Tracking Temperance: Student's memoir chronicles long, dark road to sobriety

by Sofya Levina / Beacon Staff • April 12, 2012

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Olivia James Moravec’s Behind a Watercolor Smile follows the student’s path to recovery through a series of journal entries. She hides nothing, pondering questions that have no answer.
Olivia James Moravec’s Behind a Watercolor Smile follows the student’s path to recovery through a series of journal entries. She hides nothing, pondering questions that have no answer.

It all began with Smirnoff Ice. The burning liquid scorched traces of regret as it worked its way down the esophagus, erasing memories one by one. While some may find brief stress relief inside a glass of Merlot, others find Shangri-La. Where does recreation end and addiction begin? 

Olivia James Moravec, a senior studying journalism and marketing communications, realized that addiction had taken over her life came on a not-so-sober morning, when trying to piece together the night before. The parts never fit, but she realized she was completely alone.

Behind a Watercolor Smile by Moravec is a deeply personal autobiography about managing alcoholism. While still settling into her new lifestyle as an Emerson College freshman, Moravec’s addiction had trapped her in a liquid hell. Trying to cover up the unforgettable darkness of her past with nights she will never remember took over Moravec’s life.  

The morning when she saw her loneliness in full, she was faced with a dichotomy: join Alcoholics Anonymous or fall into the anonymity of self-destruction. 

She chose the former. Her autobiography traces her journey to recovery as she struggles to cope with her desire to drink, to beat her fear of being alone, and to avoid the mistakes of her older sister who is both an alcoholic and avid drug user.

Moravec’s memoir is a collection of journal entries, each clearly labeled with the exact time they were written. Moving through the hours with her is like having the ability to read someone’s mind. Moravec takes the reader to the darkest crevices of her life: the smoky student apartments that overflow with liquor and Adderall, her home in Texas where she used to find relief in cutting herself, and even under her sheets where she yearned for her sex buddy to stay, but he always seemed to leave as easily as he came. It’s a book of secrets, and that makes it hard to put down.

Although the short sentences and repetition reflect Moravec’s bleak stream of consciousness during those  desperate months, the writing style becomes difficult to follow at times. Because this is such an acutely private story, Moravec often disconnects from her objective voice and delves into herself, leaving the reader hanging. She writes with such honesty and candor that it’s a little too personal for an impartial reader.

“I recall the recent weekends of screaming fits and outrageous behavior,” she writes. “What was I thinking? I am a mess of a person. Who wants to keep that around? Who wants to care about someone who will always let you down? Regret. Regret. Regret.” 

It’s easy to connect with Moravec — everyone has felt self-doubt — but the story persists with a tone of vacillation until the last few pages, which is, at times, exhausting. The audience should feel included, not cross-examined. Behind a Watercolor Smile gets lost in angst and asks the reader questions of desperation that they couldn’t possibly answer.

“What about me?”, “Why doesn’t he care about how I am?”, “Why? Why do I do these things to myself?” asks Moravec. 

There is no adequate reply to these inquiries. But at least Moravec has the valor to ask.