‘Unbearable Lightness’ by Portia de Rossi

I’ll approach any famous person’s memoir with the same level of skepticism: are you writing this because you’re a writer with a story to tell, or because you’re a celebrity with a book contract to fulfill? Naturally, I’m partial to books that honor the former, and it was a relief to discover that Portia de Rossi is a writer with a story to tell.

In her memoir detailing her battle with anorexia, Unbearable Lightness (Atria/Simon & Schuster) (yes, I, too, cringed at a title that, while apt, mostly invokes the very different and very sacred Milan Kundera novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being), de Rossi creates a true page turner, revealing a generous amount of character, insight, and detail through which the reader is able to experience every dip and toss of her descent into anorexic insanity.

The madness de Rossi succumbs to through her eating disorder is a type of insanity that could rival Natalie Portman’s nail-ripping and bloody psychosis in “Black Swan.”

From the opening scene, when de Rossi ends an evening of chain smoking and staring at the refrigerator (“Watching the door was the only way I could be sure I wasn’t opening it,” she deadpans) by ravenously eating four frozen yogurts on the kitchen floor with her fingers, you can be sure that de Rossi’s tale is not for the faint of heart.

The truest and shortest review of her memoir could be given in the four words her wife Ellen DeGeneres responded with after reading it: “Baby, you were crazy.”

Being the wife of Ellen is, admittedly, the role through which I’m most familiar with Portia de Rossi. I’d always been curious to learn more about the loving partner of America’s first publicly out lesbian actress, and I was pleased to see that, although primarily a book about eating disorders, de Rossi is forthright and a sympathetic character in writing about her sexuality.

By page eight, she’s revealed one of her most insane episodes of binge eating. By page twelve, she’s admitted that she’s gay, but has no idea how to take this truth out into the world.

These two struggles become entwined as her quest for thinness becomes a harrowing maintenance of outrageous physical and emotional demands, and she confuses one shame for the other. In a secret food journal she hides from her nutritionist, de Rossi describes writing such hurtful things to herself as “YOU ARE A FAT UGLY DYKE”—hoping that the negative affirmation will trick her into working harder to lose weight.

But there are a sprinkling of tender moments any queer person who’s struggled with coming out can relate to, as seen in de Rossi’s years long crush on her straight best friend Sacha. She writes Sacha dozens of romantic letters, all of which remain unsent. Crushing out on a straight best friend seems to me one of many queer rites of passage, and de Rossi is no stranger to it.

It is her generous and unsparing account of her descent into a nearly irreversible anorexic lifestyle that carries the book along. As de Rossi gains success in the acting world, a need to fit into the smallest sample size in the costume department becomes an obsessive drive to lose more and more weight.

By the time she is so ill that she collapses on set, de Rossi has whittled her calorie intake to 300 per day, and justified such decisions as the ones to forgo lip balm and toothpaste, for fear of accidental calorie intake when using them.

In her writing, de Rossi unfolds her own tale with such precision that it is absolutely eerie to watch her thinking deteriorate as fast as her body. When she is finally given a diagnosis of the physical damage she’s done herself, de Rossi offsets these sentences with a handful of photos of herself at the end—a skeleton, smiling, broken.

Yet the mortification that drives her need to diet is sometimes as palpable as her insanity: when she is hired to be a spokesperson for L’Oreal, a hotel suite full of more than two hundred designer suits for the photo shoot becomes the scene of absolute humiliation.

One after another, suits are discarded as de Rossi can’t squeeze into any of the skirts offered for her to try on. The tension mounts until the wardrobe director quips to the anxious L’Oreal executives, “No one told me she was a size 8.” It’s a scene that haunts de Rossi as much as it will haunt the reader.

As with most recovery memories, Unbearable Lightness has a happy ending. I was most touched by the first few pages of the Epilogue, where a story devoured by numbers and obsession gives way to light and love, as de Rossi gives a portrait of her and Ellen in their loving and radiant relationship.

She narrates waking alone, early at their weekend farmhouse. When she goes out to see the horses and is asked where Ellen is, she answers that she’s letting Ellen sleep in.

She especially needed to sleep this morning, as she was awake most of the night reading long after I fell asleep. She was awake most of the night reading this book.

As the Epilogue continues, though, I found myself wishing de Rossi had devoted an entire other part to what she packs into the last twenty-nine pages. She rushes through her choice to come out, her foray into dating women, and how she met and became involved with Ellen.

Alongside these tidbits, she describes her recovery attempts and final epiphany that she can let go of dieting and find her true self. There’s even a whiff of what could be misconstrued as fatphobia, as de Rossi spends her final pages talking about how she stays skinny now, and making such observations as how dog walking might be a natural part of staying fit, as she never sees fat people walking dogs.

If she had devoted the same generous attention and narrative detail to the Epilogue as she does to the first part of her tale, I can only imagine how more stunning her story could be.

Now that she’s proven she can write—this is a satisfying and well-told memoir that I would recommend to anyone—I can only hope that de Rossi continues writing, and perhaps writes more about her new life and new love.
by Portia de Rossi
Atria / Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 978-1439177785, 320pp.
November 2010