One Woman's Quest

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
Writer Caroline Knapp, whose grace, wit, and uncompromising honesty infused two best-selling books and scores of columns and articles for the Boston Phoenix, died June 3, at age forty-two. She had been diagnosed in mid-April with lung cancer.

In reporting her death, obituary writers tended to characterize her work as ruthless: "ruthlessly honest" or "ruthlessly self-revelatory." Although Knapp was painfully shy and was terrified of public speaking, behind a keyboard she did speak with alarming candor. But she was also a stickler for accuracy, and as an editor she might well have sent her obituary writers back to Webster, pointing out that the adjective ruthless means without remorse or compassion. Remorse was something she had in spades. Compassion was another. In her hands they were powerful fuel.

After graduating from Brown magna cum laude, Knapp wrote for the Providence Eagle and the (now defunct) Boston Business Magazine, but it was as a writer and editor for the Phoenix, where she worked from 1988 to 1995, that she found her voice. In "Out There," a weekly column she continued to write until 1999, she parodied the conventions of lifestyle reporting, inventing an endearingly (or annoyingly, depending on your perspective) neurotic alter ego, Alice K., who was paralyzed by indecision. Each column began: "Alice K. (not her real initial) lies in bed, writhing in anxiety " Perpetually prone, Alice K. fretted about her spending habits, her wardrobe, her bad boyfriends - Mr. Cruel, Mr. Danger (Jack S.), and the politically correct vegetarian Dick Head "(not his real pseudonym)." Then there was Elliot M., about whom Alice K. was endlessly and obsessively ambivalent - until he wanted to date other women. Caroline wove those columns into her first book, Alice K.'s Guide to Life: One Woman's Quest for Survival, Sanity, and the Perfect New Shoes (Plume/Penguin, 1994), a work that anticipated the allure of both Bridget Jones's Diary and Sex and the City.

In more pensive columns and in an award-winning article on anorexia, Knapp battled her own demons, as well as those of American culture at large, and publicly grieved the deaths of her parents, both to cancer, in the early 1990s. It was this reflective impulse that fueled Drinking: A Love Story, a painstaking account of her addiction to alcohol (she characterized it as a bad love affair) and her recovery. In the book Knapp described herself as a "high-functioning" alcoholic. Indeed, drinking never interfered with her work; a perfectionist, she never missed a deadline, and before checking into rehab, she finished editing her section of the Phoenix in advance and told colleagues she was going on vacation. Drinking's toll, for Knapp, was personal: it gave her the illusion of armor, while robbing her of intimacy.

Drinking: A Love Story was both a critical and popular success. It made the New York Times best-seller lists in both hardcover and paperback editions, was translated into more than a dozen languages, and is regarded as a seminal work on women and alcoholism. Her agent, Colleen Mohyde, said that even at the end of Knapp's life she regularly received letters from readers thanking her for helping them achieve sobriety.

A year and a half to the day after quitting drinking, Caroline adopted a dog, Lucille, a petite German shepherd mix who had her owner's soulful gaze, reserved manner, and zany sense of humor. The two became instantly inseparable - regular denizens of the streets and parks of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they lived - and the relationship sparked the 1998 book Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between Dogs and Humans (Dial). It, too, made the New York Times best-seller list. Just before her diagnosis with cancer, Knapp had completed a fourth book, on women's appetites - for food, alcohol, and, in Alice K. tradition, new shoes.

In May, Knapp shed the last vestiges of Alice K.'s ambivalence, marrying her dear friend and longtime companion, photographer Mark Morelli. He survives her, as do her twin sister, Rebecca '81, 7 Henry St., West Boylston, Mass. 01583; brother Andrew '79 and his wife, Debra '79, 23 Linden St., Salem, Mass. 01970; half-brother Peter; half-sister Penelope; and Lucille, who now lives in Chelsea, Massachusetts, with her father, Morelli.

- Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78

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September / October 2002