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Benoit Denizet-Lewis Guides Us Through the Margins

First published on LAist on January 13, 2010.

Below is part one of my book review/interview with author Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

In the introduction to his second book American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life Benoit Denizet-Lewis writes, “And although I have written about sports, for the most part I’ve gravitated toward chronicling the lives of people who are ignored, misunderstood, stereotyped, or outside the mainstream.”

This collection of pieces he has written for various publications traditional and online like The New York Times magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon.com, Slate.com and Out to name several from 2000 to 2008 does probe into the lives of those normally marginalized by the media and the public.

“I think if there’s anything I tried to do in American Voyeur, it was to get beyond the kneejerk reaction to an idea or to a group of people that we may not know much about,” Denizet-Lewis told me in a phone interview on Sunday. “American Voyeur is really going into the subcultures and really actually getting to know people.”

While perhaps the most controversial piece he has written was “Double Lives on the Down Low” detailing the Down Low culture amongst black males who lead a straight life but carry on sexual encounters with men at night, the most gripping piece was “Boy Crazy” which details how NAMBLA overestimated how far a reach the sexual revolution would have.

“I had the opportunity to actually go and write a piece about [NAMBLA] and go beyond the vitriol and see what did they think they were going to accomplish,” Denizet-Lewis explained. “Did they really believe that they were going to be passengers on the bandwagon of sexual liberation? And they really believed that they were going to be a strong political force. What happened? Why didn’t it happen? What do these guys believe? What does it say about us the way we decided to look at NAMBLA as opposed to other groups that espouse the same ideas.”

What makes Denizet-Lewis successful in his pieces is his open-mindedness in covering a subject. “I think so much of journalism tends to be taking a position one way or the other and a lot of that is so obvious,” he said.

And this is how he is able to allow his subjects to open up to him.

“People have ten facades of bullshit they show the world, and all of those facades are interesting. Me as a reporter if I’m hanging out with someone for a long time, I get to see those facades and all of those are interesting and hopefully get to who the person is when they’re trying not to impress you or project something in particular.”

As an openly gay writer it could be considered remarkable that he got hardcore teenage Christians (in “God Is Rad”) and pro-life teens (in “Camp Life”) to open up to him. But he did add in his introduction that adolescents tend to be more candid. “They seemed to relish having someone take interest in them – someone who would listen without judgment,” he writes.

In being nonjudgmental the humanity of his subjects comes up to the surface despite the disparity of beliefs. In fact he told me he was heartened by the teenage Christians.

“They were trying to convert me which was quite funny,” he said. “I really enjoyed spending time with them. After hanging out with them I really got a sense that if American kids were half as passionate about anything as these kids are about god, the world would be a much better place. I really believe that.”

American Voyeur is separated in two parts: a section entitled “Youth” and a section entitled “Sex”. However the themes of sexuality and identity is pervasive throughout all the pieces.

“Because of my own experience with sex addiction, maybe I’m more open-minded about the ways that people might seek to carve out their sex lives,” he said.

“Some of the big issues I wrote about are sex and identity. I can think these were things that I was struggling with and working out in my own life.”

American Voyeur is a set of stories that can be entertaining, enlightening and heart breaking sometimes all at the same time. It’s a very quick read – had the Pete Carroll story not pop up on Friday, I would have finished the promotional copy I received from the publisher that morning by that night – and very enjoyable.

Catch Part 2 of my interview with Benoit Denizet-Lewis tomorrow.

American Voyeur: Dispatches from the Far Reaches of Modern Life is published by Simon & Schuster and can be found at all book retailers.

Catch Benoit Denizet-Lewis weekly on Deadspin chronicling his alma mater Northwestern’s quest for their first NCAA Tournament invitation ever.

Also catch him tomorrow night at the Barnes & Noble at the Grove at 7 pm.

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