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She Bets Her LifeReview - She Bets Her Life
A True Story of Gambling Addiction
by Mary Sojourner
Seal Press, 2010
Review by Justin Tillinghast
Oct 19th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 42)

In Mary Sojourner's She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction, the author examines the underserved but fastest growing group of compulsive gamblers: the addicted female. While weaving the author's biography along with research on the brain's physiology, She Bets Her Life can be read like a novel. The book has a far higher utility when used as a reference guide. Chapters devoted to brain chemistry, the tactics of the gambling industry and the pain an addict suffers from gambling withdrawal can be read multiple times.

Because the author's goal is to explore women and gambling, I need to state two facts. First, my name is Justin and I am a compulsive gambler. Second, I am a middle-aged man.  Since the critics of Gamblers Anonymous (GA) claim of gender bias is so pervasive the GA Wikipedia entry explores the problem, I hoped Sojourner would help me understand the different needs of women who attend my GA meetings.

When Sojourner decides to surrender to her powerlessness over gambling (the first time), she states, "The migraines began to trigger panic attacks….I needed to find a gambling addicts support group-preferably one that was all women." Maddeningly, Sojourner does not explain why she needs a single-sex group. The comment just lays there.  Discovering Sojourner was the first woman-specific mental-health counselor in Rochester, New York may provide an answer, albeit incomplete.

Since a miniscule, yet growing, percentage of compulsive gamblers are women, most women will not have the luxury of finding an all-female group. Fortunate for her, Sojourner finds such a group called the Desert Hot Springs Scheherazade's Sisters in Flagstaff, Arizona. When her career moves Sojourner to Bend, Oregon, she speaks positively about her new GA group which presumably includes men. Not much enlightenment is given about the interaction of her unisex group. Did the all female Arizona group do the heavy lifting, while the Oregon group provided maintenance? What could women learn from the Oregon group to help them use GA to stop gambling?

The beginning and the bulk of She Bets Her Life is spent with the Scheherazade's Sisters, a motley crew of lovable women with diseased minds and damaged souls confounded with a compulsive gambling problem. Scheherazade, a character in One Thousand and One Nights, is an odd literary reference to base a self-help group since she saved her life by telling a story that lasted one thousand nights.  Most addicts have done too much talking and rationalizing. Addicts should listen to people with prolonged abstinence.

Like Sojourner, Delfina works in the mental health field as a substance abuse counselor who is haunted by witnessing childhood trauma. Candace grew up in rural Georgia, followed a "professional" gambler to Las Vegas and hustled men out of money and their marriages. In a stunning admission, Candace's conniving resulted in one woman's suicide.  A native of Vietnam, K Sui pawns intricate family heirlooms to continue to gamble. Barb steals money from the PTA and remains in the penal system. Later, a college student named Tiffany drops out of school and sells her body to cover gambling debts. Sojourner paints each of these woman and the remaining Sisters so completely the reader becomes an honorary member of the group.

The only Sister whose picture is incomplete is Sojourner herself. As a child, Sojourner had a mother who suffered from psychosis. Despite being in her mid-sixties, the picture she paints of a little girl not having a responsive parent is riveting. While the reason Sojourner became a compulsive gambler is clear, the author fails to explain why she considers herself a problem gambler. Despite claiming she blew half of her monthly living expenses on slot machines and having only $40 in her pocket and $25 in a savings account and worrying about the rent being covered, Sojourner never admits to as much as bouncing a rent check or paying a utility bill late. This level of denial is common among those addicts just entering rooms not someone confident enough to write a book.

Although Sojourner goes on slot machine binges that affect her health as a diabetic and cause her to drive in dangerous situations, she gives too little insight into how her family is affected by her problem. Her grandchildren live far away. Without the financial loss caused by gambling, couldn't she visit her extended family?

The real value of the book is when Sojourner researches compulsive gambling topics that intrigue her. Like many addicts, taking an interest in a topic means a full bore effort. The saying may be trite but to an addict, "One is too many and a thousand is never enough." Even the most veteran of GA rooms can learn from the chapter devoted to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Having a damaged brain, compulsive gamblers cannot process dopamine properly. Even when losing, gambling releases a flood of the feel good transmitter.

When Sojourner tackles the casino industry, her observations border on chilling. Nothing about the gambling industry is an accident. The goal of the slot machine owners are to take the player down to extinction. Reading the word "extinction" again and again chills the soul. The slot machines are designed to trap the player into a pernicious maze of winning and losing, of reward and punishment  that even B.F. Skinner would applaud the effort.

Possibly the most misunderstood aspect of compulsive gambling is the pain of withdrawal. When gambling, no drug is ingested and no drink is consumed. The lay person may wonder how quitting can cause physical pain. But initial abstinence does hurt. Although the chapter on withdrawal is illuminating, Sojourner promotes the Victoria, Canada, GA website as a learning tool. The information on the website is so complete I almost forgot Sojourner's writing on withdrawal. The remainder of the book on recidivism offers little that could not be culled from GA literature.

She Bets Her Life is an engaging read about one woman's struggle with compulsive gambling. Sojourner provides research that any gambler could use. When she tells her own story, the results seem incomplete. I once heard a member of Alcoholics Anonymous say, "It takes a year of abstinence for the brain to heal completely from just one relapse drink." I wonder how more powerful and honest the book may have been if Sojourner had a longer period of abstinence. I hope she writes a follow-up book five years from now.


© 2010 Justin Tillinghast 


Justin Tillinghast holds degrees in economics and political science from Bucknell University. After  spending  fifteen years in Washington, DC working as a Congressional Aide and stand-up comedian, he works for the Census Bureau in Horseheads, New York.


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