The Big Idea: Erin Flanagan
The road to recovery is often long and hard one, but for the protagonist of Erin Flanagan’s newest novel, Blackout, recovery has a mysterious added challenge — one that threatens more than just the recovery itself.
When I started the novel Blackout, I asked myself two questions: what makes me mad and what scares me? This was late in 2018, just weeks after Brett Kavanaugh took the national stage to convince us that being Treasurer of the Keg City Club wasn’t alcohol-related , that PJ and Squee were good guys, that Christine Blasey Ford wasn’t credible, and that he’d never had an issue with drinking. In a prepared statement, he said, “Sometimes I had too many beers. Sometimes others did. I liked beer. I still like beer. But I did not drink beer to the point of blacking out.”
This wasn’t the most anger-inducing thing Kavanaugh said under oath—far from it—but I kept playing it over and over, because, you know what? I used to like beer, too. As a matter of fact, when I went away to college and first met houses full of men like Kavanaugh, I was told liking beer was an awesome thing. And let me tell you, I was good at liking it and good at drinking it. I drank so much that a standards committee at my sorority told me my behavior was unfit; I drank so much at a frat party—a frat party where drunk girls are the endgame!—that my friend had to sign a liability waiver so he could invite me over again.
I was convinced in college I should drink, drink, drink, and then when I did, I was told it was bad, bad, bad. But by that point, I had been convinced of a lot of things, including that I should be flattered if men wanted to grope me or worse, and that I should be content with any scraps of male attention. I was told this not only in frat houses but also in nearly every piece of media I consumed. (Remember when the good guy in Sixteen Candles sold his drunk girlfriend to another guy for a pair of used underpants? I loved that movie.)
Yet somehow in 2018, here was Kavanaugh turning it on me once again. It wasn’t enough that he wouldn’t admit to sexually assaulting someone; now he was even flaunting his lack of shame over drinking—a small thing, really, given the allegations, but in some ways for me the most surprising. I knew women weren’t to blame for sexual assault (duh), but I still believed it was my fault that my drinking had put me in precarious situations. And while that might have been true, Kavanaugh’s testimony helped me realize that, sober or drunk, the system was stacked against women and certain men would never take responsibility. Kavanaugh says he likes beer—so what? So for nearly thirty years I’ve been stuck carrying the shame of my drinking while he, having done one of the worst things imaginable, still refuses to be accountable.
In Blackout, Maris Heilman is a public sociologist exploring issues around rape culture and misogyny while she’s also a recovering alcoholic. She’s been seven months sober and whiteknuckling it through every day when she begins having mysterious blackouts. Afraid her husband and daughter will think she’s drinking again, she keeps these blackouts a secret until a car accident lands her in the ER and she discovers a network of women experiencing the same thing. What do they have in common (or maybe it’s who do they have in common) and just how in the hell can they stop something they can’t even identify?
Maris and I also have a lot in common: we’re academics in second marriages raising daughters, but most importantly, we’ve begun to realize that no matter what we do, no matter how perfectly we behave, there’s a malevolent force at play that’s larger than we could have expected, and the deck might be stacked in ways we didn’t even realize. Maris believes that if she can just quit drinking, all will be better, so what a shit deal to realize once she does stop drinking that there’s still work to do. How rude an awakening to realize recovery is not a one-size-fits-all, not the answer to all her problems.
In Blackout, Maris must confront her own drinking as well as the systemic issues out of her control, and in writing the book, I had to look at my long-held fears and shames over my own behavior. I won’t speak for Maris, but I can tell you for myself: in the end, I let them go. Unlike Kavanaugh, I realized I had mainly hurt myself, and unlike Kavanaugh, I was able to take responsibility for my actions. Writing this book was a healing experience for me, and I only hope that will also make it a healing experience for the reader.