I've always seen sex as a solution --- a reward for getting through the day.
Sex as a problem? As addiction and obsession? And for Susan Cheever, daughter of the great short story writer and novelist, John Cheever?
I have known Susan Cheever - not well, but just enough to like her and be glad to see her --- for almost thirty years. We met when I was writing a New York Times Magazine profile of her father. I loved those stories, and, because I was young and naive, I did not grasp that the man who wrote them might also have invented himself. My John Cheever was a recovering alcoholic who lived in the country with a classy wife, dogs, wood fires --- the whole country squire bit.
What I did not know about John Cheever --- and what he very much feared I did --- was that he was bi-sexual, probably leaning more toward gay. Had I known this, I would never have written it, nor would the Times have published it. This was 1979, when gays were beautiful young men in discos.
Secrets run in families. Susan Cheever struck me as a talented young writer; like any number of children of the famous and troubled, she seemed to want nothing more than to do her work and have a quiet life. It seemed absolutely right that she would write a biography of Bill Wilson, the father of Alcoholics Anonymous, the program that saved her father. And I'd admire anyone who could write a book called American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.
So it was quite a surprise to open Desire and discover this was more than a smart, third-person exploration of sexual addiction. It's also a first-person account of four decades of personal trouble. Susan Cheever's parents had told her she was unattractive and would have a hard time finding a husband. She found three --- and countless lovers. “Whenever there was a crisis,” she writes, “I found a man to help me take the edge off the feelings of helplessness and pain.”
But if you're looking for a lurid tale of hotel rooms and low times, you'll be disappointed by this brief --- 169-page --- book. Cheever's problem is a launch-point, not an opportunity to bleed on paper. Right at the beginning, she states her goal:
This is a book that explores the boundaries between the kind of love on which a life can be built, and the passionate kind of love that is an addiction.... The most familiar addictions in the world we live in are addictions to alcohol and drugs. Unlike those addictions, the addictions which use people as a substance are often hidden behind our ideas about love.
Addiction to people, she notes, is not like other addictions. No one praises addiction to alcohol and drugs --- but who says love is a bad thing? Especially falling in love, when the world seems fresh and life looks thrilling. But at the end of the day, she says, we must ask ourselves: Is addiction to “love” really different from the chemical addictions?
Cheever has read a lot, and she has the great journalist's ability to find the right quote and telling statistic. In these pages, you'll learn that a study found that “more than half of cocaine users had sexual compulsion problems.” That men who abuse substances and women who starve themselves just might have the same addiction. And that Bill Wilson, founder of AA, wasn't free from addictions after he stopped drinking; he was a philanderer.
In form, this book may seem to veer from memoir to academia. The through-line? It's all fascinating. And provocative. It helps that Cheever is a sharp, colorful writer: “Adultery is the drunk driving of sex addiction.” And that she has a clear take on the dimensions of the problem: “Many addictions primarily cause pain to the addict. Sex addiction causes a huge amount of collateral damage. In fact, collateral damage sometimes seems to be its primary result.”
What makes “Desire” important even for readers who don't think sex addiction is their issue is that it expands it focus to include all addiction. See if this idea resonates. It's from Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker and essayist: “He who makes a beast of himself at least rids himself of the pain of being a man.” Yes, and also the pain of being a woman.
To buy “Desire” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson -- His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous” from Amazon.com, click here.