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by Richard J. Mouw
Confessions of a Sex Addict
Secret Life: An Autobiography
By Michael Ryan
357 pp.; $25; Vintage, $13, paper
The turning point in Michael Ryan's life came one day in his forties as he was driving from Boston to Albany. A prize-winning poet, he had recently been fired by Princeton University for seducing women students. His marriage had fallen apart. Yet, as he drove, he could think of nothing else but his planned seduction of the 15-year-old daughter of the friends he would be visiting in Albany. What happened to keep him from making the visit, he "still cannot explain." He simply stopped his car, filled with a panic that was followed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and then by a mental blankness. He turned around and drove home to Boston. In his one effort to provide an explanation, he reaches for theological categories: He was rescued by "the grace of God, or luck (the secular term for grace)."
I read Ryan's autobiography not too long after rereading Kierkegaard's Either/Or, and I was struck by some key differences between the two accounts of sexual seduction. The fictional antihero of Kierkegaard's "Diary of the Seducer" treated sexual conquest as a case in point for a larger "aesthetic" project, orchestrating his affair with the proud and beautiful Cordelia as if he were creating a work of fiction. He distanced himself from any subjective involvement in the relationship: passion, the appearance of commitment, and individual pleasures all had their place only if they were important to the unfolding of the overall plot. In all of this, Kierkegaard's seducer took special pains to avoid "giddiness."
While Ryan also insisted on maintaining subjective distance from his sexual partners, his sex life was nothing if not giddy: he uses words like "drunk" and "insane" to describe his typical sexual mood. Ryan's report of his struggle with sexual compulsion has the feel of a traditional theological account of idolatry:
[It] determined what I thought and what I felt. My personality was ...