An interview with local author Benoit Denizet-Lewis about his first book, "America Anonymous"

Benoit Denizet-Lewis | America Anonymous: 8 Addicts in Search of a Life | Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline | January 7th @7PM | 617-566-6660

In the 8 or so years Jamaica Plain's Benoit Denizet-Lewis has been writing for the NY Times Magazine, his cover stories have included "The War on Frat Culture, And why maybe that's not so totally great, dude," "Whatever Happened to Teen Romance (And What is a Friend with Benefits Anyway?)," and "Living (and Dying) on the Down Low." But my favorite of his pieces has always been "About a Boy Who Isn't," an extraordinarily personal glimpse into the world of a young girl living as a boy in California. Rife with such revealing bits as the intimacies of his subject's tricky relationship with his girlfriend as well as a heartbreaking conversation captured at the kitchen table about sex reassignment surgery ("Why would you want to take away what God gave you?" his mother asks at one point?), it was as if he'd been living with the boy and his family for years as a trusted friend. Really, though, it was just an example of feature writing at its best.

Denizet-Lewis has gathered together a collection of these freelance pieces into a book he is calling American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life which is due to be released by Simon & Schuster at the end of 2009. In the meantime, the publishing house will also be releasing another book authored by the Times contributor. America Anonymous, his first book release, finds Lewis doing what he does best, but this time on a subject close to his heart: addiction. For three years, Denizet-Lewis, a self-professed sex addict, took down the stories of 8 men and women with varying addictions spread out all over the country -- including a bisexual bodybuilder (steroids), a grandmother (crack), and 2 poor souls from Boston, college-aged Sean (sex) and the thirty-four-year-old Bobby (heroin). He did this, mind you, while battling his own demons: at the time of his writing the book, he was in recovery, himself. Below is our interview with Denizet-Lewis about his fantastic first book.

Tell me how you got the idea for the book. I started researching this book in 2004. And I had started recovery from my sex addiction in 2002. So this was a subject that interested me. And I looked around about what had been written about addiction. There were memoirs and there were a lot of books focusing on drugs and alcohol. There were scientific books but there hasn't really been a book that looks at various kinds of addictions.

And as I started looking into this, I learned that addiction is our costliest public health problem by far and it has like staggering consequences for our healthcare system and our criminal justice system. But we don't treat it like it is our biggest public health problem. Like we're much more comfortable talking about the consequences of addiction. So we'll talk about skyrocketing healthcare costs, we'll talk about poverty. Broken families. Crime. The reality is that untreated addiction triggers or exacerbates all of those. But unless a celebrity goes to rehab or Oprah decides she's going to talk about it. We really don't talk about addiction in any kind of sophisticated, intelligent, nuanced, empathetic way.
Why do you think that is? There's a couple reasons. First is we can't even agree on what we're talking about. The American Medical Association first called alcoholism a disease back in 1956. More than fifty years later there's still a lot of people in this country who don't buy the disease concept. They're even less likely to buy it when you start talking about sex addiction and compulsive overeating and behaviors like that. Even though the science on those is telling us that these are really starting to look like actual addictions.

And then the other reason we don't talk about addiction very much in this country is that the millions of Americans in long term recovery are talking to each other in church basements at their Twelve-Step meetings. If you compare it to other illnesses. If you look at HIV/AIDS, if you look at various forms of cancer, like breast cancer, things that at times were very stigmatized (and HIV/AIDS is still stigmatized, obviously) and you ask "well how did things begin to change?" Well it began to change when people who had or have the illness come out of the closet and say "you know what, I have this illness. It doesn't make me a bad person. We need to study this. Let's start by figuring out what's going on. Let's get rid of the stigma and the shame." And that hasn’t yet happened for addiction because people who have really changed their lives aren't really out there talking about it. I really wanted to do a book that would touch on these subjects but do it through a narrative way where I was telling the stories of different kinds of Americans struggling with different addictions.

Was there any point where you entertained the idea of writing a memoir? Something like what Susan Cheever, another sex addicted writer, did recently with her book Desire: Sex Meets Addiction? I don't think when I was writing this I was ready to write a memoir about my sex addiction. I wrote about my sex addiction pretty much to the extent that I wanted to write about it. I give Rachel Resnick who wrote Love Junkie, and Susan Cheever all the credit in the world for putting it all out there. But I didn't want to make the book about me. I wanted to make the book about other people. I think my strength is writing about other people. And I do write about myself in the introduction. I write about myself in the conclusion and you know I pop in throughout the book.
How did you find these subjects of yours? It's got to be a challenge finding subjects anytime you are writing about addiction. Yeah but I'm always surprised. I mean if you look at the show, Intervention. I mean they're finding people willing to let them shoot up in front of them. It's actually not that difficult. Because people are interested in having interest in them. For several of the people I followed, there was also a real sense of "well I can help other people by allowing this writer to pop into my life and follow me for three years." I found most of them through addiction counselors and treatment centers. Sean the sex addict I knew from Boston, and the bisexual bodybuilder Todd was a friend of a friend of mine.
Why did you opt to interview such a diverse collection of addicts for the book? From my own experience there’s no doubt in my mind that for me sex is an addiction. There’s just no doubt. It has affected my life. And I had the same sort of unhealthy relationship to it that a drug addict has to drugs or an alcoholic has to alcohol. So I came from the perspective that behaviors like compulsive overeating, sex addiction, gambling, perhaps for some people, shoplifting, can be just as addictive as addictions to drugs or alcohol. And that sort of used to be more of a radical theory but it's not anymore. There were a lot of scientists who used to laugh it up as an example of how we’re addicted in this country to calling everything an addiction. And we may be. We throw the word "addiction" around a lot...But I wanted to write about a variety of addictions because I think we are addicted to a variety of things. It's really whatever works best to numb us out or to squash whatever feelings, whatever pain we're feeling, whatever discomfort. There's a lot of things that we can use. 

 I'm curious about the presence of Sean, the sex addict. Did you feel a bond with him because you share the same addiction?
He's the one who I spent the most time with because he was in Boston for most of it. The people I wrote about were from all around the country. So I did a lot of traveling for this book obviously--but he was in Boston. And I obviously have a bond...we have the same addiction. He would oftentimes, if he was doing well, and I wasn't, turn the table and ask me how I was doing. That happened with all the people I wrote about where it wasn't just a one way thing. They were interested in my recovery. It was funny, you know, Bobby from Southie couldn't wrap his head around the idea that anyone would choose sex over drugs. He just couldn't understand that. And for me I can't understand why anyone would choose drugs over sex. If I'm gonna zone out, my addiction of choice is sex and love.

In the book, you maintain a very delicate approach to your subjects, you for the most part do not interfere with addictive behavior, and at times you seem to wrestle with this. How hard was it to keep your composure? It's actually not all that hard. That's something that I'm used to doing. I do that with my NY Times Magazine pieces. I've always written a lot about subcultures in this country. I've spent a lot of time hanging out with people who were doing unusual things. That said, I am human and there are times when I wished I could shake them and say "what are you doing?" So it's a little bit of a balancing act. I felt it with Kate the shoplifter when she was not really willing to look at her childhood abuse. She was sexually molested for years growing up. She didn't want to look at that. And I kept saying "I think you need to look at this." So I would do that occasionally. But for the most part, I would just let people be where they are.
Which person/persons did you find yourself worrying about the most while pursuing interviews for the book? Well two people who struggled the most were Bobby from Southie and Todd the bisexual bodybuilder. Bobby would disappear for 6 months at a time on a bender. That was frustrating. I would go walk around Southie and look for him and was never able to find him. I spent a lot of time walking around thinking maybe I'll bump into him here. And that was challenging because I never knew what was gonna happen. Would I ever see him again? Was he gonna die? And he always resurfaced in the end. But that was pretty stressful.
With Todd, it was frustrating because he was in denial about lot of things. But I certainly related to that. That just sort of comes with it and trying to deny that things aren't as bad as they are. That today is going to be the day that things are going to change. And if we just try enough, push ourselves enough and then you know by four o'clock we're back in whatever our addictive behaviors are. So I definitely related to their struggles and I had compassion for them. There was no judgment. Again as I write about in the book, I had a relapse during this book. So it wasn't hard for me to relate to them or to have empathy for what they were going through.


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