Her Best-Kept Secret
‘Drink’ and ‘Her Best-Kept Secret’
At a party for Ms. magazine’s 40th birthday, the Canadian writer Ann Dowsett Johnston waited for an audience with Gloria Steinem, hoping to cull wisdom for her research on women and alcohol. “Alcohol?” Steinem said to Johnston, looking “dismissive.” “Alcohol is not a women’s issue.”
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.
Ladies, put down that glass of Chardonnay and listen up: American women are drinking. A lot. Since World War II there has been a steady rise in female alcohol consumption and problem drinking. Even as alcoholism has come to be viewed as a disease, Glaser reports, the moral taint of the female alcoholic lingers. As a psychiatric expert put it in 1948, "Alcoholic women are much more abnormal than alcoholic men...When alcoholic women go on a tear, it is terrific." Glaser has written an engaging account of women and drink, citing fascinating studies about modern stressors (the more time women spend with their children, the more they drink!) and evidence that some problem drinkers can learn moderation. She includes material about Alcoholics Anonymous that is bound to stir controversy. By promoting the idea of powerlessness and humility, Glaser claims, AA has inadvertently stymied women's path to recovery--since so many women feel powerless already. AA stalwarts may find this idea maddening, but one can't help but admire Glaser's efforts to find science that will challenge the orthodoxy.
I admit it. When my kids were younger, a friend and I would get our toddler twins together for the three-martini playdate. (My husband had to come drive us home.) That ended when I got pregnant with my son. Luckily, pregnancy only lasts nine months. I have given and received bottles of wine for baby showers. What about alcohol as a gift when the baby first comes home? I always bring some along with a lasagna. For summer fun–and let’s be honest, for an effective school’s-out coping mechanism–do you round up kids and friends and drink while dinner cooks on the grill?
Maybe it’s just me.
But according to the brand new book Her Best-Kept Secret, it’s more like everyone minus a few hold-out teetotalers. Drinking among women–and I’m not talking about college-aged bingers–has been on the rise for decades. Author Gabrielle Glaser gives fascinating reasons why. My favorite was that so many of today’s moms scaled back or opted out of intellectual careers to focus on our kids. Instead of spending more quality time with them, though, we wind up behind the wheel for hours chauffeuring our little over-achievers from soccer to swim team to math camp to equestrian lessons. When we get home (after driving is done, of course), we crack one open. Glaser writes, “Despite increased opportunities, many women feel they still haven’t measured up… ‘Women may simply find the complexity and increased pressure in their lives to have come at the cost of happiness.’”
Cheers to that.
Of course, there’s more to it–from wine marketing campaigns aimed at women to reality TV shows. Bethenny Frankel and Skinnygirl Cocktails are, for better or worse, huge hits. Whatever the reason, Glaser’s onto something. Every mom I know drinks often. And this book, Her Best-Kept Secret, mostly focuses on those of us who drink regularly but do not have an addiction problem. She correctly notes that most moms feel ashamed of their wine and try to hide it. How often have you said, “Oh, I really shouldn’t,” as you pour the third glass? Do men act so self-conscious? My husband doesn’t.
With humor, thoughtfulness and skillful research, Glaser paints a picture of mature female drinking today. You’ll see yourself or your friends on almost every page. She also touches on addiction–she controversially takes down Alcoholics Anonymous programs–but this isn’t a preachy book. I read it in a few hours sitting by the pool while the kids swam last weekend. I liked Glaser’s confession that she drinks most nights, but takes one or two off a week. The book is filled with helpful and enlightening suggestions. It’s great, so read it. Then grab your favorite drink.
Visiting bars with her grandfather as a little girl, Gabrielle Glaser was fascinated by the gleaming liquor bottles, lined up “like a library of giant jewels.” Always a moderate drinker, Glaser was alarmed by her growing dependence on her evening glass or two (or more) of white wine. After moderating her own intake, she couldn’t help noticing how many women around her were drinking to excess. How, she asks, “did our cultural icons go from the saloon destroyer Carrie Nation to the Cosmopolitan-sipping Carrie Bradshaw in just a couple of generations?”
A journalist, Glaser approaches the question with investigative rigor and thoughtful analysis. Women are drinking more by nearly any measure — more arrests for DUI, more seeking treatment — but the picture is muddled by the way women tend to drink: at home, alone, often after a long day of work and domestic tasks. “This drinking wasn’t social,” Glaser writes. “For many women at the breaking point, it felt like first aid.” For that reason, the author questions whether Alcoholics Anonymous, often considered “the gold standard for recovery in America,” is best suited to help women overcome their drinking problems. Founded by and for men, and based on a first step of admitting powerlessness(“something women have been experts in since the two genders began negotiating power,” Glaser quips), AA may be a bad fit for many female alcoholics.
A well-researched look into the differences between how men and women drink, what their motivations for drinking, and how they should cope with drinking problems (hint: for women, AA might not be the best resource available).
Over the past century, American women have progressed from sipping in seclusion to enjoying the occasional cocktail in public following WWII, to downing wine today like characters from Sex and the City. In fact, from 1992 to 2007, the number of middle-aged women who sought help getting sober in various treatment programs almost tripled. Journalist Glaser (Strangers to the Tribe) traces the increasingly besotted history of women’s relationship with alcohol (focusing mostly on middle-class women), but she becomes particularly insightful and provocative as she argues against the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for women. Rather than guiding women down a healing path of humility and acceptance, AA and its Twelve Steps, Glaser argues, have failed to protect women from predatory men, thereby consigning many already insecure and anxious women to failure. In lieu of AA, Glaser investigates new majority-female programs, as well as a seldom-prescribed medication called naltrexone, which is similar to Chantix. Conversational and persuasive—as if Vicki Iovine had written a Girlfriend’s Guide to getting sober—this quick read is full of encouraging and informative advice, and it’s sure to ignite renewed discussion about one-size-fits-all treatment options.
Glaser (The Nose: A Profile of Sex, Beauty, and Survival, 2004, etc.) probes the shift from the days of feminists like Carry Nation, popularly known as “the saloon destroyer,” to the “Cosmopolitan-sipping” Carrie Bradshaw.
As a journalist who has written features for a variety of national publications about women’s issues over the past 20 years, the author began noticing an across-the-board increase in the amount of liquor women were consuming. She examines binge drinking by college-age women intent on establishing their entitlement to be treated as equals, as well as stay-at-home moms more discreetly imbibing. She profiles the after-work scenes in Portland, Ore., and New York (both places where she has lived) and notes that alcohol is no longer considered to be unladylike. It has become a crutch, an acceptable way for women to “muscle through the postfeminist, breadwinning, or stay at-home life [they] lead.” Glaser suggests that one reason for the increase in drinking is the increase in stress for women balancing the demands of work and modern child-rearing. While women may be closing the behavioral gender gap, the physical fallout of prolonged heavy drinking is more dangerous for them. Not only can it have a damaging effect on childbearing, but it also seems that women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men and suffer more physical problems. Glaser cites a 2010 Gallup poll estimating that nearly two-thirds of American women are regular drinkers, and she correlates this with statistics showing an increase in the number of women arrested for drunk driving. Furthermore, a significant proportion of heavy drinkers become alcoholics and are frequently abused sexually, a problem even within organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
An important addition to feminist literature that calls upon women to reject a spurious equality “whose consequences in broken families, broken hearts, and broken futures, are all too real” and face up to the problem of alcohol dependency before it takes over their lives.