Dallas writer Sarah Hepola turns boozy memory gaps into searing memoir

Sarah Hepola passed many a night in East Dallas dive bars, drinking like one of the guys. You might know the kind of place: Low light, killer jukebox, scuffed-up vinyl booths and a very loose definition of overserved. She has fond memories.

Then there's the stuff she can't remember at all: How did I get home? Who did I make angry last night? How did I end up naked on top of this guy? These gaps are at the heart of her new book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget (Grand Central, $26), a stingingly funny and wise memoir that gets at one of the most misunderstood elements of heavy drinking.

"I always thought of blacking out as this late-stage, low-bottom alcoholic thing," Hepola says during a recent interview at The Dallas Morning News. "It turns out it happens to young women all the time because they're just smaller. Girls are often trying to cut calories, so we'll do things like skip dinner. You do that, then you drink a bottle of wine or you take a few shots, and you're drinking dinner, which is what I did so many times.

"Then you black out."

A blackout is exactly what it sounds like: You drink enough during a short enough period of time to lose chunks of your short-term memory. This memory loss makes blackouts hard to describe. You can say what happened right before you blacked out - "The last thing I remember" - and right after - "The next thing I knew." All the rest is a mystery, except, of course, to the people you were with, to whom you could have said or done anything.

In her book, Hepola recalls a joke she used to tell friends after blackouts: She was creating a show called CSI: Hangover. "I would be forced to dig around the apartment like a television crime scene investigator, rooting through receipts and other detritus to build a plausible theory of the night's events."

Blackout is shot through with gallows humor, the kind earned only through perspective: Hepola has been sober for five years.

She was raised in Highland Park, though she never really fit there. Her parents moved from Pennsylvania when her dad got a job in Dallas, and the family rented a house, which marked them as black sheep in the status-happy Bubble. "We drove a dented station wagon with a ceiling liner held up by staples and duct tape," she writes. "We didn't have a chance."

During this time she learned to sneak sips of Pearl Light from her parents, and she learned to love it. "Nothing was as a good as beer," she writes. "The fizz. The left hook of it. That wicked ka-pow." She took her thirst with her to Austin when she attended the University of Texas, and then to New York, where the pace only quickened.

Hepola's writing is honest enough to make the allure of booze crackle with vitality - the buzz, the camaraderie, the adventure. She's even better tackling early sobriety, those days and weeks when you can't figure out how to fill those hours once devoted to drinking. "It's hard to write about sobriety in the same way it was hard to live it," she says. "I thought I was no longer interesting, and I thought I had nothing to offer people because I didn't have this extra pop of glamour that was all around me."

She had bought into the mythology of the heroic drunken writer, a subject Olivia Laing explored so well in her book The Trip to Echo Spring. We're taught that writers are supposed to drink. When Hepola stopped drinking, she was afraid she'd lose her writing prowess. Blackout proves how wrong she was.

Hepola started writing about her sobriety during her day job, as personal essays editor for Salon. She figured she had a book in her. She also realized bookshelves are sagging beneath the weight of recovery memoirs. "If you're gonna throw another recovery memoir on the pile, you'd better earn the reader's time and say something different," she says. When a friend suggested she focus on blackouts, she knew she had her peg.

Hepola still looks back on the stuff she can remember with some wistfulness: Bars as dark as caves, peopled by what she calls "the brotherhood of the bar." "You're in your little cocoon, and you have a ready-made family there," she says. "Everyone is there, and they're going to talk to you. Even if you don't know them you'll get to know them."

Good times. To which she has no interest in returning.

"The wonderful thing," she says, "is that I don't have to deal with the depression and the shame and the regret and the work not done and all the nonsense that comes along with drinking."

She still enjoys her life. Now she can actually remember it.

Plan your life

Sarah Hepola will discuss and sign her book Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble, 7700 W. Northwest Highway, Dallas.

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