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Drinking: A Love Story

Caroline Knapp

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 07, 2017
Category: Memoir

PERSONAL TESTIMONY: A Head Butler reader who was helped by Caroline Knapp’s book sent the story of her “love affair” with alcohol — and her triumph over it. It’s beyond eloquent. Click here.
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She was running across the street with her best friend’s kids on her back when she lost her balance. Her fall was brilliant — she shielded the kids from smashing their skulls. Her reward: “a gash on the knee so deep the nurses could see my kneecap.”

Actually, Caroline Knapp got a much more significant souvenir of that fall — an ascent. Three months later, she broke up with alcohol, her lover for two decades, and stopped drinking.

Caroline Knapp an alcoholic? No way!

She grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, daughter of the department head of psychosomatic medicine at Boston University Medical School. After graduating from Brown, she became a writer, and a good one; she wrote a popular column for The Boston Phoenix and became its lifestyle editor. She worked out. She had relationships. In little more than a single year, both her parents died — and she still finished a book.

If you know your drunks, you already know Caroline Knapp’s breed: “high-functioning alcoholic.”

But why did Caroline Knapp have her first drink at 12, her first drunk at 14? Did she really become an alcoholic because, at 16, she felt a boyfriend slipping away and, to bolster her self-esteem, poured a whole bottle of wine down her throat?

"Drinking: A Love Story" is really two stories.

One is a squalid tale: hidden bottles, overlapping romances, early morning surprises in strange beds, and, mostly, lies lies lies. But it is not a tale of paper bags and alleys and the dry heaves. The locations are chic bars in Boston and a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard — this is not a woman who ever slipped out for a drink at lunch.

The other is a family history, revealed with the skill you expect from a shrink’s daughter — or a thriller writer. Because, to the knowledge of Caroline Knapp the alcoholic, alcohol addiction didn’t run in her family. Her father had a martini or two when he came from work at night. Her mother’s connection to alcohol was mostly to set out bowls of carrots and peanuts. So it wasn’t as if she learned to drink at the feet of experts. Or did she?

In 280 mesmerizing pages, these stories merge. How could they not; they’re the same story, told two ways. Along the way, Knapp takes us inside the head of the alcoholic with an exactitude that’s spooky. [To buy the paperback of “Drinking: A Love Story” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Caroline Knapp published “Drinking”, and won a ton of praise. She replaced bad boyfriends with a dog and wrote a different kind of love story, "Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs", also much praised.

In April of 2002, Knapp — a constant smoker — was diagnosed with lung cancer. In May, she married her boyfriend. In June, she died. She was 42. Her best friend, Gail Caldwell, wrote a terrific memoir about their friendship, "Let’s Take the Long way Home." [To read about it on HeadButler.com, click here.]

I could tell you the stats about the immensity of alcohol abuse in America, and how alcohol plays a part so big in domestic violence, rape and murder that we can scarcely stand to talk about it. Instead, I direct you to the Guest Book created after Caroline Knapp’s death. As I write, it runs to 66 pages. Many of the messages are like this: I started your book and I couldn’t put it down, and, reading it, I realized I have a problem, and I knew I had to deal with it. And I went to the Web to find out how to thank you, only to learn that you died. How I wish I could tell you.

If you’ve got a problem or if someone you love has a problem, don’t wait until the cops are asking how the car could have killed that kid.  But ignore my exhortations. Take it from the experts on that message board: This is the book that can make the penny drop. Especially the last few pages — because as Caroline Knapp came to see it, there is nothing more beautiful than a roomful of strangers, drinking boiled coffee, getting through life one sober day at a time.

To buy “Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs” from Amazon, click here.

To buy “Appetites: Why Women Want” from Amazon, click here.

To buy “The Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays” from Amazon, click here.

To read the tributes to Caroline Knapp in the Guest Book made after her death, click here.