I don’t remember being fed in infancy — my memory doesn’t extend quite that far — but I was seven when my younger brother was born, and I vividly remember his feedings. They were quite a production. The bottles and nipples had to be washed, scrubbed with special brushes, then sterilized in a big metal pot that boiled hard on the stove, the bottles rattling on a rack inside it. The formula had to be mixed; it had to be heated, but not too hot! I can still see my mother testing it on her wrist. Then, and only then, could the baby be fed.
My mother was very particular about her clothes and slipcovers, so she always had a diaper or two draped in strategic places in case things got messy. You could never tell when the baby might open his mouth and, with an ease I always admired, empty the formula right back out again. What I remember most of all is the elaborate ritual my mother had for burping him. She would carefully drape a diaper over her shoulder, sit the baby up, then slowly — holding him well away from her body — lift him in the air and place him gingerly on her shoulder to give him little pats on the back. The baby always seemed awkward and heavy as I watched her do that. I felt sorry for my mother having to shoulder such a burden. She held him as if he were a little time bomb. In a way, I suppose he was.
A couple of years ago I was in New Hampshire visiting my older brother, and we spent some time with a friend of his who was a new mother. If there is such a thing as a polar opposite to my mother, it was this woman. She was tall, blond, and heavy, with large round breasts and a creamy complexion. She looked strong and healthy, at ease in her role as a mother.
She held her baby constantly, pressed him to her body. She wore a T-shirt and shorts and, if she wanted to feed her baby, just lifted her shirt and plugged him in. She didn’t have to mix and warm her milk (and it wasn’t called formula). She didn’t wash or sterilize her breasts. There was no elaborate burping ritual. What I remember most vividly is that the baby was constantly pressed against her, as if he were a part of her. (He was a part of her.) My mother never held a baby that way. Even when she was feeding my brother, he always somehow rested on her arm, never melted into her body. In New Hampshire, I finally said something to my brother about never having been treated that way when I was a baby. “No,” my brother said. “Our mother would have held us out there with a pair of tongs if she could have.”
That was a poignant moment for me. Something I had always felt, but had not quite allowed to creep into consciousness, had been confirmed. The feeling that my brother and I shared had had vast ramifications in our lives, ramifications that we knew only to well. No upbringing is perfect, of course. Being held too much must present its own problems. But that wasn’t what we’d had to deal with. We were standing there staring at what might have been.
I know that my mother loved me, but she didn’t express her love physically. I would say that she couldn’t. She would probably say she didn’t think it appropriate. Strangely, because this was the absence of a good thing — not the presence of a bad one, like actual abuse — I was into my thirties before I noticed. I hadn’t realized how little physical affection my mother had given me. Even as a grown-up, on my one or two visits home each year, we exchanged what passed for a hug — our bodies almost, but not quite, coming together; our hands touching lightly on neutral places, like the upper arm — an a brief tepid kiss on the cheek. I could have counted on the fingers of one hand the number of places on my body that my mother had touched me. But I was so accustomed to that situation that I didn’t think it strange. As a teenager, for instance, I didn’t compare it to the showers of physical affection that my Italian friend got from every female member of his family. I thought those women were strange.
Someone might ask me why I, as an adult, didn’t hug my mother the way I wanted to be hugged. The answer is that I had repressed those wishes for so long that I no longer felt them. I didn’t want to hug my mother hard, or kiss her on the mouth. The thought repulsed me. Furthermore, my older brother had come to the same realization a little earlier than I, apparently without the same repressions, and had tried to make his embraces with my mother more affectionate; he warned me not to try, that the resistance he had felt was more painful than any lack of physical affection.
When I finally brought the matter to my attention, I looked back on thirty years in which I couldn’t remember a single passionate gesture from my mother. All I could remember was a kind of perfunctory touching: her hand on my shoulder, the offer of a cheek. I couldn’t remember a different kind of hug when I was a child, or even when my father died, when I was sixteen. By that time, of course, I had already become that boy who didn’t want to hug his mother. What bothered me in my thirties was that I couldn’t remember when I had wanted to. I couldn’t remember wanting to hug my mother.
I had always, however, remembered a particular moment from my childhood without knowing why. It did not seem to be the kind of traumatic once-in-a-lifetime incident that one usually remembers. I was standing in front of my mother while she sat at her dressing table. It was a quiet afternoon, and we were alone. I would guess that I was about six years old.
At first that was all I could remember. I couldn’t see any significance in the moment. But the image came back to me so frequently, especially in therapy, that I knew there must be something to it. One day with my therapist, I sat in its presence for a while, and other things began to come back.
It was the afternoon of a school day. It was unusual — in a family of three, soon to be four, children — that no one else was around, and it may have been just this chance to be alone with my mother that made the day stick in my mind. Something had happened at school that had scared or worried me, that in some way had made me uneasy. My mother dismissed my concerns, as my parents tended to do. “You’re not worried about that. You’re not scared about that.” They were trying to rid me of my fears, but they were failing to acknowledge things that were very real to me. It was terribly frustrating to be treated that way. I felt the frustration in my body as a restless, I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself feeling. I wanted to jump out of my skin. My mother probably gave me a little pat. She may have kissed my cheek. She assured me that everything would be all right.
Suddenly, in that moment in therapy, I knew what I had wanted from my mother. It had long since been made clear to me that this thing was forbidden; that was why, as an adult, I couldn’t remember it, and that was why, as a child, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want my mother to say something. I didn’t want her to give me the answer to my problem. There probably was no answer to my problem. I wanted her to take me in her arms and hold me, comfort me, my whole body against her whole body.
As I pictured her doing that — I was seeing, quite literally, what had previously been unimaginable — I saw us fall back on the bed with our bodies together. We held each other tight. We held each other a long time.
Finally I had remembered wanting to hug my mother.
As an adult looking back, I recognized that embrace. It was the same embrace I had always sought from women, the way I always hugged a woman when we went to bed. I always wanted that embrace more than any specifically sexual act. I wanted it as soon as we went to bed, and I wanted it to linger. It was what I had to have to feel all right.
The fat itself numbs you, so you feel your body less and less. The fat hugs and comforts you; you have solved your problem by hugging yourself.
When you feel physical unease, that feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin, with no chance to get the comfort you need, your best strategy is probably to deaden it. Kill off the feeling. You are thereby cutting yourself off from your body, but numbness is preferable to pain. A person can stand only so much pain.
If you do kill off the feeling, it is likely that your body might change in some way: blow up into a blimp, or shrivel into nothing. You have lost contact with your stomach, so you have no idea what you need or want (what you think you want is all the food in the world, to satisfy that longing that has nothing to do with food). If what you do is get fat, the fat itself numbs you, so you feel your body less and less. The fat hugs and comforts you; you have solved your problem by hugging yourself. It is also the case that, when you are a child and don’t get hugged, you take the blame on yourself. You feel you must have done something wrong not to be getting what you want, and if you can find nothing else — or if you want to avoid a more painful reason — you can make yourself physically unattractive, and that can be the reason you’re not getting hugged. You can even make yourself so big that people can’t get their arms around you.
The stomach is the seat of the emotions. Sadness can feel like an emptiness, a gnawing, in the stomach. Anger boils up from the stomach. An excellent way to still these emotions is to fill your stomach with food. Just keep chewing and swallowing. Try not to think about it. (Please pass the noodles.) Get enough food down there and you won’t know what you’re feeling. Or at least your pain will have an obvious cause, and you won’t have to acknowledge a deeper pain.
In my seventh year, right around the time my younger brother was born — a classic moment — I suddenly got fat. I had been a positively skinny kid when I was younger, but by the third grade I was one of the three heaviest kids in the class. Thirty years later, I can still remember the day when the whole class got weighed. I was good friends with the other two fat kids; we had all known each other for as long as I could remember. We all weighed eighty-three pounds.
The family joke was that I had discovered Nestle’s Quik, a chocolate powder that you put in milk, and had gone absolutely apeshit, blown myself into a fat kid with this single product. (Mention of Nestle’s Quik still brings a roar of laughter from any member of my family.) I’m sure that no one food was responsible, but Nestle’s Quik isn’t a bad symbol for what was wrong. It was a junk food that I stirred into milk to give it a different flavor. I wasn’t seeking the taste or the nourishment of milk, but the artificial and sickeningly-sweet taste of chocolate. I wasn’t drinking it out of a need for milk, but out of another need that I wasn’t aware of. I was following the pattern of all senseless eating: if I can’t have that (physical love from my mother), I am, by God, going to have this (the taste of chocolate). I would mix it up and drink it down quickly, the way a drinker pops into a bar for a short one. I would knock it back and dash outside.
It seems obvious that my brother’s birth had plenty to do with all this, but I don’t remember a particular loss of love from this time. My feeling is that I had felt the absence of physical love long before. Perhaps things just got worse. In the same way, I associate this new physical fact with an aspect of my personality that was probably there all along (there was a fat person struggling to get out of my skinny person). I feel sure that, on the day when the three of us tipped the scales at eighty-three pounds each, the other boys scowled at the jokes that were made about them and pummeled somebody in the playground, but I laughed at the jokes and made some more at my own expense. I had become the kind of person who is automatically funny, just by his appearance, and who makes himself agreeable by going along with the joke. The kind of person who eats — along with everything else he is eating — shit. I became a person who felt he was physically unattractive, who spent a great deal of time dwelling on that idea, who thought his life would be much better — everybody would love him! — if he weren’t fat. (He thereby had a pat excuse for why his life wasn’t good.) I became a person who defined himself by his physical appearance. If you had asked me, I would have mentioned that first: I was fat.
Such a personality brings to mind a certain kind of comedian — Fatty Arbuckle, Oliver Hardy, Lou Costello — men who were funny partly because of their shape. I especially liked Costello, who played a pathetic little fat guy who always fucked up, who admitted ad nauseam how worthless he was, who was always being put down and always put himself down. His only hope for affection was not that people would love him for his good qualities but that they would take pity on him, like a lost puppy or a helpless child. “The poor little guy!” his girlfriend used to say, a blond bombshell named Hillary Brook, and though she was nominally Costello’s woman, that was obviously part of the joke. She knew he was a pathetic sap and often admitted as much to Abbott (who was probably screwing her on the side). I loved the Abbott and Costello shows when I was young, and apparently identified with Costello. Now that I can see what they meant to me, I can’t watch them.
The amount I ate as I moved into adolescence — three or four times what I eat now — astounds me. It had nothing to do with appetite or physical need. It was habitual. It was partly, I think, a kind of comfort: if I got that amount of food, all was right with the world. It also had to do with a sense of injustice or outrage: if the world was going to treat me the way it had, it could damn well cough up five pieces of chicken at dinner.
More characteristic to me, and more interesting, and more fundamentally mysterious, is a particular eating habit I had. I have, as a writer, written about much that feels antsy and difficult — I believe in writing about such things, largely because they are that way — but I have never written about anything that embarrasses me as much as this. When it came to mind the other day, as a detail from my life, and as a possible subject for my writing, I cried. It seemed so strange and sad. At other times it has seemed uproariously funny. I wrote about it briefly and humorously in one of my novels. Now I would like to examine it more directly.
In our house in Pittsburgh, there was a downstairs den, a small room with two windows, a comfortable easy-chair, and a portable television. It was my favorite place to be in the evening, with somebody, or, especially, alone (with my dreams). I would watch shows about what I took to be normal American life. “Ozzie and Harriet.” “Father Knows Best.” I watched shows of teenagers listening to music and dancing. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to have fun with lots of friends, especially lots of girls. (I went to a boys’ school, so girls were not friends. They were frightening alien creatures whom I saw only on social occasions. I longed to be close to them, but I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t know what to say.) I wanted to be normal, and average. For me that meant above all that I wanted not to be fat. And while I was watching those shows, in the midst of dreaming that dream, I would go out to the kitchen, assemble an enormous chocolate sundae, and come back to the den and eat it.
I look back on that fact and am bewildered. I had undoubtedly had dessert, probably a duplicate of that chocolate sundae, not two hours before. I had put away a huge dinner. I couldn’t have been, by any definition that makes sense, hungry. I ate the sundae quickly, with huge bites, and ate while I was watching television, so I didn’t especially taste it. There I sat, watching those television shows, wishing I could be like the people on the screen, and simultaneously doing the very thing that kept me from being like them.
What really makes me sad about those sundaes is that I tried to keep them secret. I went to get them furtively. I would tiptoe into the kitchen, open the freezer quietly, gingerly set down a bowl, slowly open the drawer to get a spoon. . . . (The fact was that sound traveled all over that house. Not only did the whole family know I was making a sundae, they could tell I was trying to sneak it.) It was as if I expected someone to come down and say, “Halt! What are you doing making a chocolate sundae? You know you’re already too fat. Put that stuff back. And don’t try to sneak in here again. We’ll be listening, upstairs.” Perhaps somebody was up there thinking, “There he goes again, that poor, pathetic bastard. Another chocolate sundae. I don’t know why he does it. Jesus, is that kid fat!” The bizarre thing was that, after all that secrecy, I would go back and leave the bowl in the sink. It was as if I didn’t care who knew afterward, as long as I’d had my sundae. I was the classic criminal who couldn’t help leaving the evidence behind.
Those sundaes represent my whole eating problem. They were incredibly sweet. You might even say they were too sweet. They were loaded with calories. They were prepared and consumed in moments, without a thought. I didn’t enjoy them. I ate them out of compulsion. I didn’t notice eating them. I would only have noticed not eating them. Something would have been wrong. The evening wouldn’t have been complete.
The second major physical change in my life took place in my first year at college. I remember that, a few days before my sixteenth birthday, at a check-up at the doctor’s, I weighed 198 pounds. I have no doubt that, over the next couple of years, I crept over the 200-pound barrier, though my trained-down football weight was more like 190. But after my first year at college — a time when many people gain weight — I weighed 160. Recently, at my twenty-year high school reunion, some people whom I hadn’t seen since we graduated were astonished at my appearance. They would have been just as surprised nineteen years ago. The changes they were seeing had all taken place in one year.
I saw all I had made food into: a substitute for other things, especially for love and affection from my mother and other women. I didn’t feel angry at myself, or at the women. I just felt sad. It all seemed futile, trying to use chocolate sundaes to fill a need for love.
I didn’t try to lose that weight. It just happened. The only time I have ever been called a liar to my face is when I tried to explain this to someone (he had a weight problem himself and wanted to know my secret). The summer before I went to college, I had a job as a tutor at my old school. I didn’t like the breakfasts, and I got to sleep late if I didn’t go, so I skipped them. I sometimes got hungry in the middle of the morning, but by lunchtime I wasn’t as hungry as usual — my stomach had shrunk, people would say — and I still wasn’t hungry at dinner. It was also true that the food wasn’t spectacularly good there. (I hadn’t been a boarder when I went to that school. I shoveled down home cooking all four years.) I had stopped lifting weights, since I was no longer playing football. I had also started smoking cigarettes, which dulled my appetite and diminished my oral craving.
When I got to college, I maintained the same habits. I had noticed I was losing weight and wanted to continue. I was also selecting food in a cafeteria line, paying for it item by item, I could no longer eat without thinking. I wasn’t very likely to go through and ask for five pieces of fried chicken, two big helpings of mashed potatoes with gravy, two helpings of peas, and two huge pieces of cake with ice cream all over them. My food consumption fell to less than half of what it had been a year before. I hadn’t gone on a diet. My life had changed.
For years I thought that those superficial details explained what happened to me, and in some ways I still think they do. Why look deeper, when the surface explains so much? I ate less, and I lost weight. But it is also true that there was as significant an event in my seventeenth year as in my seventh. On that New Year’s Day my father died, and though people saw no immediate change in me, I do think there was a long-term change. I think that my father’s death changed who I was.
My mother, in a kind way, had always denied my weight problem — “David’s not fat,” I can still hear her saying — but my father acknowledged it and sometimes confronted me about it. He sometimes suggested I eat differently. On a few occasions he kidded me about my weight, which I found deeply humiliating. He had been overweight when he was young and also as an adult, though as he had gotten ill — he had leukemia — his weight diminished. It was the common situation of a father seeing his own problem in his son and wanting to correct it.
But I also think that my father’s attitude toward my weight was more complex than that. I look back on myself as a boy — he seems a different person — who was big and bland and quiet; who was shy and terribly self-conscious; who was physically strong — enormously strong — but in other ways weak. His ego was weak. He didn’t stand up for himself. He was also — I don’t know how else to put this — sexually weak. He had an enormous yearning for physical affection, but felt so unattractive that not only could he not get it, he couldn’t even ask for it. He had no right to it. He felt terribly vulnerable in that area.
It seems to me that, at some level, his father wanted to keep him that way. He wanted to keep him a bland, obedient boy (though physically strong, a kind of dray horse) who would do as he was told. Keeping him that way meant keeping him fat. Feed him enough fried chicken and cake with ice cream, and he would never be a problem. It was as if my father, in all his annoyance with my excessive weight, nevertheless wanted me to be that way. He wanted me to stay fat so he could stay annoyed with me. He wanted me to stay fat so I would stay a boy, so I would not become a man and challenge him.
I don’t know what would have happened if my father, a big strapping 220-pounder himself, had stayed healthy and lived. I have often explained to people that I never had the chance to rebel against my father because he died too soon, or because, when I was entering my adolescent rebellious phase, he was too sick and weak to be rebelled against; but in recent years I have wondered if that was really true. I think I was just cowed by the man. He had me by the balls. I wanted him to love me (he did love me), and I wanted to please him; I feared his anger and disapproval. Right around the time my father was dying, I was taking biology and chemistry, finding them very difficult, and beginning to think I didn’t want to be “a doctor, like my father,” as I had always said. The sciences were alien to me, but I was a hard worker and could probably have struggled through them. If he had lived, would I have remained a dutiful son, a solemn overweight man who continued to do the things I didn’t like and to compensate myself with food? Would I have done mediocre work in a field I wasn’t suited for but gotten into medical school because of my father’s influence? Would I have joined my father’s practice, become the third generation to enter the practice, another portly Dr. Guy with a wife and a big family, who drove a Buick and was an elder in the church? I think I probably would have. That possibility stands before me as what my overweight life would have been. Instead, my father died. I went to college, lost forty pounds, let my hair grow, gave up the sciences for literature and writing, and somehow — in the way that all honest writers do — became disreputable, if only because I was trying to tell the truth. My fat self was a solid citizen, but my thin self was a little shady. Without fully knowing what it meant, I had decided to be thin.
In bed, I am the most oral of lovers. I love sloppy, wet kisses, tongue that wriggles and thrusts in my mouth; I love to chew a woman’s lips, lick every inch of her body; I love to fill my mouth with her breasts, one then the other. And my favorite erotic act is to eat a woman. Nothing else even comes close. This fact is so appropriate to my whole psychic history that the very thought of it makes me smile.
It has been twenty years since I lost all that weight. Since then I have stayed between 165 and 175 pounds. When I was depressed after my marriage ended, it went down. More recently it has gone up. I would guess that my ideal weight falls somewhere in the middle of that range, though I don’t like to worry about numbers. I have become something of an exercise nut, largely because when I was in college, I was afraid of how fat I’d get if I didn’t do anything. Now, like many people who exercise, I have come to enjoy the activity itself. I like what my body can do, and I like the feeling of using it. I miss exercise when I don’t do it.
Most people would think of me as healthy in regard to diet and food. I am not grossly overweight, and I don’t go on eating binges; I don’t suffer from any of the known eating disorders. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still a problem. I have simply learned a set of strategies for dealing with it. I have a general idea of how much food I can eat in a day and try to stick pretty close to that. It doesn’t allow for much variation. If I am very hungry at an odd hour, I might have some fruit, but I generally don’t eat between meals at all. There are times, often late in the afternoon, when I feel positively weak from hunger, but I don’t act on that feeling. I don’t trust it. There have been too many occasions in the past when it has really meant something else. In the same way, I sometimes prepare my usual dinner and, partway through, don’t feel hungry anymore; but I finish it anyway. I might otherwise get hungry in the middle of the evening and not know what to do.
I was fat from the age of seven to seventeen, those vastly important years when we largely form our self-image, and I haven’t been able to shake it. I still see myself as that five-foot-eight-inch, sixteen-year-old boy who weighed 198 pounds. There are periods when I worry constantly about getting fat. I mean that I think about it every minute of the day. It is the tape that is always playing in the back of my mind. That can happen when I’ve missed a day of exercise (even though I know exercise only burns up so many calories) or when I’ve eaten a piece of cake at an a afternoon birthday party. It is as if I’m afraid that I’ll eat the whole cake, or three cakes, or start eating cake every afternoon. It is as if a single piece of cake could make me gain back the thirty pounds that I lost twenty years ago. I am not free to do something that other people do without thinking. I am not free to vary from a routine.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that my periods of feeling fat have more to do with how I feel about myself as a person than with how much I weigh. That doesn’t make the problem any less real. I feel that imaginary weight on me. I look fatter in the mirror. My clothes seem to fit differently. I tighten up my stomach to make it feel smaller — I spent my whole youth tightening my stomach — and the rest of my body grows tense. It becomes alien to me. In the summer, when I can’t exercise as much because of the heat, and when my clothes are less flattering, I feel fat for three or four months. I worry over every bite I eat.
In therapy once, I had a moment when I saw all I had made food into: a substitute for other things, especially for love and affection from my mother and other women. I didn’t feel angry at myself, or at the women. I just felt sad. It all seemed futile, trying to use chocolate sundaes to fill a need for love. For that moment, food lost all its magic for me. It was just nourishment, a simple sensual pleasure.
Sometimes I imagine a purely physical animal, for whom food isn’t tied up with other things, who eats what he wants when he wants to, who nourishes himself simply and well. Does such a person exist? I have no idea. Does such an animal exist? I think of my cat, whom we picked up as a scared and starving stray, who is obviously still deeply fearful of being abandoned (a couple of weeks ago, when I was taking stacks of newspapers out to the car for recycling, she accompanied me on every trip, walking right alongside me) and who also seems fearful of a time when she won’t have food, when I won’t feed her anymore. Not only does she go to her food bowl at every opportunity, she also wants me to fill it every time, even if there is already food in it. She apparently wants to keep establishing the connection between the food and me, to know that I will continue to feed her. It is enough if I just pick up the bowl and put it down again. My son and I call this blessing her food.
At the end of the Japanese movie “Tampopo,” a prolonged and profound and hilarious meditation on food, there is a scene, as the credits are shown, of a baby nursing at his mother’s breast. It is a deeply moving scene, especially after all that has gone before. I saw the movie twice, and, both times, not a person in the theater moved while the credits were being shown. We sat and stared, fascinated. I realized then how beautiful a moment that was, how much I had always wanted to watch it, how many times I had politely averted my eyes from a nursing mother when I really wanted to watch. I could have watched for hours. The baby’s deep need, as he sucked greedily, the way his whole body was involved in the feeding, the comfort he got from his mother’s embrace, the way he opened his eyes now and then just to see her. That’s what we’re trying to get back to, I thought. That’s what all the fuss over food is really all about. And as I realized how much was going on in that scene, I understood that it wasn’t strange that food was so complicated an issue. It wasn’t strange that I had attached so much to it. What I wanted was the simplicity I was seeing on the screen. The problem wasn’t that I had made things complicated. It was that I wanted them to be simple. I was wishing for something that would never be.