Just Can’t Get Enough
BY Rachel Dowd
January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET
I first met Benoit Denizet-Lewis in 2003, when he loped into my graduate feature writing class at Emerson College in Boston sporting a baseball hat and a tuft of goatee on his chin. He was 28 (four years younger than I was), had graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill journalism school six years earlier, and had recently created a stir among the city’s tonier circles with a feature in Boston magazine on the North American Man/Boy Love Association, commonly known as NAMBLA. Realizing he was going to be my professor for the next 13 weeks wasn’t exactly like learning Doogie Howser would be performing my appendectomy -- but it was close.
On the scale of wunderkinds, Denizet-Lewis lies somewhere between Billy Strayhorn (pure prodigy) and Christian Siriano (lucky bastard). He was 27 when his work first appeared in The New York Times Magazine: the story of M., a 13-year-old girl secretly living as a boy in Southern California. In the six years since, his articles on gay culture, gender identity, masculinity, and sexual proclivity -- including the seminal piece “Double Lives on the Down Low” -- have landed him on the cover of that publication five times. His magazine writing, which Gawker describes as “designed to scare the hell out of people,” has garnered him numerous awards, fellowships, and two nominations for the Livingston Award, which honors journalists under 35. Oh, and he speaks fluent French.
In his first book, America Anonymous: Eight Addicts in Search of a Life, which hit shelves this January and shadows eight people recovering from compulsive relationships with everything from drugs and alcohol to food and shoplifting, Denizet-Lewis reveals he’s more than just an infuriatingly successful writer -- he’s also a sex addict.
“I do not jump with joy at the fact that I’m coming out publicly,” he says today. “But I did decide to write a book about addiction, and one of my main points is that there is too much shame keeping people from getting the help they need. I could not in good conscience not talk about my own addiction.”
A brief pass through Denizet-Lewis’s catalog of stories shows a similar tendency toward self-revelation. Some, like his Salon.com profile on Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries, hardly seem a stretch -- what gay man doesn’t have some familiarity with A&F? Others, however, are downright confessional. Take his 2005 feature in The New York Times Magazine about life at Northwestern’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity, where he was a brother in the late ’90s. Woven among tales of hazing and debauchery is the matter-of-fact announcement to the magazine’s 1.5 million readers that he is gay. “I thought it worked for the story,” Denizet-Lewis says. And it does, but it’s not hard to imagine that his very public self-outing exorcised a few demons along the way.