Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled the name of a Canadian magazine. The publication is Maclean’s, not McClean’s. This version has been corrected.
Two-thirds of the way into this wallop of a book, a little girl delivers a crystal-clear insight into the life of an alcoholic. She is with a group of children enrolled in a program to help kids break the cycle of their parents’ alcoholism. The counselor has just asked each child in the room to briefly carry a 41-pound backpack full of rocks. “Many of your moms and dads are carrying that backpack,” he says. “Where do you think they carry it?” The 7-year-old girl’s response: “It’s somewhere in that space between your heart and spirit.”
That mysterious terrain of the soul drives the narrative trajectory in Ann Dowsett Johnston’s “Drink.” Her approach is not strictly reporting, nor is it a full-blown memoir. Rather, she creates a hybrid of the two, weaving back and forth between research and raw confessions as she untangles the messy realities behind women’s rising rate of alcohol abuse. A past editor of Maclean’s magazine in Canada and former vice principal at McGill University, Johnston makes awful sense of it all. “We live in an alcogenic culture,” she writes, “where risky drinking has been normalized.” Increasingly, it is women who are suffering the consequences.
As a recovering alcoholic, Johnston is adept at drawing from her own addiction to build a bridge, one self-hewn brick at a time, between those who know too well the allure of the drink and those who don’t understand the lust. Here’s her description of those first few sips: “My shoulders seemed to unhitch from my earlobes. With the second, I could exhale. I loved the way the wine worked on my innards. That first glass would melt some glacial layer of tension, a barrier between me and the world. Somehow with the second glass, the tectonic plates of my psyche would shift, and I’d be more at ease. Jake [her former partner] used to say it this way: ‘When you drink, that piano on your back seems to disappear.’ ”
Johnston brings the weight of her journalism and academic experience to build a convincing case that women are increasingly succumbing to the dark side of alcohol. The book is meant to alarm us, one searing fact at a time.
Let’s start with why women drink. Men tend to imbibe to socialize and heighten positive feelings, she writes, but women drink to drive away negative feelings. They’re at an immediate disadvantage. Women, on average, have more body fat, which fails to dilute alcohol. They also have a lower level of an enzyme that helps the body break it down. Hormone fluctuations make them more vulnerable, too, particularly when estrogen levels rise.
“The list goes on,” Johnston writes. “Women’s chemistry means they become dependent on alcohol much faster than men. Other consequences — including cognitive deficits and liver disease — all occur in women, with significantly shorter exposure to alcohol. Women who consume four or more alcoholic beverages a day quadruple their risk of dying from heart disease. Heavy drinkers of both genders run the risk of a fatal hemorrhagic stroke, but the odds are five times higher for women.”
Women are starting to drink at younger ages, too. No. 1 influence: their parents’ drinking habits. No. 2: sexual abuse or trauma in childhood.
Johnston offers a withering review of our culture that romanticizes alcohol. All those bridal registries full of glittering champagne flutes, happy-hour promotions and ads trumpeting the fun, happy people who partake. “Is alcohol the new tobacco?” Johnston asks, and turns to advertising critic Jean Kilbourne for the answer: “People perceive the tobacco companies as more clearly evil than the alcohol companies. Of course they’re different: any use of tobacco is harmful, and that’s not true for alcohol. There’s such a thing as low-risk use of alcohol — although that’s not the kind of use that is of any interest to the alcohol industry. If everybody drank in a low-risk way we’d all be better off — except, of course, the alcohol companies. They’d go under. They depend on high-risk drinkers and alcoholics, and that’s what people need to understand.”
Johnston is just as hard on herself. There are times when her book feels like one long, agonized apology to her grown son, Nicholas. She puts him at the center of an alcoholic mother’s universe, a sensitive boy who grows into a man finally willing to express the pain of that role. After a root canal gone bad, she had to abstain from drinking for three weeks. A glimpse of her sobriety inspired then-20-year-old Nicholas to make a Mother’s Day card titled “Happy Mother.” In it, he depicted her sitting at a typewriter. “The whites of her eyes are white,” he wrote. “She is drinking Perrier, not wine.”
It was a turning point for Johnston. “That card . . . ended my romance with the glass. For three years I carried it everywhere, tucking it into my diary or my daybook: the truth writ large from a man I loved, one I had let down and who was brave enough to tell me how he felt.”
Johnston’s writing is at its best when she offers string-of-consciousness memories from her life, her recovery. The reader is quickly trained to look forward to these passages, set in a different font to emphasize the hopscotch nature of memory. Sometimes, however, the leaps in time leave us wondering what she left out, to the point of distraction. For example, she refers to a wave of depression during college that led to a “feeble” suicide attempt, but then she pulls her punch: “It was a particularly bad time at home: there are things that happened that summer I am not willing to revisit or discuss. Let’s just say this: it was dire, extreme.” She is asking the reader to take her word for it, but we already know that she was sometimes an alcoholic skilled in self-deception. Odd turns in a book otherwise full of riveting candor. A quibble.
There are moments in “Drink” when the parade of alcoholic women seems endless. So many sad stories. So many alcohol-fueled ways to ruin a large swath of one’s life. It feels relentless and frightening. Overwhelming. For a lot of women brave enough to read it, it may feel a little too familiar, too. Therein lies the hope.
The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol
By Ann Dowsett Johnston
Harper Wave. 305 pp. $27.99