Young, educated, and drunk. Young, educated, and drunk. Young, educated, and drunk. It’s a sort of mantra that travels throughout the nation stopping at college campuses everywhere and implanting itself in the daily culture. Work hard, play harder mindsets are more common than any alternative and the pursuit of the next binge leads students charging for the weekend.
Author Sarah Hepola’s new book “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget” (2016) examines her years in and following college through funny (and not so funny) tales of drinking in excess to feel empowered, drinking to feel inspiration and drinking to hold onto what little of herself remained. Hepola will be on Trinity campus Thursday, March 3 to discuss drinking on college campuses and what she has learned from blackouts she cannot remember. I talked with Hepola for three hours about her book and her life.
GF: In your book there is a particular passage that states that women are more likely to have three binges a month, or six drinks at a time. Which honestly, in college, just sounds like three parties a month. There is a drinking culture and the idea that you are just barreling towards the weekend. How did that become the norm and why?
SH: I think drinking together on college campuses kind of started when boys and girls started living together in the seventies. This is the age of feminism and so drinking became much more of a shared part of the college campus life.
Through the eighties you get these movies like “Animal House,” which was sort of the “American Pie” of its day “” and these movies really reinforced the ideas that college was a bacchanal and a time for rebellion. It’s almost like those pop cultural messages became socially reinforcing in the same way that the real world kind of redefined what it meant to be young.
So when I came of age during those years, it was just an accepted part of the college life that we drank a lot. And when we say that we drank a lot, I mean that I wasn’t counting. I don’t know how much I drank in a night; I just drank until the drinks were gone. And you’re starting to see in that moment what the outside world might think is a normal night of drinking and what a college kid might think.
As you get into the late nineties and the early aughts, the message just continues to amplify. Parents felt comfortable with this, too. It’s like college becomes this sanctioned period of drinking, it’s almost like college becomes this American rite of passage.
GF: There seems to be a dichotomy between the community around drinking and the isolation that drinking brings. Can you talk a little more about this?
SH: Well I certainly was a person who was drawn to drinking because I wanted closeness with other people. I wanted to be around other people and when I was drinking I liked myself better and I liked them better. And I was less afraid of them. I think a lot of us might feel, and especially me in my adolescence, trapped in my own unhappiness. And I didn’t know how to bridge that divide and alcohol felt like it built a bridge. And we took care of each other. I think that is the other part of it.
When you are in a drinking circle, if somebody vomits, you go and help them with their vomit; if somebody is drinking too much, you go and bring them to their bedroom, tuck them in. It was in some ways our play-acting at adulthood. Where you are helping each other through the perils of life, but it’s just the perils of a keg party.
I think one of the big tensions that young people face is that you’re so eager to prove yourself. You want to show that you’re tough and that you can hang. I never wanted to admit I was having any kind of problem because I wanted to look totally in control of all of this stuff.
When you’re in college especially, you don’t want to be the one person who looks like they can’t drink like everybody else. I think sometimes there is just not an awareness that other people are struggling. There is so much performing to keep up with everybody else. But when are we going to be honest with each other and talk about our true selves, we need to say, “You guys, I’m not keeping up.” I think about my own life and I’m like, well, those are conversations I used to have with my girlfriends when we were drinking.
GF: You also talk a lot about female empowerment and what it means to be a strong or defiant woman. How do you think being this empowered woman has changed for you?
SH: When I got to college was when I first realized that I wanted to be that kind of strong and defiant “” I really looked up to a lot of women that really spoke their mind. I saw that as a really appealing way to be, but I didn’t know how to be that. I was so shy and I was so worried about what other people thought of me. And so alcohol, it frees you.
But alcohol is a very tricky empowerment because it will turn on you eventually. I know that for me, I used it as a crutch and what happened was I found myself in my twenties and my thirties with this false bravado that wasn’t really me. It was like this drinking persona that I put on that was very bold and empowered, but on the inside I was terrified of criticism. I was so scared about what people thought about me.
You grow up with so much pressure about being a proper girl and dressing a certain way and being cute and appealing enough and I really liked the feeling of giving the middle finger because I didn’t want to care anymore.
I used to think that drinking was really rebellious and cool and different. The truth is that drinking is conforming. I mean it is what everyone else is doing. And while drinking is good and it’s fun, it’s really not all that original. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more interested in finding people that have found other ways, other sources of power.
GF: A lot of pressure to be an empowered woman comes with being sexually empowered and comes with being sexually open.
SH: Doesn’t it? That is so true. And my relationship to alcohol and sex was something that I didn’t even understand until I quit drinking. When I first quit drinking I talked to some of my female friends about why they drank “” these weren’t necessarily people that had drinking problems””and what I kept hearing again and again was, “It loosens me up, it makes me feel sexual “” like I can be wild in bed.” I kept wondering why do we feel this need to perform this wildness that we don’t have authentically.
So alcohol presents itself as a way to be that girl that you want to be. There is this great freedom, but how do you navigate it? I certainly didn’t know. And I felt this pressure to be really crazy and wild and have these crazy orgasms like I’d seen in the movies. Which is such a joke by the way. I didn’t even know how to give myself an orgasm, and it was not happening with the dude from the party that I just met from the party. I was so reliant on that, that it was just an essential part of my sexual life.
GF: With this openness, there’s also the idea that you get to really know people when you’re drunk. Not just when you’re sitting in front of each other hanging out, but when you’re sitting in front of each other a bottle of wine later and you’re having the “deep conversations.”
SH: Totally, totally. What’s interesting about that is that you’ve just talked about this idea that alcohol is the great truth revealer. It’s a way to get at the authentic self. Then you get this bottle of wine between you and you can let down your guard and you can allow yourself to be you. But what’s funny about that is that’s not entirely true. The real you is not this super disinhibited, will say anything to anyone, kind of person.
That’s the drunk version of you. The longer you have that, the more you realize there is something kind of phony about that. Because you are all drinking yourself into this place where you can talk instead of doing that on your own.
GF: A big topic on college campuses is the relationship between alcohol and sex and the question of what is consent.
SH: It’s like alcohol has the same boomerang effect. It’s like when is alcohol fueling and inspiring you and when has it turned on you and it’s working against you, and you’ve drank too much and you can’t give consent.
It wasn’t until this current conversation about sexual assault that has been going on for probably about five years now that I started to think about my own drinking and sexual history and ask the question of what is too drunk to consent? Where is that line? Where should it be? And who gets to say where it is?
It’s not a clear cut matter of did you give consent, because people can give you consent and they’re in a blackout and they wake up and don’t remember it the next day. And I would see these things on the Internet that would say, “Anyone who had sex in a blackout, that’s rape.” Well, I don’t know if you realize it but Beyonce’s song “Drunk in Love” is about her having sex in a blackout. So is that rape? And blackouts are really scary, blackouts are not part of an empowered sex life. Because you don’t even know what you did.
GF: There are a lot of things that alcohol can bring. You can drink to gain credibility, to gain courage, so many different reasons. I think on a college campus, especially, there are many reasons. But there was one line, my favorite in the book, and that was “Young, educated, and drunk.” I think it just speaks to a lot of people my age.
SH: Yeah, young, educated, and drunk. That was me. And that is a lot of us. And a lot of this conversation has followed a similar theme that drinking empowers you and then it takes away your power. I talked about that happening over the long history of my drinking career but we’ve also talked about that can happen in just one night. You know, that is the really tricky thing about alcohol. It is neither a total social good nor a total social evil. It is both. It’s good and bad. It has beautifully liberating effects and it also can completely distort who you are
Get the good parts of this life. College is a good part of life. Stay in the good part of the evening, the empowered part. I think that is one of the problems that the empowered message came along with the excess message. And those don’t really live together. Empowerment to me is drinking so you remain conscious so that you remain in control, so you remember the evening, so you remain in charge of your facilities and not peeing your bed. Is that empowerment? No. Nobody thinks that is empowerment. I think that if drinking and empowerment are going to be messages that are tied together, then we need to be a little more specific about it.