Anyone picking up Portia de Rossi‘s book with the hope of finding juicy tidbits about her wife Ellen Degeneres should put it right back down. “Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain” is a book about anorexia nervosa. Period.
Everything else – de Rossi’s romance with the famous talk show host, her role in the 1990s sitcom “Ally McBeal,” her career as a child model – is subservient to the rapacious main character, the eating disorder that nearly killed the Australian-born actress before she fully recovered in 2002. The only thing that occasionally shares the spotlight with anorexia is de Rossi’s struggle to accept her own sexuality, and even that appears mostly as an exacerbating factor to the disorder.
This laser-like focus on the subject not only lends the book a compelling narrative arc, it also allows the author to inhabit herself in a totally subjective way. She tells her story, which is so full of shame, shamelessly, because it’s not about her; it’s about anorexia.
I painstakingly extinguished the cigarette… and I wondered when I was going to use up the calories I’d eaten for breakfast, as I hadn’t had time to do my full one-hour run. As I followed the last wisp of smoke from the ashtray as it meandered upward and collided with the passenger window, I saw a beautiful tree-lined street on my right named Commodore Sloat. The name struck me as being very odd, as it sounded more like a street name you’d come across in London than where I was, south of Wilshire in Los Angeles. I checked the time: 9:20. It occurred to me in a flash of excitement that I had time to get out of the car and away from this anxious feeling of being trapped, stale and inactive. I would take a quick run up and down that street.
The reader helplessly witnesses de Rossi suffer many other such strokes of genius, often less comical than an actress stopping her morning commute to take a jog in platform heels on a strange Hollywood street – and sometimes downright gruesome. We might shudder with embarrassment, but she never does.
All but the epilogue of “Unbearable Lightness” is told in the first person and is devoid of commentary aided by hindsight. In other words, de Rossi only explains her actions from the point of view of someone caught in the throes of psychosis; and mainly, she just recounts her actions. She also sprinkles the journey into anorexia with flashbacks to warning signs from her childhood, giving the story an onion-like complexity that allows the disorder’s true potency to creep up and sink in like cold dread. One wonders how she survived.
According to the epilogue, she did so because she learned to love herself. In the post-script, de Rossi finally ruminates, unmasking anorexia as self-loathing fueled by unreasonable societal pressures. It’s not an extraordinary coup, but she pulls it off so deftly (particularly in the first two sections) that it compensates for the overall average prose and instances of sloppy editing. After all, de Rossi isn’t a writer.
She is, however, a story-teller. And with “Unbearable Lightness,” she offers a tale full of rare insights that counselors, nutritionists, parents and anyone else interested in eating disorders will appreciate.