Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain (Review)

February 7, 2011

Book cover for "Unbearable Lightness" by Portia De Rossi.Title: Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain

Author: Portia de Rossi

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 320

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Purchased audiobook version from Audible.com

From the cover:

“I didn’t decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude. Being as thin as possible was a way to make the job of being an actress easier . . .”

Portia de Rossi weighed only 82 pounds when she collapsed on the set of the Hollywood film in which she was playing her first leading role. This should have been the culmination of all her years of hard work — first as a child model in Australia, then as a cast member of one of the hottest shows on American television. On the outside she was thin and blond, glamorous and successful. On the inside, she was literally dying.

In this searing, unflinchingly honest book, Portia de Rossi captures the complex emotional truth of what it is like when food, weight, and body image take priority over every other human impulse or action. She recounts the elaborate rituals around eating that came to dominate hours of every day, from keeping her daily calorie intake below 300 to eating precisely measured amounts of food out of specific bowls and only with certain utensils. When this wasn’t enough, she resorted to purging and compulsive physical exercise, driving her body and spirit to the breaking point.

Even as she rose to fame as a cast member of the hit television shows Ally McBeal and Arrested Development, Portia alternately starved herself and binged, all the while terrified that the truth of her sexuality would be exposed in the tabloids. She reveals the heartache and fear that accompany a life lived in the closet, a sense of isolation that was only magnified by her unrelenting desire to be ever thinner. With the storytelling skills of a great novelist and the eye for detail of a poet, Portia makes transparent as never before the behaviors and emotions of someone living with an eating disorder.

From her lowest point, Portia began the painful climb back to a life of health and honesty, falling in love with and eventually marrying Ellen DeGeneres, and emerging as an outspoken and articulate advocate for gay rights and women’s health issues.

In this remarkable and beautifully written work, Portia shines a bright light on a dark subject. A crucial book for all those who might sometimes feel at war with themselves or their bodies, Unbearable Lightness is a story that inspires hope and nourishes the spirit.

I’ve always been intrigued by Portia de Rossi, even more so in recent years as she’s been married to Ellen de Generes. I was pretty young when she was on Ally McBeal, but I do remember watching it pretty regularly. By the time she was in the tabloids for her weight and possible eating disorder, I wasn’t really paying attention to Hollywood actors anymore – but now, I find eating disorders really interesting to read about.

In Unbearable Lightness, de Rossi re-tells her story of becoming a child model, and later of her success as a Hollywood actor. Specifically, she talks about her relationship with food – how it changes throughout her life, and how it defines the way that she lives. It’s obvious to the reader from very early on that this relationship is unhealthy, and yet de Rossi continually defends her choices and beliefs.

A fair bit of the book is also related to de Rossi’s sexuality: namely, her fear that people would find out that she was a lesbian. Worries about this were peppered throughout the book, as though the fear of being outed (and subsequently ruining her career) were inextricably linked with the way that she treated her body.

To be honest, reading this book made me very uncomfortable at times, but it was largely because of the content – it made me extremely uncomfortable to be “inside” the head of someone with a very severe eating disorder. I couldn’t believe some of the things that de Rossi was saying or that she was doing to herself, and yet I know that they were really part of how she felt and acted at the time. It was flat out scary.

It made her story feel real, though. It wasn’t a sanitized version of her life – it was how she really lived it. And while that reality is scary, it was interesting to read about, and definitely taught me things that I didn’t know about how eating disorders affect the lives of those who have them.

If you’re interested in food-related disorders, or simply in de Rossi, then you will likely enjoy Unbearable Lightness.

Rating:

One Comment

  • Amy February 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

    This definitely sounds like an interesting book. I think I’ll have to check for it at some point.

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