Smashed: Inappropriate or A Step In The Right Direction?

Zailckas, Koren. Smashed. London, England: Penguin Books, 2005.

“I did not begin by drinking from steep glasses, viscous concoctions of rum, gin, vodka, and triple sec, and I did not start off blacking out or vomiting blood... my drinking was an evolution that became desperate over time: I found alcohol during my formative years. Like a childhood friend, it aged with me."

The memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Koren Zailckas follows Zailckas from her very first drink as a fourteen year old to her last, not more than a decade later. The piece serves as a cautionary tale for young adult readers, especially young women. While Zailckas claims that she is not an alcoholic, that she just abused alcohol for over ten years, the readers are challenged to make a decision.

“I am a girl who abused alcohol, meaning I drank for the explicit purpose of getting drunk, getting brave, or medicating my moods.”

Painfully introverted, Zailckas struggles to find her social footing from middle school all the way to college. What's an easy problem solver? Well that's alcohol according to Zailckas. Zailckas begins her journey by accepting the peer pressure her best friend Natalie bestows upon her by chugging down a bottle of Southern Comfort from Natalie's parent’s liquor cabinet. Of course this leads to only headaches and a premature hangover but instead of stopping, Koren is now hooked on her own type of self-medication.

Determining what factors in Zailckas’ life guided her to drinking is expanded upon thoroughly. She says that she was raised in a completely normal, loving family. She claims that she does not drink to forget herself, rather to become herself. Zailckas informs the reader of many misconceptions about girls who drink by adding specific facts and stats throughout the book. She notes that many media figures indicate that high school and college aged girls drink as an expression of girl power and gender equality and freedom.

“On the contrary, most ever girl I’ve known drank as an expression of her unhappiness. I too drank in no small part because I felt shamed, self-conscious, and small.”

Zailckas is a personable, relatable character. Most teenage girls, not to mention teenage boys, will feel some sort of connection with her trials and tribulations. Whether through the description of a wild party, the nervous sensation of sneaking out of the house, or the uncertainty of being a teenager, young adult readers can connect with the author. Zailckas’ brutal honesty about her peers, and more importantly, about herself are appreciated and commendable. It being a true story will indeed carry some weight with readers because this isn't just a concoction of stories, but real life.

Recommendations for Teachers
The hardest part of teaching this book to students is, well you guessed it, the subject matter. There isn't heavy drug use, hardly any at all except for a mention here or there of smoking marijuana, but the alcohol abuse and swearing are certainly things to consider when taking on this book. Zailckas does an amazing job of incorporating humor with her pain but her stories can be hard to bare sometimes. I would suggest that the best audience for this book would be (of course a public school setting) seniors in high school, just around the time they graduate. Zailckas includes many stats throughout the book, such as how many students die a year from alcohol or when the average teenager starts drinking. Seniors, mostly likely will have already toyed around with alcohol so that point might not be as sensitive; but a warning about the material would certainly be advised. This is a great way for them to read a personal account of how alcohol can greatly affect your life, even if you're not an alcoholic. The average teenager begins drinking in middle school (Zailckas), and it would be wise instead of turning our heads, to confront the situation head on and give students advise how to be responsible about it. And honestly, what is a better source than a person that has directly experienced the problem?
Relating it to class: You could ask students to share stories, how they feel peer pressure has an influence on their/Zailckas' life, how they feel about the subject, their expectations of where alcohol will/could lead them. As a teacher, before they read the book, have them write out a list of ten things that accompany drinking- this could always lead into a paper of their expectations in correlation to the book. Overall, this book reads fast, keeps your attention, and is relatable to everyday life.

About Koren Zailckas

Koren Zailckas was born in 1980 in Saudi Arabia. From reading Smashed, written as a memoir, in the countless stories told, you being to know Zailckas' life and where she grew up, in Massachusetts, and attended college, Syracuse University. She started drinking at the age of fourteen, whereas most youth begin because of divorce or other issues, Koren's family did not have any of these problems. Her drinking mainly stemed from her close friends. Koren seems to be able to dodge punishment from her parents after a night of drinking has brought her home in the morning, and her relaxed parents state that they would rather her experiment with alcohol in their home. By age twenty-four she has experienced near death, date rape, blackouts, and all the other side effects that come with boozing. To this day Zailckas claims that she is not an alcoholic, although she admits to abusing the substance, she has never felt addicted to it (which is one of the two criteria for being addicted), and her story shows that several times she has dropped the habit for no imperative reason. Smashed made it's debut in 2005 and was also Zailckas' first book. She says, "I'm just a literary girl gone wrong. Slow with the tongue. Quick with the pen" (www.korenzailckas.com/author.html). Not so shockingly, the book topped the New York Times bestsellers list. Although she allows the reader an inside view into her life and problems, it wasn't per say- cathardic- for her. Her book is to offer a perspective from a women who has 'been there, done that.' Zailckas said, "For me, fiction-writing is about escapism. Whereas memoir-writing is about facing cold, harsh realities. I'll let you guess which one is more of a party... Naw, in reality, there are challenges to both. In memoir, there's the burden of truth. And in fiction, there's the burden of fantasy. Me, I find fiction harder" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koren_Zailckas).

Interview with Zailckas

Although it isn't a live video, there is a live interview with Zailckas. She discusses how her parents have dealt with reading her book and learning about a side of their daughter they never knew. Zailckas mentions how she wished she would have known then what she knows now, that her life would be different had someone told her the effects that alcohol could have and how it varies because she is female. She experienced many things before even hearing or learning about them, such as alcohol poisoning.

Additional Resources:
  • Koren Zailckas Home Page- This is a website that is dedicated to the book. It has a section about Zailckas, an overview of the book, contact information and sites to get help.
  • U.S. News Interview - An interview with the usnews.com about her alcohol abuse and her book being a hit.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous - If you think, or are worried that you or someone you care about may have an alcohol problem, check out this site.
  • Alcohol Marketing and Youth -With fact sheets and reports, it shows how marketers target the youth and how we can wise up to it.
  • Gordie Foundation - A site dedicated to a freshman college student that died of alcohol poisoning. Here students can educate themselves on alcohol abuse.
  • Guardian.co.uk - Zailckas look on the British '24 hour drinking laws.'
  • Jewish Addiction Services -Describes how certain aspects of the book are relevant to today and that perhaps this isn't just a book but a 'guide' to how we need to watch and be there for our children.
  • Alcohol Stats - Gives statistics about all types of alcohol problems: drunk driving, underage drinking, college drinking, and responsible drinking.
  • Youth - This site is excellent for students to check out stats on what can happen to youths that drink.
  • Wikipedia - gives a background about Zailckas' life and her book.

--Ashlie Genrich