NOLEY REID and Ethel Rohan write the hard stuff: families plagued by grief, hunger, and body shaming. This winter, each author came across the other’s work and immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Both Reid’s Pretend We Are Lovely and Rohan’s The Weight of Him open after the death of a son. Both mine the ways we channel grief into our relationships with food. Both hold up a mirror to the cultural insistence on thinness and the painful rejection of bodies that don’t fit that mold. The following conversation took place via Google Chat in April 2017. Ethel Rohan’s novel The Weight of Him was published in February by St. Martin’s Press, and Noley Reid’s Pretend We Are Lovely appears this month from Tin House Books.
ETHEL ROHAN: Your novel Pretend We Are Lovely and my novel The Weight of Him share such striking similarities. In each, we see a family fractured by grief and guilt after the death of a son. An aftermath made even more difficult and painful by the eating disorders several family members struggle with.
NOLEY REID: It’s so hard to unpack our feelings and beliefs about food and about ourselves. Grief and guilt quickly become shame, and shame leads to hiding and life in isolation. Instead of communing with people, there is a secret communion with food. At the start of your book, the father, Billy, orders a great feast of burgers, fried chicken, French fries, and onion rings, all of which he eats in his car. “This is church,” he thinks. Later, when Billy is dieting, there is such a sad moment when he watches his young son Ivor open the fridge, restless for something to eat. You write, “Something in Billy’s chest broke open.” This is Billy fully aware that what cripples him is now also crippling his youngest child.
And in your book, not one family member simply eats when hungry. The mother, Francie, weighs and calculates every single calorie she eats and religiously and compulsively exercises. The father, Tate, overindulges with ice cream, donuts, and pizza. Their two girls are miniature versions of the parents — Vivvy, assured in her perpetual lack of hunger and Enid, who secretly eats whatever she can snatch from the kitchen.
The characters’ shame leads to hiding, secrets, and silence, which just makes everything worse. I’m struck by how much our characters can’t bear to be in distress and the things they’re willing to do to distract themselves. Self-defeating efforts, though, because their avoidance only brings about more suffering for these two families.
That’s so true. The more they try to escape their pain, especially through denying or over-satisfying their various hungers, the more things deteriorate.
Can we go back to the parent/child pairings in both our novels? The parents see their children as mirror reflections of themselves and they try to control that image. There can be so much egotism to parenting, the impulse to make our children shiny so that they reflect favorably on ourselves. And the reverse, too: the fear that our children’s flaws, whether real or imagined, reflect negatively on us. The mothers in our novels most feel this pressure of perfectionism and of narrow, prescribed roles and they in turn demand it of their children …
Because mothers, all women, are held to a single version of worthiness that is, for most women, unattainable. Francie and Tricia internalize that.
Absolutely. Societal standards and judgment have such control over these characters, especially the girls and women, and of course Billy, who at 400 pounds is similarly devalued and pushed to the margins.
And both Francie and Tricia turn that judgment onto their children and their husbands. It’s worth highlighting here that sexism even cuts across the fat divide and fat women are maligned even more so than fat men. I don’t mean to minimize society’s bias against fat men like Billy and Tate; those attacks are painful and damaging but, for the most part, these men can still lead full lives. Fat women, on the other hand, are more fully dehumanized and rendered asexual — bombarded by society’s expectations of the “ideal” woman and blasted by constant and brutal messages of their “failure” to meet those expectations.
Right, and because those messages of not measuring up and supposedly failing so miserably are so powerful and so bloody damaging, all too many of us turn that policing onto ourselves and it’s back to control issues. Our characters very much seek to control themselves and others. They couldn’t control their sons’ deaths or how they feel judged in the wake of that terrible loss and thereafter they seek to exert control over as much else as possible, particularly over food and their bodies. Food is both a form of solace and of self-punishment. Ultimately, Francie and Billy use food to try to erase themselves — Francie tries to disappear through starvation and Billy tries to disappear through obesity. For Billy, food is about excess and over-indulgence. For Francie, it’s about scarcity and denial. And for them it’s food 24/7. An obsession and compulsion.
And that speaks to what seems to me to be the most startling and complex similarity between our books: the use of food as a kind of language through which the obsessions and compulsions reveal how all-consuming they are. I absolutely love how you use food in non-food moments, as in, “Pain filled Billy’s throat like food he couldn’t swallow.” And the physical sensations of his eating, overeating, being full, hunger, feeling about to burst, and pain are so strongly rendered throughout The Weight of Him. But you also use food as language in that Billy communicates to himself and others through what and how he does, and ultimately does not, eat.
Oh, yes, you do that too on various levels: how your characters talk about food, how they communicate via food, and how their internal voice is shrouded in food. Here’s Francie condemning her husband and her younger daughter: “She’s never met a french fry she didn’t need with every bit of her heart. […] You and she both.” And later this lovely-awful moment: “She wraps her arm around her side, grabs hold of herself and lets one finger lie in the gully between each rib. ‘It’s like [my dead son] is caught in my throat,’ she says. ‘I’m trying to swallow but I can’t get him down. I can’t.’”
In our books, and in life, it’s impossible to avoid food. It’s also impossible to avoid pain. We need healthy relationships with both, and in all areas of our lives. Yet these characters are often cruel to themselves and to each other and that nastiness is founded in anger — that terrible frustration because when we force control where we shouldn’t, like with food and our bodies and others’ bodies, there are painful and dangerous consequences.
So much disease and suffering comes from how our minds relate to our bodies. So much disconnection there between what we are, what we think we are, what we want to be, and how to get there.
It’s interesting, and painful, to think about how each family member suffers, what they do about their suffering — alleviate and/or worsen it — and whether ultimately their suffering does or does not end. And so much of that is rooted in their mind-body relationship and how their thoughts are (mis)shaped by society’s oppressive and restrictive norms.
Our characters are wedded to so much that’s wrong — particularly the negative, damaging stories they believe of themselves — and there’s so much they’re struggling to accept and forgive about themselves and others.
Comparing our two novels really brings home for me the impact and the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves about the self and others. Time and again, our characters believe in damaging narratives about themselves, rather than choosing empowering messages to believe in and live by.
It’s true. The characters believe they deserve punishment because they’ve done bad things. And those beliefs push them to make punishment their reality.
I’m still a little stunned that my first novel is centered on the global epidemics of suicide and obesity and is about characters who feel they need to be punished. These topics and truths very much resonate, though, and even more so as we’re talking. Like everything else I’ve ever written, The Weight of Him is born out of my various obsessions and preoccupations, and the things that scare and anger me. That give me hope, too. How about you?
I set Pretend We Are Lovely in the house and town, Blacksburg, Virginia, where my own family lived from the time I was five until I turned nine. Blacksburg was a kind of magical place for me — which may be because it was truly magical, but it might simply have been that I was at a magical age. Whatever the reason, it was the place where I lived as a whole person, before the categorization, policing, and politicizing that happens to every girl when her body is suddenly not hers anymore. Sometimes, as happened with me, a girl’s body becomes chubby and the world lets her know exactly what is deemed unacceptable in a girl’s or a woman’s body. Like you, Ethel, I’m making these connections after writing the book. How strange then that I set a novel in which food and fat so plague a family in the last place where I was still free from all that.
We all want to be free, to simply be. Achieving that is pretty close to my definition of success, though some of our characters might have different definitions of it. According to their own definitions, I see Billy and Francie as ultimately successful. What do you think?
Hmm, are our characters successful? I suppose that depends on what we think of as their goals? What did they want? What did they need? I think Francie ultimately wants to punish herself for her son’s death but what she needs is to forgive herself. Part of Billy’s success is accepting that he has an unhealthy relationship with food and that he cannot bring back his dead son.
I don’t necessarily see food and his eating as the unhealthy choice. I think the way our characters eat is a problem because they all hide and are consumed by shame but not because they eat enough to grow in size. Love, companionship, trust, and compassion — these are what we should all have, what we all need — if they are had over food, even too much food, that’s okay.
This gets back to having the healthy relationship, right? That food be a source of contentment and nourishment, and not a source of shame — a secret, hidden act — but something we openly rejoice in.
Yes, rejoicing in all forms of nourishment and sustenance, and ultimately rejoicing in the self regardless of how we do or don’t measure up to society’s ridiculous standards of “worthiness” and “acceptability.” Also rejoicing in those we choose to love and are born to be loved by. That’s something we can all embrace and celebrate.
Coming back to something you said earlier, I love that idea so much: the language of food. Just like words and signs, we communicate with ourselves and others through what we eat and how joyful, beautiful, and empowering we can make that exchange.
I’m glad we found each other’s work and that we write about the things that are hard to talk about. I hope our books will urge that conversation onward. We all need to be talking out in the open with inclusivity our guiding principle.
Right, there’s been a woeful dearth in the literature. But I do think going forward we’ll see more and more silenced voices raised and more and more overlooked stories told. People, especially the marginalized, have been pushed too far and now there’s reaction and resistance. It’s a terrible time. It’s a golden time.
So it is, and we will persist.