Maybe you don’t know a gambler whose destructive addiction has taken its toll and still think of gambling as an amusement of a sophisticated man like Nicky Arnstein in the movie Funny Girl or Jim Sturgess’ character Ben Campbell in 21. The reality is that a gambling addiction often leads to financial and emotional losses, even prison and suicide. I call it the Other Addiction because we hear so much about drug and alcohol addiction, but gambling can be just as deadly.
To find out what it’s like to live your life as a person with this terrible disease, read Bill Lee’s memoir Born to Lose. Lee is a 2nd generation Chinese-American, born in 1954. The origins of his addiction have their roots in his genetic history (father, grandfather) and in his upbringing (struggle between traditional Chinese home disturbed by mental illness and dysfunction and life on the tough streets of San Francisco amid gang life).
Lee’s book is written in a straightforward, no-nonsense journalistic style, very different from the lyrical style of The Kiss or Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. There is a simplicity to how he tells his tale that belies the hard work he put into (I’m sure) structuring his mainly chronological story. I say “mainly” because the story begins with a framework that allows him to share his story as he might “therapy” in a 12 step meeting. It begins with Bill hosting a GA (Gambler’s Anonymous) meeting and when he’s asked to share for the sake of a new member, the story begins:
My mother was convinced that the men in our family were cursed by a gambling demon.
I love how this opening focuses on how bad and longstanding the problem of gambling was for Lee’s family, as well as how it shows his mother as a traditional Chinese woman who believes there can be such a thing as a “gambling demon.” Also, when I noted the structure, I thought “of course” because the structure seems to fit the idea of a recovery story so well. Because that is what happens and the reader knows it from the beginning. Lee’s story is one of addiction and recovery.
In some ways this book is a complement to books like The Joy Luck Club, which focus on the stories of Chinese and Chinese-American women. We get some insight into what it is like to be a Chinese-American man of Lee’s generation.
Lee also writes much of his life as a Type-A businessman in the Silicon Valley and how he juggled the demands of his job and the demands of being a single father with the more intense demands of his addiction. Addictions are soul-deadening, and that is what Lee shows the reader by allowing us into his private world.
One little warning: before you go over to Amazon, know that there is a spoiler in Lee’s bio. It doesn’t ruin the book, but something horrific occurs in the book that reminds me of another memoir I’ve reviewed here. If you want to experience it as a shock, as I did, don’t read the bio or reviews on Amazon, just order the book!
OK, now a little postscript: Lee does a great job of showing his contradictory reaction to GA meetings and depicting that the meetings and people involved are not all a positive experience. It’s a sign to stop looking for perfection. By reading this book, an addict who comes up with excuses for not going to 12 step meetings can learn that it works to take what one needs and leave the rest. I really like his whole philosophy about rehab. Let me leave you with this portion.
Many Twelve Steppers believe people can only begin their recovery after they hit rock bottom. That’s probably true for the most part, but we need to be mindful that as addicts, there is no guarantee that we have hit rock bottom. All addicts are a slip away from relapse and a potentially deeper bottom. That’s why as addicts, it’s important to accept our addictions as lifelong diseases–we’re never cured. [Then Lee gives an example of a man named Robert who was left alone, while other gamblers waited for him to hit bottom before they helped him more actively. Unfortunately, Robert died during his next relapse.] But what Robert taught me is that we need to reach out and carry the GA message to other compulsive gamblers before they hit their bottom, which in many cases is prison, insanity, or death.
Brilliant. And good advice to those who love addicts, as well.