One morning you wake up and open your eyes. Your
head feels like it weighs way too much, so much it hurts to move:
you feel a throbbing behind one of your eyes, or in your temple.
A sharp pain, a steady ache. Your brain hurts, as though the fluid
between your brain and skull is thick and inflamed. You feel mildly
nauseated and you can't tell if you need to eat or if eating would
make you sick. Inside, everything feels jittery and loose, like
a car with bad wiring.
Next to you in the bed is a man. Perhaps you know
him, perhaps you don't.
You experience a moment of disoriented panic -
what happened? exactly what happened? - and you take a quick inventory.
Are you naked? Clothed? Is there any evidence of birth control?
An empty condom wrapper, your diaphragm case lying on the floor?
You close your eyes: you want to pretend to be sleeping in case
he stirs; mostly, though, you want to collect your thoughts, try
to patch the evening back together.
Bits and pieces come back to you. You remember
the early part of the evening clearly, the first few drinks, the
way you started to loosen up. Perhaps you remember dancing, or sitting
in a corner with this man, somewhere dark - a bar, a restaurant,
a quiet room away from the main party. Then things start to get
a little blurred. You remember laughing you were making jokes, or
laughing at his jokes. You felt giddy and light and you had a sense
of freedom, as though some secret part of you were rising up, a
part you rarely have access to when you're not drinking. This felt
like a kind of relief: sober is dry and uptight; drunk is fluid
and liquid and loose.
There are more drinks; things get blurrier. At
some point there was touch: he put his hand on your arm, or you
put your hand on his arm. You looked at each other, smiling, and
you felt attractive, and that feeling gave you a sense of power
Your head pounds; you lie still in bed. The clear
memories stop there and all you have is snippets. You were telling
him things: things that felt important, deep things. What were they?
Something about your mother. Some elaborate theory about human nature
you had one day on the bus. Some... some story, some detail. You
strain to remember and lying there in bed this makes you cringe,
this wondering what you said, how intimate it might have been.
Other snippets: you remember leaning against him,
or walking down the street with your arm around him, trying semiconsciously
not to stumble on the sidewalk. You have a dim sense that that powerful
feeling merged with a needy feeling, a wish for reciprocation. Does
he find you attractive? How attractive? Are you attractive?
The sex, if you remember it, was disconnected
and surreal. Your body did what it was supposed to do, or at least
you think it did: all you have are tiny, discrete images - legs
moving apart, legs wrapped around his hips, arms around his back.
You remember sliding into sexuality in an almost instinctive way,
mimicking what seemed like the appropriate behaviors: kissing him,
holding on to him, throwing your head back in pleasure even though
you didn't really feel pleasure, even though you didn't really feel
much at all. And then your mind goes blank. You don't remember the
You just have questions, and they gnaw at you.
Was he as drunk as you were? Did he notice how
drunk you were? How much will he remember?
Were you a lunatic? Are you a lunatic?
You lie there with your eyes closed. All you want
to do is get out, just get out and go home and take a shower and
get all of this out of your mind, shove it straight back into history.
In 1993 Katie Roiphe's book The Morning After:
Sex, Fear, and Feminism came out, and for a few weeks the radio
talk shows and the op-ed pages were filled with commentary about
the word no. Was there a serious date-rape crisis on college campuses?
Roiphe said the issue was contrived, that it represented overhyped
feminist paranoia and a misguided attempt to regulate the rules
of sexual conduct, that today's women are strong and capable, that
we are masters of our own "sexual agency." Roiphe's critics charged
her with antifeminist rhetoric, with participating in a backlash
against attempts to address the realities of women's lives, with
deliberately ignoring the fact that women always have been, and
continue to be, victims of sexual violence.
I remember listening to the arguments and counterarguments
and thinking: They're all missing the boat. No one here is really
talking about booze. Alcohol was trotted out now and then as a complicating
factor - Roiphe herself writes about "thinking back on complicated
nights, on too many glasses of wine, on strange and familiar beds."
But by and large, excessive drinking was discussed as an accessory
to the fact, something with tangible consequences: drinking impairs
judgment; drinking wreaks havoc on your communication skills. The
deeper connections between alcohol and selfworth and sexuality,
the way women (at least women like me) use alcohol to deaden a wide
range of conflicted feeling - longing for intimacy and terror of
it; a wish to merge with others and a fear of being consumed; profound
uncertainty about how and when to maintain boundaries and how and
when to let them down - weren't addressed with much texture or depth.
No is an extraordinarily complicated word when
you're drunk. This isn't just because drinking impairs your judgment
in specific situations, like parties or dates (which it certainly
may); it's because drinking interferes with the larger, murkier
business of identity, of forming a sense of the self as strong and
capable and aware. This is a difficult task; for all human beings,
but it's particularly difficult for women and it's close to impossible
for women who drink.
My friend Meg used to go out to bars and get drunk
and go home with men. The sex was anonymous - she usually didn't
remember their names in the morning - and the consummation of the
act was in many ways beside the point. There was something deep
and compulsive about the behavior, some part of her that felt driven.
When she describes this, Meg talks about a component
of anger and rebellion: she was in her late twenties and early thirties
at the time, and she'd spent the better part of her young adult
life responding to her fears about intimacy and sex by shutting
men out, steering clear of relationships. There was something about
drinking, something about getting drunk and sleeping with men she
didn't know, that gave free rein to a host of buried feelings, to
an undercurrent of neediness and longing she'd kept compressed in
the darkest corner of her soul for years.
The drink released this current, let it stream
up and out. There was a fuck-you element to it: a feeling of fuck
you, I am going to get what I want, even if 1 don't believe I deserve
it. Frustration and shame and fear and self-loathing and release,
all rolled into one, all liquefied and drained away by drink. She
drank and she just did it, just said fuck you to her own complicated
mix of feelings and did it. In some ways this worked: drunken, anonymous
sex gave her the illusion of intimacy with none of the attendant
risks, none of the aching vulnerability of sober sex.
If you both long for intimacy and fear it, if
you feel unworthy of it and ill equipped to receive it and ashamed
of yourself for wanting it, alcohol becomes a most useful tool,
a way of literally drowning the conflict. It's a way of giving license
to the part of you that wants to say yes. Yes to life and yes to
deep connection and yes to touch and comfort and love. The sad thing
is, whatever sense of affirmation you get from anonymous, drunken
sex is usually metabolized away with the booze in your system. Meg
would wake up in the morning and feel like an idiot. She'd feel
shame and regret and confusion.
Oh, shit. Head pounds, hands shake, mind races.
Oh, shit: what have I done?
She'd wish she'd said no.
Boundaries get so fucked up when you drink, so
blurred. My sophomore year of college, some friends took over a
lounge in one of the dorms on campus and threw me a birthday party,
kegs of beer and bottles of vodka and trash cans full of ice everywhere.
I wore a little black dress, one in a series of little black dresses
I'd get plastered in over the years, and I got drunk and danced,
something I never did sober I danced with a guy named Bruce who
had dark curly hair and blue eyes and seemed sweet in a shy way.
I remember getting drunk. I remember how the drink
mixed with the rhythm of the music and gave me a sense of connection
to my own body, gave it permission to move and as the music shifted
from fast to slow I found myself leaning against Bruce, my face
against his neck, his arm around my waist and back. There was a
sense of surrender, a melting into the shape of his body and a sense
of myself all pretty and giddy and free.
Years later I would be reminded of this watching
Meg Ryan in When a Man Loves a Woman, in a scene early in the movie
when she and Andy Garcia are out at dinner on their anniversary
and she's drunk and dancing with him that same way, draped all over
him, laughing, just a tiny bit out of control. That's how I felt
dancing at the party, as though the alcohol flipped some switch
and flick! - worked its familiar magic, turned me into someone who
laughed and danced and felt sexual.
Flash forward an hour or two later. No memory
of what happened. None at all. Somehow, we ended up in bed in his
dorm room, his roommate in the next bed. I had only the most dazed
sense of this - a narrow twin bed; a fuzzy drifting in and out of
consciousness; the briefest shock of recognition when it hit me
that a penis, this man's penis, was pressing into me. After that
I guess I passed out. In the morning I gathered up my clothes while
Bruce was still asleep, put my black dress back on, and wobbled
up the street toward my own dorm. It was seven o'clock on a Sunday.
The campus was deserted. I had a feeling of shame.
Yes, no, maybe. Yes on one level, no on another,
yes-and-no on yet another. Truman Capote once wrote that he saw
in Elizabeth Taylor an "emotional extremism, a dangerously greater
need to be loved than to love." Me, I was too cautious and inhibited
and scared to give in to extremism of any kind in sobriety, emotional
or otherwise. But when I drank it happened. When I drank, the part
that felt dangerous and needy grew bright and strong and real. The
part that coveted love kicked into gear. The yes grew louder than
The first time Meg had sex, her best friend advised
her: "Just get drunk. It'll be easy." So that's exactly what she
did. She got drunk then, and she got drunk the next time and the
time after that, and after a while the idea of having sex with a
man without getting drunk first seemed pretty much impossible.
Meg grew up the same time I did, coming of age
in the late 1960s and early 1970s, long before people talked about
things like safe sex, or even contraception, and many years before
women's health organizations and magazines began encouraging women
to "take charge" of their sexuality, to learn about sex and enjoy
their bodies. The picture of female sexuality she acquired came
from movies and TV, a little Marilyn Monroe here, a little Mary
Tyler Moore there. Sex bomb; good girl. Those were really the only
two options and even if you strove to emulate one of those, no one
really told you how: how to be a sex bomb, how to be a good girl.
How did these ideals translate into practical behavior?
Meg was scared of her own body, and she was scared
of men's bodies, and so most of the time she'd just lie there with
her drunkenness and her doubts. She felt as though she'd missed
some key set of instructions, as though she was supposed to know
instinctively how to move her body in ways that would be pleasing
to herself and her partner, as though her lack of information on
this subject signaled some fundamental weakness or failure on her
So she drank and the drink loosened her up enough
to act exuberant. Way inside, being female seemed like a painful
thing - Meg felt mute, objectified, frightened - and alcohol took
all of that away, just washed it away like the sea against sand.
Meg often slept with men she didn't want to sleep
with she didn't know how to say no. More precisely, she didn't know
she was allowed to say no. She figured that flirting was a slippery
slope: once you've given a man the signal that you're available,
you're not allowed to go back, not allowed to change your mind.
Meg is a beautiful woman in her late thirties,
with olive skin and dark eyes. She's also a wonderfully direct person
who's taught herself in four years of sobriety to say exactly what's
on her mind, so it's very hard to imagine her in that position,
unable to make her own desires and limits clear, incapable of acting
in a way that would preserve her own dignity.
At the same time Meg's story - her shyness and
shame and confusion -is achingly familiar. Bad, semiconsensual drunken
sex: so many women I know did this. So many still do. At least one
quarter of the 17,592 students surveyed in a 1995 Harvard School
of Public Health study on campus drinking said they had suffered
an unwanted sexual advance as a result of drinking; that same year,
a Columbia University study reported that alcohol plays a role in
ninety percent of rapes on college campuses. So Meg is typical.
She all of it, I did it: we lay there staring at the ceiling and
just wanting it to end; we woke up in a haze some morning in some
man's bed not really remembering how we got there or what happened
next; we found sex compelling and terrifying and foreign, and drank
to deal with it, just drank our way through.
I had done that all through adolescence, drinking
to numb fear and feelings of inadequacy. The first guy I ever made
out with was a big lug of a hockey player from my ninth-grade class
named Henry, who had bad skin and long hair and played the drums
in a band. We were at a party, drinking a lot of beer, and at some
point Henry and I ended up alone in the basement and he started
to kiss me. It felt like we were down there for hours. Henry's kisses
were wet and foreign-feeling, and I let him put his hand under my
shirt and then under my bra because I didn't know what else to do.
It felt invasive - an alien hand on something I barely touched myself
- but the beer worked: it allowed me to feel a man's hand on my
thigh or my breast without feeling afraid.
Drinking continued to work, diluting the discomfort,
making things bearable. All through high school I could go to a
party or drink at a bar with a group of friends and then I could
drive home with whatever hulk of a boy I happened to be seeing -
Henry that year, then a football player named Will, then a wrestler
named John, all interchangeable more or less because I never quite
felt close to or comfortable with any of them - and I could lean
back in the car and be kissed and touched, hands groping and probing
where I didn't want them, and it wouldn't really matter; I wouldn't
really feel a thing. At my senior prom I got blackout drunk, lost
a white sandal somewhere on the dance floor at the Hyatt Hotel in
Cambridge, and ended up making out in a car by the Charles River
with a guy named Mike. I have no memory, no conscious memory, of
what that felt like, and I suppose that was precisely the point.
So I can imagine exactly how Meg ended up lying
there in a man's bed, staring at the ceiling like that, wanting
the failed foray into intimacy to end. It's a classic story, and
I can see myself reading from the same script over and over. I can
see myself being groped by a boy in high school, feeling that combination
of shock and curiosity - and drinking to counter the feelings. I
can see myself in college, reeling up the stairs toward Bruce's
dorm room, too drunk to have feelings. I can see myself flirting
at a party, not knowing how to stop the flirting from escalating,
not knowing how to turn off what I've seemed to turn on - and drinking
to shut down the confusion this generates, drinking to keep myself
going. I can almost feel the drink, feel how central it was to such
experiences. Deaden the shock; facilitate the exploration. Voila:
No problem; I can do this.
Drinking, drinking. Drinking and loving men, drinking
and loving men who drink. I never once went out with a man who didn't
like to get drunk. Never. Right from the start the idea of going
out with a man who didn't like to tie one on was unthinkable to
me, and would be for many years.
This seemed perfectly reasonable, to choose drinking
men. Alcohol can numb fear, and allow you to fake it, and take you
places you literally don't want to go: strange beds. But it can
also give you access to romance, a bridge to the positive sides
of sexuality. Alcohol felt like the cement in female sexuality,
at least it did to me: over the years the two would become so deeply
linked that for the longest time I simply couldn't imagine one without
the other. A first kiss without drinks? Forget it. Sex without liquor?
No way. Drinking was as integral to my sense of sexuality as a body
part no more, no less. And sometimes that form of integration was
effective, amazingly so.
I am nineteen, sitting in a fancy restaurant in
Santa Fe. New Mexico, with my boyfriend, David. We are both dressed
up. He is wearing a tan suit, I have on a flowered sundress, we
are both tan and healthy. We order a round of drinks - margaritas
- and, with dinner, a bottle of red wine, a California Cabernet.
I am supremely happy in this picture. I feel wonderfully protected,
cocooned by the wine and the sense of romance, and together David
and I are the perfect image of young love, clinking wineglasses
above the pink linen at our table.
Wine and that melting ease; wine and that sense
of yielding to sensuality. When I was with men I loved, drinking
felt like the most naturally, the most reliable route to a kind
of internal softening. A naturally inhibited person, someone who
grew up feeling mystified and insecure about what it meant to feel
sexual, I turned to liquor the way a dancer turns toward music:
it felt central to the process, central to my ability to shut down
the voices of self-criticism in my own head and simply let go, move
to a different kind of music. Pop! Clink! Ahhh.
David was the first man I'd fallen in love with.
He was a friend of a friend who lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and
I met him there during spring vacation my senior year of high school,
and we stayed together through college and for several years after
that. Big and uncomplicated and beautiful in a rugged way: that's
how he struck me from the start, like the Southwestern landscape,
as different from the men I'd known before as Boston was from Santa
Fe. He was originally from Montana and he had the chiseled good
looks of a mountain boy: dark hair and jade-green eyes and teeth
so straight and white my mother said he looked like a model in a
toothpaste commercial. I loved him almost immediately.
Alcohol, of course, coursed through our romance
like a river, providing the undercurrents. I wasn't aware of this
at the time, but one of the things that attracted me so deeply to
David was the role liquor occupied in his life. The day we met we
drank tequila sunrises at a bar in Santa Fe, and I remember the
particular giddy high you get from tequila, and I remember the way
David's hair fell against his forehead, a single dark curl. That
was such a powerful combination, the giddy high and the sight of
him. I was drunk the first time he kissed me, drunk the first time
we slept together, drunk the first time I told him I loved him.
I don't think David was an alcoholic - he was one of those people
who simply liked to drink and knew how and when to stop when he'd
had too much - but he managed to keep a steady supply of drink around
him and I grew to depend on its presence: bottles of beer in the
refrigerator at the end of the day; bottles of tequila on the shelves
to mix with lime and grenadine; cases of beer in the backseat of
his car for day trips to the mountains.
It was always there, liquor was, helping us to
blur the boundaries and deaden the fear, helping us protect ourselves
from one another.
I was by no means a raging alcoholic when I fell
in love with David, but I suppose you could say the predilection
was there, that I was on the road to becoming one. Part of this
was reflected simply in my behavior. I have a lot of good drinking
memories from those days - drinking Coors beer under the sun by
a Santa Fe swimming pool; sipping wine in the back of David's pickup
truck at night on a New Mexico mountainside; drinking Champagne
under the stars in the high desert - but I also have a lot of unpleasant
memories - memories of blackouts; memories of explosive, liquor-laced
fights; a particularly embarrassing memory of drinking an entire
gallon of cheap white wine during a drive from New Mexico to Colorado,
en route to visit my sister at a summer camp where she was working,
then staggering out of the car when we arrived, loud and obnoxious
and falling-down drunk. I was eighteen then; my sister was appalled.
More to the point, I think my relationship with
alcohol began to deepen and shift around that time, my college years,
moving from a simple tool of self-transformation to a way to relax
and feel less inhibited, a way to be more sexual and open and light
- into something more complicated a more deeply ingrained way of
coping with the world. Looking back I can see how certain patterns
were beginning to develop, certain classically alcoholic ways of
managing feelings and conflicts in relationships that would grow
more entrenched and complicated over time.
Almost by definition alcoholics are lousy at relationships.
We melt into them in that muddied, liquid way, rather than marching
into them with any real sense of strength or self-awareness. We
become so accustomed to transforming ourselves into new and improved
versions of ourselves that we lose the core version, the version
we were born with, the version that might learn to connect with
others in a meaningful way. We are uncomfortable, often desperately
uncomfortable, with closeness, and alcohol has the insidious dual
effect of deadening the discomfort and also preventing us from ever
really overcoming it we become too adept at sidestepping the feelings
with drink to address them directly. Feel conflicted? Drink. Insecure?
Have a drink. Angry? Drink.
In fact, as much as I loved David, my feelings
for him confused and scared me. I'd found in David another antidote
to my family style - a nice, uncomplicated, loving man, a regular
guy unburdened by insight and self-analysis - and I found my own
attraction to him disturbing: did it reflect badly on me somehow,
this choice of a tall, dark, slightly goofy, nonintellectual boyfriend?
Was there something wrong with me, for needing someone so different
from the people I'd grown up with? Were my own appetites - for hugs
and sexuality and liquor - inappropriate?
Geography protected me from those questions for
a long time: the summer after I met David, I went off to college,
to Brown, he stayed in Santa Fe, in school, and we conducted the
relationship over three thousand miles for the next three years,
bingeing on intimacy during periodic reunions, then retreating from
it during separations. But that strategy fell apart my senior year
of college, when David, who'd graduated by then, moved to Rhode
Island to live with me. The dynamic suddenly changed and so, in
turn, did my relationship with liquor.
David and I lived in an apartment together off
campus and I felt conflicted by his presence almost immediately,
as though he wouldn't fit in, as though there was something wrong
with me for trying to merge these two lives, my Brown life and my
David life. So without really being aware of it I split my life
in two that year, going to classes and working obsessively at the
library during the day, returning to David, who'd gotten a job with
a small marketing firm, in the evening. At night we drank - every
night, as I recall - and I spent that year feeling tense, as though
I had to work hard to keep the two worlds apart. We didn't go out
with my college friends; for the most part we kept to ourselves.
Alcoholics compartmentalize: this was classic
behavior, although I wouldn't have known that back then. I've heard
the story in AA meetings time after time: alcoholics who end up
leading double lives - and sometimes triple and quadruple lives
- because they never learned how to lead a single one, a single
honest one that's based on a clear cut sense of who they are and
what they really need.
I once heard a woman at a meeting define alcoholism
as a fundamental inability to be honest, not so much with other
people but with the self. She talked about attaching herself to
lovers all through college and graduate school as a way of avoiding
the messy, fearful business of growing up, as a way of cashing in
the chips of her core being by simply handing them over to someone
else, letting others define her. Lots of people do this - you don't
have to he an alcoholic in order to surrender your sense of self
to someone else - but alcoholics do it with particular zeal and
precision. We can be ace chameleons, twisting ourselves into two,
three, four versions of ourselves and using drink to lubricate the
transformations. You tell me who to be. And you, and now you.
When she described this, I flashed immediately
onto that year with David, onto the way I split myself into two
separate people, playing distinct roles in each life: the David
life, which was social and sexual and awash in drink and hidden
conflict, and the academic life, which was disciplined and cerebral
The academic life, appropriately enough, was also
defined by a man. Brown was famous for its lack of distribution
requirements and I'd floundered there for my first few years, taking
an absurdly random, disconnected collection of courses before settling
into a combined major in English and History, and choosing that
not because it tapped into some deep reservoir of intellectual interest
on my part but because it was a small, new program in which I could
stand out. A man named Roger headed that program. He was in his
forties, an immensely popular member of the English department,
and he had a razor-sharp intellect, and he was the first professor
at Brown who made me feel special.
I'd wanted that feeling desperately - it's another
classic impulse among alcoholics, to seek validation from the outside
in - and I hadn't found it in college. The school was too big: I
didn't have an instinctive sense for how to fit in, and I didn't
have a clue about what I wanted to study. Academic achievement was
something I'd always sought as a form of reward good grades pleased
my parents, good grades pleased my teachers; you got them in order
to sew up approval.
Roger, whom I met as a junior, gave me precisely
that brand of approval, and I'd found it familiar and reassuring
he gave me a purpose, someone to please. In my senior year I narrowed
my major down to eighteenth-century British literature and history
because those were his areas of expertise. He became my advisor,
and under his direction I wrote a prize winning thesis, graduating
from Brown with honors.
Two days after my graduation I went out to lunch
with Roger, a celebratory gesture on his part. He'd suggested this
after the graduation ceremony - "Let me take you to lunch!" - and
he'd called the next day and arranged to pick me up at my apartment.
We drove to a small, sunny restaurant about ten
minutes away from campus, and he ordered us martinis. Then he ordered
wine with lunch. We ate lobster salads and talked about writing.
After lunch, in his car, Roger leaned over suddenly
and kissed me on the mouth. I was startled and scared and confused
when he kissed me, but I was also drunk, so I let him. I let him
keep kissing me, and I let him put his hand on my breasts, and when
he called me on the phone a few days later and asked me to have
lunch with him again, I agreed because I didn't know what else to
I must have gotten drunk with Roger six or seven
times that summer. We'd drive to a different restaurant each time
and we'd have many drinks - usually martinis, like I'd had with
my father - and after lunch, blind drunk in the daylight, we'd sit
in his car and I'd let him kiss me again. I'd close my eyes, panicked
inside but numb, very numb, and I'd feel his breath on my neck and
his tongue in my mouth and I'd just sit there, not knowing how I'd
gotten into the situation and not knowing how in the world to get
I couldn't have done this without drinking. David
would go off to work in the morning and I'd go off to lunch later
in the day with Roger, and I'd sit in the car while he kissed me
and worry drunkenly about getting home, getting home before David
got home and sobering up and trying to keep the anxiety out of my
eyes. One day Roger asked me about David, and I told him he was
moving to Chicago at the end of the summer to go to graduate school.
Roger smiled. "Oh, good," he said. "Then we can become lovers."
Lovers. I'd graduated that spring without a clue
about where I was headed. Writing loomed as an ill-defined but daunting
possibility; so did medical school, psychiatry. But honestly, I
hadn't so much as sent out a resume; like I said, I didn't have
"Oh, good. Then we can become lovers." We were
at an outdoor restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, when he said
that, and I remember vividly that I picked up my glass and gulped
down the rest of my drink. A breeze was blowing, the sun was in
my eyes. I thought I was going to throw up.
For the next decade I rarely talked to friends
about the relationship with Roger and when I did, I described it
the easy way: he was the villain and I was the victim. There's truth
in that, but it's also true that I put myself in his path, that
I made myself an easy target, and that drinking facilitated that
We'd had one lunch before the one where he kissed
me, several weeks before my graduation. We'd walked downtown to
a tiny basement restaurant called Pot au Feu, a cozy place with
brick walls and wooden tables. We drank martinis that time, too,
and I could tell that Roger found me attractive.
I also understood, however abstractly, that the
martinis allowed me to indulge in that attraction, to flirt with
it, to tap in to a feeling of power I was otherwise too self-conscious
and fearful to acknowledge. After the second or third drink I know
that I was leaning across the table, interest in my eyes, asking
questions, drawing him out. I asked him about writing, and about
his career and his background. I smiled demurely at all the right
moments, maintained the right amount of eye contact, cultivated
that particular egostroking blend of vulnerability, reverence, and
I don't remember how I really felt about him at
the time - in purely objective terms, was he a nice person? An asshole?
I don't know. Nor do I remember feeling physically attracted to
him in any genuine way. Feelings of lust - if I'd had any at all
- would have seemed shameful and incestuous to me: Roger was a father
figure to me, and I wanted the kind of adoration and esteem from
him that a little girl wants from her dad. But that wish gets complicated
when you're a young woman who's had too many drinks. What I remember
from that lunch is the drive: to please, to generate approval, and
to do that by somehow sexualizing the relationship, because that's
the only way I knew how.
This is an instinctive way of responding to someone
whose affection and validation you covet - I'd seen women in college
do it for years, smiling up coyly at professors or older boys in
fraternities; I'd seen it done in movies and on TV all my life;
in some barely labeled corner of my soul I, like most women I know,
had come to appreciate sexuality as an ill-destined but very real
path to female power, and I acted on that appreciation without really
knowing it. I could feel it.
So when Roger took me out to lunch a few weeks
later, and when he kissed me in the car afterward, I felt shocked]
and confused and appalled but also, oddly, victorious. The feeling
was I got what I wanted; I won. And because I understood I'd participated
in the game, because I knew I'd worked on some semiconscious level
to draw him in, I somehow deprived myself of the ability to get
out cleanly. How can you say no when you've worked to make someone
else say yes?
Alcohol puts you in such a box, leaves you with
such an impossible equation: you have to sexualize the relationship
in order to feel powerful, and you have to drink in order to feel
sexual, and on some level you understand it's all fake, that the
power is chemical, that it doesn't come from within you. So I'd
sit there in the car with Roger, and I'd let him touch me and I'd
feel completely stuck, just the tiniest stirring of inexpressible
rage - at him, at myself - bubbling inside.
The drink of deception: alcohol gives you power
and robs you of it in equal measure.
I never told David about the episodes with Roger,
but they inserted themselves into our relationship, creating another
kind of distance. He'd come home and ask me about my day. "Oh, it
was fine," I'd say and then I'd fall silent. I felt like I was carrying
around a huge secret (which, of course, I was) and I jumped every
time the phone rang, worried it would be Roger calling to set up
David and I drank that summer, a lot. We took
to buying vodka by the gallon jug, and large bottles of tequila,
and we'd have a drink before dinner, then wine while we ate, then
more after dinner: vodka-and-tonics, or tequila sunrises. On the
days I met Roger, I felt unbearably guilty, partly because I'd seen
him, partly because I knew I was complicit in maintaining the relationship,
and partly because I understood that my ambivalence toward David
was a factor in the whole equation too. There in Providence, with
my own ill-formed future looming ahead, our differences worried
me, gnawed at me. I'd sit there at dinner and look at him and compare
him to the other men in my life, namely, to Roger and my father:
Was David smart enough? Introspective enough? Ambitious enough?
Was it enough just to love him, or should I attach myself to someone
who seemed farther ahead of me, someone smarter and more ambitious
than me, who'd be sure to carry me along into the version of adulthood
I thought I should be striving for?
These were tough questions, complicated feelings,
but I never addressed them with David, not once. I drank instead
and the questions running through the back of my mind faded away,
just faded out of consciousness.
Alcoholics are masters at deflecting blame: it's
one of the hallmarks of the personality, the way we explain our
own feelings by attaching them to someone or something outside ourselves,
the way we refuse, without even being aware of it, to take responsibility
for our own part in troubled relationships. All that summer I'd
sit there at the dinner table and look critically at David, feeling
something was missing, something was awry. It never occurred to
me, not once, that something might have been wrong with me, with
my own capacity to accept people's limits, with my own neediness,
with my own wish to be validated and defined by other people.
But that sort of honesty - with the self, with
others - is impossible when you're drinking. The liquor numbs the
real feelings and the real fears and the real doubts; it deprives
you of the courage it takes to be honest. You lose your hold on
who you really are and you just kind yourself in bad situations:
sitting in some professor's car, being groped; sitting at dinner
with your boyfriend, withholding information. Keeping secrets.
My father kept secrets too.
At the end of that summer, the Roger summer, my
mother called me on the phone and said she had something she wanted
to talk to me about. It was a weekend morning in late August, and
I remember sitting down at the kitchen table, tracing the red-and-white
checks on the tablecloth and thinking, Someone's died. My mother
never called to talk about anything serious and there was an unfamiliar
strain in her voice.
"I'm thinking of leaving your father," she said.
She sounded embarrassed and edgy, as though explaining
this was going to be exhausting. "Oh, sweetie," she said. "It's
such a complicated business." Then she told me that my father had
been having an affair. The relationship had been going on for seven
years and she couldn't tolerate the betrayal anymore; she was about
to go off to Martha's Vineyard for a few days to think things over.
This was stunning news. You never would have known,
just never. Thinking about my parents that afternoon, I couldn't
remember one argument, one moment of overt tension, one episode
that might have suggested anything so dramatic as an affair, and
as I learned more I would be astonished at the lengths my parents
had gone to protect us from their problems. My father had actually
moved out for a few weeks while I was in college; I came home for
a weekend during that time and he moved back in for the two days
I was there so I wouldn't know.
I saw my parents as model grown-ups, and their
manner, their silence, informed my sense of what adulthood looked
and felt like. Grown-ups behaved rationally and calmly. Grown-ups
worked during the day and came home at night and sat down for drinks
and passed the evening quietly. After dinner my father usually disappeared
into his office for a few hours; my mother sat in the living room
with her knitting, watching programs on public television or talking
on the phone. I saw them as beyond conflict, way beyond the kind
of mess I'd found myself in that summer. Years ago, I believed,
in the privacy of their therapists' offices, they'd transcended
My instinctive reaction was to side with my mother,
to react with horror and shock, but I also remember breathing a
small sigh of relief at the news. It made my father a little less
mysterious, helped put some of his remoteness and preoccupation
in context. When I sat with him in those strained silences in the
family living room, I had thought there was some inadequacy on my
part that ground the conversation to a halt. I'd seen him all my
life on such an epic scale - lost in his own grand thoughts, above
me and my small concerns, possibly even frustrated or bored with
me - and the news of his affair shifted the burden for the first
time away from me and onto something else. Of course he was preoccupied;
he was leading a double life. And of course he relied on that martini
every evening: coming home was a painful thing, an exercise in guilt
and betrayal that needed easing daily. The information might have
been shocking but it also made him human.
A few days after my mother's call I drove up to
Cambridge and met my father at the house. He seemed tense and tortured
and he tried in the most awkward way to explain. We sat outside
on the patio. He made martinis and he gulped his first one down
and when he spoke his language was so ambiguous and abstract it
was nearly impossible to ask questions. He said, "There have been
a lot of troubles," and I can barely recall another word he said.
The evening was clear and quiet, the primary sound
coming from the whisper of trees around our house, and I remember
that my father looked old all of a sudden, worried and far away.
I know he made a reference to "sexual problems" between my mother
and him. I know he made a reference to his "complicated relationship"
with his own mother, as well as several references to anger and
ambivalence, undercurrents of both. But mostly I remember looking
at him with a feeling I'd had since childhood: that he held something
dark and conflicted and unknowable inside, something I shared but
couldn't yet put words to; that he'd remain a mystery to me until
Years later, after my father's death, I had occasion
to meet with one of the few people who understood him intimately,
a psychologist named Jack, and he filled me in on the source of
some of that conflict: apparently my father's own father had had
affairs, lots of them, and he'd humiliate his wife, publicly and
regularly, by talking about them in front of other people, flaunting
them. She would retaliate, not by having affairs of her own, but
by acting seductive and flirtatious to anyone who happened to be
handy, including my father. Jack told me all this by way of explaining
how conflicted my father had become, how the concepts of sexuality
and humiliation got welded in his soul from the earliest age, how
on the deepest level he couldn't experience sexual love for someone
without also feeling shame. My father was kind and empathic and
deeply sensitive and as a young man, the model his parents offered
put him in a terrible bind: to identify with his mother was to yield
to her seduction; to identify with his father was to condone his
In the end, Jack told me, my father wouldn't humiliate
my mother by flaunting his affair as his own father had done, so
he'd struggled to keep it secret. The affair had ended after a year
or two and then he'd confessed. But some time passed and he'd started
it again, then ended it again, then confessed again. From what I
gathered, the affair had continued like that - on and off, promises
made then broken - and that summer, after the last confession, my
mother had had enough.
Although I couldn't quite say how at the time,
my father's affair explained things to me, provided some central
piece of the quiet puzzle that was our home. Sitting with him on
the patio that evening, I thought: that's what that silence was
about; that's where the veils of sadness and tension came from;
that's why I never saw my parents hug, or explode with passion or
emotion or rage: all the energy went into hiding things, keeping
the lid on feelings. I found the story of my father's affair utterly
surprising and utterly validating at the same time, and I remember
sipping my drink on the patio and saying, simply, "Oh."
I didn't know what else to say, really. Sexual
conflict? Lust and adultery? My parents?
"Oh." It explained things, but I couldn't react
They broke up for about three days. My mother
went to the Vineyard, and my father moved in with the other woman,
and then, finally, something shifted and he decided he couldn't
follow through, couldn't leave my mother. He called her and over
the next week they patched things back together.
Years later he told my sister that he drank almost
the entire time he was there: drank vodka and drank gin and drank
and drank. Drinking was his solution, the medication for sexual
The amazing thing, of course, is that you do all
this - all this drinking, all the keeping of secrets and withholding
of information, all the self-medicating - without making the connection
between the drink and the outcome. My father drank, and he stayed
stuck in the relationship with the other woman, and stuck in the
secrecy, and stuck in the feeling of ambivalence, and he didn't
understand until it was way too late that all those actions were
related, that the drink fostered the secrecy and the secrecy fostered
the stuck feeling. that drink and dishonesty and clouded vision
were ultimately one and the same, weaving through each other like
the threads of a tapestry. That summer with David and Roger I picked
up the threads of that same tapestry, drinking and weaving myself
into a life that felt woefully overcomplicated, and I couldn't make
the connection either. I wouldn't for many years.
The hard things in life, the things you really
learn from, happen with a clear mind. About six weeks after that
first lunch with Roger, I finally couldn't stand it, couldn't stand
sitting in his car and letting him touch me like that anymore, so
one day I summoned up all my nerve and went over to his office.
I told him, tentatively but very soberly, that I couldn't see him
anymore, and that was the end.
I said, "I'm just too uncomfortable with this."
He was sitting at his desk and he just stared at me. I stammered,
"I hope - I mean, I hope we can still be friends."
Finally, he looked at me and said, "Well. If we're
not going to be lovers, I don't see the point."
I didn't see him again, or even talk to him again,
but from that point on, I could hate him, instead of merely fear
him. Years later, I heard he had died, dropped dead of a heart attack
while jogging on the East Side of Providence. I didn't feel a thing.