There are hundreds of studies to be analyzed and many experts who could have been interviewed in depth, but both authors have chosen to write breezy books that can be characterized as “journalism-lite.”
Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink –- And How They Can Regain Control, by Gabrielle Glaser. Simon and Schuster, 244 pp., $24.
Drink: The Intimate Relationship between Women and Alcohol, by Ann Dowsett Johnston, Harperwave, 288 pp., $27.99.
by Helen Epstein
Whenever I worry about the number of people I know who are addicted to alcohol a friend reminds me that men and women have been drinking to excess since the beginning of time. They drink in the Bible and in ancient Greek and Egyptian texts. They drink in murals, mosaics, paintings, and sculptures. Some of the most powerful images of drunks — “The Absinthe Drinker” by Degas, for instance — are feminine. Jean Rhys, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy are only three of the writers who created some of literature’s most memorable female drinkers a century before Mary Karr’s Lit, Susan Cheever’s Found in a Bottle and the late Carolyn Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. So what’s new?
This fall, two disturbing new books argue that women alcoholics have become a distinct group at risk rather than a transgressive exception. Gabrielle Glaser and Ann Dowsett Johnson, both newspaper reporters, claim that alcohol abuse among teenage girls, female college students, middle-aged homemakers and professional women alike has reached epidemic proportions. Both are newspaper reporters following the example of New York Times’ Nan Robertson, who in 1988 used her battle with alcohol to write Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous. She combined an investigation of that organization with her own story of recovery. Glaser and Johnston –- who are feature writers rather than investigative reporters — have taken on a far more amorphous project: trying to pin down the narrowing gender gap in alcoholism and investigating the many forces that are driving it.
Glaser begins her chatty book by upending the customary A.A. introduction: “My name is Gabrielle and I’m not an alcoholic…In the field of women who write about alcohol, that makes me unusual.” After a prologue, Johnston declares that she is: “For me, it happened this way: I took a geographic cure to fix what I thought was wrong with my life, and the cure failed.” These distinctions aside, they have written surprisingly similar books. Both rely heavily on scenes and observations from their private lives as mothers, wives and lovers. Both juxtapose this material with statistics as well as quotable snippets from interviews with experts, summaries of research studies, and mini-profiles of recovering alcoholics. Both try to summarize large subjects in short chapters: the history of drinking in North America; the insidious role of advertising on women; A.A. and its pros and cons; the links between sexual abuse and alcoholism, and alcoholism and various mental illnesses. Both cover a lot of territory in cursory ways.
Glaser focuses on the United States and traces the genesis of her book to sequential observations she made as a mother of three children on the East and West coasts. “When my oldest daughter entered kindergarten in the mid-1990s, wine wasn’t a part of obligatory school functions in the New York suburbs…when my second daughter entered school, a few mothers joked about bringing their flasks to Pasta Night.” In 2001, when Glaser had a third child, in addition to the usual baby gifts she received were bottles of wine and “binary wine carriers” that reminded her of double strollers. She wondered whether it was a New York phenomenon related to the aftermath of 9/11. When she noticed a similar culture of drinking in Portland, Oregon, she began thinking about documenting it.
Johnston, a public figure in Canada whose book enlarges on a 14-part series of feature articles for the Toronto Star, is the more confessional writer. Her narrative includes an examination of a failed long-distance relationship and excerpts from her personal journal: “Winter of 2002. I have decided to work on this riddle of depression by writing about it. I have sold my editors a story on depression and suicide….My own depression deepens….My drinking increases.”
Passages like these perhaps seem more dramatic in Canada, where Johnston is a media figure. Her references to prominent Canadian people and places mean little to the American reader. On the other hand, her cultural perspective seems more international than Glaser’s as she culls information from Europe and Australia as well as North America. Women, she writes, are drinking to excess everywhere in the developed world: “The richer the country, the fewer the abstainers and the smaller the gap between male and female consumption.”
There are hundreds of studies to be analyzed and many experts who could have been interviewed in depth, but both authors have chosen to write breezy books that can be characterized as “journalism-lite.” Neither seems comfortable with statistics, research, or organization. Instead, both books read like a series of feature articles that throw decontextualized numbers at the reader in order to bolster their impressions. Glaser tosses out stats without sources or comparisons: “A national analysis of hospitalization for alcohol overdose found that the rate of young females age eighteen to twenty-four jumped fifty percent between 1999 and 2008. In the same period the rate for young men rose only eight percent.” Johnston also ladles on the research findings: “Let’s take a look at what’s happening on campuses in the United States: ‘The percentage of college students who binge drink is near 45 percent. More than 3.3 million Americans 18-24 drive under the influence. Alcohol is involved in nine out of ten rape cases.'” And, like Glaser, “Hospitalizations for alcohol overdoses increased 25 percent for those aged 18 to 24 between 1999 and 2008.” How and where were these figures compiled? By whom?
Questioning numbers, sources, and citations used to be the task of a copyeditor. But neither of these books appear to have been seriously edited. For example, both mention Diane Schuler, the intoxicated 36-year-old television executive and mother of two, who in July of 2009 drove her mini-van down the wrong side of the Taconic Parkway, crashed into an oncoming SUV, and killed eight people. A closer look at this shocking and high-profile tragedy might have served as a fulcrum around which to investigate many of the over-stressed professional women themes that are scattered throughout these volumes, but both authors repeat the news story as it was reported and drop it.
Johnston’s book is on firmer ground when she reports on contemporary campus drinking culture and the programs to address it in Montreal, where she worked as an administrator for several years at McGill University. She describes and compares what she observes with other Canadian universities and with American colleges, such as Brown and Penn State. Still, when she writes “one in three college students meets the criteria for an alcohol use disorder,” I would like to know more about the source of the statistics, though at least I know she has spent time observing the phenomen
The authors visit an impressive array of researchers, not only alcoholism experts but psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, trauma specialists, and –- in Johnston’s case — media educator Jean Kilbourne. Both talked to Sharon Wilsack, one of the few people who has been studying women and alcoholism since the 1970s. Though I assume they read some of the “hundreds of academic papers about women and alcohol” that Wilsack published, as well as her longitudinal studies of women’s drinking since the 1980s, neither author presents a serious summary of what she discovered. Wilsack and her work warranted a long chapter. Other interviewees received even less attention: a couple of quotes, a physical description.
Neither book addresses the vexing diagnostic issues in depth. In a passage typical of Drink, Johnston writes:
For decades, alcoholism has been what some call ‘a disputed ailment.’…is alcoholism a sin of commission, or in the blood? I asked Peter Thanos, a Canadian-born neuroscientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Thanos is blunt: ‘We have known for more than twenty years that alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing brain disease.’….The jury is in. The Canadian Medical Association calls it a disease. The American Medical Association calls it a disease. ‘Our only shot is to see it as a disease because there’s much less stigma,’ says the pragmatic Jean Kilbourne, herself in recovery.
Treatment options receive the same superficial treatment. Although Glaser devotes a chapter to A.A. — and how it came to dominate treatment for alcoholism in the U.S. — it is disappointingly short and superficial. In another unattributed statistic, she notes that while more than 90% of the nation’s rehab facilities use A.A. methodology, no other industrialized country relies on this approach: “The commitment to twelve-step programs is as American as baseball and big-budget disaster movies.” Both authors allude to the idea that A.A. may be a particularly equivocal treatment for women, but there is no serious investigation of this opinion and no serious exploration of other treatment options.
Both authors blame the aftermath of feminism for dramatically increasing the expectations of girls and women, as well as social pressures to realize unrealistic goals. Both books blame the alcohol industry and the media for a massive advertising campaign similar to the one the tobacco industry mounted 40 years ago. Now, they argue, such campaigns are ever more personalized on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. There is “a massive and powerful industry, cynically marketing its product,” says an expert in Australia, “targeting young women to get drunk as quickly as possible.”
Carrie Bradshaw and her pals on Sex and the City are raised as particularly bad role models, as is much of what the media provides (there is little mention of the many other examples of alcoholism in pop culture). The lush, laid-back California wine country is blamed for pushing an addictive lifestyle on the rest of the country. So are the inventors of the flavored and colored drinks made with Smirnoff vodka or Bacardi rum that transition females drinkers from wine to hard liquor. Johnston calls them “cocktails with training wheels.” These are interesting allusions, but they need to be backed up with a depth of research and analysis that neither book provides.
What a missed opportunity! I sought out these studies because I wanted to learn about what truly seems to be a problem of epidemic proportions. Neither of these two volumes deliver the goods: a definitive book on women and alcohol in the 21st century is still waiting to be written.
Helen Epstein is a veteran journalist and author of non-fiction books. Her work can be found here.
Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor says
Helen is grappling with the inadequacies of a new genre — what I call the Cable TV non-fiction book. The “news” programming on MSNBC, Fox, etc, depends on a cheap-to-produce line-up of talking heads, a beautiful brood of “experts” and pundits who sit around a table and yak, tossing out stats and generalizations. The conversation doesn’t provide much depth or perspective. It isn’t designed to. The goal is maintain a steady stream of gab that the viewer agrees with, proffer the kind of reassurance (‘look, the attractive mouthpiece agrees with me’) that will keep as many watching as many commercials as possible. That is the point ….thus we have non-fiction books about hot button issues that serve up information and interviews galore without providing any of the necessary editorial heavy-lifting, no interpretation of data or synthesizing of conflicting points of view.
Helen Epstein says
What’s bizarre is that this development is coinciding with the extreme and expensive professionalization of journalism: grad students paying $50,000 a year for training as investigative journalists and writers of non-fiction. I guess the publishers know something we don’t.
Debra Cash says
I think it’s something the parents paying those tuition bills don’t know either.
William Short says
What do you expect Ms Epstein, if it was an academic book few would read it. It has a larger impact or they do in reaching the wider public and those who have a problem with alcohol. Im sure there are lots of academic
professional studies on alcoholism and as it pertains to women.