IN HER MEMOIR 'SMASHED,' A FIRST-TIME WRITER DESCRIBES THE DECADE OF DRINKING SHE STARTED AT AGE 14

Viking

A fine stylist, Zailckas, now 24, is at her strongest when, armed with statistics, she castigates the advertising industry, charting alcohol's ties to date rape, MTV's "Spring Break" and Internet porn. Still, her own story--that of an American girl who drinks early and often but claims she never became chemically dependent--lacks the razor wit of an Augusten Burroughs, the sheer depravity of a Charles Bukowski: Who didn't experiment a little in high school? Who didn't go a little wild in college? See Koren get her stomach pumped at 16. See soused sorority weekends vanish into blackouts. See her meet a good man and go cold turkey.

Parents may be horrified; young women may nod in recognition. But if her story is as common as she says it is, what's the point of writing a book about it? Zailckas answered that question, and others, in a recent conversation with NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You are sober now. You won't even drink socially?

Koren Zailckas: Nope.

If you weren't an alcoholic, why go from one extreme to another?

I really just wanted to stand on my own two feet and be able to hang out at a party and figure out what to do with my hands besides holding a beer bottle. I wanted to develop authentic relationships with my friends and my boyfriend.

I'm not talking about drinking to get drunk, I am talking about a glass of wine with dinner.

You have to bear in mind that I'm a very petite woman. I'm about five feet tall and a buck and change. One glass of wine can get me pretty drunk. It's always been hard for me to find how much is too much.

None of your story is that surprising. You sound like a lot of women I went to college with who drank a lot. So what's your point here?

My point is it's only been in the past 10 years that it's skyrocketed. Girls have caught up to boys. We're drinking as young as they are; we're drinking more than ever. There's been all these deaths on college campuses lately--just five alone in September. [Girls] are talking about "ooh, aren't we liberated now and aren't we sassy and self-confident. We're bursting with girl power." But it was the exact opposite for me because clearly I was drinking to make up for my lack of self-confidence.

Sounds like "Sex and the City."

It's astounding the way alcohol ads changed in the '90s because if you look at ads in the '70s and '80s, they really do alienate you as a woman. The women in them have teeny bikinis on and they have big breasts and big hair and they really are just passive objects of the desire. In the '90s the models got more approachable and smarter. They started to reject men. They got more assertive. As a girl I think I responded to that, definitely.

But the other side of the coin is that you take responsibility for yourself. Even kids know they're not supposed to drink to excess.

You think they know that, but they don't. I know from personal experience that the only alcohol education I got was: "Don't drink and drive." I didn't know it was possible to drink yourself to death until I woke up at 16 after having my stomach pumped. Kids are certainly not learning about things like delayed emotional development--that's so abstract, it's hard for people to get their heads around. And they're not learning that [girls] get liver disease 10 to 15 years before men do.

You were 14 when you had your first drink. Certainly you weren't thinking about advertising.

No, but my friends and I were taping up Jose Cuervo ads in our lockers at school and collecting Absolut ads. I always thought that drinking was a womanly thing to do.

Was there anything your parents could have done differently?

It's hard to say because they were really involved parents. My mother sacrificed years and years of work to stay home and make sure she was involved in our lives. But there was a will so there was a way. I was really secretive in a lot of ways and snuck out and stayed out in other people's houses where I knew I could drink.

What can parents do?

Parents for one need to realize how early the behavior starts. Girls today are four times as likely to drink at age 16 as their moms [were]. On average they take their first drink at 13, drink regularly at 15. It's not outrageous to sit down with your 12-year-old daughter and say, "People you know are going to start drinking soon, but it might be a better idea to take your first drink at 16 than it is at 14--and better yet at 18." Research is finding that the longer you delay that first drink, the less trouble you run into. They shouldn't treat alcohol like the lesser evil, like "at least it's not heroin."

Do you feel ambivalent at all about writing this book and making a name for yourself off of your years of abuse? Like having your cake and eating it too?

More than anything I wanted to put it out there because it's so humiliating to be a girl with alcohol problems and admit it. It comes tied to all these other connotations like you're promiscuous, you're uncontrolled, you're masculine. Statistically there are so many girls who've experienced the same things that I have and I wanted to make it OK, open it up in conversation and talk about this stuff.

In the book you describe yourself as disinterested in sex. It sounds like you could have gotten into a lot more trouble than you did.

That's the ironic part. I think the average 15-year-old was having more sex than I was when I was in college at 20.

I wish I could say that doesn't sound familiar.

[Laughs.]