“For so long, I closed myself off from everything and everyone. Terrible things happened and I had to shut down to survive. I was cold, I’ve been told. I often write stories about women who are perceived as cold and resent that perception. I write these women because I know what it’s like to have so much warmth roiling beneath the skin’s surface, ready to be found.
I am not cold. I wasn’t ever cold. My warmth was hidden far away from anything that could bring hurt because I knew I didn’t have the inner scaffolding to endure any more hurt in those protected places.”
How does one review a book this personal? Answer: One does not. One becomes paralyzed with an avalanche of possible things to say. One also paradoxically has all thoughts flee from one’s head and now it is empty in there: Crickets and blowing sands and tumbleweeds (and, okay, lots of thoughts about Benedict Cumberbatch* still hanging around; you’ll have to get those out with industrial strength scrubbers). But mostly: paralysis. Existential crises. Feelings of unworthiness. This book was really good, is what I’m saying, but also what I’m saying is that Roxane Gay basically opened up a vein (or two) (or ten) while writing it, and it is RAW.
*Guys, true story: I was all alone in the hospital hooked up to monitors and such several weeks ago, and I pulled up Google to gaze fondly at pictures of him as I am sometimes (often) wont to do, and my blood pressure LITERALLY WENT DOWN as I scrolled. I watched it happen. This is the healing power of love, my friends. Or, creepy infatuation, if you will. I am too close to the situation to judge. The reality is probably somewhere in between. My point is, Benedict Cumberbatch’s face (and his hands) (and the rest of him) is MAGIC.
If you’ve read her previous non-fiction book, Bad Feminist (or seen her speak about it in interviews since the publication of this book), you are no doubt aware that when she was twelve, she was gang-raped in the woods by her boyfriend and some of his friends, and the incident changed her life entirely. It changed her in a lot of ways, but for our purposes here, and hers in the book, the most significant way it did so was in her relationship with her own body.
There is so much packed into this little book, and I think that’s largely due to the format. It’s told entirely in shortened chapters, some as small as a couple of sentences, but the largest one isn’t more than several pages long. In this way, she isn’t boxed in by format and tells her story almost piecemeal as it comes into her head. It sort of feels, and this is a hard thing to describe, almost purposely unedited (although I’m sure it was edited to feel that way, and it was certainly written that way). The result is that you feel her humanness, her emotions, even more than if the book had been edited to within an inch of its life. Perhaps “purposefully unpolished” is a better way of putting it. It almost feels like stream of consciousness, in the way that she repeats imagery, and the way she allows one image and memory in her life to lead to another. I think it allows her to write more personally rather than formally, as books of essays or biographies are traditionally written, and it makes what she has to say about women’s bodies, body image, living as “morbidly obese” person in America*, her family, her sex life, her love life, all the more impactful.
*She hates that term. There’s a whole chapter about it.
I felt like she was talking directly to me. Reading this book was like watching someone from afar purge themselves of some terrible poison, like she didn’t want to be writing this book and letting so much of herself out into the world, but she NEEDED to. And you know, we needed her to as well. I’ve always said my favorite thing about Roxane Gay’s writing (besides how funny she can be) is how overwhelmingly sane and human she comes across, how reasonable. And bringing that kind of focus to talking about fatness and sexual abuse and other stuff that we just don’t talk about enough, and when we do, often talk about in ways that are harmful, does so much to put a real human face, a person, at the heart of what she’s talking about. Mostly, it’s her story and the things she talk about surround that, but that makes it all the more effective, I think.
Highly, highly recommend.