Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank To Forget by Sarah Hepola is a standard memoir of addiction and recovery, following the textbook arc of excess, regret and sobriety. What separates this book from others is that it is written within the framework of a feminist engagement with rape culture. As an editor and essayist at Salon, Hepola is intimately familiar with the media narratives surrounding inebriation and consent.
It was the spring of 2010 when Hepola first heard the term “rape culture.” By 2014, the dominant narrative in mainstream media was one fraught with concern for young women who drank; binge drinking could lead to sexual assault. Women were cautioned against overindulging. Feminists fought back; women didn’t need to curb their drinking, men needed to not rape women.
“And we women can drink however the fuck we want, “ Hepola writes unapologetically. “I certainly did.”
Much of Blackout is about alcohol, consent and sexual empowerment. Hepola understands that while our culture demands clearly delineated rules and laws regarding consent, her own lived experience is not so cut-and-dried: “Activism may defy nuance, but sex demands it.”
She describes sex as “a complicated bargain,” a series of choices that rapidly change from moment to moment. Her relationship with consent and sexual freedom is not one that is negotiated with sexual partners. She writes, “my consent battle was in me.”
What makes Blackout an exceptional read is Hepola’s focus on autonomy and agency. She takes complete responsibility for her actions, even when faced with the hard truth of not remembering them. Hepola does not seek to reconcile her experience by looking for heroes and villains; she refuses to recast herself as a victim when looking back on her drunken sexual encounters.
The mechanics of a blackout, Hepola explains, are quite simple. “The blood reaches a certain alcohol saturation point and shuts down the hippocampus.” The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for making long-term memories. Someone experiencing a blackout can appear lucid and participate in any number of activities that the brain will not be able to store as memory. There is no method for determining whether or not someone is in the midst of a blackout.
Hepola describes her blackouts as: “A curtain falling in the middle of the act, leaving minutes and sometimes hours in the dark. But anyone watching [her] wouldn’t notice. They’d simply see a woman on her way to somewhere else, with no idea her memory just snapped in half.”
“People in a blackout can be surprisingly functional,” she writes. “This is a point worth underscoring, since the most common misperception about blacking out is confusing it with passing out, losing consciousness after too much booze.”
This fact is necessary to understand and crucial to the current conversation about consent and alcohol. A person who is blacked out might make choices that they would not make while sober. It could therefore potentially be problematic to hold other people responsible for the actions of a person who is blacked out, especially if they are unaware of any patterns regarding blackouts.
According to Hepola, a person in a blackout can talk and laugh and run their “greedy hands over a man whose name [they] never asked.” Her pieced together recollections of sexual encounters are at once vulnerable and often darkly comedic: “Many yeses on Friday nights would have been nos on Saturday morning.”
Blackout also stands out as an intimate portrait of female friendships. Hepola’s most enduring and complex relationships are those with her female friends. It’s refreshing to read a book that is not a catalogue of heteronormative romantic anecdotes.
“Women are so careful with each other’s feelings,” she writes. “We know the world shoots poison daggers into our egos–and we shoot them into ourselves–and so we rush to each other’s sides for triage.”
Blackout also addresses the writer’s relationship with her body. After she gains sobriety she turns to address her life-long struggle with accepting her weight and health. She recounts the conflict she felt when she decided to change her eating habits.
“I felt like a failure to both sides of the body wars. To women for whom appearance was everything, I was a source of pity. To women for whom diets were evil, I was a sellout.”
“The whole point of feminism,” she writes, “was that we deserved the agency of our own choices–pro-choice, in the truest sense of the term–and yet I feared my friends would judge me as frivolous, or vain.”
While the first two-thirds of the book crackle with page-turning energy, the “Sober” section truly feels like a “satire of a memoir.” A flat checklist of self-help cliches, it’s a formulaic journey of AA meetings, diets, dating, and an intense relationship with her cat. While a genuine retelling of her recovery, it doesn’t make for very interesting reading, but it is mercifully short.
Blackout is sometimes an uncomfortable read as Hepola expresses a difficult and precariously nuanced truth about blackouts. But as she writes:
“One of the great powers we have is the ability to give meaning to our own experience.”