February 2011

Siobhan Neile Welch


Fury: A Memoir by Koren Zailckas

Koren Zailckas was 23 when she wrote the bestselling memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, a gritty look at teenage binge drinking noted by critics for its revelatory and poetic insight. But it was her stripped honesty and spot-on portrayal of college campus partying that resonated with readers and made it stand out in the already crowded niche of “alcoholic” memoirs. In her second book, Zailckas examines an issue rarely addressed head on -- anger. Fury: A Memoir explores the origins of her own anger as she leads us on her soul-searching journey to understand and accept her feelings and to, finally, make room for love in her life.

What began as a nonfiction project to examine American remedies for rage morphs into a personal account of the author’s own battle with anger, an emotion she imagines as “the man with dog’s teeth and a raven-black pompadour.” Left without the booze and blackouts to deal with, Zailckas discovers the underlying feelings she used to drink away are still there. She’s pissed. Early in the book, she calls herself a “cholerophobe,” someone who fears showing emotion, a “persistent state of vanilla-beige,” a dysfunction of her reserved Catholic upbringing. Another time she refers to herself as a victim of “nice lady syndrome.” Between tight-lipped parents and an attention-hungry kid sister, Zailckas never learned how to express her feelings. The irony that she became a memoirist isn’t lost on her.

Be clear, defenders of the novel: it’s not all rants and navel gazing. Fury is a love story, framed within a break up and a baby. The book opens with the author on a plane, flying back from Brighton after having broken up with her UK boyfriend, a singer for the punk band Brakesbrakesbrakes. She refers to him as “the Lark” because “he showed the bird’s talents for both singing and flight.”

While the final battle hardly seems monumental, a lovers' spat in the wee hours of the night, apparently it unleashes years of pent up rage because Zailckas hightails it back to the States to her parents house, of all places, where “curling into my childhood bed feels like regression” to mourn the loss of a relationship gone sour and to try to finish writing her book about, conveniently, anger.

So she did what would any self-medicating young writer would do when her heart’s broken, the pages aren’t coming and the bottle of vodka is ixnayed: Turn to the Orient. Zailckas dabbles in yoga and reads about Buddhism, ponders on quotes by Pema Chodron, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, and Rolf, her yoga teacher. She tries meditation and practices tonglen. However, the book’s funniest scenes are when she attends an anger management group, complete with a Feelings Chart and led by “Freud in Stuart Weitzman heels.”

At one point, Zailckas consults Alissa, a friend from Boulder who studies homeopathy, who sends her “emotional remedies” where she is to identify her emotions and then take an appropriately named tonic, a practice that while seems to work, seems oddly similar to cognitive behavioral therapy. Later she does visit a shrink when she sees “Alice” -- “Let’s call her ‘Alice,’ since I followed her down my depression’s rabbit hole.” (Incidentally, there’s an Oriental rug in Alice’s office.)

Somewhere in all the linguistic and historical research on anger and the introspective work to unearth her own repressed emotions, Zailckas has her eureka moment, the moment where she remembers she’s a memoir writer and not a social scientist: “The truth is, I hadn’t been fighting with the book; I’d been fighting against my anger. I’d been desperate to avoid it, and then equally eager to chalk up my avoidance to my gender, my nationality, any generalization that sounded plausible enough and took the focus off me.” This is where the book really takes off as she finds her voice, the heart, of her subject. In acknowledging her own anger, Zailckas is finally able to speak to the universal and examine Anger in all its powerful destructive glory.

Though remnants of the original book make stilted appearances throughout, sometimes seeming scattered or haphazard, as she cites sources ranging from Aristotle to Alice Miller to Thich Nhat Hanh, the research succeeds in offering a more textured perspective of the somewhat two-dimensional family drama narrative. “Even as a kid, their discomfort and panic in the face of anger (their own and others) have been obvious to me. In times of trouble, it had always been there in my father’s averted gaze and my mother’s narrowed eyes.”

Even if at times we’re not quite sure what’s so horrible about her family, we can certainly identify with her feelings of anger toward her sister and parents, especially during an especially emotional scene toward the end; after all, don’t most families, the author’s included, tend toward the dysfunctional?

Finally Zailckas finds peace as the love story closes in a happily ever after. She’s a likable narrator, dry humored but endearing, and we want her to do well. (We also want to see what would happen if she let loose a little.) In the end, I have to wonder though if it was truly love that saved her, or if friend Alissa of the homeopathic remedies hit closer to the truth: “These remedies will not dispel your emotions. They’ll bring about learning when you are ready for it.”

Fury: A Memoir by Koren Zailckas
ISBN: 0670022306
336 Pages