I used to made a living writing record and concert reviews and bios for rock bands. It wasn’t much of a living, which is why I stopped doing it. But when the Hollywood Reporter asked me to review Etta James at the House of Blues in 2001, I couldn’t say no. I’d been watching Etta incinerate the Sunset Strip HOB since the place opened. And when RCA Records asked me to write her bio for the 2002 live album of that very performance… hell, I would have paid them. (Don’t tell them I said that.) A chance to talk to Jamesetta Hawkins, the love addict’s official spokeswoman? Yes, please!
This is a woman who never knew her father, and whose teenaged mother was used and abused by men as a profession. Her drunken choir director used to beat her to make her sing for his friends. She became B.B. “Blues Boy” King’s girlfriend when she was 16 and he was 30. Her husband, Artis Mills, went to prison for heroin possession; they were still married when she died.
How do you not become a sex and love addict with a pedigree like that?
Etta James was the alpha and the omega of affection deficit disorder. Her first single (“Roll With Me, Henry”) was so overtly sexual in its day that disc jockeys couldn’t say the title out loud. When I last saw her onstage, she was 62 years old and so fat she could barely stand up. She was still sexy. “With that big voice and that little smirk, James manages to sell sexuality with nothing more than gesture,” read the review. “When she sings ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You,’ you believe her.”
But the flip side of the cool, sexy Etta (“I used to ride a motorcycle to work on the Harbor Freeway, nothing but a kerchief on my head,” she told me proudly. “I was born to be wild.”) was the “I Would Rather Go Blind” Etta. She wrote that song, although for a long time she wasn’t able to take legal credit — or get legal royalties — for it. Sing it with me now: “Something told me it was over/When I saw you and her talking… I would rather, I would rather go blind/than see you walk away from me.”
The clutch-his-ankle Etta, though, never sucked the joy out of the hopeless romantic Etta. The Etta who could sing “At last/My love has come along/My lonely days are over/And life is like a song” with such conviction that it has watched over the first dance of half the newly marrieds in North America.
“Everybody who gets married wants that song,” she sighed. “First dance, ‘At Last.’ Cutting the cake, ‘At Last.’ Last dance….” When we spoke, the tune was all over the television as the soundtrack of a car commercial. “I thought I was finally going to get me a Jaguar! I didn’t get no Jaguar. But I tell you something, my manager turned up in a bad green convertible Jag!”
That’s Etta all over. She pours her heart into a microphone, and some man drives off in a bad green convertible. I wanted to hug her.
Etta James tacked a picture of me up on her bulletin board back in 2002. She was impressed that I had learned to scuba dive, and wanted a snapshot of me underwater to use as inspiration for her new fitness program; her doctor told her she had to lose weight or lose a leg to diabetes. She was quite thin when she died, but that was just the leukemia.
I wish I had sent her a copy of LOVE ADDICT; she would have related. But then, she had already summed up the whole book in the first couplet of her first composition: “Hey baby, what do I have to do/To make you love me too.”
Men have been known to inseminate inflatables. They seduce sheep. They will, if push comes to shove, poke a posthole if has been sanded smooth. This is not a knock on men; my dog humps my leg, and I don’t love him any less for it. I just don’t mistake it for a marriage proposal.
The publicity department of HCI Books read my manuscript for LOVE ADDICT: SEX, ROMANCE AND OTHER DANGEROUS DRUGS — 288 pages on the history, science and treatment of sex and (mostly) love addiction — and this is what they came away with: “Ethlie has her first sexual experience at 18 and by age 22, had slept with 75 men.” I don’t know if the writer of press releases was shocked, titillated or appalled at the number. I thought it more noteworthy that I did this while maintaining a 3:7 grade point average.
The main thing they missed, though, is that not once did I think of myself as promiscuous. I was convinced that each of these young men was the Love of My Life. My problem wasn’t sexual profligacy; it was unmitigated optimism. There was the Red Headed Artist, and the Catholic School Virgin, the Roommate’s Boyfriend (I’m sorry…) and the Married Record Promoter (sorry again….) There was a guitarist, a drummer, a keyboard player and a vocalist - no, not from the same band. Some of these have names I can associate with their faces. Most do not.
See, I went to college after the Pill, before AIDS, and when a hook-up was the trailer hitch on the back bumper of your dad’s car. Sex was the adult version of holding hands, a demonstration of romantic togetherness. For a love addict-in-training like me, sex was a secret shortcut to intimacy. My reasoning was that since I was sleeping with you because I fancied myself in a relationship with you, surely you were sleeping with me for the same reason.
This made me, among other things, a cheap date. I was in more of a rush to the bedroom that he was, usually, because I mistook sweating on each other for bonding. Hurry up and commit your naked body to me; if I get to know you, I may lose interest. Addiction, we have come to learn, is largely fueled by the brain’s need for dopamine and dopamine is stimulated by novelty. Between my ears, excitement passes for happiness and I misread desire as affection.
I plead youth and naïveté. Also quantities of Gallo jug wines and Mexican marijuana. I have come to understand that (pay attention; this is important) just because a man wants you, does not mean he loves you.
Men, God love ‘em, will fuck sheep.
A new study at the University of California at San Francisco uses PET scan technology to prove what pretty much everyone has known forever: Drinking feels better to heavy drinkers than to casual drinkers. Since the study was done at the I-kid-you-not Ernest Gallo Clinic, no mention was made of alcoholism, just “heavy drinking.” In a clinic funded by a winery, the a-word is spoken in hushed tones, if at all.
According to the report here, the researchers used positron emission tomography to observe the immediate effects of alcohol in the brains of 13 heavy drinkers and 12 control subjects who were not heavy drinkers. In all of the subjects, alcohol intake led to a release of opiate-like endorphins. And, in all of the subjects, the more endorphins released in the nucleus accumbens, the greater the feelings of pleasure reported by each drinker.
In addition, the more endorphins released in the orbitofrontal cortex, the greater the feelings of intoxication in the heavy drinkers, but not in the control subjects.
“This indicates that the brains of heavy or problem drinkers are changed in a way that makes them more likely to find alcohol pleasant, and may be a clue to how problem drinking develops in the first place,” said lead researcher Dr. Jennifer Mitchell. “That greater feeling of reward might cause them to drink too much.”
The alcoholic community responds with a resounding “Duh.” But here’s the greater problem brewing in the labs of the Center for the Study of the Blindingly Obvious: The researchers are excited about these finding because they pinpoint specific endorphin receptors active in the heavy drinkers. This mean they can now develop drugs to block those receptors, the way suboxone and other opiate blockers are supposed to reduce heroin dependence by making heroin not work so well. “If it doesn’t feel good, why do it?” is the theory.
The problem with that theory is that it doesn’t go far enough. The actual addict continues “…I’ll just do something else.” The basic need, after all, is to feel okay. If the alcohol doesn’t make me feel good any more, I’ll find something that does. What fills basic needs? Food (overeating, self-starvation), money (gambling, shopping, hoarding), love (sex, relationship, romance, fantasy.)
Now, I am pleased as punch — rum punch, if you’re asking, but not today — that the American Society of Addiction Medicine has officially declared that addiction is “a chronic brain disorder.” It’s less judgmental than “lack of willpower,” “moral failing” or “demonic possession.” But you can’t cure addiction by attacking the substance; any more than you can heal a wounded soldier by treating the bayonet that stabbed him.
That, too, was once considered good medicine
Ethlie Ann Vare will be taking questions live on the air this Sunday, January 15 at 8-9 pm (Pacific Time) on KLEAN Radio, KFWB News Radio 980 in Los Angeles and KFMB 760 in San Diego, streaming live web-wide at http://www.kleanradio.com/live-stream/
A lively debate is always welcome. Please call and give her a hard time.
My long response to the good doctor will be up on The Fix, or HuffPo, or maybe the Studio City Patch. Journalism has become a crazy party game of late, something between Pin the Tail on the Donkey and throwing copy into a large fan and waiting to see where it lands.
Anyhow, David Ley is the psychologist who makes his living denying that there is such a thing as sex addiction. His new book is called The Myth of Sex Addiction, and his latest article in the London Telegraph is being widely spread by the large fanblades.
I can — and do — delineate the scientific problems with his thesis, but the main problem I have is with Ley’s logic. He falls prey to what’s known as the Deductive Fallacy. He posits that those who believe sex can be addictive are moralist anti-sex bible-thumpers, and therefore should not be taken seriously.
Here’s the thing. Just because moralist anti-sex bible-thumpers believe there is such a thing as sex addiction, does not mean that people who believe there is such a thing as sex addiction are moralist anti-sex bible-thumpers. It’s like saying that because Crips wear blue t-shirts, if you wear a blue t-shirt you must be a Crip. Junior high school kids in L.A. have gotten shot over that particular deductive fallacy.
I am not anti-sex; I love sex. (References provided upon request.) I have never read the entire bible, much less thumped it. Addiction is a health issue, not a moral one — although people do some pretty heinous things to satisfy their compulsions, whether for sex or gambling or alcohol or prettied-up-in-pink-bows romance. IMHO, slashing your ex’s tires is an immoral act. Sue me.
BUT…just because sex an be addictive doesn’t mean that everyone who has sex — even a lot of sex — is an addict. AND… just because reigious fanatics counsel sex addicts, doesn’t mean all sex addiction counselors are religious fanatics.
You’re a doctor. Apply some scientific rigor to your arguments.
Is it wrong to read sections of LOVE ADDICT during a church sermon? Depends on the section… and whether or not you’re preaching the sermon.
I’m very glad you like the book, and I encourage you to share it widely. Thank you for interacting; I like not speaking to a vacuum. ethlie
I let two calls go to voicemail this evening. The first was from Minnesota, so it was probably Senator Al Franken’s campaign office asking for money (dude, you already got elected; let it go) and the other was from one of those fake numbers that’s probably someone calling via Skype to sell me prescription drugs from India, which is a mean thing to do to a recovering drug addict.
The point of the story, though, is not the insanity of our cash-mad political system or the lure of gray market Ambien. The point is that I didn’t pick up the phone.
In the past, I might have convinced myself that the caller from Minnesota could have been that cute guy I met on that trip to St. Paul that time. Or reminded myself that the Australian bodybuilder I once dated would call on Skype. The love addict gremlin that lives in my reptile brain could always come up with some reason to grab for the phone and anticipate the mail.
My insanity is, if nothing else, optimistic.
I think the quickest way to spot a sex and love addict is to see how easy he or she is to reach. Sex and love addicts leave forwarding addresses. We transfer our calls to our cell phones. We leave word where we can be found at any hour of the day or night. God forbid that our soulmate should try to contact us and not be able to! Somewhere in the back of every love addict’s head is the fantasy that Prince Charming is out there somewhere, and you never know if today is the day he’s going to reach out and touch you. Maybe this is the morning your unrequited crush will realize you were The One all along. You never know.
Yes, people are more wired today than they were only a few years ago, and you can tell me you’re glued to your devices purely for business purposes. But in your heart, you know what call you’re expecting. And every time the caller isn’t your true love, but just another fundraiser from Minnesota or telemarketer from Bangalore, doesn’t your heart sink a little? It fills every day with a parade of disappointment and unmet expectation. No wonder love addicts get depressed.
In my book, it’s a signpost of recovery for any sex and love addict to not pick up a phone. Prince Charming can leave a damn message.