“We don’t necessarily know how to hear stories about any kind of violence, because it is hard to accept that violence is as simple as it is complicated, that you can love someone who hurts you, that you can stay with someone who hurts you, that you can be hurt by someone who loves you, that you can be hurt by a complete stranger, that you can be hurt in so many terrible, intimate ways.”
– Roxane Gay, Hunger
Funny thing, protection mechanisms. Suicidal ideation is the most extreme, and believe it or not this deeply embedded impulse toward self-destruction has only good intentions. It seeks to heal the hurt in the most absolute way, its only concern saving the sufferer from pain that feels unendurable. It’s the most insidious, and most short-sighted, of survival mechanisms – which sounds ironic considering it’s actively trying to kill you. But then, what’s rational for the unconscious psyche is seldom logical.
Roxane Gay’s coping mechanism was, and is, overeating. Gang raped at age 12, the trauma lead her brain to form a groove channelling her focus toward gaining weight. Irrationally, her subconscious told her if she lost her sex appeal the danger would go away, that she’d be safe from predation. Now aware of the reason she turns to food, the addiction has taken such firm root the task of changing feels nearly impossible.
She has tried to break the cycle, dieting and losing weight only to regain as much and more. Coming from a naturally slender family compounds her sense of failure. That they’re able to eat healthily, to remain fit, makes her feel all the worse. Society, with its stress on perfection and beauty, leads to vicious backlash and prejudice from those who blame her size on laziness and greed.
Hunger is raw and naked, honest and unrelenting. Roxane Gay neither denies responsibility nor attempts to disguise her behavior. She relates brutal stories of indignities she’s suffered as she admits to her own self-destructive behavior.
This is not a happy ending tale. Gay continues to spar with her demons; she has not found a solution. But through her writing she has found an outlet for her pain, at the same time validating the similar struggles of others.
One of the saddest stories is her bout with bulimia. Overjoyed she’d found a way to eat all she wanted without gaining weight, she taught herself to purge huge quantities of food. If you aren’t aware, habitual bulimia leads to chronic heartburn, sometimes permanent burn scars on the fingers from regular contact with corrosive stomach acid. The experience long past, she continues to bear physical souvenirs.
Roxane Gay’s book begs the question if her unrelenting battles will ever find resolution. And yes it’s very saddening, but never self-pitying. Childhood rape left her mentally scarred, but she doesn’t pretend not to know the solution lies within.
“I buried the girl I had been because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. She is still small and scared and ashamed, and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear.”
This isn’t an easy book to read. It hits a lot of sore places, especially for women who’ve suffered sexual abuse. It’s not only a memoir of her sadly not uncommon life experiences, but also an indictment against the ugliness of prejudice – in this case, against the obese. It reveals ugly truths about humanity.
I’m thankful she shared part of her journey. She is a brave woman with an uncommon ability to express herself. What she has to say is important. I hope it’s brought her a measure of peace.