Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction


We've all felt the giddy flutter of excitement when our new lover walks into the room. Waited by the phone, changed our plans...But are we in love, or is there something darker at work? In Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, Susan Cheever explores the shifting boundaries between the feelings of passion and addiction, desire and need, and she raises provocative and important questions about who we love and why.

Elegantly written and thoughtfully composed, Cheever's book combines ...

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Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction

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We've all felt the giddy flutter of excitement when our new lover walks into the room. Waited by the phone, changed our plans...But are we in love, or is there something darker at work? In Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, Susan Cheever explores the shifting boundaries between the feelings of passion and addiction, desire and need, and she raises provocative and important questions about who we love and why.

Elegantly written and thoughtfully composed, Cheever's book combines unsparing and intimate memoir, interviews and stories, hard science and psychology to explore the difference between falling in love and falling prey to an addiction. Part one defines what addiction is and how it works — the obsession, the betrayals, the broken promises to oneself and others. Part two explores the possible causes of addiction — is it nature or nurture, a permanent condition or a temporary derangement? Part three considers what we can do about it, including a provocative suggestion about how we describe and treat addiction, and a look at the importance of community and storytelling.

In the end, there are no easy answers. "A straight look about some crooked feelings," Desire shows us the difference between the addiction that cripples our emotions, and healthy, empowering love that enhances our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

"We are a nation of puritanical love junkies," proclaims Cheever (My Name Is Bill) in her inquiry into the growing scientific and psychological evidence that suggests a chemical basis for sex addiction. Drawing on a hodge-podge of addiction literature, neurobiological studies and her more informal (but most persuasive) role as a seasoned battler of her own obsessions, Cheever believes that American idealism taints our expectations of relationships: "In our world, addiction to other people... is the only addiction that is applauded and embraced.... " But for Cheever, a lover's destructive behavior can be just as traumatizing as that of an alcoholic, a bulimic or a compulsive gambler. Cheever is best when writing personally; her candid memories of emotionally abusive parents, repeated adultery and consuming love drive an otherwise meandering text. Her cultural subjects are titillating enough and range from the voyeurism of To Catch a Predator to speculation that Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, struggled to hide a sex addiction. But the reader strains to connect slim narrative threads of this unstructured meditation on obsession. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Cheever (American Bloomsbury, 2006, etc.) explores the vagaries of addiction and desire. The author's offspring suggested that she dedicate her slight meditation on sexual addiction "to my children who died of embarrassment." In fact, the book is not so much a nitty-gritty tell-all as it is a series of free-form musings on what addiction is and why it affects people so powerfully. Cheever touches on her three marriages (to Robert Cowley, Calvin Tomkins and Warren Hinckle), her apparent difficulties in staying married and the various infidelities in which she and some friends engaged. But she touches equally on alcoholism, the other addiction with which she and several family members have struggled. Her father, novelist John Cheever, was also an alcoholic. Indeed, she suggests that the two may be related. In her biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson (My Name Is Bill, 2004), she briefly mentioned Wilson's wandering eye, but here she speculates more freely as to whether he traded his alcohol addiction for another, equally intoxicating vice. Though married, Wilson was known for his inordinate fondness for other ladies. "When he was able to come up with the brilliant, inspired way of life that enabled him not to drink," Cheever writes, "he used other substances." She also reports that on his deathbed, Wilson requested whiskey three times. In the context of the rest of the book-wide-eyed and often self-indulgent musings about the physiology underlying longing and the insistent, blinding need that accompanies any addiction-it's clear that the author intends this not as an indictment of Wilson, but as further evidence of the mysteries of desire. Unfortunately, for every genuinemystery Cheever asks us to consider, she provides a piece of careless, silly prose to accompany it. Insightful and often engaging, but also aimless and occasionally trite.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416537922
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 10/7/2008
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 0.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Cheever

Susan Cheever is the bestselling author of thirteen previous books, including five novels and the memoirs Note Found in a Bottle and Home Before Dark. Her work has been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Boston Globe Winship Medal. She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Corporation of Yaddo, and a member of the Author's Guild Council. She teaches in the Bennington College M.F.A. program. She lives in New York City with her family.

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Read an Excerpt

Where Sex Meets Addiction

By Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster
Copyright © 2008

Susan Cheever
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781416537922

the bride, the groom, and the dog

Standing under a black walnut tree in front of my parents' eighteenth-century house on a spring afternoon, I prepared to get married for the third time in a broad-brimmed white straw hat and a gauzy blue and white dress. One hand held the crumpled, preprinted wedding vows; with the other I tried to comfort my sobbing six-year-old daughter, dressed for the occasion in a beloved pink jumper. My heels sank into the green lawn near a shaft of June sunlight.

Weddings make the heart soar. If second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience, as Samuel Johnson famously wrote, third marriages may be the triumph of imagination over experience. They are even more improbable and require something closer to delusion than simple hope. There is something delicious and heartening about a wedding; a wedding is a chance to let our dreams seem real, a frothy ceremony that is both a great party and a powerful symbol, and this is even truer when the bride and groom are experienced and knowing.

My mother had spent months planning the afternoon of the wedding, and in spite of her own ambivalence about having a daughter who was getting married for the third time, she had pulled out all the stops: there was a creamy canvas tent behind us between the walnut tree and the house, a small dance floor, platters of poachedshrimp, and a gleaming, many-tiered white wedding cake decorated with garlands of flowers and a miniature marzipan bride and groom. Three hundred friends and relatives had come to Westchester from as far away as California to celebrate. The groom's family stood behind us. My two handsome younger brothers in their Brooks Brothers suits tried to calm the boisterous children from various families and the undisciplined family dogs. My mother's Labrador retriever growled to warn my corgi away from the house, while the groom's naughty basset hound explored the smells near the buffet table.

I was marrying the love of my life, a wonderful man I had been in love with for years, a man it seemed I had fallen in love with the moment he walked into a party on Potrero Hill in San Francisco where I had gone with my first husband to meet some writers. It was 1972, Richard Nixon had just been reelected by a landslide, and the Washington, D.C., police had arrested five men for what appeared to be a minor break-in at the Watergate complex. Politically, anyone left of center felt under siege. At the party, given by the journalist I. F. Stone's sister Judy, I was talking to Alvah Bessie, one of the men who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era for refusing to answer the questions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Bessie and Stone were our heroes.

Suddenly, there was a stir on the other side of the room near the door. I looked up and saw Warren entering the room like a king. Although we were both married to other people, and although I lived with my husband in New York and he lived with his family in San Francisco, our connection arced across all that like electricity traveling between two poles. Warren had a Victorian house with a library that he had painted deep red, a beautiful wife, two little girls, and a ditzy basset hound named Alice.

Now, seventeen years later, on our wedding day, we knew that our love had survived every obstacle -- great distances, years apart, family opposition, job changes, other people's pain, our own pain, an avalanche of advice, the death of Alice, and the acquisition of Bentley, another basset. I was certain that I was marrying my great love. We had moved heaven and earth to be together. Our feelings had even endured through my marriage to someone else and subsequent divorce, Warren's divorce from the mother of his daughters, and the death of my father. Our connection was as strong as it had ever been. We made each other laugh. We continued to surprise each other. I loved him for the way his mind worked, for the generosity that had unhesitatingly invited my anxious daughter on our honeymoon, and for his passion for helping those in trouble and those with few resources. I loved him for his searching soul, which always questioned authority whether it was President Nixon's or my mother's. She had ordered us to be on time for the ceremony and bring the liquor.

Yet I was also marrying a man whose face was swollen from the effects of two days of drinking that featured a riotous bachelor party at Elaine's restaurant orchestrated by his close friends, the pornography tycoons Jim and Artie Mitchell. He was a man who bridled at the idea of signing a prenuptial agreement and had reluctantly signed a handwritten document the day before the wedding, a flamboyant character whose ubiquitous basset hound was as famously mischievous as he was. My late father had disliked him; my friends told me he was too crazy to be a good husband.

"Do you, Susan, take this man to be your lawful, wedded husband," intoned the judge, his deep voice calming the edgy crowd of guests who had already been celebrating for hours. Warren had disappeared with the best man earlier that morning, and by the time he had returned to our New York City apartment and dressed, we were an hour behind. By the time we pulled into my mother's driveway, we were two hours late. We had forgotten all about bringing the liquor. The guests had drunk everything in the house and gone out for more as the time for the wedding ceremony came and went. Every time the judge had threatened to leave, someone had offered him another drink.

At last, we were all there, standing before him as evening light began to filter through the trees. Everyone had forgotten about the dogs. One of the guests coughed behind us; my daughter continued to weep. As my husband boomed out his "I do's," he swept my white hat, ribbons flying, onto his own head. After the usual litany of how he would stand by me in sickness and health, for richer or for poorer, he managed to include a reference in the standard vows to his beloved dog.

In my family, dogs are often used to express the longings and angers we humans are too polite or too frightened to mention. When I was away at camp and miserable as a child, I got comforting letters that came not from my parents, but from the dogs, ghostwritten by my father. It was the dogs that jumped up on the cars of visitors we disliked, and stained their fancy clothes; it was the dogs that frightened away people not as attuned as we were to canine ways.

On the afternoon of the wedding, while we were distracted by the ceremony and by the impromptu blessings offered by friends who stepped to the microphone after the groom had kissed the bride, the basset hound cleverly made his move on the wedding cake. Choosing the side farthest from where we stood, he stretched his considerable length upward onto the buffet table and began to eat away at the gleaming, sugary frosting of the bottom layer, consuming enough so that the whole thing sagged dangerously to one side. By the time his theft was discovered, he had retreated to the shade of the house, his belly full, his face a mask of droopy, doggy innocence. He put his muzzle down between his big paws and looked up at us as if to say he was sorry, but it was the kind of sorry that we knew would last only until another opportunity presented itself.

My friends sometimes say that I have had bad luck with the men in my life. I don't agree. I don't think that marrying three times was my destiny any more than it was the wedding cake's destiny to be half-eaten by Bentley the basset hound, or my daughter's destiny to decide she had lost something precious at the moment we were summoned to the improvised altar under the black walnut tree.

What was going on that afternoon? Was it the happy ending to a story of two people swept away by the force of a great love? Were we in the grip of a magnificent obsession fueled by the many obstacles in its path? Were we soul mates, or were we being pulled forward by compulsions and desires that take over from reason in situations where love is concerned? Were we right to lose ourselves in the moment, or should we have paid more attention to the dog?

Copyright © 2008 by Susan Cheever


Excerpted from Desire by Susan Cheever
Copyright © 2008 by Susan Cheever. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


part one: what is it?

The Bride, the Groom, and the Dog 3

The Broken Promise 9

Bill Wilson 21

Abusers vs. Addicts 35

The Brain 43

Trance and Obsession 51

Tolerance and Shame 63

Adultery 73

part two: what causes it?

Repetition 83

The Body 93

Old Age Is a New Thing 103

Environment 107

Is Sex Addiction the Male Version of Female Bulimia? 113

All of the Above 119

part three: what can we do about it?

Let's Change the Way We Describe Addiction 127

A Community of One 135

Storytelling 143

How Others Tell the Story 153

Conscience and Remorse 159

The Dog Again 165

Bibliography 171

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