The New York Times review of my book is online (and will run in the Book Review on Sunday). Polly Morrice, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, seems to mostly like the book, writing that my “novelistic approach injects suspense” and that I take a “generous but clear-eyed view” of the eight addicts I followed for two to three years. She offers up criticism, too, noting that she would have liked more deep “digging” into the “many questions raised,” and that she didn’t end up caring about all of the people I followed. Her favorite character was Jody, the gambling and drug addiction counselor.
(There has been no real consensus among reviewers about which character they consider to be the most compelling. While Morrice calls Jody “by far the most engaging subject,” other critics have preferred Janice, or Marvin, or several of the other people profiled.)
I’m not sure what to make of Morrice’s complaint that I don’t dig deep into the many complicated questions I raise in the book. I certainly tried to in chapters that Morrice doesn’t mention—ones focusing on the science of addiction, the history of addiction, and our cultures of addiction and recovery, but I purposefully refrain from answering questions that are, in my opinion, unanswerable. The fact is, addiction is staggeringly complicated, and anyone who claims to have this issue all figured out is delusional (or, as I like to say, on crack).
That brings me to my main complaint with Morrice’s review. In the last paragraph, Morrice writes, “This brings us back to families, which, Denizet-Lewis maintains, often cause addictions, a conclusion he backs up by pointing to his subjects, whose childhood traumas range from being raped by a family member to, in his own case, having ‘an authoritarian and emotionally withdrawn mother.’”
This is a gross oversimplification of what I write in America Anonymous. I don’t believe that we can say for sure that any one thing “causes” any one person’s addiction. There is little doubt that childhood trauma plays a significant role in the lives of many addicts, including most of those I profiled in my book, but not everyone who is traumatized grows up to be an addict, just as not every addict had a lousy childhood. I don’t know for sure what “caused” my addiction. I suspect that my trauma played a role in it, but was I also genetically predisposed? As I write in America Anonymous, I don’t know. Morrice doesn’t mention the pages I devote to other possible addiction causes—including genetic predisposition, social disconnection, and a modern culture hooked on distraction.
In her review, Morrice also doesn’t mention the book’s main thesis: That addiction is our costliest and most misunderstood public health crisis, one that triggers or exacerbates many of our biggest social problems—including skyrocketing health-care costs, crime, poverty, broken families, and the spread of HIV. But while the victims of other stigmatized illnesses (HIV/AIDS, cancer) have “come out of the closet” and formed advocacy movements, the millions of addicts with successful longterm recovery (except for addicted celebrities, who come and go from treatment with great fanfare) continue to talk only to each other in church basements. Until that changes (or, as Jody puts it, until “we flip the switch” and start talking intelligently and compassionately about addiction—and funding research and treatment the way we do other illnesses), untreated addiction will continue to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.
To read other reviews of America Anonymous, go here.