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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

By Heather King
Penguin Group, 276 pages, $19.95
Getting to grace from all the wrong places


In Parched: A Memoir, Heather King comes clean about her years as an alcoholic and discovers that she was thirsty not for gimlets but for God. Ms. King recalls seven years of college, a hitchhiking trip through America, “a love life of unmitigated disaster,” law school, and numerous run-down apartments and stints as a waitress. At various points during these adventures, Ms. King has one-night stands, lies, steals from stores, and of course drinks a lot -- on the job, before interviews, during family gatherings, and so on.

Growing up in a large working-class family in New England, the author explains she was starved for attention, fraught with anxiety and haunted by guilt, insecurity, restlessness and, like most alcoholics, a sense of worthlessness. On the flip side, she also conjures evidence for her deeply spiritual and reflective nature -- trips to her grandparents’ house on the New Hampshire seacoast where she would “daydream and snoop”; a love of fiction, poetry and film; and eventually (though it took her far too long to do it for fear of failure), writing.

Additionally, Ms. King’s community throughout her drinking years consisted of people who tutored her in the ways of life outside of drinking and, whether they were religious or not, the ways of Christian life. Her best friend, Terry, exhibited patience and generosity toward Heather, reading her poetry in bed when she was hung over and inviting her to move in when she was evicted. There were acquaintances from work or the many dive bars she frequented who demonstrated hospitality, perseverance and compassion. And there was her family, her parents and siblings, who showed unconditional love and helped Heather choose life over death.

Despite such connections, Ms. King craved something more, something summarized by her literary heroine Flannery O’Connor, who believed that “we resist grace because it means change and the change is painful.” Ms. King relates how she eventually exchanged her habits of destruction for a more meaningful life: After she got and stayed sober, she went to Los Angeles, converted to Catholicism and developed a successful career with National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” where she writes frequently about spiritual matters and her bout with breast cancer. Unfortunately, the details of the city and the religion that have helped her succeed as a writer don’t make it into the book, nor do the reasons why she chose to write Parched at this particular time.

Though her memories are imbued with a holy longing for something sacred, Ms. King’s book could benefit from more reflection on her life as it is now and fewer descriptions of drunken debacles. On the other hand, her redemption from the evils of alcohol is all the more poignant in the midst of such sin and suffering. It gives us all hope for embracing grace.

Arlene Helderman has a master’s in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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