Love Is the Drug: Memoirs of Sexual Addiction

Discussed in this review:
Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction by Susan Cheever
Love Junkie: A Memoir by Rachel Resnick

Last August, in a remarkable example of art imitating sex life, it was revealed that David Duchovny -- who stars as a randy writer on Showtime's Californication -- had checked into rehab for sex addiction. The former Fox Mulder's disclosure opened up a psychological X-file: is "sex addiction" modern pop-psych folklore, complete with a handy excuse for caddishness? Or is it for real?

Two authors with new books on the topic would say that compulsive sex is very real indeed, potentially as destructive as any other serious addiction. In fact, they can tell you from experience.

Eight years ago, In Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker, the prolific Susan Cheever (daughter of the equally prolific John) outed herself as an alcoholic, blaming her addiction -- something of a family tradition -- for her promiscuity. Now, in Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, a meditation laced with bits of boudoir memoir, Cheever wonders if that diagnosis was backwards, or at least incomplete.

"Addicts are not addicted to substances; addicts are addicted to the feelings they get from their substances, and if they are denied a substance and they can get that feeling from another substance, they will," she writes in Desire. In her case, these illicit "substances" are married men, moving guys, her mother's oncologist. Cheever, it should be noted, is not exactly thumping her chest about these exploits. "This," she confesses, "is the book I wish I had read thirty years ago."

Through personal anecdotes and interviews with professionals, Cheever explores the overlaps and distinctions among compulsive sex and other addictions, along with its possible causes -- genes? trauma? societal alienation? a thoroughly miserable, critical, alcoholic father tormented by his own sexual desires? -- and potential remedies.

While Cheever argues convincingly about what most addictions have in common -- obsession, broken promises, self-blame -- she falters in her case for what sets sex addiction apart. Addiction to "other people," she writes, "is the only addiction that is applauded and embraced." Really? In this day and age, are we that likely to high-five the players (and only the players)? To be sure, we are more likely to make excuses for Mad Men's Don Draper than for the crack addict on the subway. But Paul Giamatti's obvious alcoholism in Sideways was played for slapstick yuks; Duchovny's revelation earned him snickers at best; and whatever former governor Eliot Spitzer and former senator John Edwards went down in, it could not be mistaken for a blaze of glory. To further bolster her assertion, Cheever throws in this whopper: "Most parents are delighted to find that their child has had many romantic partners." Again: really? (Perhaps she means " 'most parents' currently being investigated by Children's Services.")

To be fair, the measure of a book's quality is not whether the reader agrees wholeheartedly with its contents. But there's a bigger issue here. Cheever's assertions lack heft because Desire, rather than powerfully combining memoir with research, slips into a narrative vacuum between the two. She offers neither enough personal insight nor analytical chops to establish commanding authority over the topic at hand -- or, really, a cogent read at all. Cheever, let's just say, does not suffer from the compulsion to outline. Any fleeting moments of wisdom are adrift in meandering arguments and bland, inexpert prose. Most descriptive detail -- in a book about unquenchable desire! -- goes something like this: "We have both helped ourselves to salads and are eating propped against a huge ceramic planter seated on green-and-white striped cushions."

At one point, during a mutual affair, Cheever's eventual third husband reads a draft of an article she's written for Newsweek, bellows, "You can't turn this in," and ushers her back to work at midnight, standing over her typewriter while guiding her firm-handedly through a massive rewrite. "This somehow felt more intimate than sex," Cheever recalls. One wishes they'd do it more often.

There is plenty of sex in Rachel Resnick's memoir, Love Junkie. It's true intimacy -- to say nothing of actual love -- that's sadly, searingly, lacking. Resnick's bleak childhood rivals the addiction-gothic of Mary Karr. Her ineffectual father, who leaves when she's four, exhibits a sexual attraction to her -- too vague for him ever to act on but clear enough to freak out his second wife. School-age Rachel, protesting that she has homework to do, doodles in bars while her sour, selfish mother drinks and swats her away until settling on that night's thuggish quarry. The three head home to Resnick's even younger brother, who's been left there alone to fend for himself.

Any doubt as to where Resnick gets her addiction? Nature, nurture: whichever. When she confesses her crush to a neighborhood boy, he punches her in the stomach. "Don't you ever come near me again," he hisses. Her reaction, as she recalls it: "The passion in his voice, the intensity, makes me tremble; this boy has feelings for me!" she writes. "Looking back, this was the first time I had a crush where I was able to knit love and pain together in a way I knew so well from my family?even now, I sometimes think about that cruel boy with the long eyelashes and the stars he made me see."

Resnick doesn't just think about that boy; in a manner of speaking, she dates him, has sex with him, falls for him, lets him go, and takes him back, over and over, on into her 40s. But -- though her pattern is unchanging till the end and her men are unrepentant scumbags -- Resnick never asks the reader to sit supportively by like a friend forced to watch, helpless and sickened, while she blindly self-destructs.

That's because Resnick the writer, even after a relatively short time in treatment, has the twin gifts of wise hindsight and wry irony. Combined, they allow her to tell a tale both grim and enlightened, free of the leaden boilerplate of recovery. Given the level of sordid, vivid drama, one is left to wonder exactly who these guys were, and especially given their tempers, how they feel about their names being used in the book -- or whether those (and other?) details are 100 percent accurate in the first place. But even if unacknowledged liberties were taken, so is Resnick's point: yes, this compulsion is real, and yes, its sufferers can heal. None would call her book a "fun" read, but unlike Cheever's -- and unlike sex addiction itself -- it is entirely satisfying.

April 24: "[The HST] lifted a curtain from our view of the universe, changing it so profoundly that no human can look at the stars in the same way..."

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