Last summer, actor David Duchovny offered tabloid magazines and late-night comedians manna when he revealed he was being treated for sex addiction. Amy Winehouse generates a similar reaction every time she stumbles into gossip pages for behavior often described as "drug-fueled." Usually, we react to these stories of addiction with a mix of fascination and revulsion, as we wonder why these celebrities throw away everything they have for cheap thrills. • In America Anonymous, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis addresses that idea by trying to reshape the way we understand addiction. He tells us, "Most people who try drugs don't become addicted to them," explaining that addiction doesn't stem from a series of poor choices or the addictive quality of a particular vice.
Rather, he follows what researchers call a syndrome model, believing all addictions relate to the same underlying disorder and that for addicts, "drugs and behaviors like gambling, sex, and overeating affect the brain in some similar ways."
For his book, Denizet-Lewis follows eight addicts through various stages of recovery over two to three years. These engrossing, occasionally frustrating subjects include Bobby, a heroin addict, and Janice, a longtime crack addict. We also meet a bisexual body builder and escort addicted to crystal meth and steroids, a college student hooked on sex and pornography, a compulsive eater, an 80-year-old alcoholic, a shoplifter and an addiction counselor whose own series of addictions includes gambling, prescription drugs, crack and heroin.
Through these portraits, Denizet-Lewis gives readers a sense of an addiction's ravaging power. Bobby, for example, estimates that at age 34 he has "been in and out of some seventy detoxes and residential treatment centers." Not counting a short prison stint, Janice hasn't gone one week in 20 years without getting high.
Denizet-Lewis, who discusses his own struggles with sex addiction in the introduction of his book, looks at his subjects with an empathetic eye. He understands the illogical decisions these addicts make in pursuit of their vices, and he doesn't question the sincerity of their guilt after everything has been shot up and smoked.
Nonetheless, he maintains a journalist's skepticism, challenging his subjects' selective memories and grandiose dreams. He doesn't fully believe Janice when she characterizes herself as "a crack addict with honesty and class — even as she sold drugs, eventually lost everything, and had to sleep in crack houses and homeless shelters."
Similarly, when Bobby says he's ready to be clean with the help of prescription medication, Denizet-Lewis wonders whether a chronic relapser, as "hooked on the junkie lifestyle (scheming, robbing, manipulating) as he is on heroin," can "erase decades' worth of addictive thinking and behavior" with just a pill.
With his strict focus on the addict, Denizet-Lewis isn't writing for an audience looking for a junkie's lurid confessions. America Anonymous isn't as devastating as David Sheff's memoir, Beautiful Boy, in which Sheff takes readers through his son's addiction to crystal meth. Where Sheff captures how a person's addiction ensnares far more people than the addict himself, Denizet-Lewis doesn't move far from his subjects and their recovery. We don't, for example, get much of an idea of what kind of father Bobby is to his two children.
For the author, discussing these eight lives serves the purpose of calling on the country to correct systematic problems in order to treat addiction fully, beginning with the way courts criminalize and punish addicts. Currently, the United States imprisons more than a half-million Americans for drug offenses, "more people than Western Europe incarcerates for all criminal offenses," Denizet-Lewis tells us.
If anything, America Anonymous makes readers understand the absurdity and hopelessness of that approach.
Vikas Turakhia is a high school English teacher in Ohio.