America Anonymous is an ambitious project by a New York Times bestselling author and tenured professor of writing and literature, Benoit Denizet-Lewis. The writer is known for his non-fiction, characters’ multidimensional personalities, and in-depth profiles that hide not a single detail from the reader. Denizet-Lewis is bold and unapologetic in his attempts to embark on tabooed topics and give voice to those who are dismissed, neglected, and stigmatized by society. America Anonymous is probably his most exceptional work encompassing real-life stories, independent research, and insights into American culture, or rather the subculture. This essay will outline the key points of the book and provide a summary of each of the eight stories.
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In his book, Denizet-Lewis does not try to justify his characters nor does he criticize them for their life choices. The writer’s end goal is not to make a judgment and assess collateral damages of these people’s addictions. Instead, he wants to make each of the individuals who trusted him with his or her struggles more human and show their lives and their environment besides their disorders.
From the reading, it is easy to realize that substance abuse might take over a person’s life and distort his or her personality beyond recognition. Yet, every character of America Anonymous still retains something unique to them which cannot help but derive if not sympathy then the interest to follow the narration.
Bobby is a 34-year-old man with a heroin addiction who lives with his younger brother Dan in one of Boston’s ghettos. Denizet-Lewis describes Bobby as a person with violent tendencies: his tantrums and mood swings are unpredictable, and even the smallest things can make him furious. For instance, he has a meltdown when he cannot start a dishwasher. The longest period of sobriety for Bobby lasted two years while he was in jail. The character does not get a happy ending: after each admission to a treatment facility, Bobby falls back into the lifestyle.
Bobby’s pessimistic story is contrasted by Marvin’s fight with addiction. The reader learns that Marvin is eighty years old and suffers from alcoholism. The event that turned him into substance abuse was a heart attack that made him resign from a job he liked. For Marvin, alcohol had been the only solace for quite a long time before Marvin’s doctor and brother grew concerned and confronted him. The character was in denial; however, an alcohol-induced coma and recovery from it let him have a moment of clarity. After the incident, Marvin has been staying off alcohol for two years and has got involved in AA meetings.
Another positive story is that of Janice, a 55-year-old grandmother on crack. The woman has an overwhelmingly likable personality, her distinguishable manner of speaking, and a strong will to live. All these qualities make her a role model for her neighborhood: for example, when she gets a 24-hour pass from a treatment facility, even street drug dealers applaud her for staying clean (Denizet-Lewis, 2010). At her age, she dares to take GED and finds a full-time job after a long period of unemployment.
Then there is Todd, a 40-year old bodybuilder and male prostitute who works hard to maintain his good looks. His chase after the unattainable ideal led him to steroid and ephedra abuse. Denizet-Lewis meets Todd for a conversation while he is getting ready to meet his clients. The author captures the character’s emotional lability: Todd is constantly experiencing highs and lows as his self-esteem fluctuates between self-hatred and self-adoration. Todd’s story does not get a satisfying closure as he never follows through on his promises to himself to change his life and break free from addiction.
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Ellen has a life that many people dream about having: at 51, she stays active working as a radio executive and expressing her artistic side as a DJ. Denizet-Lewis makes it a point to show that even a dreamy lifestyle does not prevent people from having an addiction. Ellen suffers from emotional overeating to the point where she wastes money on food and experiences pain and bloating after every binge. She recognizes her issue but struggles to choose an appropriate recovery path. Eventually, she leaves Overeaters Anonymous for Food Addicts in Recovery9 as she prefers the strict monitoring of the latter to the coddling and pampering of the former.
Sean is a 20-year-old college student whose use of pornography has grown unhealthy. From the reading, it becomes apparent that for him, the world of Internet porn is a form of escapism. Sean’s childhood left him deeply traumatized: his single mother struggled to take care of him due to alcoholism, and the child ended up living with his grandparents. The man’s counselors used to be positive about the recovery program outcomes. Yet, after staying off porn for three months, Sean relapsed.
The part of the book where Denizet-Lewis pays the most attention to social stigma is dedicated to Kate, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom. Despite living a comfortable life, Kate cannot help but steal things from supermarkets. The character’s kleptomania takes origins in her childhood: she often saw her mother switching price tags in clothing stores. Kate and her mother had a volatile relationship not devoid of physical violence. It pushed the underage girl to seek love and a sense of belonging at her neighbor’s house who took advantage of her vulnerability. Kate had been shoplifting for years till she got into trouble with the law and was referred to a recovery program. She was consistent with the meetings and made tangible progress.
Lastly, Jody, 32, is an addiction counselor who experienced a variety of addictions: heroin, crack, prescription, drugs, and gambling. Back in the day, he co-founded two treatment centers and acquired a big name in the industry. Jody used to work on the most challenging cases but ended up succumbing to his demons. At some point, Jody started abusing his patients’ ADD medication and had a relapse which resulted in four months of heavy use of crack and heroin. After being admitted to a facility, he managed to stay clean and find a job in the same industry, this time, however, as an entry-level counselor.
Denizet-Lewis does not shy away from revealing what effect addiction has on an affected person’s family. By describing characters’ interactions with their family members, the writer makes it a point to debunk the common myth that the root of all addictions is the lack of willpower. The challenges that America Anonymous‘ characters face must hit close to home for Denizet-Lewis himself as he admitted suffering from sex addiction (Denizel-Lewis, 2010).
His condition allows him to look at his characters’ stories through a different lens. He believes that his sex addiction was triggered by molestation in his childhood and tries to examine each character’s background to pinpoint what went wrong.
Throughout the book, the reader discovers that drug addiction is often accompanied by other disorders or forms of deviant behaviors. In the end, Denizet-Lewis concludes that all obsessions have similar nature but never quite explains the mechanism behind their development. The latter was not his objective though: he aimed for the realness of raw, unedited experience that would show the pervasiveness and even normality of addiction. Till the very end, Denizet-Lewis remains a witness not a narrator of characters’ lives, and lets the readers make conclusions of their own.
Denizet-Lewis, B. (2010). America anonymous: Eight addicts in search of a life. New York City, NY: Simon and Schuster.