Nothing charming about drunkenness

Column by Michael Alcorn
Posted 1/14/20

There was a joke that me and several of my college buddies used to enjoy about sneaking adult beverages into our final exams. See, sometime in the late ‘80s, a study came out that seemed to …

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Nothing charming about drunkenness


There was a joke that me and several of my college buddies used to enjoy about sneaking adult beverages into our final exams. See, sometime in the late ‘80s, a study came out that seemed to demonstrate that whatever state of mind you were in when you were studying was the state of mind you should be in when you took the test. Thus, if you had a few adult beverages while studying, then you needed to have a few during the test. I actually never put that theory to the test (and no, I’m not just saying that because my mom reads my columns), but, a couple friends did.

Let’s just say the study was … flawed.

Alcohol was funnier 30 years ago. It shouldn’t have been, but Otis the town drunk in Mayberry and Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” were both harmless, almost charming characters. These days, we know better.

This point was brought home to me in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest brilliant effort, “Talking to Strangers.” The book is an easy-to-read series of extended anecdotes that leaves the reader deeply troubled about the assumptions we make about others. And, no, I’m not talking about prejudice — this is about our ability to make accurate judgments about others.

Gladwell devotes one of his chapters to the story of Brock Turner, which should be required reading for college kids. Some of you may remember that name: Turner was a student at Stanford University. One night, Turner went to a party; he drank … a lot; he met a girl at the party; she had been drinking … a lot; they danced and kissed and touched at the party; then they started to walk home. At least, that’s the official story told in court. After that, things went off the rails. According to Turner, she lost her balance, he tried to catch her and she pulled him down; they resumed their sexual touching (yeah, outside, on campus); then two grad students came by, asked what was going on, Turner tried to run. End of story. Turner was convicted of sexual assault.

Except that’s not the story, or at least, not all of it. In the initial police interviews after the incident, Turner remembered none of what happened; the girl, it turns out, remembered none of what happened. She might have said yes, she might have said no — they both might have been too incoherent to form the words “yes” and “no.” She had no idea what happened in the field. Her alcohol intake that night was four shots of whiskey and a glass of champagne—in a 45-minute time frame — before the party, and then another three-ish shots of vodka at the party (she slammed a red solo cup). Her Blood Alcohol Content was .249 — three times the legal limit — and his was .171, more than twice the legal limit.

This is not in any way a defense of Turner, or an indictment of the girl—the VICTIM. The thing Gladwell points out is that alcohol consumption of that degree physically alters the brain, particularly in adolescents (which is great, considering the party culture that exists in our youth). At about .15 BAC, a region of the brain called the amygdala literally shuts down. The amygdala is responsible for organizing experiences in the brain to form short-term memories. At the same time, the brain develops myopia, which causes it to focus on only what is immediately in front of it, forgetting all about important things like honor, chivalry, restraint — y’know, the things that make people better. Alcohol actually changes a person’s personality; the idea that “I would never do such a thing” no longer applies.

We know that drinking and driving is dangerous. What we have to understand is that drinking and socializing is also dangerous. There is no such thing as “safe” drunkenness.

Not even in the shelter of a dorm room, studying General Relativity.

Michael Alcorn is a teacher and writer who lives in Arvada with his wife and three children. His new novel, “Charon’s Blade,” is available at, on Kindle, or through” His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.


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