Guest Lesbrarian Orange Sorbet reviews Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi

I thought Teri Hatcher’s Burnt Toast: And Other Philosophies of Life had poisoned celebrity autobiographies for me forever, but when I first heard of Portia’s Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, I knew I had to get it. (This may or may not have had to do with how cute I think she is.) I had simultaneously high and low hopes for this book — high because of all the hype surrounding it, which I suppose is only natural when the author’s one half of the most famous lesbian couple and probably on Oprah’s speed-dial; and low because this still is a book written by an unproven author, after all.

In Unbearable Lightness, Portia details her struggles with eating disorders and her sexuality. As mentioned in her interviews, she wrote it from the “perspective of a sick person” and so most of the book tracks her intense obsession with weight loss and increasingly extreme behaviour until she reaches an all-time low of 82 pounds (about 37kg).

I decided not to eat the egg whites. I didn’t need them. As they slid off the plate and into the trash, I felt a surge of adrenaline. I felt invincible, powerful. Not eating them was incredibly difficult and by not eating them I had just proven to myself that I was stronger than my basic instincts, that I could deny them. I wouldn’t give in to the desire to eat, because after all, isn’t that what fat people do? They give in to desire? They know they shouldn’t eat the brownie, but they just can’t help themselves.

What immediately struck me was how readable the memoir was. When writing about mental illnesses in particular, I believe, authors have to work doubly hard to have their readers empathise with being in a position most people aren’t usually sympathetic to while at the same time avoid writing a piece that is excessively intense or triggering. Let’s put it this way: when dealing with someone with depression, people instinctively think, “Why can’t you just be happy? It’s not that hard.” Portia deftly brings her readers into the mindset of an anorexic/bulimic without overwhelming them, and the overall effect is that you get a story about a life you will never experience — and never hope to — but with a person in the middle of it whose battles you can strongly relate to.

As Portia’s weight steadily decreases, the narrative alternates between her life in Hollywood (particularly on the set of Ally McBeal, the show which catapulted her to fame) and her childhood in Australia. She tells the story of how a desperate desire to constantly remake herself pushed her to change her name on a whim at age 15 — Portia de Rossi was actually born Amanda Lee Rogers — and to ditch her “perfectly worn black leather engineers’ boots” in favour of more feminine Capri pants and high heels years later as she faced celebrity-dom.

The story of her sexuality, or more specifically, her quest to hide and/or deny it, is interwoven with her life with EDs. While I did find that this issue sometimes felt forced and didn’t quite gel with the rest of the narrative, I don’t think the memoir would be complete without it because there is no doubt in my mind that having to hide such a big part of yourself would have an incredibly destructive effect on your sense of self, leaving you particularly vulnerable to things like EDs. Also, it leaves for some pretty brilliant I-like-other-girls-but-I’m-not-a-lesbian anecdotes, and there’s of course the beautiful irony that she constantly looked to Ellen DeGeneres as an example of why she couldn’t afford to come out as a lesbian and… well.

My girlfriend had to be heterosexual because I didn’t want to be a lesbian. If she was heterosexual, then it suggested that I was also heterosexual. Also, I was scared of lesbians. In fact, I would cross the street if I saw one coming toward me. One time I didn’t cross the street and I ended up sleeping with a lesbian because I felt sorry for her. She had just lost her girlfriend in a car accident and I was devastated for her. Nothing sounded worse to me than losing your girlfriend; that the one precious connection that you had made in your whole life was gone, wasted, lost in a car wreck. It sounded so much worse to me than a wife losing her husband — it was worse than anything. I found this woman to be quite unattractive. She was overweight and had a shaved head and facial piercings. But I had to sleep with her. It was only polite.

N.B. I would like to know exactly how she identifies those lesbians coming down the street, because I really suck at that. And while it does sound like Portia may have been conned into believing a sob story so that aforementioned lesbian could get into her pants, Ellen actually had a girlfriend who died in a car accident when she was 21.

The only gripe I have about the book is that at the end of it, I still felt there were a fair number of loose ends that needed to be tied up. She mentions her father quite a bit both in the book and her interviews and it is evident that his death when she was a child severely impacted her (naturally), but I don’t know what kind of father he was or what their relationship was like. (In contrast, I found the portrayal of her mother as a figure of many contradictions — nurturing but pressurising, caring but also careless — amazingly realistic.) This might be a minor point but I would also have liked to know more about Bean, her dog who was her sole companion for many years. Most significantly, the book is a lot more about “loss” than it is about “gain,” and there is very little about her recovery.

To be frank, if it weren’t for Portia’s name and fame — or perhaps more accurately, Ellen’s — this (audio)book would not be #1 on iTunes. It probably wouldn’t hit any bestsellers list; it is not particularly insightful, clever, or even especially original. It is honest, though, and it is that refreshing straightforwardness that kept me turning the pages. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this book, but it’s definitely worth a read.

Thank you so much for the review, Orange Sorbet! You can find Orange Sorbet’s blog here, and the original post of this review (complete with adorable pictures of Portia) here.

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Kelly reviews Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein

After the success of the It Gets Better project and the recent publication of the accompanying book, I wanted to revisit another book aimed at suicidal young queers. Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws was first published in 2006. Bornstein is well known as a performance artist and gender warrior, and this book she offers advice for young folks facing bullying, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This book will appeal to some young people for its honesty, though it may turn others off with its occasional corniness. Many adults are likely to enjoy it as well.

The book’s opening chapters drag a bit. Some teens may appreciate the crash course in gender, sexuality, and oppression, but the lack of depth will frustrate others. The heart of the book consists of the 101 alternatives. Each suggestion has been rated for ease, effectiveness, safety, and age-appropriateness. Options range from self-reflective activities like #7: Trash your preferences and reboot, to pure avoidance, as in #14: Run away and hide. Each item has some explanatory text and often further resources to seek out. They are easy to browse and skip through, and the book is best viewed as a guide for occasional reference. Many alternatives are cross-referenced. For example, many lead back to #34: Sing for your supper. Bornstein wants young people to see how to capitalize on their experiences, and uses her own life examples to show the ongoing benefits of self-empowerment. As she is Auntie Kate, some of the recommendations are controversial. However, though she lists self-touch and drug use as options, both are explained within a particular–and quite reasonable–context. (Some parents or teachers may feel uncomfortable with references to sex and drugs, but hey, maybe they could use #7 themselves.)

Overall, Bornstein has created an amiable, flexible set of tools. She recognizes that a lesser form of self-harm is better than suicide, a perspective rarely acknowledged by adults. Her goal is not to trick anyone into being a happier person, but rather to help us grow stronger and build skills to cope in this cruel world.

P.S. Special bonus: the introduction was written by Sara Quin!

Indie Lit Awards, GLBTQ

I was lucky enough to be one of the judges for this year’s ILA GLBTQ section. Before we select the winner, I’d like to post some of my thoughts on the lesbian entry.

[Cover redacted due to cutting scars that might be triggering]

Scars is actually the only nominee with a lesbian protagonist. But that’s definitely not the main issue in Scars. This novel is mostly about being raped as a child and cutting to deal with the pain. It is not an easy book to read. I had to put it down at times because of the graphic details of her cutting, though that’s not a complaint. I struggled with how I felt about this book, because on the one hand it seemed very, very dramatic, especially at the end. (She is being stalked by her childhood rapist, whose identity she has blocked out, leaving every adult male in her life a possible suspect.) On the other hand, I don’t know how this story could have been told without seeming dramatic, and it’s a story worth telling. I really liked some of the secondary characters, especially her girlfriend (and her therapist, who I’m glad is described positively).

Have you read any of the finalists? What did you think of it?