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A Book Review: Her Best-Kept Secret (Is AA Suited for Women?)

Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control

By Gabrielle Glaser

Steinem may have been hasty. We know that many women report drinking more often in recent decades, that they are drinking more when they do, and that the physiological impact and social meaning of it all is different for women than for men. Women are the engine of growth for the American wine market and are being arrested for drunken driving more often than before, as the numbers for men have remained stable or diminished. (According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2011, four out of five drunken driving incidents still involve men.) But these are observations, not an agenda. And how much alarm should be invested in those observations is up for debate in both Johnston’s book, “Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol,” and “Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink — and How They Can Regain Control,” by the American journalist Gabrielle Glaser, the second of which makes the more pointed case.

One trouble with declaring an epidemic of female drunkenness is that until the very recent past, the private habits of women were poorly chronicled. Johnston turns in part to gauzy memory to make the case that female alcohol consumption is the negative byproduct of modern complexities and the pressure for women to be “perfect.” “I don’t remember my grandmothers suffering from this syndrome,” she asserts. “Women who raised families during the Depression, who baked and gardened and read well; who were fundamentally happy, and felt no pressure to look like stick figures.” Well. Depression-era women’s lives were more circumscribed and less weighted with the pretext of “choice,” sure. But were these women, all in all, “fundamentally happy”? And were they less eager for a fix when they could get it? I’m not convinced.

Even during a time of more rigid gender roles, Glaser notes, women were the “principal users of opiates, which were available over the counter and by mail order. In 1897, the Sears, Roebuck catalog offered a kit with a syringe, two needles, two vials of heroin and a handy carrying case for $1.50.” Today’s MommyJuice and Happy Bitch, wines marketed to women, seem prim by comparison.

Both Johnston and Glaser spend much of their time on the same women those brands aim to reach: educated and upper-­middle-class, many of them mothers of middle age, whose chosen poison is wine, and who spend guilty mornings offloading bottles at the Dumpster. They are interested, in other words, in women like themselves — who happen to make up the at-risk population. (For the record, Glaser is not an alcoholic; Johnston, who threads her personal struggle with alcoholism through her book, has been sober for five years.) “The more educated and well off a woman is, the more likely she is to imbibe,” Glaser writes, citing a Gallup poll from 2010. According to another study published in 2010, white women were more likely to drink than women of other racial backgrounds, though the rates for Latina and black women were rising.

Some of these women meet the medical definition of addicted, and some don’t. On average, women become intoxicated more quickly than men, thanks to body composition, and a public health professional from Nova Scotia tells Johnston: “Lots of harms are coming from those who are not addicted. Periodic, episodic binge drinking leads to acute and chronic problems in society.” Women’s feelings about their own drinking have also changed. One researcher tells Glaser that in the early 1980s, one in 10 women said she was concerned about her drinking. In 2002 it was one in five.

A temptation for many trend journalists and headline writers (a temptation to which Johnston sometimes succumbs) is to see women’s higher rates of alcohol abuse and dependency as the uneasy consequence of female liberation. Or, as New York magazine put it in a 2008 article about young professional women’s binge drinking, “This is the kind of equality nobody was fighting for.” Like anything involving women and regret, alcohol use seems to inspire a desire to rescue.

Johnston’s choice to blend memoir and reporting makes her book feel unfinished, too entangled in raw heartbreak to arrive at clarity. She is apparently unable to resist using the hoary phrase “having it all” (specifically, “More than 40 years after Steinem helped launch a revolution, the debate rages on: can women have it all?”). We get distended passages — “A river runs through our family, through our bloodlines. It curdles our reason, muddles our thinking, seduces us by numbing all pain” — as well as broad statements that sound like the anxious fretting of a party guest seeking to impress, as Johnston worries about staying sober during “the gauntlet of summer evenings at the houseboat, of dinners out, of New Year’s Eve. Of airplanes, of the Bahamas.”

Despite its pulpy title, “Her Best-Kept Secret” is the more substantial book, interested in hard facts and nuance rather than hand-wringing. It is strongest when detailing how the American story of addiction and recovery was shaped for and by men.

Glaser makes a persuasive case that Alcoholics Anonymous, which enjoys a near monopoly in the recovery sphere, is structurally and functionally unsuited to many women. This was baked into the organization’s early history as a support group for middle-aged, white professional men, at a time when alcoholism was being identified as a disease but when women who drank were still seen as immoral — if they were seen at all.

“In the A.A. worldview, a woman’s most conceivable role was as the wife of an alcoholic,” Glaser writes. The original A.A. handbook included a chapter titled “To Wives,” which counseled: “Patience and good temper are most necessary. . . . If he gets the idea that you are a nag or a killjoy, your chance of accomplishing anything useful may be zero.”

Even when the organization did open the tent to women, it did not effectively address their motivations for drinking, nor did it make allowances for “differences in the way women and men recovered,” Glaser writes. “A.A.’s 12-step approach instructs drinkers to surrender their egos to a higher power, but it doesn’t take a gender-­studies expert to know that women who drink too much aren’t necessarily suffering from an excess of hubris.”

With A.A.’s soft-pedaled religiosity comes a prescription for total abstinence, but Glaser reports on evidence-based arguments that some problem drinkers may be able to drink in moderation, another way in which A.A.’s one size does not fit all. There are also blunter risks for women, including predators taking advantage of A.A.’s group dynamic and the profound vulnerability of its members. A former A.A. board member tells Glaser, “Women have been getting raped since A.A. started.” But in an organization decentralized by design, Glaser reports, not much has been done about it.

Glaser acknowledges that alcohol provides a form of self-medication during a time of dizzying changes in women’s lives, but she is skeptical of the notion that alcohol abuse is the price of too much liberation. Her concise assessment: “Women are drinking more because they can.” Indeed, whereas Johnston often casts women as the victims of institutions, Glaser seems more interested in asking why institutions aren’t serving women’s needs better. Either way, what’s at stake is how we respond to the byproducts of equality that fit less comfortably on a placard — including the right to mess up.

Irin Carmon is a national reporter covering women, politics and culture for MSNBC.com.

A version of this review appears in print on November 17, 2013, on page BR18 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Strong Proof.

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