otherwise considered,” Zailckas writes.
Those are the unspoken footnotes to her “glamorous” lifestyle partying with her cheerleading squad and sorority girls at Syracuse University. Alcohol is part of college’s allure. There, alcohol is both her safety preserve and her wrecking ball:
“Sober, I’ll cross the street to avoid looking a leering man in the face, but drunk, I will talk him up for an hour, robbing him blind, extracting all the free drinks and flattery he will give me.”
In 343 pages, we learn how Zailckas’ love affair with alcohol poisons her relationships and becomes the responsible driver for her lingering list of wrongs. With alcohol in the driver’s seat, she’s a social, sexy, angry, destructive, depressed and sad kleptomaniac. “I no longer know whether I’m drinking to generate new stories or to forget old ones,” she writes.
Alcohol’s stalks her with terrifying nightmares of robberies, car crashes, flunked classes and murders she’s never committed. She dismisses her frightening blackouts with “whatevers.”
“If you can’t remember it, it never really happened, anyway,” a friend tells her.
But “it’s strange the way the mind remembers forgetting,” she writes. “The fact of the blackout won’t slip away like the events that took place inside of it…. In the absence of memory, the night will be even more memorable.”
“Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” is certainly memorable, despite it’s depressing banality. Even as Zailckas ends her cautionary memoir with an impassioned plea for a sister’s sobriety and solidarity, I can’t help but think that there are a million more girls still wandering streets and bars — getting dangerously buzzed, tipsy, wasted, plastered and smashed with regularity.