Of the many terms Roxane Gay uses in her wrenching new memoir to describe her body — “broken,” “a cage,” even a “hulking, impermeable mass” — none is more shattering than “a crime scene.” It is shockingly apt.
Growing up in Nebraska, Gay was 12 when a group of boys, “who were not yet men but knew, already, how to do the damage of men,” raped her. Even as her life unraveled and her self-esteem plummeted, Gay told no one. Then, like a homeowner who installs iron bars on the windows after a robbery, Gay conjured what she believed to be a means of protection from another sexual violation — she gained weight. Pound after pound after pound, Gay transformed her body into what she calls “a fortress.”
By the time she graduated from high school, Gay had gained 120 pounds — and that was just the beginning.
“I was swallowing my secrets and making my body expand and explode,” she writes. “I found ways to hide in plain sight, to keep feeding a hunger that could never be satisfied — the hunger to stop hurting. I made myself bigger. I made myself safer. I created a distinct boundary between myself and anyone who dared to approach me.”
“Hunger” is Gay at her most lacerating and probing. She explores her two life cataclysms: her gang rape and what it means to be obese in a society that judges and despises those who are overweight. Gay’s writing is raw, but also merciless when she discusses how the world sees “fat” people (“fat” is Gay’s chosen word) but also looks right through them.
“This is not a weight-loss memoir, ” Gay writes. “This is not a book that will offer motivation.” Readers should consider themselves warned. The first clue may be the cover shot of a fork. In an extreme close-up, it looks less like an implement associated with the pleasures of food than a pitchfork, its curved tines ready for battle or defense.
For Gay, it represents both, and she’s honest about the ways she enjoys food, while using it as a shield. She’s also direct in explaining why she prefers to call herself a “victim” rather than a “survivor” of rape.
“I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey,” she says. “I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting. Moving forward without pretending I am unscarred.”
“Hunger” also punctures the myth that success heals all wounds. With “Bad Feminist,” her career-making 2014 collection of essays, Gay moved to the A-list of “must-read” authors. She went on book tours, speaking engagements, and appeared on television. She was interviewed for the New York Times Magazine and gave a well received TED talk. This was a heady time, but also one filled with uneasiness about her weight.
“Every part of me becomes exposed to the camera. There is no hiding the truth of me,” she writes. Ours is a society obsessed with petite waistlines and rock-hard abs. Tabloid headlines scream about which celebrity is eating herself to death (such stories tend to focus on women) and who has the best beach body. We don’t just watch our own weight; we watch everyone else’s. That preoccupation fuels shows like “The Biggest Loser,” which Gay calls “an unholy union of capitalism and the weight-loss industrial complex,” and “My 600-lb Life,” which if you haven’t watched it, don’t. It is body-shaming tyranny.
If this seems like so much guilt-inducing drudgery, it’s not. Anyone familiar with Gay’s books or tweets knows she also wields a dagger-sharp wit. She calls her loving parents her “personal Obesity Crisis Intervention team,” pushing back against their well-intentioned nagging about diets and spas. She even pokes at Oprah Winfrey, whose own weight battles are legion. When she watches Winfrey say on a Weight Watchers commercial, “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be,” Gay thinks, “I ate that thin woman and she was delicious but unsatisfying.”
Early in “Hunger,” Gay writes, “The story of my body is not a story of triumph.” No one should interpret that to mean this is a story of defeat. Gay has done much more than survive, despite events that could have destroyed a weaker heart and soul. She has persevered and succeeded not just as a writer but as a woman coping, on her own terms, with scars both forced and self-inflicted.
“I have tried to make peace with this body. I have tried to love or at least tolerate this body in a world that displays nothing but contempt for it,” Gay writes. “I have tried to move on from the trauma that compelled me to create this body . . . I have been silent about my story in a world where people assume they know the why of my body, or any fat body. And now, I am choosing to no longer be silent.” HUNGER: A Memoir of (My) Body
By Roxane Gay
Harper, 320 pp., $25.99
Renée Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.