On Drinking: A Love Story (Caroline Knapp, 1960-2002)

I've been rereading Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, one of my all-time favorite memoirs, for a gig, and I came across a passage that has always resonated with me so deeply:

There’s something about facing long afternoons without the numbing distraction of any sort of anesthesia that disabuses you of the belief in externals, shows you that strength and hope come not from circumstances or the acquisition of things but from the simple accumulation of active experience, from gritting the teeth and checking the items off the list, one by one, even though it’s painful and you’re afraid....Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug. If it feels warm and fuzzy, it is probably the [addictive] choice. If it feels dangerous and scary and threatening and painful, it is probably healthy.

These days, I no longer automatically distrust what feels right. I have learned that if you are honest with yourself for long enough, you start to parse out the differences between your reflexes, which often really aren't to be trusted, and your instincts, which emanate from your truest self. But I will be forever aware that the more I fear something, the more I should clamor to learn from it. And when I first read that passage, I was just beginning to undertake a journey not unlike a detox although I was sober. It was like reading a transcription of my secret thoughts — of my dawning recognition of all the different anesthesias, from love affairs to friendships to food to books to the business of being a prettygirl, that I deferred to rather than simply trust myself. I was 25 and still afraid of my own shadow, let alone my independence.

Knapp died in 2002 from lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker. I still believe, however, that it was better that she died clearheaded than with a clear set of lungs, if she had to be felled by one of her addictions. For I looked up to her as one of my literary and spiritual big sisters, although I doubt we would have even liked each other very much in person. She was shy and somewhat socially conservative: a true-blue Bostonian, the sort who sent larger-than-life me running to black-sheep NY as soon as I could. The beauty of a really skilled memoirist, though, is that through her perspective you can connect with a person whom you might not admire or even recognize in regular life. It is a testament to how gifted Knapp was at her job that I wept for most of the day I heard about her death although I never once met her while she was alive. I knew that, unlike most people, she actually stayed present for the life she did manage to live.

So it is not strange that I miss her still. Selfishly, I miss the possibility that she could live more and learn more and write more so I could continue to understand more of my life through the lens she so painstakingly provided. So that I could keep anticipating from her example more of my own challenges and progress. Sometimes I fantasize that she will posthumously pen another one of her fiercely precise memoirs (she wrote three in all), this time about what it was like to die.

There are so many ways that growing up is lonely, but perhaps the most daunting is that eventually, whether or not we like it, we become the grownups by default. Although, as Knapp herself wrote:

It seems like such an obvious insight, so simple it borders on the banal, but I'd never before really grasped the idea that growth was something you could choose, that adulthood might be less of a chronological state than an emotional one which you decide, through painful acts, to both enter and mantain. I'd spent most of my life waiting for maturity to hit me from the outside, as though I'd just wake up one morning and be done, like a roast in the oven. But growth comes from the inside out, from trying and failing and trying again. You begin to let go of the wish, age-old and profound and essentially human, that someone will swoop down and do all that hard work, growing up, for you. You start living your own life.


Blogger j-lo said...

funny, i just read this post now, but it's so in sync with a long convo i had with a close friend on friday night about growing up in love and in work. learning when to hold your tongue when you know something about someone else that they don't yet know about themselves, and so forth. i'm going to go read some miz knapp soon, and hope she'll be as good an addition to my memoir reading as your recommended Edmund White.

6/18/2006 1:33 PM  
Blogger angelman66 said...

Beautifully written post that stopped me in its tracks, even though it wasn't about movies. I totally agree that we should honor and explore our addictions and obsessions, although I don't necessarily like to use that terminology. How about our preferences, inclinations, passions? I agree that we have to face our pain head-on, but I think when we do that we realize that life isn't all about pain at all, and that most pain isn't even necessary...
Anyway, you made me think!

7/16/2006 10:05 AM  
Anonymous raincoaster said...

I, too, re-read that book. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, as Keats would have said, and Knapp's death is a loss to the literary world. Just as you said, it is of value that she got and lived sober, right up till the time she died. She honoured her mother's memory by so doing, despite the temptation to say, "What the hell does it matter now?"

It always matters.

6/21/2007 2:40 AM  

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