The Big, Drunk Elephant In The Room (What “This American Life” Missed In Their Report on College Drinking)

It’s weird to think I was only 18 years old when my uncle made a nod to the elephant in the room.

“Kyle!” he said, turning to head downstairs to make a beer run. “What are you having?”

I really had no idea what to say.  Not only was I no beer connoisseur at the time, I had no idea what my family would say.

It was my first Thanksgiving with the family after starting college.  I was at my grandparents’ house with my parents and brothers, and my aunt and uncle and their younger kids.  First semester of freshman year at Mizzou, I hadn’t done a lot of drinking and certainly no heavy drinking — just enough to know what feeling buzzed was like.  My group of friends wasn’t (and still really isn’t) interested in getting fall-down drunk as a form of entertainment.  But how I would behave around the family was going to be an issue — that is, until Uncle Dan nipped it in the bud.

My grandpa suggested a Pilsner Urquell (“It’s a Czech beer,” my Grandpa told me. “You know German beer? Well, the Germans say the best beer is Czech beer”), my uncle got me one, he popped open the bottle, and I sipped at it casually after Thanksgiving dinner. I can still remember the beer, it tasted awful.  My uncle had forced the issue, and I know my grandpa and parents didn’t care. My grandma and aunt didn’t say anything to me, but they were not happy with it, and I could tell.

But I’m so grateful that my uncle acknowledged the elephant in the room, because since then, my drinking has never been a real issue in my family:  My grandparents offer me wine every time I come over for dinner — we’ve even gone out to a fancy sit-down restaurant and ordered wine pairings.  My parents and I will go to social functions with family friends and drink together.  And even when I’m at school, I have no shame about telling my parents and family about my drunken escapades, and I use the terms “drunken” and “escapades” liberally here.

My drinking is nothing compared to the college culture depicted in a December 2009 episode of This American Life at Penn State, where furniture gets thrown out of frat house windows and set on fire, and drunk girls can tell you their favorite spots to pee in public.  The fact is, for my group of friends, drinking is a relatively esoteric and — dare I say — boring pastime.  We’ve thrown a party or two in our off-campus house, but most of the time, drinking is a sideshow at our social events, not the primary focus.  We don’t drink Natty or PBR, we’re snobby drinkers (It’s Summit, Leinie’s, or Boulevard Wheat at our house, thank you very much).

But even under this, I worry that there are some things that this particular TAL episode misses or just gets wrong:

(1) American society has gotten really bad at the teen alcohol thing.  TIME did a write-up on this about a year ago.  The author raises the example of Southern European countries which speak Romance languages.  Kids in those countries can buy alcohol at a much earlier age, but the consumption of alcohol often happens much more often under parental supervision.  The article cites a study from the University of North Carolina, which basically found that the Southern European approach works — it has a “protective effect” on underage drinking rates.  Yet despite the fact that Southern European teens get about as drunk as American teens, Americans have generally higher rates of alcohol dependency later in life.

(2) Alternatives to college drinking are much more frightening.  Imagine if someone waved a magic wand, and the same percentage of college kids who drank alcohol switched over to hard drugs — cocaine, heroin, meth.  Not only are these drugs much more life-threatening over time, but their negative side effects are much harder to mitigate and integrate into social settings.  Drinking isn’t harmless, but it’s comparatively less harmless.

(3) The episode is written from the perspective of townies!  The This American Life episode opens with a scene of Ira Glass and one of the producers of the show sitting on a porch of an off-campus residence at Penn State, watching drunk kids float by in their obnoxious, drunken haze.  Of course, from the perspective of a non-college student, this is a nuisance, and of course, college kids are terrible at keeping their drunken escapades separate from public life in a college town.  This perspective seemingly blinds the producers to seeing college drinking as anything but a nuisance.  Even the episode’s “big-picture” look at college drinking (the segment which considers major university efforts to curb teen drinking) doesn’t consider college drinking as a larger societal issue, but a narrowly-focused effort to end teen deaths from drinking — a narrow problem in itself.

I’m going to stop going on at length about this, but I have to end up with the big elephant in the room again.  The big elephant in the room at my family Thanksgiving doesn’t have to exist.  But in some ways, it still does — my high school brother has expressed his disapproval of my drinking (which I think is probably healthy for someone at his age), and my younger cousins don’t quite understand why their and my parents and grandparents allow me to drink socially with the rest of the family though I’m still underage.  It’s a cultural issue — or problem? — that we need to address head-on — we ought to address the real value of minimum drinking ages and criminal sanctions against underage drinking:  Is it really a problem that I drink socially, with my college friends or with my family?

My ultimate fear is that This American Life has opted to find the stereotypical drunk girl in her mini-skirt, bouncing between frat parties, fueled by booze — an easy picture to paint, and journalistically, it’s an easy story to tell, because the subject is easy to find — instead of really addressing the elephant in the room, and dealing with the larger social issues.

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