In short, Gay has become a highly successful writer. She has also, as she reveals in Hunger, waged a decades-long, mostly losing battle with her six-foot-three-inch frame, having come, at her heaviest, within spitting distance of six hundred pounds. Working against her is the reason why she became so heavy to begin with, why she once (if not altogether consciously) wanted to gain weight as much as she now wants to lose it. When Gay was 12 years old, her already unhealthy relationship with a boy her age took a horrific turn: the boy lured her to a cabin in the woods, where he and a group of his friends took turns raping her. In the wake of that life-altering experience, Gay looked to food as both a source of comfort and a means of rendering her body at once invisible (that is, unattractive) and impenetrable. In a large body, she would be safe. That body, she writes, became “a cage of my own making.”
Gay’s struggle with her body has inspired this (rather oddly subtitled) book, which, like its author, succeeds more in some areas than in others.
The great strength of Hunger is in Gay’s unflinching look at herself and her life. To be sure, she puts the blame for what happened to her where it belongs: on the boys who committed those terrible acts, with a special place of dishonor for the one she once thought she loved. (As she lets on toward the end of the book, she has looked him up and knows where he works. If I were him, I would be very, very nervous — which may be the point.) But Gay is ruthless in her self-examination, too. If she is holding things back, it’s difficult to imagine what those things could be. She writes about her parents, “They want to understand how I could have let this [weight gain] happen, let my body become so big, so out of control. We have that in common.” And she places responsibility for her current state mainly with herself, writing, for example, that food is “a constant reminder of my body, my lack of willpower, my biggest flaws.” While the book is not without rays of hope — “I am not yet healed but I have started believing I will be” — it is also very honest about the extent of the damage done, including to her self-esteem, damage that in turn led Gay to allow others to mistreat her. There is solace merely in knowing that one is not alone, which practically guarantees Hunger’s enduring popularity and usefulness to those who struggle with self-image (and who isn’t at least a lapsed member of that club?). And Hunger specifically provides a sometimes heartbreaking look at what it’s like to be, well, very fat. In her accounts of simply getting through the day as a so-called super morbidly obese person, Gay makes effective use of detail: the indignities of having to purchase two airplane seats and use a seatbelt extender, of encountering scales at doctors’ offices that can’t gauge her weight, of being unable to climb onto the stage during her own author appearance.
The great weakness of Hunger is that what might have made a knockout 40-page essay is instead a 307-page book, one that had me writing in the margins, “Yes, you told me.” There is a good deal of repetition, which takes place on two levels. Ideas recur periodically — I lost track of how many times Gay made the connection between eating and feeling safe — and also within the same paragraph. Hunger makes for easy reading, perhaps in part because the eye can glide over so much, having in effect already seen it. Case in point: “In too many ways, the past is still with me. The past is written on my body. I carry it every single day. The past sometimes feels like it might kill me. It is a very heavy burden.”
Speaking of writing in the margins, I scribbled, “Oh Lord,” next to a sentence that begins, “I would be teaching freshman composition…” Those poor freshmen — being taught grammar and usage by the author of sentences that include: “I had cracked up, quite literally,” and, “I hope that by sharing my story, by joining a chorus of women and men who share their stories too, more people can become appropriately horrified by how much suffering is born of sexual violence, how far-reaching the repercussions can be.”
But maybe it’s churlish to attack the grammar of a book that seeks to establish a connection with those suffering emotional wounds. One could argue that a writer of Gay’s prominence has a heightened responsibility to her craft; on the other hand, her fan base surely cares more about what she says than the way she says it. And for those who hunger for her message, she probably can’t deliver it often enough.