Book Review

A candid look inside some troubled lives

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / March 6, 2009
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Meet Bobby, Marvin, Janice, Todd, Ellen, Jody, Sean, and Kate. They are addicts living with various forms of addiction: food, gambling, alcohol, sex, shoplifting, crack, and steroids.

Their stories of survival and recovery serve as the illuminating narrative of "America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life," by Boston freelance journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis. Through his protagonists, the author examines how society tends to misinterpret what it means to be an addict. He offers a candid look at each of these individuals' struggles, relapses, and hopes for a sober, stable, and healthy life.

As Denizet-Lewis drops in on each of his subjects over the course of three years, he weaves in tales of his own sex addiction. He reconstructs what a typical day was like for him when he couldn't tame his sexual urges and blew off his friends and jobs.

In revealing his story and those of his eight subjects, Denizet-Lewis produces an intimate journal that reveals the different forms addiction takes. He shows us how gambling and food disorders can be just as physically and emotionally debilitating as addictions to alcohol and drugs.

The book's subjects are as varied as their addictions. Among them: an 80-year-old alcoholic, a housewife who shoplifts, a radio DJ who overeats, a grandmother addicted to crack, a bisexual bodybuilder, and a 34-year-old South Boston man who wrestles with cravings for heroin and alcohol.

Although each person had a compelling story, two characters stood out. One of them is the crack-addicted grandmother, 55-year-old, unemployed Janice. The author shadows her as she returns to her Harlem neighborhood after she receives a 24-hour pass from her recovery center. Passersby and drug dealers welcome and applaud her for staying clean. "Janice is kind of a grandmotherly rock star, and our stroll through the area feels like her reunion tour," Denizet-Lewis writes.

In scenes like this, he draws the reader into Janice's private and public recovery as she works toward a GED and a full-time job. Her chapters crackle with street dialogue and insights from family and counselors who tell us more about her former life and how Janice is forging a path of healing and transformation.

Then there's Todd, the 40-year-old bodybuilder and male escort who wants the perfect body and abuses steroids and ephedra to get it. Denizet-Lewis meets up with him as he prepares to meet clients in various cities. The author captures Todd's emotional seesaw as he experiences the highs and lows of his drug use, which combine to affect his sense of self-worth. Denizet-Lewis questions whether Todd really wants to break free: "Todd has talked a lot about taking action to improve his life, but he's rarely followed through. . . . Todd is an active addict, and addiction routinely trumps commitment."

Throughout "America Anonymous," the author provides historical and sociological context, noting, for example, that "in 1841, the Washingtonian Society of Boston offered rooms under its meeting hall for struggling alcoholics" and that "nearly 23 million Americans - 9.2 percent of the population twelve or older - are hooked on alcohol or drugs."

At the end of the book, the reader learns who has succeeded or relapsed. "Where are the millions of addicts in this country who are sober and have turned around their lives? They need to be on the front lines of this war," Denizet-Lewis writes, daring other recovering addicts to share their stories on a larger stage.

And in writing this book, he has done just that.

Johnny Diaz is a member of the Globe staff.

AMERICA ANONYMOUS: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life By Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $26

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