Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.
Jennifer Spiegel has an MA in Politics from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Arizona State. She is the author of a short story collection called The Freak Chronicles and a novel called Love Slave. She lives with her husband and two kids in Arizona. Please visit her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.
Drinking Diaries: How do you approach alcohol in your every day life?
Jennifer: There’s no alcohol in our house, and I’m afraid that—despite my philosophizing that’s it not evil in and of itself, and it’s perfectly okay for people to have a drink or two—I loathe its very presence, deeply, comprehensively, judgmentally. I have to watch myself, because I know I’m wrong for such disdain. In my life, though, alcohol has meant nothing good. When perfectly great people want to “grab a beer” to talk, I quickly—and no doubt awkwardly—suggest coffee instead. When very nice folk want a glass of wine with dinner, my insides twist. I know it’s nuts. An open bar at a wedding can induce an anxiety attack.
If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?
Well, here’s something. My first grader just came and sat next to me. She tried to read what I’m writing over my shoulder, and I said, “I don’t want for you to read this. Go get a book.”
I don’t really know yet how to handle it, obviously. I kind of think it’s not so hot to forbid kids from things like TV or rock n’ roll, because it’s setting them up. It’s like creating a mystique—when, really, there may not even be one. Alcohol is obviously different than pop culture (though the romance of pop culture probably did me in—see Love Slave, my novel, for more on that). So, I’m wary of telling my kids to stay away from alcohol, but still. I want to tell them to stay away from it.
Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?
I’ve had two bouts of drinking in my life, and I’m pretty sure they’d be considered relatively minor or nothing at all. In college, I drank—solely to get drunk, at parties. Then, when I was in South Africa, I also drank—again to get drunk, mostly at parties of some kind. The thing is that I’ve never actually liked beer or margaritas or white wine, so it’s always been a means to an end. And I can guarantee you that behind the end of drunkenness, there was a greater end: some guy. I wanted to be fun or sexy or uninhibited in his presence. Though I drank a couple times without the objects of my affection around, it always seemed like a waste of calories and time. I would’ve rather eaten a piece of cheesecake.
The last time I had a drink was on my birthday in December 2003. I’ve never missed it, except for once. I went to Cuba in the spring of 2004, and I would’ve liked to have tried a Mojito and done things that Hemingway might have done in Havana. But, by then, I had foresworn alcohol because I was marrying into a family of reformed alcoholics. The sacrifice was easy, to be honest.
What’s your drink of choice? Why?
Coffee, and I’m a pathetic addict. I’m sure I’m doing exponentially more damage to myself than any normal/casual alcohol drinker.
Has drinking ever affected—either negatively or positively—a relationship of yours?
My husband is a recovering alcoholic, as are members of his family. Out of respect for their plight, I’ll say very little—except that I know it’s a lifetime struggle that is so utterly complex that it’s soul-transforming, soul-shredding. I admire very greatly how hard some of the members of his family have worked on their sobriety and how much they’ve helped others too. We’re talking decades of success.
I’m now writing my third book, a novel tentatively called Sappho Unspoken, which will largely be about substance abuse and marriage. It’s focused, mostly, on the non-addict in a relationship with an addict. I’m feeling the soul-shredding thing acutely. And I know, also, as a non-addict there are things I can just never fully understand about it. I’m still baffled by the moment when a substance abuser gives in to the temptation to abuse, sacrificing his or her very soul. How does that happen?
I’m personally a control-freak, so I’m delving into a subject that involves the deliberate giving up of one’s control . . . and I’m embroiled in a psyche that mystifies me. Good fiction, weird state of mind.
(Speaking of fiction, alcohol plays an interesting role in my books so far. In The Freak Chronicles, there are several alcoholic-binges: a night of drinking in “Advent”; a one-night stand in “Nipples, Beads, Mealie, Pap”; an alcoholic missionary in “Goodbye, Madagascar”—which is the common favorite in the collection. Most of the alcohol stories take place in South Africa. Not sure what that means. And, in Love Slave, alcohol is maybe oddly and conspicuously absent. Funny. I guess.)
Oh, yes. I think cultural attitudes have definitely influenced me by making it seductive—like some sort of rite of passage that I didn’t want to miss out on. My own religious thinking and the tradition/orthodoxy behind it is surprisingly moderate—so I’ve at least tried to be moderate in my thinking. The religious people I know are pretty normal about alcohol.
I sort of suspect that many of the people I knew in college—those steeped in this youth culture—are now raging alcoholics.
Do you have a favorite book, song, or movie about drinking?
I just saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape for the gazillionth time. It’s not about drinking, but it’s about addiction. One thing that keeps coming into my head is the scene in which one character (Graham, played by James Spader) tells another character (Ann, played by Andie MacDowell) how he’s structured his life in such a way that he neither touches or is touched by others—he tries to be alone, solitary—and she points out that the lives of others are invariably touched by him. I think I’m pretty preoccupied with the way others are affected by the action of addicts. There’s something merciless about it. And I love how the addict in this film is called on this.
What about the worst time?
Well, it wasn’t my worst time or even my second worst time, but—in retrospect only—it may be the funniest time. The worst times involve physical violence and the police. I wish I were joking. But the funniest time?
I was in college at one of my best friend’s father’s home, who—of course—was out of town. So, for some hellish reason, my friend (a guy) and I invited this other guy, who I happened to be psychotically “in love” with, over for the night to get drunk. This was over twenty years ago, so my memories are skewed but I know that my friend and love interest got completely drunk; my love interest urinated all over himself and the bathroom floor when he proceeded to pull down his pants and drop to his knees and pee in front of the toilet bowl; my love interest puked red stuff on my friend’s father’s bed, the parakeet was let out of the cage and was flying around and there was a mad shuffle to get the escaped bird, and my friend was ill and desperately calling out, “Jennifer, just help me. Clean this place up. I’m begging you.”
Somehow or other, my friend and I managed to get that place in shape before his father’s return, though his father did question the red stains on his sheets.
Isn’t that hilarious? I’m being sarcastic.
How has alcoholism affected your life?
Indulge me while I talk about my novel-in-progress, Sappho Unspoken. I’ve mentioned that I’m a control freak, and that I love Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I think these are big themes in my book: the lack of control felt by those affected by addicts, and the profound effect addiction has on the non-addict.
Another non-alcohol movie comes to mind—an absurd scene. Humor me. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. There’s this hilarious scene in which the woman playing Woody Allen’s sister divulges how she met this guy in the personals, they went out and had a great time, they went back to her place, they started fooling around, he wanted to tie her up, he ties her up, and then he defecates on her. This is all told in Woody Allen-style, so you’re virtually in tears while watching it. But I think this might be what it’s like to live with the threat of alcoholism and the manifestation of addiction. You’re having a great time, you trust the person, and suddenly you’re bound—without control—and you’re being crapped on. Now, I know what people are thinking—and I’ve said it myself: “Well, you shouldn’t have allowed yourself to get bound.” True. But human dramas are never so simple, and it’s demeaning to both addicts and non-addicts to deny their abilities to be bound up in one another’s lives. There’s the sinking, I’m-being-crapped-on, I-have-no-control thing; but addicts and non-addicts may genuinely love one another.
Apart from substance abuse in my new novel, I’m looking at how someone hardens herself in order to cope with struggles. Right now, I’m watching my little girls learn to cope with the first appearances of “mean people” in their lives. Up until now, they never heard little kids threaten things like, “I’m not going to be your best friend” or “You’re ugly.” As an adult, we learn to harden ourselves against such inane things. As a child, you take it in and gradually learn to absorb the hurt. I’m watching my daughters learn to absorb hurts.
I’m wondering—still mulling it over—if there’s a connection between addiction and not learning to absorb those hurts? Perhaps the addict stays soft, unable to navigate the pain? Those who absorb hurt necessarily harden themselves? They are not as susceptible to substance abuse because they’re not as soft? I’m thinking aloud here . . .
If you could be any drink, what would it be? Why?
A Mocha from Bentley’s on Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, Arizona. Best drink ever. My husband humored me by getting me one on our recent trip to Tucson for a reading I was doing. And it’s still the best.