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'Desire' by Susan Cheever; 'Love Junkie' by Rachel Resnick
Though a youthful alcoholic or junkie can be seduced by the prospect of dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse, the middle-aged addict faces a different scenario. Any romance associated with his plight has flaked off beneath the grinding wheel of the habit itself, a mechanical and joyless set of behaviors. This path of excess has led to the palace of suicide, à la Hemingway, or the summer castle of the death of creativity, à la Faulkner. A brighter road was taken by Raymond Carver, whose beautiful work in the final, post-alcohol decade of his life is exemplified by the poem "Gravy."
Two new books give us a view into another sort of addiction from a middle-aged perspective. "Desire" by Susan Cheever (born in 1943) and "Love Junkie" by Rachel Resnick (born in 1963) are memoirs of sex addiction -- an obsessive behavior that does not age well, as Bill Clinton so memorably demonstrated.
What Resnick and Cheever have in common is that alliances with men played a role in their lives like we usually associate with alcohol and drugs. The bliss of falling in love and the ecstasy of sexual release lured them and locked them in as relentlessly as the euphoria of a shot of dope. And just as with dope, the well of sweetness dried up long before the compulsion was overcome. Resnick's story is shocking and scary, tracing a path of extreme degradation and destruction in the name of love. Cheever's tale is a milder one, though humiliating enough that her children asked that she not publish the book until they were "both away at college or living in other cities." (She complied.)
For readers who are not Cheever's children, it is hard to see any sort of disgrace here. "Nothing changes until the story changes," she writes, talking about how it is actually the narrative process that helps pry us from the grip of whatever has choked us. "Desire" gives an example of this process as Cheever ruefully re-examines the relationship she always believed was the love of her life, stopping along the way to get inspiration from the trailblazing work of writers such as Michael Ryan and bell hooks, as well as from Maggie Scarf, Helen Fisher and other experts. "Addiction makes love impossible," said hooks -- a particularly painful insight for a sex addict like Cheever.
Almost 10 years ago, Cheever published "Note Found in a Bottle: My Life as a Drinker," in which she interwove the story of her alcoholism with details of irresponsible romantic behavior that she then saw as resulting from it. She spent a week in the islands with a lover while her young child was ill, she told us; she slept with three men in one day. Over time, she has come to see these trespasses differently. She now believes that all addictions are one addiction, that you are addicted to the mood alteration rather than the substance or activity itself. That insight permeates this book, which is more a meditation on and summary of current thinking about addiction than a tell-all, in-your-face, tearing-off-of-the-sheets-on-a-sexual-obsession.
But if you'd prefer a tell-all, in-your-face, tearing-off-of-the-sheets with lots of sex, look no further than Resnick's "Love Junkie." Though I think the Cheever kids were overreacting, if Resnick had children, they'd be justified in feeling squeamish about their mother's book. The vivid, meticulous and pornographic detail she provides on her relationships with a series of beautiful and not-so-beautiful losers, including luminous descriptions of burn scars and penis shapes, was a little hard to take. The texts of crazy, romantic e-mails, though presented with self-awareness and humor, were sometimes embarrassing.
I want to say "even for me" -- myself a memoirist who has undertaken a different sort of literary self-excoriation and has sometimes received a similar Too Much Information reaction. But perhaps I should say, "especially for me." Perhaps the reaction I had to "Love Junkie" was less about prudish discomfort with Thai prostitutes and fresh turtle-blood cocktails than about self-recognition.
Two nights after I read Resnick's book, a book that brimmed with self-exposure and shame, I dreamed I was doing a reading from one of my own works in a department store -- retailing my confessions, as it were. My late mother came up and interrupted me. "Who asked you?" she said angrily.
That is the doubt that percolates at the heart of this project, seemingly the pet project of a whole generation of baby-boomer writers. As our dysfunctional lives and vexed recoveries inspire ever-vaster literature of self-examination, the question only becomes more pointed: Who asked us?
I believe the answer is: a lot of people. A lot of people are dealing with lives they have messed up, are still messing up or have finally stopped messing up due to addiction and obsession. Cheever quotes a study that found that "between 2002 and 2005 the rate of illegal drug use among adults ages 50 to 59 almost doubled. White middle-aged Americans are the nation's fastest-growing population of abusers." Or as that old alky Faulkner said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."
How did this happen to us? Why isn't it ending? What can we do about it? The answer is not simple or single, but again, as Cheever says, "Nothing changes until the story changes." So the femme fatale becomes a sex addict; the glamorous bohemian, a garden-variety junkie. The story is not See How Cool I Was -- it's See How Stupid I Was: This is how bad I got hurt. This is how I made it stop. Susan Cheever's thoughtful consideration and Rachel Resnick's raw storytelling are important additions to the group project of our messed-up generation, the retelling of our story. Though Cheever says she wishes she could have read her own book 30 years ago, perhaps it is information we could not comprehend until now.
Marion Winik is the author of "First Comes Love" and, most recently, "The Glen Rock Book of the Dead."