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23 April 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:16am

Lightning in a bottle

Two memories of alcoholism from Sarah Hepola and A A Gill.

By John Sutherland

Blackouts as a regular feature of one’s drinking are regarded by alcoholics as a milestone beyond which there is probably no return. The final destination? The morgue, the closed ward, skid row, or jail. And, for a very few, two of whose books are reviewed here, fragile recovery.

The terrifying mystery of the full-blown blackout is impossible to convey to those who have never suffered them. The companions you’re drinking with, as you enter the darkness, assume you to be still compos mentis. In a sense you are. But you will remember nothing of what you do over the next hours. You will quite likely have behaved wholly out of character. Mr Hyde is in charge when the lights go out.

When sober, Sarah Hepola was – and still is, one gathers – sexually reticent. In the most confessional segment of her “drunkalog” (as AA calls them), she recalls her “first time”. She’s a timid 13-year-old; he’s a stoner “asshole”, “Brad”, aged 18. Penetration doesn’t entirely work (it’s “like a bowling ball stuffed up your nostrils”). He demands a compensatory blow job. She finds it “really gross” but makes the right noises, pretending she likes it. She doesn’t.

As a mature twentysomething drunk, Hepola suddenly morphed into a sexual aggressor, “feral”. At a late point in the session – about to black out, ideally – she would proposition any male around with the blunt invitation, “Wanna fuck?” Unsurprisingly, many did wanna.

The paradox is that you drink to forget. But forget everything? Perhaps, yes. For Hepola, the blackout was a way of solving lust, shame and moral confusion. When you wake up, you will not know what you did in the blackout. These really are temps perdus – no madeleine will bring them back. The tape is wiped. You can fool yourself that it never “really” happened.

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Hepola’s über-smart memoir records her middle-class Texan childhood. She was a “beer thief” almost as soon as she gave up her mother’s milk. She “ran with the guys” at the University of Texas at Austin, a hard-drinking school. The guys were better equipped, physically, for wassail. Hepola flatlined at 5ft 2in. When not bloated (weight battles are a recurrent feature), she
was neurotically dysmorphic and self-starving. If you are going to be a career drinker, body mass helps. When it comes to gender, drinking is rarely a level playing field.

On the student newspaper (“Abandon your grades all who type here,” warned the sign over the keyboards), Hepola honed the writing craft that makes her so readable. She is a columnist and memoirist “with voice”. Her talent, now on regular display on the Salon website, took her to New York. There, for ten years, it was sex, drink and the city. Hepola, in her merrier drinking days, recalls many a morning post-blackout, when:

I used to joke I was creating a show called CSI: Hangover, because I would be forced to dig around the apartment like a crime scene investigator, rooting through receipts and other detritus to build a plausible theory of the night’s events.

The merry days don’t last. Hepola’s point of blacked-out no return was in Paris, where she had been assigned to do an interview on a $1,000 per diem – a drunkard’s dream. Hours before her flight home, she wakes at 2am in the right hotel but the wrong room. A naked stranger is alongside her and politely thanks her for a mutually enjoyable night. She will never know who he is or whether it was. Making her excuses, she dresses and scurries out.

Down the corridor, she finds that she has left her bag, purse and passport. Panic. She can’t remember the guy’s room number and, if she ever knew it, his name is irrecoverably in blackout oblivion. The night concierge downstairs gallantly helps her out. Then he ungallantly demands his payment. On her bed. Roughly. She will always remember his name: “Johnson”.

Like many addicts of her generation, Hepola rode the arc faster than did those of mine. Typically newcomers in AA groups in the late 1970s – when I began, finally, to sober up – were middle-aged, many just this side of wet brain (the lucky ones) and spiritually exhausted. Now, like juvenile obesity, terminal alcoholism is hitting in younger. Sarah Hepola got sober at 35, six years ago. She has a lot of good life left to live but it is a fragile thing. Relapse will always be just one drink away. One closes the covers of the book hoping that she never blacks out again – until the big one, many years hence.

A A Gill, another columnist (“probably the most read columnist in Britain”, his publicists claim) has written another self-searing
drunkalog. Pour Me opens, 30 years ago, in a rehab centre. The place does its job well and Gill dries out. The doctors tell him that if he drinks again, he won’t see Christmas. It is what alcoholics grandly call “a moment of clarity”. It hurts like hell. But, used bravely, you can build a new life on that clarity.

Blackouts, moments of unclarity, are, for the brawny, male drunkard, just the cost of the game. Gill is comically unsolemn about them:

Pockets were a constant source of surprise. A lamb chop, a votive candle, earrings, lockless keys, a photograph of an old man with a moustache and a harmonium, scribbled phone numbers, addresses and cards, notes written on paper ripped from books and menus . . . Morning pockets were like tiny crime scenes.

After Gill gets recovery out of the way, there is more memoir than drinking tale in his book. Brought up in a morally easy-going family of high cultivation (his father was the mastermind behind Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation), young Adrian was bundled off to boarding school. Acutely dyslexic, dyscalculate, psoriatic and wilfully bad at games, he was judged ineducable. Waste material.

Unqualified for anything, Gill bummed, screwed and drank around Soho, working in a shop selling dirty books in a period when the Obscene Publications Squad was more criminal than the pornographers. He wangled his way into St Martins and the Slade art schools. What he discovered was that he had talent – but not quite enough. Lucian Freud passed by, glanced at his work and said nothing.

It took Gill a long time to work out what to do with himself. His lucky break was when Tatler, which had come across something he had written, asked him to do a piece on spec. Cooking? he suggested. It worked. He was on the way to becoming “probably the most read columnist in Britain”.

There is an unregenerate masculinity in Gill’s character (ask Mary Beard). He recalls how his first wife, Cressida Connolly, proposed to him as if he were a kind of pasha:

I was lying in a morning bath and she brought me an orphan cup of warm milk and brandy and said, “You know, if we get married, I’ll always make sure there’s beer in the fridge.”

Connolly, a gifted novelist, could never have made what she has made of herself if her life had been dedicated to stocking a drunken husband’s fridge. She walked out on him in the middle of a dinner party. Oddly, he is curious why she did that.

This is a book that spills rather than pours. Because of Gill’s dyslexia, which is at the extreme end of the spectrum, he can’t, in the scribal sense, write. He has to dictate. In compensation, he has an extraordinarily retentive memory, sharpness of observation and, it is evident, a finer palate than most of us – although not, of course, for wine.

His mind, officially measured as off the Mensa scale, is an object of wonder. But it swivels everywhere, like a dropped high-pressure hosepipe. At one moment, he is recalling, poignantly, his younger brother, Nicholas, a Michelin-garlanded chef who has disappeared without trace. At others, he tells you – at unnecessary length, most will think – how to make an omelette crêpe. The way he does it suggests that they are of  equal importance.

One of the reasons why Gill is such a fine columnist is that what he writes about – meals, holidays and television programmes – are structurally self-contained things. The chaos of his mind is fenced in by them. It is what the demolition guys call a controlled explosion. Gill is explosive. God knows what a frightening thing he must have been in drink. He is bad enough as a dry drunk, the kind of sober person who gets thrown out of restaurants (in his case, Gordon Ramsay’s). But the end of the book dwells on a recently evolved philanthropic side to Gill’s character. He has become very anxious about the world. He travels to awful places, eloquently and genuinely compassionate with the suffering he witnesses there.

Gill’s favourite paintings are of martyred saints (Pisanello’s enigmatic Vision of Saint Eustace is particularly loved) and Grünewaldian studies of the tortures of crucifixion. One deduces that he has transcended his suffering but he now has a hypersensitive sympathy with the suffering of others.

A A Gill is 61, 30 years sober and surviving. Those who admire him (and I am one) will not merely read him over the years to come but follow him wherever it is he is now going. It will, one guesses, be an interesting journey. 

John Sutherland’s books include “Last Drink to LA: Confessions of an AA Survivor” (Short Books)

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