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Explainers

Untitled, Michael Scott, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Strouk.

The Art and Science of Forgetting Everything

A conversation with Sarah Hepola, author of the bestselling Blackout, about investigating the worst kind of memories—those you never had.

Sarah Hepola is the personal essays editor at Salon and a contributor to The Morning News since 2002, one of our very first writers. She’s also a close friend, in part because her pieces have always been exactly what we want to publish at TMN: investigative essays that are personal, funny, and very smart.

Her new book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget is an addiction memoir, and it’s also all of those things, but much more. As the Times critic Dwight Garner wrote recently, with a little more flamboyance than we expect in his reviews, “Simply extraordinary…. Ms. Hepola’s electric prose marks her as a flamingo among this genre’s geese.”

Blackout tells the story of the author’s problems with “the gasoline of all adventure,” as she puts it, from a very specific and misunderstood angle: the phenomenon of blackouts, or those moments when a drinker’s long-term memory shuts down while drinking. In Hepola’s experience, blacking out was part of some of her worst moments as an alcoholic, and the book finds her investigating what the phenomenon is exactly, and what really happened when her memory turned off.

After we read the book, we were surprised to realize how little we knew about blacking out, too, so we reached out to Sarah to find out more.

 

Blacking out isn’t the same as passing out, not the same as “browning out,” as they say in It’s Always Sunny. What is it?

A blackout is when you drink so much that your long-term memory shuts down. You can still talk and make jokes and flirt with random guys, but the recorder in the brain isn’t working, so, afterward, you won’t remember a thing. It’s an alcohol-imposed amnesia. Not everyone will have blackouts, which makes it confusing for those who don’t, and for those of us who do, it’s unforgettable. You wake up, and pieces of your night are missing.

There are two kinds of blackouts: En bloc, the more severe kind, where you can lose hours of time (I had those, and they’re hideous). And then fragmentary, far more common, which is like a light flicking on and off in the brain, so you remember some parts of a night but not others. You mention a bit from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, in which a character jokes that he didn’t blackout, he “browned out,” and the bit makes it seem like that’s a novel term. It’s actually a standard term for a fragmentary blackout.

How much did you know about blackouts back when you were drinking?

I had my first blackout a few weeks before my 12th birthday. I thought: OK, this was a first-timer’s mistake, I drank way too much, I’ll never let that happen again. But they kept happening—in college, into my late 20s and 30s. I had theories about what caused them. I knew if I didn’t eat anything, they were more likely, and indeed, that is a risk factor for blackouts, along with being able to hold your liquor, and drinking fast (check, check). But sometimes, it felt like they just happened to me, which is where I came up with that line in the opening scene, “My evenings come with trap doors.” There were a few parties at The Morning News, for instance, where I was having a great time, maintaining my ferocious buzz, and feeling like everything was under control, and then, swoosh, I have no idea what comes next. I would wake up and think: Why, why, why? There was a Groundhog’s Day feeling to it: This again?

I could be surprisingly functional in a blackout. I once performed at a comedy event in front of hundreds of people. I sang karaoke in a blackout and got all the words right.

As one of the people at those parties, I’d say you even seemed like you were in control. Drunk, but not “in the midst of a blackout.”

That seems to be another surprising facet—people in the process of blackout aren’t necessarily blotto, and therefore others might not realize what's happening.

I could be surprisingly functional in a blackout. I once performed at a comedy event in front of hundreds of people. I sang karaoke in a blackout and got all the words right. This is a critical point: You don’t know you’re in a blackout, and other people can’t necessarily tell you are—although one of my boyfriends used to tell me that my eyes went dead like a zombie. People can get that creepy, “unplugged” look.

I didn’t start researching blackouts until after I quit drinking. This is pretty surprising, given how much they controlled my life, but it’s also common. There isn’t a lot out there on blackouts. They’re an emerging science, and the medical community really didn’t start to understand them until this century, when Dr. Aaron White, a senior advisor at the NIAAA [National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism—ed.] whom I interviewed for the book, and a few other scientists began to discover what was happening in the brain and how common they are among binge drinkers (about 50 percent of drinkers can have them). It wasn’t that long ago that some legal experts thought they were a folk tale, a repression of some kind.

Was there anything from your research in particular that shocked you?

Probably the biggest shock to me was that women are more prone to blackouts than men. I associated blackouts with hardcore male alcoholics, but actually, I’ve talked to a lot of hardcore male alcoholics who never experienced them, and plenty of women who had them the first time out.

Women don’t metabolize alcohol as quickly as men, which means that even a woman the same size as a guy will get drunker, faster. And women do things like skip meals, which I did all the time, because I was often watching calories. A really hilarious and/or heartbreaking part of my story is my insistence that I could binge drink like a man and lose weight at the same time. That’s just bad math.

You’re doing events for the book—the book just hit the New York Times bestseller list. Congratulations! What are readers surprised to learn when you meet them?

It’s a mix. People who have never blacked out are startled to find out that it’s not the same as passing out, and they’re startled by how common it is. People who do blackout fall into two categories—those who thought it happened to everyone, and those who thought it only happened to them. So what you can see, in this broad range of reactions, is that we all needed some Blackout 101.

You and I are old friends, and I happen to know about a certain horrific event that wasn’t included in the book, when you were attacked on the street in New Orleans. I remember you saying you were at an event for a wedding, so I’ll assume alcohol was involved. Would you be willing to talk about it? Was it a blackout episode?

The most common question I get from friends who read the book is why I didn’t include the whole New Orleans saga, and the short answer is that it’s a saga, and I’m sure I’ll write something about it another time.

In brief: I was in New Orleans for a wedding, I’d been drinking all evening in the French Quarter so I was pretty drunk, but I was not in a blackout. I was walking back to my hotel room with two friends when I was hit on the head with a pistol and my purse was stolen. The story keeps going: I testified at the trial (the guy got 15 years), I became friends with and later fell in love with the detective on the case. Like I said: Story for another time.

But weren't you able to identify your attacker? Any idea why it wasn’t a blackout episode?

Most of the time I was drinking, I didn’t blackout. Somehow readers get the impression that it happened every time I got drunk, but not even close. I was always trying to avoid [blackouts], and mostly I did. What’s amazing to me about that night, though, is that even though I was drunk, I was able to pick the assailant out of a photo lineup, when the two people with me could not. The moments of that interaction are burned on my brain. I don’t understand it, exactly, because I was so drunk that I really shouldn’t have been so sharp, but it felt like someone had plunged my face into ice water. I assume this is adrenaline.

And I bring this up because there are similar episodes in the book, where I was so wasted, I really shouldn’t be able to remember what happened, but somehow I do. I’ve thought a lot about this, because I’m constantly questioning my own memory, fact-checking myself. What I’ve been able to determine is that my brain seems to be super-recording in moments of trauma and extreme self-consciousness, so even though I can’t remember giants swaths of time around those moments, there will be 10-second, 30-second frames that are super-sharp and easy to access. But honestly, the brain is a mystery. Memory is a mystery. Who knows why we remember what we do, and if our memories are accurate? It’s important to note, however, that memories in a blackout can never be recovered. They were never recorded, so they’re just gone.

In the book you talk a lot about Alcoholics Anonymous. Do you find your experience to be unique or common among other addicts?

I don’t think anyone’s experience is unique among addicts. That’s one of the things you learn very quickly. We all come into the rooms feeling like the first person in history to have done such-and-such, or to sneer at the God stuff, which is one of the most common experiences there is. I told the story that opens my book in a meeting once—the story where I come out of a blackout in the middle of having sex with that guy in Paris, and I don’t know who he is. That was the absolute freakiest thing that ever happened to me while I was drinking, but afterward, two women came up to me and said, “Something like that happened to me too.” It’s like the saying I quote at the end of the book. “If you’ve fucked a zebra, someone’s fucked two.”

I was much more worried about how people in the program would react to my blowing my anonymity, because it’s a sacred tradition. I’m sure it does bother some people, but so far no one has confronted me. What I hear most from AA people is that they’re grateful I made sobriety a part of my story. A lot of addiction books end when the main character quits, but those of us who have lived through it know that is nothing close to the end.

More than once in the story, you return to the scene of a blackout to investigate what happened. In other interviews you’ve talked a lot about the emotional experience of doing that, but I’m interested in the neurological side. If a blackout’s not recorded in your memory bank, what’s it like to return to a memory you never had?

I think it’s a bit like visiting a childhood home, which you only know from photographs, and people have told you stories about it, but you can’t tell if the memories you have about the place are real, or inspired by other people’s stories, or just wishful thinking.

Memories in a blackout can never be recovered. They were never recorded, so they’re just gone.

I went back to the Paris hotel, for instance, which is where the opening scene of the book takes place. I went to the bar (which is a restaurant now) where I met this one guy in a blackout, and it’s funny because I did have something like a visual memory of meeting him. It’s clearly a false memory, because that whole scene is gone, but I had imagined it so many times that the invented scene had filled in the blank space left by the memory hole. This happens all the time in real life, even when blackouts have nothing to do with it. We invent what happened and then hold on to that account as if it actually did. As a person writing about her life, I try to be vigilant about which memories are real and which memories are invented, but given human error, and given memory error, I’m sure I mislabeled a few.

What really struck me about that trip, though, was how much I got right. The hallway of the hotel had taken on The Shining proportions in my mind, and on the way up in the elevator, I told myself: Well, it’s probably going to be a very normal hallway, and your memory has been distorted. But I stepped out, and it was exactly the way I remembered it. This creepy, long, and narrow corridor. It was haunting.

That’s fascinating. It makes me wonder, is blacking out a biological failure? In your research, was there any positive survival component of blacking out that showed up, that explains its presence as a phenomenon?

This is a great question, and it’s above my pay grade. I’m going to send this question to Aaron White and see if he gets back to me with any further insight. One thing this question reminds me, though, is how little we talk about the dangerous physiological effects of booze. We talk about the dangers of drinking and driving. More recently, we’ve heard about the dangers of drinking and sex. But the plain old effect of alcohol on the human body—it’s pretty bad, much worse than pot, but because we live in a drinking culture, it gets normalized: Vomiting, hangovers, blackouts, passing out—all part of another Saturday night.

One of the big shocks I had after my book came out was from an Atlantic article about blackouts, in which the writer Julie Beck used my book as a springboard to write more in-depth about the science of blackouts. She interviewed Aaron, who said that research suggests that at .35 BAC (blood alcohol content), about half of drinkers will die. Well, it’s impossible to determine my BAC when I was having blackouts (I might have had a low threshold), but the general thumbprint is that fragmentary blackouts happen at about .2 BAC and en bloc happen at about .3 BAC. So this was frightening to me, the small window of space between “dude, I was in a really bad blackout” and alcohol poisoning. I had radically downshifted the danger. I had no idea how close to the brink I came, which is fairly common when blackout drinking is the subject of not one but two hit Katy Perry songs.

You’re well-traveled. Are blackouts a greater part of our drinking culture than others? Is it more or less a white thing, female thing, young person’s thing?

A blackout is the result of drinking fast, and drinking a lot, so it’s really a “binge-drinking” thing. You see it in populations where people drink to get drunk: America, the UK, Australia. As far as gender is concerned, women are more prone to blackouts, as I explained earlier, but because men still drink more than women, the incidence of blackout seems to be about half and half (maybe a bit more skewed toward women). That holds true in my inbox, too, where I hear from so many people of all ages and many walks of life saying this is a problem for them—white, black, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American—and so far, the one thing that ties them together is that they speak English. If the book gets translated, maybe I’ll hear more from other non-English speaking countries. I’m guessing Russia might have a small problem.

The search for some degree of obliteration—the desire to erase, if only for a moment, a part of our external or internal life, stress, or inner voices or pain—seems to go hand-in-hand with the pursuit of pleasure when people use alcohol or other intoxicants. Now that you’re sober, does that desire go away?

I’ve thought a lot about this. The longing for abandon, and the desire to escape the tortured mind—alcohol gave me that escape for a long time, but it introduced such darkness. My search for oblivion was obliterating me, so what can I do now? Am I just stuck in this fucking mortal coil while the rest of you party balls?

What I learned in sobriety, over time, is that oblivion is available in natural forms. In the book, I talk about the ecstasy of sex. I’m not talking about boning some stranger in a bathroom, I’m talking about super-connected, slow and luxurious fucking with someone you care about. But I couldn’t experience that surrender in sobriety until I let go of some massive body hang-ups, because I was trapped in my mind worrying about the ways my body would be judged. None of this was easy, but maybe oblivion shouldn’t be so easy.

These days, I seek other escapes: Long conversations with friends, singing and playing the guitar, Netflix marathons, painting and crafting. Anything where I look at the clock and I’m like, whoa, where did those four hours go? That’s my oblivion now. That’s my bliss.