After reading UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, I feel quite certain that its author would fully understand why I am beginning my response to her book by telling a story of my own; it’s a way of affirming just how successful she has been in writing about something still too hidden, too “unmentionable” in so-called polite company.
I remember the “apple fight” as if it were just yesterday, but what turned out to be a startling teaching moment actually happened more than 40 years ago in my freshman university year. It’s how I first learned about people like Portia de Rossi and gained some insight into the horrible affliction of eating disorders.
Living on campus that year, my first-term roommate was one of those girls who you know has a completely different life, one you are simply not part of in any way. She was inscrutable, elusive and taciturn, spending most of her time in class, in the library, or (I assumed) with her own friends. Nearly every evening I had the luxury of undisturbed study time until curfew.
As late fall mid-terms and essay deadlines approached, I spent less time socializing in the dining hall after dinner and instead would take one or two crisp, crunchy apples back to the dorm to eat while studying. But one rainy evening, my barely-there roommate came back early; suddenly there she was, standing damp, rigid and livid in the doorway, glaring at a very surprised me, “caught in the act” with book and apple in hand.
“Eating, eating, eating, that’s all you ever do!” she blurted out. “What’s wrong with you anyway? You’re just trying to get to me, aren’t you? Well you can’t!! No way will I make a pig of myself…”
After that irrational outburst, she stormed off to the lounge with her books, but not until I’d actually looked at her --- I mean, really looked at her. It dawned on me that as the rest of us were struggling with the classic “frosh 15” weight gain (apples were a healthy response), my frosty companion had been going far more rapidly in the opposite direction, hiding her appearance under baggy clothes and a barbed personality that discouraged interaction.
If awareness of her self-starvation failed to catch my attention over three months, how long would it take others, with whom she did not share living space, to notice? When she dropped out “for personal reasons” in the midst of final exams, my former roommate (I was told later) weighed just 73.5 pounds.
And that’s what also happened to the Australian child model turned actress and then author Portia de Rossi, who in the depth of her all-consuming illness tipped the scales at less than 80 pounds and was on the verge of multiple internal organ failure and irreparable bone and nerve damage. No one seemed to “notice.”
In UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, de Rossi captures the powerful and insidious way in which the demon of distorted physical perfection subverts both the psychology and identity of its victims. It can go by a number of medical names --- the most familiar being anorexia and bulimia, or deprivation and deliberate purging. But as de Rossi repeatedly and memorably points out, an eating disorder is most often a tyrannical cluster of self-imposed behaviors that can lead victims from the heady illusion of successfully being in control of their image, down to the uncontrollable reality of imminent death.
Many of us who have never dieted, exercised or purged so far beyond healthful benefits admittedly have a difficult time taking this so-called “princess problem” seriously, because it is so exclusively an affliction rooted in societal affluence and stability. Initial responses to the revelation of someone suffering from anorexia, particularly among those we regard as successful and privileged, are more likely to be irritation, indignation, disgust or denial, rather than genuine concern and sympathy. After all, more than two-thirds of the world’s population is chronically malnourished or well into starvation existence, according to UN World Health Organization standards. Anorexia is virtually unknown in areas where there has never been enough to eat.
But de Rossi cuts through all the constraints of say-nothing good manners and political correctness by telling it like it is right from the start. While she could have laid substantial blame at her family’s feet for initially sowing the seeds of disaster during her years as a starving, binging child model, she doesn’t go that route. It would be too easy, too hurtful and too self-absorbed.
After a decade of slow, steady and reflective recovery, combined with a happy and stable marriage to celebrity spouse Ellen DeGeneres, de Rossi has brought to this difficult but welcome book a compelling objectivity. Above and beyond her own personal struggle, UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS reveals uncompromisingly that Western society as a whole needs to wake up to the dangers of an affliction caused and perpetuated by its own perverse standards of perfection.
Instead of using her considerable influence and media profile to gain attention through vanity or notoriety, de Rossi determinedly moved outward to affirm every woman’s right --- and moral necessity --- to be wholly herself in mind, body and spirit. In effect, she has declared open war against society’s big, bad, and often fatal lie that “you can never be too thin.”
I wish my briefly encountered university roommate could have read UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS. But I learned decades later that, unlike de Rossi, she didn’t make it.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on November 2, 2010