For weeks now, I’ve been fuming over the misogynist media pile-on that took place after a horrific car crash on New York’s Taconic Parkway, in which Diane Schuler killed herself, her daughter, her three nieces and three men in another vehicle. An autopsy showed that she had drunk 10 shots of vodka and smoked marijuana just before the crash. Despite the medical examiner’s findings, Schuler’s husband claims that his wife never had any problem with alcohol and that the autopsy must have been botched. He–and many in her family and hometown–simply refuse to believe that a caring wife and mother like Diane Schuler could have been a blackout drinker. Moms, we’ve always been told, simply don’t do that.
The Diane Schuler case–and other media meltdowns over women and alcohol which we’ll talk about in a minute–has enormous personal resonance with me. A majority of the women on one side of my family are addicts, including two who have suffered from from life-threatening alcoholism. One of them was a stereotypically abusive, rage-y drunk, but the other is like Diane Schuler–the seemingly perfect suburban mom who was a secret drinker. Her husband never saw her drink. Her children never saw her drink. But for a couple years she was downing a half pint of vodka in the wee hours of the morning as her family slept. No one was the wiser, although her children noticed that she “drove funny” when she took them to school in the morning. By God’s grace and blind luck, her drinking never killed anyone, although it damn near killed her.*
So when Diane Schuler’s family expresses complete disbelief that she was a closet drinker who went on a deadly bender, I know how they feel. It’s very possible that they didn’t know–it can take a while for alcohol abuse to register if the drinker is secretive and quietly high-functioning. And, of course, denial is infinitely easier than having to admit, as one of my family members did, that “I thought we had this perfect family and now we don’t.”
But there’s also an unmistakeable whiff of sexism to this denial, and to the condemnation of Diane Schuler, who, as PhDork noted, was branded “Monster Mom” as soon as the autopsy results came out. Sympathy was replaced with hard-nosed condemnation, both of Diane Schuler, and of mothers–and women in general–who have drinking problems. In a much-reprinted AP article, the blame even spilled over to–you guessed it!–feminism:
“Younger women feel more empowered, more equal to men, and have been beginning to exhibit the same uninhibited behaviors as men,” said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Traffic Safety.
Kjerstin Johnson of Bitch Magazine rightly notes that this
“does seem to be coded language for “Feminism drove Diane Schuler to drink and then to drive,” an anti-feminist myth with dangerous repercussions.”
I completely agree with Johnson. It’s thinly-veiled anti-feminism, with an additional shot of ignorance: it also sounds like Cochran believes women never drank to excess until recently, which is completely ridiculous (The most severely ill female alcoholic in my family was born in 1918 and attending AA meetings with other women in the 1960s).
Women abusing alcohol is not a product of feminism, nor should feminism ever be mistaken for an invitation to get wasted in the name of empowerment. And yet it does, often thanks to women themselves. I once got temporarily banned from commenting on Jezebel.com after I confronted an editor there who was quoted in New York Magazine as saying:
“I don’t think that the drinking in and of itself is feminist, but I do think that it comes from a feminist place, that it can bolster one’s sense of herself as liberated,” says Jezebel editor Jessica Grose. “You know, the whole point of Third Wave feminism is that individual choice should not be judged…if you choose to drink yourself unconscious in some random guy’s bed, that’s also your prerogative. To say that you shouldn’t would be paternalistic hand-wringing, implying that a woman needs to be protected from herself.”
I said at the time that this was a big, reeking bag of bullshit, and it still is. Getting so drunk that you “drink yourself unconcious in some random guy’s bed” is a dangerous, self-destructive thing to do. If that happens when you drink, you have a problem. It’s not “paternalistic hand-wringing” to say so, it’s common fucking sense.
This kind of ignorant glorification of heavy drinking as a quasi-feminist, liberated act crops up in the mommy blogosphere too, including blogs like mommywantsvodka. Blogger and writer Stephanie Wilder-Taylor, author of Sippy Cups Are Not For Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour, made a good living publishing wink-y books about mommies who tipple, saying of drinking:
“It was a way to express that we’re still fun people. Just because we have babies doesn’t mean we can’t have an adult side.”
She and other pro-drinking mommies used drinking as shorthand for Hey, we may be stay-at-home moms, but we’re not stodgy! We can still hang the way we did in our twenties! We choose our choice!
Because of my own experiences with moms who drink, I always found these blogs and books more alarming than fun or subversively clever. I was not at all surprised when this spring Wilder-Taylor–who the New York Times dubbed the “heroine of cocktail moms”–admitted that she was an alcoholic and had quit drinking.
“I was drinking to be kind of present, just not all present…[Wilder-Taylor said in an interview] “The drinking got progressively worse.” Whenever her husband questioned her nightly routine, she would retort, “I’m fine.” On May 23, she awoke on the couch, fully dressed. “I thought, ‘I have these kids who are depending on me,’ ” she said, weeping over the phone, “and I have a bad problem.” She called a sober friend and said, “I need help.”
All of the sudden, the aging-hipster cuteness of “Mommy needs a cocktail!” was revealed for what it was: “Mommy’s drugging herself to deal with stress.” The New York Times article about Wilder-Taylor even referred to the Diane Schuler case, saying it caused an explosion of “outrage and bafflement over mothers who drink to excess.”
That “outrage” and “bafflement” is pure, double-standard sexism. There’s nothing baffling about why women drink to excess: they do it because are in pain, they are stressed, they suffer from depression, they are genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism, they are compulsive–all of which are exactly the same reasons men drink. I would also argue that because of the injustices and expectations of our patriarchial society, women are more likely than men to be stressed, depressed, in pain, etc. Society just wants us to pretend it’s not happening, the way they want us to ignore so many of the ugly realities forced upon women. If there’s any outrage here, it’s the outrage women should feel about the chauvinist image of mothers as household saints who couldn’t possibly be tempted by demon liquor, or the even more chauvinist (and sadistic) idea that a woman’s lot is inevitably going to be hard, so she should suck it up and suffer instead of seeking comfort in the bottle.
This brings us back to the drunk driving issue, because obviously, if women have problems with alcohol, it’s inevitable that they will get in a car drunk, particularly suburban and rural women who necessarily spend a great deal of time in their cars. The Washington Post ran an article this past week about the uptick in the number of women being arrested for DUI.
“Sadly, the number of arrests of women driving under the influence is on the rise,” LaHood said. “This is clearly a very disturbing trend.”
No, what’s “sad” and “disturbing” is not that more women are being arrested, but that that DUI arrests are going up, period. The idea that it’s sadder or more disturbing when the drunks are women rather than men is simply old sexist attitudes being imposed on a new-ish trend. It also evokes shades of Barbara Ehrenreich’s old chestnut that:
“Of all the nasty outcomes predicted for women’s liberation…none was more alarming than the suggestion that women would eventually become just like men.”
Alarming to us feminists, maybe, but probably more alarming to men, who have to face the reality that when it comes to abusing alcohol, their saintly wives and mothers are, after all, just as vulnerable –and dangerous–as they are.
*I’m deliberately being a little obscure about exact identities here, in order to respect the privacy of these family members. NB: I am NOT writing about MamaSharper, who has never had any kind of substance abuse problem. One of the relatives I mention has been sober for almost a year now, thanks to help from Bill W. and his friends. The other, despite occasional periods of sobriety, continued to drink until her death last year.