Friday, January 09, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Benoit Denizet-Lewis

So far, 2009 has been a big year for openly gay New York Times journo Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Over the past week, he has come out as a sex addict in a talked about Times essay (when we asked him if coming out as a sex addict was more difficult than coming out as a gay man he answered with a resounding "hell yes") and his debut book landed in bookstores all across the country. In America Anonymous, a compelling and intimate look into the all-consuming world of addiction, Denizet-Lewis follows eight people trying to regain control of their lives. We chatted with about the book, it's subject matter and the author's own struggles with addiction.


What was it like for you to immerse yourself so intimately in the lives of the eight men and women you followed, some for as long as three years?


Expensive! =) I wanted to write about people from all across the country, so I spent a lot of time in trains, planes, and automobiles. I also wanted to profile different kinds of people--from a bisexual bodybuilder to an alcoholic grandfather to a college sex addict. It was an honor to be allowed into their lives for the years I followed them.

What do you hope the reader will take away from America Anonymous?

A more nuanced and empathetic understanding of addiction in this country. Addiction is our costliest and most misunderstood public health problem, one that exacerbates or triggers many of our most pressing social problems--skyrocketing health care costs, crime, poverty, and our overcrowded jails and backlogged criminal justice system. But we don't treat it like a major health problem, partly because we can't agree on what we're talking about (is addiction a disease? A moral failing?), and partly because the millions of Americans in recovery have been talking to each other for years in church basements and have failed to create an advocacy movement demanding that we start treating addiction like we do other illnesses. I also hope readers will come away with a greater understanding of addictions to things like sex and food. I wanted to write a book that went beyond drugs and alcohol and really looked at a whole host of behaviors that neuroscientists are now beginning to see as true addictions that affect similar parts of the brain as drugs and alcohol. Finally, I hope this book will put a dent into the shame, stigma, and confusion that still color our cultural understanding of addiction.

In the book, you talk very openly about your own struggle with sex addiction and trace one of the primary causes of the addiction back to a lack of love and understanding from your parents. What's been their response to this revelation?

It's really anyone's guess where my sex addiction came from. We know there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, but was I genetically predisposed to sex addiction? Or was the fact that my mother never hugged me or said she loved me to blame? Or is it something else that caused this? Why can I take or leave drugs and alcohol but can waste entire days and weeks in online chat rooms looking for sex, no matter the consequences? I like to say that anyone who tells you they have addiction all figured out is on crack. Addiction is very, very complicated, but we can learn a lot from the stories of the eight people I follow in America Anonymous. As for my parents, they are two of my closest friends today and are incredibly supportive.

After the jump, more talk about addiction and Denizet-Lewis reveals his crush on a certain silver fox.

How do you feel about the way certain films and television shows (such as Californication & Trainspotting) treat the subject of addiction?

It depends on the addiction. There have been many great films about drug addiction and alcoholism, but good luck trying to get someone to write a smart movie about sex addiction. It's much easier to make fun of people who suffer from sexual compulsivity than to portray them accurately and humanely.

What's been the response so far from current and former addicts who have read the book?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, both to the book and to my "Modern Love" essay about my sex addiction. In the day or two after the essay ran, I received hundreds of emails from people all across the country who thought they were the only one who had this problem. To give you an idea of the kinds of email I've received, I'm including one here:

"The experience you recount is precisely what my life has been plagued with over the past few years. It is the first time I've read someone's experience that so acutely resonates with me. I'm nineteen yet have had about 150 sexual partners. If somebody met me, you would never know about this part of my life. The late nights turning into sleepless days on the Internet, immediate gratification upon entering a gay chat room, and the compulsive obsession with pornography you describe have had a major impact on my life. I am now HIV+ and have lost track of time for days at a time in the pursuit of sex.

In the past year and with my first ever boyfriend, I have tried to pare down my sex addiction. Unfortunately, it flared up only six months into my relationship. I cheat on someone whom I love dearly and cannot understand why. I was targeted by what were essentially pedophiles when I was 10 in online chat rooms. I had sex with a much older man at the age of 14. Upon reading your article, I wonder if this could be part of why I am like this.

I apologize for the litany of personal information and the rant. It's just a relief to hear that somebody else, a young intellectual gay man no less, was in the same boat. I'm not sure where to go to find help, or what exactly that help is, especially as a young gay man. Anyway, thank you for writing, your words brought tears to my eyes."

As an openly gay journalist yourself, are there any gay journalists whose work you admire?

There are so many. The three that come to mind first are Michael Joseph Gross, Andrew Solomon, and David France. They all do remarkably important work. When it comes to television journalists, I've always had a bit of a crush on Anderson Cooper. =)

Now that you've completed your very first book, what can we expect from book number two?

In January, 2010, Simon & Schuster will publish American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life, a collection of my previously published magazine writing. I also recently signed another deal with Simon & Schuster to write a book about dogs and humans tentatively titled, Dog Country: Travels Among Canines and Their Humans. I love dogs, and it's a book that's about as far from addiction as one can get, so I'm actually quite happy about that!

5 comments:

Kenneth Walsh said...

Nicely done. I wonder who a guy's gotta blow to get a review copy of his book. Oh, wait.

Anonymous said...

it's nice to see a gay journalist get some nice attention. Mr. Denizet-lewis is smart and a great writer.

Anonymous said...

I would go there if I had to.... he's a babe.....

Anonymous said...

piracy affects porn but it's still winner during the crunch


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