NEW YORK -- She started when she was 14, at the end of eighth grade in her hometown of Bolton, 40 miles west of Boston. Koren Zailckas, now 24, tried a drink of Southern Comfort, offered by a more experienced friend from her parents' well-stocked liquor cabinet.
It was the start of a fearsome journey, largely hidden from her parents until they read the proofs of her new book, "Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood," released yesterday.
"Smashed" is gaining attention. People magazine did an item on it, and Entertainment Weekly gives it an A -- and lists it as "editor's choice" -- in the current issue. Zailckas is also scheduled to appear on "Good Morning America" tomorrow. Already rising on the charts (No. 27 yesterday on Barnes & Noble's online store), the book is a lyrical, appalling case study in the growing problem of binge-drinking among girls. Recent research has found that early-adolescent girls are surpassing boys in the onset, and frequency, of serious drinking and that young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholics than those who wait until age 21.
Zailckas -- an achiever with a shy and sweet manner, and close, loving parents -- would be on no one's list of likely problem drinkers. She was a skier, a ballerina, an avid reader, a talented writer, and a good student. She enjoyed ice skating and riding horses. Alcohol abuse was the last thing her parents would have expected.
"Koren has a reserved personality," said her mother, Sharon Zailckas. "Even as a child, she was not the one who ran right into a situation, throwing caution to the winds. She would check it out, put her toe in the water first." Nevertheless, at 16 she was rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning after a vodka binge with friends at a summer cottage.
Her parents were shocked but were convinced it was an isolated incident. It wasn't. Zailckas drank heavily throughout her years at Nashoba Regional High School. After the incident that her mother later described as "the night you nearly died," Zailckas was grounded and her parents paid closer attention, eventually insisting on knowing where she was going, whom she was with. But her friends dismissed the dangers, and the drinking resumed. "I didn't have friends who didn't drink," she said during an interview in her tiny, neat apartment in the East Village. "I could have cut myself off from drinking, but I would have had to cut myself off from my friends, which would have been so much harder."
Her drinking worsened at Syracuse University. "Everyone went around spouting this catch phrase, 'We work hard and we party hard,"' she said. As in high school, all her friends were drinkers. She drank wine, beer, vodka, various cocktails.
When she drank, she would become the life of the party -- "speaking out when I would normally have kept quiet or laughing when I normally wouldn't." She had long felt pressure to be more assertive: "I thought that was what being a girl and a grown-up woman were all about." Her binges were sometimes accompanied by memory loss. Once, she woke up in bed, naked, with a boy she didn't know, and no memory of how she had gotten there.
Of his daughter's high school years, Robert Zailckas recalled: "After the incident when we took her to the emergency room, we thought we were keeping a diligent vigil. Hindsight is 20/20, but even now we feel we provided a great deal of supervision. Obviously we missed whatever indications were there."
Koren Zailckas said: "They gave me the benefit of the doubt. They had no reason not to. And there might have been some denial on their part."
"In college there was no hint of a problem," her father said. "She was always on the dean's list. We were in contact with her by phone, talking about her day and weekend. When we went to visit her, we would go out to dinner and we would have a glass of wine, but she would abstain."
She graduated with honors from Syracuse in 2002 and went to New York City to work in publishing. There was more heavy drinking, nights of vomiting, horrible hangovers, more outlandish behavior (she once broke up with a boyfriend over a public address system at a club), and more scary mornings with no memory of the night before. But she knew she wanted to stop, and began to write about her drinking in order to understand it and come to grips with it.
"When I thought of the awful experiences I had had over the years," she said, "alcohol was involved in all of them. I just thought, 'Enough of this. I want to stand on my own two feet and not rely on the crutch of alcohol, and figure out who I am and what I want."' She insists she was never an alcoholic, and did not have a genetic predisposition or a physiological dependency. In 2003, she made the decision: She quit completely.
Higher risks for women
New research, and notorious binge-drinking tragedies at MIT and elsewhere, indicate just how common Zailckas's experience is. But until now, few teenagers or their parents will have read such a chilling first-person account.
"We know that girls are starting younger than boys," said David Jernigan, research director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University, citing recent studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "When we look at eighth- and ninth-graders, girls are more likely than their male peers to be binge drinkers. . . . The CDC survey of ninth-graders found that 20.9 percent of girls reported binge drinking, 18.8 percent of boys."
The Georgetown group found that girls in early adolescence are exposed to more alcohol advertising in magazines than boys, especially for flavored malt beverages, sometimes called "alcopops," where the alcohol taste is masked by sweeteners.
"It is a real issue for women and girls," said Richard Yoast, director of the American Medical Association's Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, "and is more serious than for males because of girls' vulnerability to violence and rape. There is a mythology among adolescents, where girls want to drink like boys because they think it makes them more desirable." The AMA also cites higher risks for women, even drinking the same amount as men, including breast cancer, fetal alcohol syndrome, and damage to the heart, liver, and brain.
Zailckas did not drink to attract boys. "I was drinking to compensate for all those things I never knew how to do," she said, "to be comfortable in social situations, talk to boys I liked, or form lasting friendships with women, to feel confident."
Soon after she began writing, she sent a query letter, with a section about her experience of being hospitalized, to New York literary agent Erin Hosier. Hosier, who is 29, was blown away not only by the writing style but the content, which hit very close to her own experience, and that of her friends, in college and later on in New York.
"I think we were very aware that our own drinking had become notable," Hosier said. "There were lots of close calls and bad sex weekends and waking up in a fog, the kind of thing you take for granted in college, but it carries over." She worked with Zailckas to flesh out a book proposal, and Viking grabbed it, with a big enough advance for Zailckas to write full time for more than a year.
For Zailckas, writing down for others' eyes the gritty details of her drinking life was a daunting prospect. For one thing, it meant coming clean with her family. "I couldn't think about that," she said. "I had to sit down and write it and not think about who was going to read it, not show it to my boyfriend, or my parents, or even my editor at first."
She told her parents that she was writing the book, but they did not know the full story until they read the galley proofs last fall.
"I read it in one sitting, on Labor Day weekend," said her mother, "and I just grieved. It's a cautionary tale, not only for girls but for parents. We never would have thought she had an alcohol problem; we were observant and involved. I was a full-time volunteer and mother, and stayed home with my children." (They have another daughter, now in college.) Her father said: "The book had a profound effect on me. It took me a while to get over it. Now I am very proud of her and love her deeply."
Throwing away the crutch
Some researchers stress that self-driven change, such as Zailckas's, cannot be counted upon, that society needs to deal comprehensively with the complex of forces that encourage underage drinking.
"Everybody just looks at the drinkers," said Henry Wechsler, director of college alcohol studies at the Harvard School of Public Health and coauthor of "Dying to Drink," a book about college binge drinking. "But it takes a lot of people to raise this level of drinking. Parent attitudes, peer pressure, marketing of alcohol, the cheap prices all play a role. Just telling young people not to do it won't do. A comprehensive approach would involve parents, students, the schools, the whole community."
Zailckas hasn't had a drink in more than a year. She says she can be in situations where people are drinking, "and not feel that I'm jumping out of my skin to have a drink." She has had a serious boyfriend for two years, and says his support helped her to quit.
She had to let certain friends go and accept that she is not a naturally outgoing and assertive person. Throwing away the crutch was hard, she said, "in that I was thrown right back into the same shy, awkward feelings I felt when I was 14, and at the same time, all the horrible things I had said and done when I was drunk came flooding back to me. I have been thinking of these things for over a year, and the last thing I want is a drink."
On her upcoming book tour -- which includes a Feb. 22 stop at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University -- she expects to be asked by parents how to help their daughters avoid the frightening path she took.
"I would tell them to realize at what age these pressures start," she said. "Eleven or 12 is not too early to sit down with them and say, 'The pressure is going to be building. People you know will be drinking.' Tell them it's not a good idea to take that first drink. It's important for parents to realize what they are up against."
David Mehegan can be reached at Mehegan@globe.com.