Susan Cheever is a sex addict. She wants you to know that she has had sex - a lot of sex - with all sorts of men. She has committed adultery. She has been up to hanky-panky in hotel rooms. She has made eyes at lawyers and book salesmen and the guys from the moving company.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about her new book, "Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction." (A fine title, but an even greater name for a club in the meatpacking district.) In "Desire," Cheever explores the nature of sex addiction, interspersed with her own experiences, specifically her relationship with her long-term adulterous lover turned third husband, a rakish, hard-drinking journalist named Warren. The result floats somewhere between psychology essay and issue memoir ' "A straight look at some crooked feelings," Cheever calls it ' and is slim enough to fit nicely into a copy of Smithsonian, if you want to read it on the train without advertising your innocent interest in the horizontal mambo.
Not that anyone would care. When David Duchovny recently announced that he was entering in-patient rehab for sex addiction, the whole world shrugged knowingly. We love sex ' within certain boundaries. "We are," Cheever writes, "a nation of puritanical love junkies." We are also a nation of addicts: shoe addicts, chocolate addicts, Sunday crossword addicts. The word "addict" is so overused that sex addicts have a hard time getting taken seriously, much less getting sympathy. Cheever aims to fix this.
The book ' like a manual on crabgrass control ' is divided into three parts, "What is it?" "What causes it?" and "What can we do about it?" The definition of sex addiction is tricky to pin down. What separates the addict from what Cheever terms the "passionate amateur"? It all comes down to how you feel in the morning. "Addiction," Cheever writes, "is alwaysa broken promise, whether it's a promise made to oneself or to another person." If you promise yourself you won't do it ' won't drink, won't have sex with the doorman ' and you do it anyway, it might be time to start going to 12-step meetings.
Why pursue carnal relations with the wrong people again and again? It can't all be blamed on Axe body spray. Cheever ticks off some theories ' childhood trauma, genetics, society, underlying psychological conditions, longevity. That last one is my favorite. Staying true to the missis was easier when you were dead before the seven-year-itch could hit. In the end, Cheever settles on "all of the above" ' or maybe, more accurately, a little of each.
Chastity belts, while effective, are bulky under clothing. So what is a sex addict to do? Cheever suggests we all stop giggling (and making jokes about chastity belts) and redefine how we look at addiction. "So the highschooler smokes dope and steals from his parents' liquor cabinet," she writes, "while the businessman rents videos and hires prostitutes on trips to faraway cities, and the college freshman buys bags of groceries, eats them and vomits in the communal bathroom. Isn't this all really the same thing?"
The moral equivalency of smoking dope and cheating on your spouse is sketchy. Cheating hurts a loved one. Smoking dope makes the Grateful Dead sound better. Whatever. The argument Cheever's making is that if you scratch an overeater, you'll find a shopoholic, and so on. What makes sex addiction different, she suggests, is that "addiction to other people ' especially addiction to sex partners ' is the only addiction that is applauded and embraced."
Cheever began mulling over sex addiction when she was working on "My Name Is Bill," her biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson, married for 53 years, liked to engage in the forbidden dance with women who were not his wife. Cheever, the author of a memoir about her own drinking problem, got to wondering if Wilson might just have replaced one addiction with another. Then she took a long hard look in the mirror.
Susan Cheever created a stir when she revealed the bisexuality of her father, John Cheever, in her memoir "Home Before Dark." In "Desire" she goes further, describing him as gay. You could say that her childhood was full of privilege and adventure. Or, she writes, you could say "that my parents were miserable partly because my father was a closeted gay alcoholic and that he sometimes took it out on me. Both are true." Her father hid his sexuality. She couldn't keep a leash on hers. If Cheever sees a connection, she doesn't mention it.
But that's in keeping with the book's approach. "Desire" asks considerably more questions than it answers. It's a conversation starter - like telling strangers you slept with your dying mother's oncologist or left your daughter's hospital room for an adulterous romp. True to this confessional bent, as well as Cheever's sly sense of humor, the book is dedicated "To whom it may concern." Her children, according to the acknowledgments, suggested an alternative: "To my children, who died of embarrassment."
Get A Copy of Desire Where Sex Meets Addiction By Susan Cheever. 172 pages. Simon & Schuster.