Carnal Compulsion: Sucking the X Out of Sex

jacobs susan cheever Carnal Compulsion: Sucking the X Out of SexDesire: Where Sex Meets
Addiction

By Susan Cheever
Simon & Schuster, 174 pages, $23

Every so often in this thin book about “sex addiction,” the sea of psychotherapeutic gobbledygook parts and John Cheever, the author’s famous father, peeks through. He appears literally, mixing the young and heartsick Susan Cheever a gin and tonic as he nurses one of multiple daily Scotches (or later, in his belated sobriety, wanting to know how to operate a dishwasher, with a child’s enthusiasm). And he appears literarily, in brief but lyrical passages from Ms. Cheever about ice floes nudging one another on the East River, or the stubborn, sickly-sweet smell of the tacky 1970s cologne Canoe clinging to her sheets after one of her many one-night stands.

But this lyricism, this flash of serious talent, was not the elder Cheever’s primary legacy to his daughter. Rather, with his alcoholism and secret bisexuality—the Cheevers were no Cleavers, as we know from Susan’s 1984 memoir Home Before Dark—he bequeathed to her material, a lifetime’s worth of emotional problems to be worked through, over and over again. This she accomplishes with something that’s not so much writing as what New Age therapists like to call “journaling”—free-form, yet somehow dutiful and joyless.

 

DESIRE, WHOSE TITLE recalls one of those slickly packaged Josephine Hart novels popular in the last millennium, is Ms. Cheever’s fifth memoir, or at least partial-memoir, in six and a half decades—no small feat. She has knocked off a few novels herself, as well as a biography of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson.

Ms. Cheever, who’s about the furthest thing from an anonymous alcoholic there is—see Note Found in a Bottle (1999)—now confesses that she withheld some pretty juicy stuff from her account of Bill Wilson’s career: Though married, he often arranged multiple daily liaisons with different ladies when traveling for work, resentful former colleagues told her. But did he have a clinical disorder or was he just a womanizing jerk? And was Ms. Cheever’s own frequent bed-hopping evidence of a diagnosable mental imbalance, or was she a voracious romantic adventuress with morning-after regrets? As a male friend pithily puts it: “Who the fuck isn’t a sex addict?”

The author palpates more than probes as she makes the rounds of experts, some of whom have done significant work connecting addiction and trauma. There’s a trip over cobblestoned streets to Harvard-educated physician Judith Herman. (“My father’s family comes from Boston,” Ms. Cheever can’t help but note, “and Harvard somehow epitomizes the social and economic levels we were unable to achieve.”) She brunches at Barney Greengrass (“S. J. Perelman wrote about it”) with addiction and recovery specialist and financial counselor Ron Gallen. She chats with anthropologist Helen Fisher, in her “pleasant apartment off Fifth Avenue.” She stands admiring Turner paintings at the Frick with the Yale fellow Maggie Scarf. One begins to wonder if in fact it is not sex Ms. Cheever is addicted to, but the experience of interviewing impressively credentialed individuals in gemütlich settings.

Also reading books—big books! Great Books! Hey, was Anna Karenina a sex addict? What about Emma Bovary? Humbert Humbert, surely. If all passionate behavior is pathologized and treated, will we have anything left to read, watch and listen to, or will the human race be condemned to an eternity of Tell Me You Love Me reruns on HBO?

 

MS. CHEEVER DESCRIBES romps with everyone from her mother’s oncologist to “moving men” to her “Rabelaisian” third husband, the editor Warren Hinckle, who used to loom over her typewriter suggesting cuts (“more intimate than sex,” she breathes). Details are mercifully left to the imagination, perhaps because she doesn’t remember them: One thing that apparently distinguishes an addict from your average person is that the addict enters a sort of “brownout” or fugue state while the sordid deed is done. (As the Church Lady used to say, how convenient. …)

These days, at any rate, life has quieted down for Ms. Cheever, according to a recent profile in The New York Times, though it’s unclear whether that’s because she overcame her sex addiction, or because she aged out of the game. “Like it or not, the most powerful woman is an 18-year-old woman,” she brayed to reporter Joyce Wadler—an assertion that would probably surprise and dismay most 18-year-old women, never mind the rest of us.

Lightly blending scientific surveys, statistics, literary analysis and snatches of memoir, Desire resembles a gelatin salad from the suburban table of Susan Cheever’s youth: transparent, wobbly, a bit fruity. What’s missing is commitment—not to a man, but to an idea.

Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large at The Observer. She can be reached at ajacobs@observer.com.