Right off the top you gals, this one is a tough read.
Not tough in the sense that it’s a slog or that you have to push your way through. Kind of the opposite, actually. I was propelled through this book, captivated by it, couldn’t put it down. I usually read on the train on my way to work, but this is the first time I can remember that I would read all day before my shift, read while walking to and from transit, and only put it away when my boss started giving me the side eye. It’s not the writing that’s tough, it’s the subject. This book is about hunger, yeah, but it’s also about suffering and humiliation, about craving love and comfort and acceptance, about never finding it, or finding it and not recognizing it, finding it and losing it, finding it and having it not be enough. This book is about a lot of things and none of them are easy.
When Gay was a small child she went through something horrendous, something that changed her and altered the course of her entire life. I’m not going to get into what the event itself actually is (I tried a couple of times and just…read the book. Gay was there, it happened to her, and she’s a better writer than me anyways), but I will warn you that it does have to do with sexual violence and it’s…very difficult to read. Gay’s great talent as a writer is her voice, her ability to make you empathize and relate to her, to connect with and feel like you understand her. In anything else of hers that I’ve read that’s a strength, and it’s a strength here too, it’s just a complicated one. It hurts to watch somebody you’re connecting with suffer so much.
I’ve never read a memoir quite like this one, one so concerned with the body. It makes sense, it’s what this part of her story is all about. The invasion of it, the effort she went through to change it, the consequences of that change. And she has such an interesting view of the body, one so different from my own. For myself, I see my body and me as one. There’s no difference, no space, between the two. But Roxane constantly refers to her body as a structure separate from herself, as a prison, a fortress, a cage, a cave. Always things that you can either hide or be held in. For her, maybe that’s not that far from the truth. She used food to turn her body into a stronghold. Big, imposing, impregnable, but inescapable as well. Sometimes she loves her body and how strong it is, sometimes she hates the limits it puts on her, but she’s always aware of it, in a way I’ve never experienced. Things that most people take for granted are constant sources of stress and anxiety for her: shopping, going for walks with friends, getting on an airplane, going to events (she tells a story about an event that she had to speak at where there was an elevated stage, about three feet off the ground, and no stairs. After visibly struggling in front of the audience to get on to the stage, eventually having to be helped up by some of the other speakers, she sat on the flimsy, thin wooden chair that they’d placed on the stage for her and heard a crack. She was able to use the strength of her legs to take her weight off the chair enough so that it didn’t break, but she was so humiliated by the experience that she threw up in her mouth and had to swallow it), and even what she can and can’t eat in public. She says to a friend that offers her chips at one point that people “that look like me don’t get to eat food like that in public.”
Which brings me to my next point. Can we please, as a society, just stop being shitty to people about their bodies? The constant comments and intrusions that Gay has to face from people all the time, the humiliations, are unacceptable. No person should be subjected to that kind of treatment. And I know, I know, you say that you’re concerned about their health and whatever, but let’s be honest here, you’re really not. You’re trying to make yourself feel good about your own body, your own flaws, by framing somebody else’s as being worse. You’re putting someone else down to make yourself feel good. It’s what children and bullies do, so grow up and cut it the fuck out.
This book is, without a doubt, one of the rawest and most intimate memoirs I’ve ever read. And so universally human too. I felt myself constantly surprised by how relatable I found it. I may not have experienced the trauma that she has, or lived in the body she’s lived in, or done the things she’s done, but I kept seeing myself in her reactions and desires. Her hungers are the ones we all feel, for food yeah, but also for love and affection and respect, safety and security and comfort. For peace. I hope she finds it.
Recommended for those who like intimate, personal accounts of tragedy, those who like intelligent, sharp takes on difficult things we don’t often talk about, and people who don’t mind ugly crying on a bus full of strangers. Really though, read this book.