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Cheever tastefully explores sex addiction

I have a theory about nonfiction books on extreme human behavior. You probably do, too. Here's mine: The only people interested in nonfiction books on extreme human behavior are people already caught in the grip of that behavior.

Never is this more true than when behavior is sexual. And no book better serves that been-there-done-that-can't-stop-help-me crowd than "Desire: When Sex Meets Addiction" by Susan Cheever. After stunning the literati with her 1984 memoir "Home Before Dark," in which she outed her esteemed novelist father John Cheever as a miserable bisexual alcoholic, Cheever publicly picked through 30 years of her life as a drunk (she slept around); three male ancestors' lives (they ruined their women); her kids' lives (eating disorder, depression) and the life of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. (mean husband, switched from booze to sex).

Now, after dozens of awards and novels, Cheever returns to her family tree to pluck what one imagines (and frankly hopes) is its final lurid leaf: her ruinous obsession with passion, which Cheever explains in Chapter One recalling her third wedding, in 1989, to her soul mate.

This man has loved her -- and she him -- for nearly two decades, despite marriages, children and other lovers for both. This man has also loved overdrinking, overeating, rebelling, sleeping around and defying authority. This man clearly is trouble. Yet now she is his wife. Another 20 years would pass before she understood why.

There may be no better time than now to talk about this, with the dark sex-rehab comedy "Choke" still in theatres, HBO's "Californication" on TV and its star, David Duchovny, just out of sex-rehab for real. And there may be no better writer to lead the discussion than Cheever, although her previous admissions (including having slept with three people in one day) also serve to make one wonder queasily what in God's name she's got left to confess. So, for that matter, does the book itself, which at a slim 169 pages may lead readers to leaf it gingerly, suspecting Cheever lunges directly into moist details of furtive rutting.

Thankfully, there's no need. "Desire" is neither a seedy memoir, a lurid meditation on lust, or, for that matter, a definitive clinical study. It's all of them -- a deeply personal essay, an unblinking report from the front lines of desperate damaging love and a science and psychology-based argument for sexual need as a disease.

The book is in three parts, the first of which is utterly absorbing as it teases apart sex from love, love from obsession and obsession from addiction.

Some things we already know: Bryan Ferry was right, love is a drug, specifically dopamine and phenyl ethylamine, the stuff that makes you giddy and your body capable of going foodless and sleepless for 70 hours, blown away. Stay away from your lover too long and those drug levels dip.

But where most of us get through it, Cheever explains deftly, an addict barely does. Because attraction shoots their dopamine spikes higher (something else she's researched exhaustively), they experience a higher heaven and thus a far darker hell. A wayyyy darker hell.

Their lives don't simply feel empty, they feel under imminent threat. Eventually, control is lost and the addict goes mildly ballistic in search of relief, not -- not -- necessarily through a dozen partners in a week, a pervasive myth which Cheever blows clean out of the water.

Time and again she concludes that addiction, sexual or otherwise, replaces what trauma and abuse have destroyed -- peace, security, reliability, acceptance. Other works have concluded the same, but not by citing NBC's "To Catch a Predator," "Wuthering Heights," Larry King, their own life, "Anna Karenina" and interviews with eminent researchers Helen Fisher, Dr. Martin Kafka and Dr. Judith Herman.

Somehow, this makes all the difference. Cheever isn't showing off -- she's simply using everything she can to help make bearable that which will not be buried.

Part Three looks for cures, concluding that none will work long-term until society stops wincing and accepts that sex can make some people as crazy as narcotics; and that for them, its withdrawal, while perfect fodder for stunning songs, riveting court cases and great film comedies, is no funnier than heroin's agony or alcohol's D.T.'s. For all her research, the biggest revelation here remains Cheever's unexpected decision and ability to bare herself without literally baring herself. She may've had 100 quickies before realizing she was an addict, but she shares only a telling few. And where graphic detail could have underscored her dangerously dazing sexual connection to her husband, consequences illustrate it far better.

Because she's an addict, Cheever understands raw, chewing physical need, the insane things done to quell it, and the incredible desperation to understand it. And because addicts live in Extremeworld, Cheever seemed to feel that nothing less than the ultimate explanation, from dozens of sources, would do here.

For a book only 169 pages long, "Desire" comes close to being that, even though Cheever's speaking a language that probably only those ensnared in obsessive love can understand. Then again, I'm not sure it matters whether anyone else does.

Lauri Githens Hatch has been a daily radio and newspaper journalist since 1980.


Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction

By Susan Cheever

Simon and Schuster

192 pages, $23

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