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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Book Review

DESIRE: Where Sex Meets Addiction by Susan Cheever,
Simon & Schuster, 2008, 172 pp.,
ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-3792-2,
ISBN-10: 1-4165-3792-9
Charlie Dickinson

In a biography of her late father, short-story writer and novelist John Cheever, HOME AFTER DARK (1984), author Susan Cheever wrote her father's life was not only complicated by well-known alcoholism, but gently revealed his little-known bisexuality.

As if the "sins of the father ..." Cheever followed that biography with a memoir NOTE FOUND IN A BOTTLE (1999) that chronicled her personal addiction and recovery from alcoholism. This latest memoir DESIRE is yet another addition to the literature of personal disaster, exploring the dark corner of human experience that is sexual addiction.

In DESIRE Cheever freely admits she was a slave to the dopamine high (which brain scans don't show as essentially different from a drug-induced high) coincident with "falling in love" with new sex partners. Sexual addiction means the substance abused is other people. Interwoven with personal experience are interviews and extensive research from experts who study this relatively newly identified addictive behavior.

Cheever also published a well-regarded biography of Bill Wilson, founder of the AA Twelve-Step Program, which gives her chronicles of sexual addiction and its theoretical frame a voice that is both knowing and cogent.

Unlike some other addictions, the compulsion for the sex high is easily misunderstood. Cheever points out numerous celebrities check into rehab centers for alcohol or substance abuse. Who would, however, take notable politicians seriously were they to check into rehab because of their call-girl habits? That would only be worth laughs with late-night TV comedians. Moreover, the very nature of serial sex leads to a secrecy that defies detection and evades treatment. Add to the general ambiguity about this addiction that "falling in love" is considered good, that it's not an illegal substance, and that it is something almost everyone has at one time yearned for.

Still, addiction is addiction. Cheever takes the reader on a tour of what happens when life becomes unbalanced by wanting and wanting more of the same from one sex partner after another. How eventually the compulsion takes over, how cues trigger the trance state, and with whom the sex addict doesn't seemingly consciously choose anymore--the body just demands.

Scientists have actually identified the hormone in our bloodstream that appears once we are infatuated. Of course, its effects--as they must--eventually wear off. In a moving paragraph, Cheever capsulizes why she wrote this book:
"Falling in love is a wonderful, addictive, obsessive experience that usually lasts less than twenty months; the cases in which it leads to a happy, long marriage are often coincidental. When you fall in love, you should enjoy it for what it is--a brilliant rollercoaster ride, a dazzling sexual interlude, one of life's great experiences; you should not get married and have children, not until later when the addiction has passed and the person with whom you have fallen in love is revealed as a human being. I believe that if one or two people's lives were changed by the understanding of sexual behavior that I describe, this book would be worth writing. This is the book I wish I had read thirty years ago."

Read DESIRE: Where Sex Meets Addiction for a candid accounting of earned wisdom by an outstanding writer of the personal memoir. Ms. Cheever's examined life offers many insights into a topic too often lightly regarded, and yet the source of much personal tragedy and bad life choices.

© Charlie Dickinson March 2009

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