The Strange Passions of Buzz Bissinger

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March 26 2013 5:12 PM

The Strange Passions of Buzz Bissinger

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American journalist and author Buzz Bissinger

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The headline on Buzz Bissinger’s new piece in GQ, describing his so-called “My Gucci Addiction,” doesn’t capture the half of it. From the start of this astonishing confessional, there are clues that Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and author, is not merely engaging in a bit of overzealous retail therapy. This isn’t even like those episodes of Hoarding: Buried Alive where the houses are so stuffed with unworn clothes that visitors can barely pick their way to the toilet. This is worse. Bissinger writes about how Gucci flew him to a fashion show in Italy for free because he spends so much money on the brand, rather like how Vegas casinos comp their biggest gamblers’ hotel suites and meals and God knows what else. Bissinger says he is an addict, and so far his drug of choice—shopping—has cost him $638,412.97 over the course of three years.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

Bissinger appears to understand this on a certain level—he describes his addiction as “the futile feeding of the bottomless beast”—but his self-analysis is studded with enough justifications and logical elisions to suggest he doesn’t quite get what he’s up against. Neither, apparently, do others reading his essay. “Buzz Bissinger Is This Obsessed with Designer Clothes,” is how The Atlantic Wire headlines its take. But this isn’t a story about fashion. With all the necessary caveats—I’m not a shrink, and I’m certainly not Bissinger’s shrink—I’ll say it: This reads like a story about mental illness.

Is Bissinger aware of what’s really going on? (And, for that matter, are his editors, in running this piece ostensibly about one middle-aged man’s eccentricities, aware that they may really be chronicling a dark disorder?) A kind of mental cloudiness, a lack of self-awareness, appears to prevent Bissinger from putting the pieces together himself, but the clues are all there. In the four days of his Italian fashion trip, he writes, he spends $51,000, about one year’s college tuition for his son. And in recent years he has bought 41 pairs of leather pants, 115 pairs of leather gloves, a $22,500 Persian lamb’s wool jacket, and another one in ostrich skin, for $13,900. He admits all this. And yeah, he’s in the habit of buying things without looking at the price tags, and buying the same thing twice, and buying things without ever wearing them, and getting deliveries almost daily (and yeah, the UPS guy has seen him in the six-inch stilettos he once bought.) And yeah, he’s been doing some online binge-shoppinging while anxious or depressed or “flat,” hoping for the emotional “hit” of a purchase. He knows this is “self-indulgence,” he allows, but as someone who spent his life in khakis and Brooks Brothers, this “penchant for high fashion…is a way of making up for lost time.”

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Bissinger traces the emergence of his shopping habit to his youngest son leaving for college and his wife taking a job abroad. Until then, he’d been leading “a life of extreme repression,” not allowing himself to dress with the flair he’s always been drawn to. And he craved “stimulation.:” Writing wasn’t cutting it anymore. Given these circumstances, “explosion is inevitable,” he writes. Really?

Bissinger writes that he has a therapist, and casually mentions, in parentheses, that he is “on medication for mild bipolarity.” He says that, despite his spending, he’s not in danger of going broke because “I make a good living and received a generous inheritance from my parents,” but also writes about emailing his “broker for money when the debt became too much.” There are other clues to what read like impulsive behaviors symptomatic of mania: sexual experimentation, including gay sex and S&M and days spent with “many, many women” in sex clubs in Hong Kong and Macao. He reveals that he’s been attending meetings for sex addiction, and that he’s not sure he ever should have married his third wife. (Hey, hon!) He references his own “nasty guillotine rants on Twitter going after everything and everyone,” which Salon chronicled here. (Sample: He called one person a “fucking douchejuice retard.”) And, he writes, “I was offered a wonderful opportunity in radio, which I blew last December because of my flash temper and scary outbursts. I lasted less than six months.” Some things he does not mention, but readers who follow and admire Bissinger may have noticed his bombastic and extreme about-faces on topics like Lance Armstrong and Barack Obama.

What purpose does a confessional like this serve if the confessor appears not to know what he’s confessing to? And, for that matter, is this florid revelation of one’s darkest and most personal habits the way to address an illness of the mind?

“It started three years ago,” Bissinger writes of his compulsion. “I have never fully revealed it, and am only revealing it now in the hopes that my confession will incite a remission and perhaps help others of similar compulsion.” But really, Bissinger’s impulsive, reckless, and very public disrobing reads like more of the same.

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