INTRODUCTIONA nonfiction She’s Come Undone, Fat Girl is a powerfully honest and darkly riveting memoir of obsession with food and body image, penned by a Guggenheim and NEA award-winning writer. For any woman who’s ever had a love/hate relationship with food and with how she looks, for anyone who’s ever knowingly or unconsciously used food to fill a hole in his heart, Fat Girl is a brilliantly rendered, angst-filled coming-of-age story of gain and loss.
ABOUT JUDITH MOORE
Judith Moore, recipient of two National Endowments for the Arts and a Guggenheim fellowship, is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Never Eat Your Heart Out, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Moore is the books editor and senior editor for The San Diego Reader and lives in Berkeley, California.
A CONVERSATION WITH JUDITH MOORE
Why did you feel yours was an important story to tell?
I never think about a story I want to write as important or not important. What IS important to me is that a story I write longs to be told. What eventually became the book, Fat Girl, repeatedly said, “Write me. Tell my secrets.”
I was interested in telling truths about the body –not only the “fat” body—that are not often written. Much on my mind were two memories. One was something Lillian Hellman wrote, I believe in Pentimento—that Dashiell Hammett objected to her “feminine odors.” Hellman was criticized for even mentioning these odors. Or this is how I remember the story. Perhaps I remember it incorrectly.
The other memory was this. When I first started writing, an old friend, a wise old friend, sent me a postcard onto which he’d copied something Adrienne Rich wrote: “The dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack.”
I may be a hack, but I didn’t and don’t want to be one.
I was interested in how to set the story that became Fat Girl. I wanted the story to sound told rather than written, whispered into an ear. I wanted the book to be a confessional box and for the reader to be the narrator’s confessor.
I wanted the book to be short. I wanted a reader to be able to read it in an evening or afternoon.
Who or what motivated you to tell it?
I wanted to honor the fat girl within me and other heavy or once-heavy men and women and tell a truth not often told. Many “truths” told about fatness celebrate fatness’s brighter side—weight loss, jolliness, an almost religious struggle “to lose.”
Many of the reviews for this book speak of your bravery and courage in telling your story. Do you feel that writing this book took bravery?
No, writing this book took the usual bravery that first drafts take. You just have to sit there and get the words down on paper. Writing first drafts, for me, takes almost physical courage. I have to make myself stay at the computer or the notebook. When I find myself wanting to run from my work (which, in fact, is only a disinclination to face facts), I set a timer. I may set the timer to as short a time as thirty minutes. During those minutes I tell myself, “No answering of phones, no looking out windows, no twiddling through a poetry anthology or a magazine, write.” This helps.
When I begin first drafts I type atop the screen or write on the top margin of paper: DON’T WRITE WRITING. SPEAK FROM THE HEART. TALK TO THE PAGE.
Sometimes I go to my knees and pray. The prayer runs something like this, “God, give me a sentence that will get someone through the night. Give me something that’s more true than true. Give me something that isn’t specious, that is durable and doesn’t fray. Give me something I would not be ashamed to show someone who knew he had six months to live.”
Which parts of the story were most difficult for you to put down on paper?
The section where I broke into the Fisher’s house. When one of my friends, a therapist, read Fat Girl, he said, “Chapter Fourteen was creepy.” I knew when I was rustling through the Fisher house and making bologna sandwiches that what I was doing was “creepy” and I knew when I wrote down that I’d spread mustard on bread for those sandwiches and eaten them and pretended that I was part of the Fisher family that other people would also find those afternoons in the Fisher’s house creepy.
In what ways have you learned to cope with issues from your childhood now that you are an adult?
This is difficult.
People ask me if I beat my children. I didn’t. I didn’t yell at them. We gardened and cooked and canned and made paper dolls and doll houses. We raised generations of guinea pigs. We all had dogs. I read aloud to the girls, probably more than they wanted me to do. I guess that what we did was a lot of what I wished my mother had done with me. I was a terrific cook and gardener. We grew much of our own food, we preserved it. We grew flowers and house plants. I was an awful seamstress; I made dresses for the girls that fell apart in the washing machine. I was a fair-to-middling housewife. My daughters’ childhoods are my happiest memories.
I do not cope all that well with much of “life.” As Freud had it, love (eros) and work (unalienated labor) are the fundamental aspects of adulthood. I am good at work and not good at love. I am extremely responsible. I have worked for the same organization for 21 years. I am dependable, consistent, thorough. I am imaginative and quick and collegial, working well with others.
In love between men and women I am not so good. Physical intimacies scare me. Although I have close friendships with straight and gay men, I have remained celibate for many years. I cannot cope with romance.
I am “high-strung” and easily frightened. I jump when horns honk or a glass falls from a café table; like many beaten children, I exhibit a high startle reflex. I only feel truly safe when I am alone, another trait of badly beaten children. Deep down I am always afraid of being slapped or kicked. I never have slept well. I fear abandonment. I manage transitions poorly. I’m a mess.
I have had much therapy. The therapy did help me cope with who I am and how I feel. But my past is my past, and my past—a dirty hem on a long skirt—trails along with me.
I would guess that I do not see myself all that clearly. I would guess too, that, truth told, I am at least mildly what we used to speak of as “mentally ill.”
What are you working on now?
A book that is giving me the usual trouble. However, I enjoy the trouble. I am grateful for the work.
- Why do you think the author wrote this memoir? Besides trouble with weight, what more universal issues are discussed in the book?
- How does Judith’s parent’s abandoning her with her grandmother affect the rest of her life? What damage does her grandmother do to her, both psychologically and physically?
- Why do you think Judith’s mother has so much animosity towards her daughter? As a child, Judith believes that her mother would love her more if she were thin. Do you think that is true? Could Judith have done anything to please her mother?
- Judith feels ashamed much of the time, even when she is very young. Where do these feelings of shame come from? In what ways does society make people feel ashamed of what they cannot control? In what other situations do we blame the victim?
- In what ways do Judith’s mother and grandmother vilify Judith’s father? Why do they try so hard to make her hate him?
- Why is Judith easy prey for bullies at school and the pedophile in the movie theatre? What about her as a child causes her to be victimized? Do you think she is an easy target? Why or why not?
- Discuss the father figures that Judith latches on to throughout her life. What is she looking for in each of these men? Where else does she look for love and affection that she can’t find at home?
- Consider Uncle Carl. Why does she tell the story of the chartreuse party? What does it signify? What does Uncle Carl offer Judith that no one else does? Why is his home more comfortable for her than anywhere else she lives?
- How did you feel when Judith’s grandmother died? Why does Judith, herself, feel so little? Were you surprised by her reaction to her grandmother’s illness?
- Judith breaks into two different homes: June’s apartment and the Fisher’s house. Why does she do this? What does she find in each of these homes that she can’t find in her own?
- What does Judith learn about herself when she finally meets her father? Why does her meeting him change her relationship with her mother?
- Judith writes that missing her father and feeling unloved by her mother caused her to eat, that she was filling a hole within herself that should have been filled by her parents’ love. Do you agree with that? Besides food, how else does she try to fill that void?
- In the Introduction, Judith writes, “I know, from being thin and listening to thin people talk about fat people, that thin people often denigrate fat people. At best, they pity them.” Do you agree with this statement? As you read her story, did you pity Judith? Why or why not?
- Discuss Judith’s adult relationships with men. Do you think it’s possible for someone with her childhood to ever be comfortable with love? With herself?