I can’t imagine what it must be like to black out―to carry out actions and conversations with absolutely no conscious recollection. Luckily, I don’t have to imagine because this month I read two books that cover very different aspects of the idea: Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, and Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist by Kathleen Frazier. Hepola gives a gripping account of her years of severe substance abuse, taking the reader through the shame and embarrassment that comes with not being able to answer the simple question, ‘Do you remember what you did last night?’ Hepola’s account is scandalous and rimmed with debauchery―there were many moments when I wanted to yell, ‘Put the drink down! You know what’s going to happen!’ But the young narrator doesn’t listen, instead testing the limits of her own connection to reality, and her creation of a world that includes so many of her own bad decisions results in dizzying, claustrophobic prose that is enormously affecting.
Conversely, Frazier’s memoir reads more like an epic family history, tracing the lines of sleepwalking and addiction through the branches of her family tree. While Frazier overcomes her own substance abuse as well, it’s not the abuse that kicks off her condition. The stories of the young narrator waking up in the middle of mortifying, strange, and sometimes seriously harmful behavior, broke my heart. Frazier maintains a steady, poetic, almost ethereal voice in her prose, giving the sleepwalking stories a dreamlike quality and muted edges. While these two books could not be more different, in the end, I was left feeling similarly haunted by the trouble a body without a conscious mind can find.