After Koren Zailckas graduated from Syracuse University in 2003, she could not stop thinking about a particularly vivid memory from her adolescence — or rather, she was haunted by the fact that she couldn’t remember it. The only thing she does remember is waking up in the hospital the next morning, with no idea of how she got there.
Zailckas’s first blackout at the age of 16, when she passed out from drinking too much hard liquor at a party and had to have her stomach pumped for alcohol poisoning, inspired her to write her first memoir: “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood.” In “Smashed,” she reflects on her decade-long struggle with alcohol abuse, as well as the sociological and cultural causes of the rise of binge drinking among young women of her generation.
Hosted by AMP’s Contemporary Cultural Issues committee in the Commonwealth Auditorium Oct. 21, the author discussed her 2005 New York Times Bestseller, “Smashed,” as well as the just-released sequel, “Fury.” Zailckas has appeared on “20/20,” “The View,” “Good Morning America,” “The Tyra Banks Show,” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”
One of Zailckas’ motivations to write ‘Smashed’ was her disagreement with the explanations from psychologists, sociologists and journalists for why more girls of her generation are engaging in binge drinking. They argued that the phenomenon was an expression of female empowerment, and that girls felt that they could match boys anywhere, including at the bar. However, from her own experience and upon observing the behavior of her peers, Zailckas felt that the rise of binge drinking among girls was more of an expression of unhappiness and lack of self-confidence. She also pointed to the fact that alcohol companies have started marketing more products toward women in the past two decades, citing “girly” beverages like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Twist as examples.
For Zailckas, there was never a concept of moderation — excess was always the point.
“The euphoria of the annihilation of brainwaves [was] my objective,” she read from “Smashed.” “Amstel Light is a hallucinogenic that [made] my world worth living in.”
After joining a sorority in college, Zalickas said she expressed her unhappiness by drinking to excess on most weekends. She carefully noted, however, that she does not blame her sorority for her binge drinking habits. She explained that she would have drank anyway and that the organization was simply one possible means through which she could do so.
“I was drinking to compensate for all those things I never knew how to do — to be comfortable in social situations, talk to boys I liked, or form lasting friendships with women, to feel confident,” she said.
One of her observations about American culture’s relationship with alcohol is that its use in social situations makes people feel more comfortable with others in the short term, but that extensive use ultimately stunts communication skills.
“After I quit drinking at the age of 23, I felt like I was 14 years old all over again — I was thrown right back into the same shy and awkward feelings I had experienced then. I had no idea how to bond with friends or pursue romantic interests, because alcohol had always been such a central factor in socializing for me,” she said. “I had to find new ways to connect with people.”
Zailckas gave suggestions to students for how to make the most of the college experience without drinking and how to learn to form lasting connections with others.
“I used to think that college was the last time that I could be so irresponsible, because I didn’t have to worry about a family or a career yet,” she said. “But after I graduated, I realized that I missed out on so many great opportunities to advance my future.”
She regretted that she did not take advantage of the diverse extracurricular opportunities available to her during college, and explained that the learning component of college was not limited to academics.
She noted that even though she drank excessively throughout the majority of college, she still managed to maintain an extremely high and impressive GPA.
“There’s definitely a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality among a lot of college students,” she said. “But just because you have a high GPA doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a drinking problem.”
Krystyna Lopez ’12 and Andrea Nicholson ’12 found Zailckas’s observation about the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality toward college drinking and the use of alcoholism on college campuses very descriptive of the culture at the College of William and Mary.
“I definitely think that her thoughts on college drinking apply to the culture here,” Nicholson said. “William and Mary students tend to work really hard during the week, and then they let it all out over the weekend.”
Lopez agreed with this idea and reiterated it in her own comments.
“People will party Friday through Saturday,” Lopez said. “Then they’ll go over to [Earl Gregg] Swem [Library] very early on Sunday morning with hangovers.”
A fan of Zailckas’s work, Lopez said that ‘Smashed’ gave her an enlightened view of college drinking before and during her time at the College, it gave her perspective on certain more common drinking issues that often become a constant presence during the entirety of her college career.
“I read ‘Smashed’ before my freshman year,” Lopez said. “It’s really given me a realistic perspective on college drinking here, as well as [at] other universities nationwide.”