Under the influence
Koren Zailckas is not, and has never been, an alcoholic.
This may be a difficult concept to grasp after reading Zailckas’ recently-released ‘Smashed,’ a memoir detailing the 24-year-old’s binges, blackouts and booze-fueled nights, a period which began when she was only 14. But the 2002 Syracuse University graduate is firm in the belief that she was never physically addicted to drinking.
‘Women and girls are trained to be social beings,’ Zailckas said. ‘I didn’t know how else to be social without alcohol being involved.’
The seeds of a short story that became ‘Smashed’ were planted in Zailckas’ mind when two Time magazine reporters visited SU in the spring of 2002 and interviewed several of her friends for a piece on female drinking. Their article concluded that women were trying to exert their ‘girl power,’ which didn’t sit right with Zailckas, who said she was drinking to mask her lack of self-confidence.
Zailckas became preoccupied with a memory of her 16-year-old self, a girl whose stomach was pumped after a night of drinking she could only begin to piece together with the help of a friend. She wove the event into a story, which bloomed into a full-length manuscript. However, this was by no means a painless process for Zailckas, who dug up years of unprocessed memories.
Unlike the process of overcoming her problem, the release of Zailckas’ novel was a relatively simple procedure. With no connections in the publishing world, she simply sent her manuscript to the publishers of authors she admired, and in January of 2003 it was sold to the first editor she and her agent spoke with.
‘I was really lucky,’ she said. ‘Everything happened really quickly.’
Zailckas says she told her parents what she was writing about from the start, but that they weren’t entirely prepared for her memoir’s disclosures. She hadn’t told them everything that transpired at SU – but then again, who tells their parents everything that happens at college? Her parents knew she drank before and during college, even allowing her glasses of wine at dinner while she was underage.
‘They were the type of parents that didn’t want to make alcohol the forbidden fruit,’ she said.
But her parents’ leniency didn’t directly contribute to her alcohol abuse, Zailckas said. She always drank for the effect and to get drunk, not for the taste of it, which is why her parents are somewhat marginal characters in the story. If anything, the book’s revelations have drawn them closer, allowing Zailckas and her father to talk about drinking and sex. And he’s nothing, if not proud, of her book’s accomplishments.
‘(The book) was fantastic, very well written,’ said Robert Zailckas, Koren Zailckas’ father.
Though her first blackout experience at 16 may have been horrifying, it certainly wasn’t life-changing. ‘Smashed’ reveals countless blacked-out nights, including the one on which she may have lost her virginity. But Zailckas doesn’t know when she first had sex – she simply can’t remember.
Time after time, Zailckas swore up and down that she was done with alcohol, that many overindulgences were the last. Even though the dangers of drinking were always present at college, Zailckas said she didn’t get the perspective she needed to quit until she woke up in an alien Fifth Avenue apartment with a friend after yet another binge.
‘I was in a very dangerous situation at Syracuse, but in the isolated environment I still felt safe,’ she said.
‘Smashed’ also describes Zailckas’ rush period, initiation and experience with the ‘Zeta Alpha Sigma’ sorority – in reality, SU’s Kappa Alpha Theta. The grungy details of her three-plus years with the group may not be the most flattering, but Zailckas says she’s only gotten positive feedback from her former sisters, though she was initially nervous about what they would think.
Gioia Fargnoli, a 2003 graduate, lived with Zailckas in the sorority house as a sophomore and is portrayed as ‘Eva’ in the book. Fargnoli said some aspects of the house and the girls who lived there were extremely exaggerated, yet she has nothing but praise for Zailckas.
‘Once you graduate, you take a step back and look at your life,’ Fargnoli said. ‘This book was very reflexive, and gave a very different perspective. It made me look back on my four years.’
About halfway through her college experience, Zailckas says she made a transition from a happy, fun drunk to an emotional drunk. During this time, she tried to find other things to do with her time – including writing. She picked up several stories for The Daily Orange for Corey Hann, former assistant Lifestyle editor, who said Zailckas had a very fluid, elegant writing style.
Zailckas’ story introduces Hann as a boy with whom she ‘got drunk on tequila, kiss, and woke up on the couch the next day, flecked with brown rice.’ Hann, who has yet to read ‘Smashed,’ was surprised to learn that this anecdote had been included.
‘I don’t remember much of it,’ he said, laughing, ‘but it definitely was a good time.’
Zailckas says she was unbelievably influenced by her SU instructors, most notably Mary Karr, English professor, and Bill Glavin, magazine professor. She describes Karr as one of the first people who told her to write in a clear voice and that she didn’t have to unnecessarily dress up her writing.
‘I was pleasantly stunned to be named in the acknowledgements,’ Glavin said. ‘Writing had a big impact on her, and I’m glad to know that.’
Glavin was the person who taught Zailckas not to get up from her desk until she thought of a new way to voice something, she said. His review-writing class was one of the best she took in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, she said. He taught her not to write convoluted reviews, something she wishes some of her own book reviewers had learned.
Zailckas was never really one to speak up in class, Glavin said, adding that he wishes he had known about her problem. But it’s not surprising that he didn’t – Zailckas said she got nothing but stellar grades during her college career, making the dean’s list every semester.
‘That’s the irony,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t just getting good grades – I was excelling. During the first month I heard the mantra, ‘work hard, play hard,’ and that idea stuck.’
This mentality was part of what drove Zailckas to write her memoir in the present tense, an odd choice given that it’s about events which already transpired. She toyed with the idea of writing the book in past tense, but wanted the immediacy of her writing to reflect the immediacy of life that one feels while drunk. She feels it’s a better expression of her experience.
‘Smashed’ is a story and experience the university hopes to use as a teaching tool, said Kevin Morrow, university spokesman. SU isn’t alone in facing the challenge of drug and alcohol use among students. Though it’s unfortunate Zailckas didn’t make use of the resources available to her, the university is by no means taking a defensive stance toward its portrayal in her book.
‘She’s a courageous individual in addressing her addiction and writing a memoir,’ Morrow said. ‘It’s a catalyst that gives us an opportunity to engage students in discussion.’
SU has already purchased numerous copies of the book to distribute among fraternities and sororities, and Zailckas is more than willing to help incorporate her memoir into SU life.
‘I definitely want to make a difference and draw awareness to this issue,’ Zailckas said. ‘Alcohol was a symptom for a lot of other issues in my life.’
Published on February 28, 2005 at 12:00 pm