An Unexpectedly Good Book: “Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood” by Koren Zailckas

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I spent most of today in the Philadelphia airport, trying to get back to Columbia, SC through the blizzard. I started the day at 6 am, where I learned that one can walk underground from Broad and Locust streets in Center City, Philadelphia all the way to Suburban Station through subway tunnels, which was a whole lot better than trudging through whiteout conditions that were unexpectedly supplemented by thunder and lightening, which I at first freakedoutedly mistook for some kind of apocalyptic chain of thermonuclear explosions. There were a lot of homeless people camped in the cold, damp, windy tunnels. One asked me to buy him breakfast at a Dunkin Donuts booth, where I was queued up for a bagel while awaiting a SEPTA train to the airport, and when I agreed, all that he wanted was two jelly doughnuts, declining even coffee as an excessive request, which about made me cry.

I went to the wrong airport gate at first, which I didn’t discover until after I’d cleared security. Admission to the correct gate required a second trip through security, where my knapsack triggered some concern and had to be unpacked and thoroughly checked, despite having cleared security at the other gate ten minutes previously. That’s the kind of security arbitrariness that is both maddening and alarming! Happily it turned out that one of the security folks was a 1989 graduate of the University of South Carolina and we had a nice chat about Gamecock basketball and his home town of Florence SC, and this may have helped me avoid a strip search.

Yes, I am getting to the book referenced in the title of the post, I swear! I wound up spending almost eight hours at the aiport, and I needed something to do. On a quest for crossword puzzles I spotted a “Smashed” display at a bookstore. The cover features a slumped young woman sitting on a bar stool with her head lolling forward, and it struck me that the book was probably some sensationalized tale of some idiotic sodden heiress, either glorifying substance abuse or offering some annoyingly self-righteous trumped up tale of redemption. There is an endorsement on the front of the tome by Entertainment Weekly which states “Gripping…one of the best accounts of addiction, the college experience, or what it means to be an average teenage girl in America.” This actually made me laugh out loud, and not in a particularly nice way, as I tend to be deeply cynical of Entertainment Weekly‘s ability to discern authentic average teenaged girlhood.

I picked up a copy and turned it over to see what other seemingly ridiculous reviews the book might have attracted. The blurb on the back (which is accompanied by a very angry-looking photo of the author) made the book sound like an overtly hectoring cautionary tale, stating it was “a crucial book for any young woman growing up under the allure of booze…” If I hadn’t been completely bored I wouldn’t have thumbed through the book, but I was, and I did, and every random passage I read defied my low expectations, and actually intrigued me. So I bought a copy, and read it cover to cover. It’s a wonderful travel book because the print is large and the 340 pages go quickly.

Many of my students are young twenty-somethings, and this book may have given me a small window into some of their lives. Author Koren Zailckas recounts her high school and college experiences in a compelling and believable way. It also struck me as a feminist book, despite the author’s college Sorority membership and some expressed hostility toward her mother’s feminist leanings when she was a teenager. After I finished it, I noticed with surprise that the dedication is, “For my mother, who first made me mindful of women’s issues.” Below is an excerpt from pages 203-04:

“I don’t think people realize that drunk girls are themselves a fetish object. The phrase itself is as porn sensitive as “schoolgirls” or “lesbian orgies.” Type it into an Internet search and you’ll get more than 450,000 porn sites in less than twenty seconds. And I’m not only talking about sites that feature spring-break footage of “easy drunk girls flashing their tits,” but also ones that highlight “dead-drunk girls passed out,” and publish gritty, overexposed pictures of girls lying unconscious while anonymous male hands pull off their underwear.

“Take, for example,, which advertises, “This site is not a joke! We find real drunk girls and fuck them on video. We go out all year round to bars, beaches, colleges, and wherever else drunk girls are and get them to come home with us!” Or consider, which boasts 60,000 members who log on because: “We all know the situation when a girl feels shy. If you don’t help her to relax, you will end up wanking off alone… If you get her drunk she’ll do anything for you, she’ll even satisfy all your friends.” These sites show photos of girls slamming back glasses of whiskey, right alongside the nasty close-ups of the sex acts that we’re led to believe came afterwards. Visitors are reminded, “Kelly was dead-drunk and I don’t think she realized what was going on. But one thing is for sure, she certainly enjoyed herself!”

It’s an interesting, articulate, and compelling read, and though it initially struck me as exploitive and offensive, after absorbing the book, I decided that the “drunk girl” on the cover is actually an appropriate symbol. The author’s website is here.

–Ann Bartow

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