EVEN AS A CHILD, CAROLINE KNAPP loved the cocktail hour. Her father, Peter, a prominent psychiatrist and professor at Boston University—and a remote and inaccessible parent and husband at home—was a martini man. His special touch was adding a splash of sake, and every night when the liquor flowed, Knapp could see the furrows in her father’s brow soften. “There was a feeling of tension giving way to ease,” she recalls. And when Knapp came of age—visiting home during her freshman year in college—her father gave his daughter the same welcome he’d come to depend on: a freshly mixed martini.
It wasn’t her first drink, and it would be far from her last. As Knapp, 36, writes in her bestselling memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, watching her father had long since taught her that the best medicine for a troubled soul came in a bottle. “Drinking had a lubricating effect that altered the dynamic,” Knapp recalls. “It turned me into the person I thought I was supposed to be: more confident, less shy, prettier.”
It also turned her into an alcoholic. Although she was never a falling-down drunk and never drank at work, “by the end,” she writes, “[drinking] was the single most important relationship in my life.” And she isn’t the only woman caught in that trap. According to a recent report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 4.5 million American women are alcoholics. And because the stigma against women alcoholics is even sharper than the one against the 10 million male alcoholics, only a small percentage of the women who need treatment receive it.
But if Knapp didn’t hit bottom during her two decades as a high-functioning alcoholic, she was, ever so subtly, drowning. It was a fact of life she excelled at hiding. Even with the fiercest of hangovers, Knapp would arrive punctually at her job as an editor and columnist for an alternative weekly, the Boston Phoenix, wearing stylish clothes, her blonde hair in a perfect pageboy. She never missed a deadline and always kept her desk neat. “There was never a stray piece of paper,” remembers Beth Wolfensberger Singer, a former Phoenix writer who remains a close friend. “She was the model of efficiency.” If Knapp’s hands sometimes shook in the mornings, her friends figured it was the toll of the cigarettes and coffee that fueled her days. And even if her most popular work was the column she wrote in the voice of Alice K., an angst-ridden single woman continually failing in her quest for happiness and peace of mind, Knapp seemed to have little in common with her fictional alter ego. “She was always quintessentially in control,” says former Phoenix lifestyle editor Sandra Shea.
But the moment her workday ended, Knapp set out to drown her anxieties. She would begin with a few drinks with friends from work at a bar near the office, then change scenes, and companions, for dinner and a few glasses more. And if Knapp wasn’t getting along with either of the two men in her life at the time—a common state of affairs—she could polish off the bottle of white wine she always kept in her refrigerator at home. “I became so good at compartmentalizing my drinking,” she recalls, “that nobody had a clear sense of my true intake. Including me, half the time.”
The problem intensified in 1991 when Knapp’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer. “[His illness] gave me a better excuse,” she says. “I had revered him for so long, and to watch him become increasingly disabled was so painful. A lot of my friends knew I was drinking too much, but who wouldn’t under those circumstances?” Her father died in April of 1992. Soon afterward her mother, Jean, an artist, discovered she had breast cancer, and by April 1993, Knapp was drinking to the memory of both parents. “I was so overwhelmed by feeling,” she recalls, “I couldn’t feel any of it.”
Feelings never surfaced easily in the Knapp family. Raised in a leafy, well-to-do neighborhood of Cambridge, Mass., Caroline, twin sister Rebecca, now a Sudbury, Mass., child psychiatrist, and older brother Andrew, 39, a neuroscientist in Salem, Mass., were taught to keep their voices down and their problems to themselves. “It was a household where expressions of strong emotion weren’t encouraged,” says Knapp. “No one was comfortable with them.”
Although Caroline was the one most closely tied to her father, that didn’t translate into emotional closeness. “There was a feeling of being deeply connected to him,” she recalls, “but not having any way to access that connection.” It wasn’t until after his death that Knapp grew to suspect that her father, a secretive man, was an alcoholic who sometimes suffered from depression. Before his death he admitted to having had a longstanding affair.
A high-strung child prone to obsessive behavior—as a young girl she’d rock back and forth to calm herself, and later she developed a nighttime foot-washing ritual—Knapp learned to soothe her nerves with cigarettes and alcohol while attending Cambridge’s exclusive Buckingham, Browne & Nichols prep school. After graduating magna cum laude from Brown University in 1981, with a degree in history and literature, Knapp became severely anorexic. Although therapy eventually helped her regain healthy eating habits in her mid-20s, she increasingly turned to alcohol to calm her lingering need to escape her emotions.
Juggling two relationships exacerbated her drinking during her late 20s, and by the time her parents became ill a few years later, Knapp was suffering the shaking hands, double vision and blackouts that often plague chronic alcoholics. One night in 1991, as she stood furtively drinking from a bourbon bottle that she had hidden behind the toilet in her parents’ bathroom, Knapp realized she’d gone over the edge: “I remember seeing my image reflected in the mirror and knowing this is not normal social drinking. This is alcoholic.” Rebecca, the only person who understood the extent of her sister’s problems, begged her to get help and expected the worst when Caroline insisted it wasn’t necessary. “I resigned myself to losing her,” Rebecca says. Instead, Knapp found herself.
The turning point came in December 1993. Knapp called her sister from work, and after a few moments, she says, “it became clear that we had spoken the night before and I didn’t remember the conversation. Rebecca began to cry. My instinct was to get defensive. I felt ashamed.” Although the sisters had had similar conversations before, this time Knapp realized that alcohol wasn’t an escape from her problems, it was her problem.
Despite the fear that putting down her glass for good would be “like cutting off a limb,” Knapp went to a New Hampshire rehab clinic in February 1994. Although she steeled herself for the trials of withdrawal, the two-week program went remarkably smoothly. She has been sober ever since.
Like most recovering alcoholics, Knapp thinks of herself as a work in progress. “It’s a very deliberate decision you make over and over again,” she says. “Not drinking is something you do every day.” To shore up her resolve, Knapp still sees a psychotherapist and goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings three or four times a week. Eager to add a woman’s voice to the discussion of alcoholism, Knapp decided to pour her tale of secret addiction into Drinking. “This,” she says, “is the book I wish I had read before I quit.”
Already at work on her next book—about women’s relationships with one another—Knapp has given up her full-time job at the Phoenix but still writes her column. Though she won’t divulge his identity, she continues to date the man she calls Michael in her book, and last August she adopted a mixed-breed puppy she named Lucille. “Before,” says Knapp, “I would have been a horrible dog owner. I would have forgotten to come home and feed her.” She and Lucille live in a home Knapp bought two years ago near her childhood home in Cambridge, where she still labors to iron out her past. “It would be nice to say that you quit drinking and everything was all better,” she says. “But all the things you started drinking in order to not deal with are right there in front of you.” Now, at least, she’s facing them clear-eyed. Back where she started, Knapp is finally learning to feel at home.
TOM DUFFY in Cambridge