The XX Factor

How Do You Prove the Lightness Unbearable?

Do we need one more eating disorder memoir? That depends on the memoir. Actress Portia de Rossi ( now DeGeneres )’s new book Unbearable Lightness has the advantage of being better-written than most, which is to say short on melodrama-a gaping pitfall of the genre-and long on conveying the insanity of her past from the clarity of her present.

One of the most valuable aspects of De Rossi’s reflections, which she discussed on Oprah Monday, is her discussion of the mental and emotional toll recovery took on her. Anorexia was hell, but recovery was hellish enough. De Rossi admits that soon after she started eating again, she also resumed the bingeing and purging of her past, and her weight at one point reached 168 pounds. For someone who nearly killed herself to weigh 82 pounds, that’s no easy revelation. Neither is publishing a page-long list of food she ate and purged in a single day on the road to getting better. One of the intentions of this book, it seems, is to deprive anorexia of the specialness and glamor that propelled de Rossi toward it.

And yet de Rossi’s life is undeniably glamorous, and her eating disorder, now part of that narrative, will necessarily be gilded by it. Not only did de Rossi survive, she is beautiful, successful, wealthy, and, yes, still thin. Her eating disorder got her a book deal and a seat opposite Oprah- not a first-time occurence for her , but still. That’s always been the problem when this kind of book gets attention-it reinforces the idea that anorexia makes a person worthy of an extraordinary amount of external validation. Every time a book like this receives any sort of recognition, someone at risk is bound to view this kind of lightness as that much more bearable.

Except that even being so very famous didn’t allow de Rossi to get her story heard the first time she tried. She revealed a lot of what she includes in Unbearable Lightness -the details of her disorder, the sense that she used it to suppress her homosexuality, and the role feminism played in her recovery-in an unusually candid interview for a 2006 Vogue profile. “What got to me,” she told Vogu e, was “the fact that I’d fallen for it. I actually believed the whole social structure of men being bigger and women needing to be small to be successful. And it made me so angry.” The article concluded with the quote, “I wanted literally to disappear. And now I would like to reappear.” At the time de Rossi was nearly as well-known as she is now. The profile was all but buried in at the back of the April 2006 issue.

Thus de Rossi’s eating disorder story may be the first to prove that anorexia doesn’t necessarily bring recognition, and when the author of a memoir like this receives attention, her capacity for self-deprivation isn’t entirely the reason. De Rossi and her book are in the spotlight not just because she was sick, not just because she’s a celebrity, but also because she decided to publish her own story in and on her own terms, with the implied conviction that it deserves to be read.

Here’s de Rossi on Oprah Monday:

Photograph of Portia de Rossi promoting her book by Getty Images.