This is an incredibly intense scene from Martin Scorsese’s 1974 follow-up to “Mean Streets,” the proto-feminist “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” The recently widowed Alice, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, discovers that the man she has hooked up with (played by Harvey Keitel) is married with a child. Keitel’s character then appears and unleashes a very scary side to his personality that Alice has not seen before. Even though there’s not a lot of bad language per se, the intensity of this scene is shocking for a then PG-rated film. Seriously, this entire scene is extraordinarily weird and disturbing for a mainstream film, but then again, that was Hollywood in the 1970s. Burstyn earned an Oscar for her performance in “Alice,” which while well-deserved, probably should have earned it for “The Exorcist” or “Requiem for a Dream.” Still, a great performance and an amazing look at how ballsy mainstream American cinema once was.
Sex addiction is sort of taken seriously these days, but too often, it’s either thought of as a failure of morality or mindlessly celebrated as “transgressive.” I don’t believe Hubert Selby Jr. was ever a sex addict, but sex addiction follows similar patterns of other addictive behaviors, whether it’s drug abuse, shopping to the point of bankruptcy, hoarding, overeating, etc. Addiction is a compulsion to do the same behavior over and over again to satisfy some undefined need that’s never fulfilled. It can be a very scary and dark place. Selby understood this and had the foresight to write one of the first pieces of fiction that took this compulsion very seriously.
Written in 1976, “The Demon” is about a man named Harry who is a rising star on the corporate ladder, except his addiction to anonymous hook-ups consistently threatens to derail his career, his marriage, his sanity, his freedom, and his life. The book chronicles roughly 15 years Harry’s life from his early 20s until his late 30s and shows his struggles. It’s an explicit book, but not in the way you would expect (especially from Selby). Instead of describing Harry’s sexual hook-ups explicitly, it instead graphically describes the inner demons raging within him before a hook-up … the twitching, the sweating, the rationalizing, and finally the surrender to his compulsions. He tries substituting other things for his addiction (i.e. he becomes obsessed with collecting plants), but always succumbs to the monkey on his back. The book takes some very dark turns. I can’t say there’s a happy ending.
If my synopsis makes “The Demon” sound like some hysterical, religious-inflected “Reefer Madness”-style look at sex addiction, it’s only because of my limitations as a writer. “The Demon” is a great, but very dark hell-ride into the inner hell of compulsive behavior. The fact that this was written during the height of the sexual revolution (the original book was published by Playboy Press) is especially ballsy on Selby’s part and being a recovering addict himself, had an insight into a compulsive behavior many didn’t (and still don’t) take seriously. A truly terrific, scary, and underrated book that many people don’t know about (“Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Requiem for a Dream” being Selby’s most famous works).