Book Review: Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness is a powerful account of anoxeria, bulimia, and being in the closet

I have a fascination with eating disorders of all kinds: anorexia, bulimia, obesity. I wouldn’t pass up watching a television show or documentary on the subject, and occasionally seek out books on the subject. Frustratingly, most all of the first hand accounts I’ve read have seemed shallow – just glossing the surface, but Portia de Rossi’s book Unbearable Lightness is unflinchingly real. It doesn’t skip across the water of what it’s like to have one of these debilitating and then call it a day. It gently grasps you and takes you deep, deep, down into the murky, hazy, darkness of it, but also, just as powerfully, shows you that there is a way out.

Eating disorders are emotional at the core. They are about acceptance, happiness, setting and achieving goals. “If only I weighed one pound less, I’d be happy then,” is at the core of the sickness. Portia de Rossi is an actress who struggled with her weight since she was a 12-year-old model, and turned an expectation from her profession and a fear of being considered ordinary into a devastating obsession and illness. She used the control and struggle of her eating disorders to not only obtain an unhealthy weight and mask the pain of not always being accepted in a rather harsh and superficially discriminating industry, but to also mask the pain of not being accepted by her mother and family for not always being the perfect weight, or the perfect sexual orientation.

Unbearable Lightness is infectious with its honesty. It lays everything bare, and this from a woman who, though she achieved fame, fought so fiercely to achieve perfect privacy that she lied about almost every aspect of her life not only to the press and coworkers, but to her family and friends. Already an emotionally fragile and closeted lesbian whose self-esteem was too rigidly tied to her body weight and the size of her thighs, she increased the stakes by thinking that in order to maintain her career in Hollywood, and escape a brutal life of poverty, and worse, mediocrity, she had to both stay in the closet and shrink down to a frightening size while pretending to eat like a healthy girl. This idea that she had to keep up the facade isolated her, consumed her every waking moment, and made her extremely ill.

No book about eating disorders has the courage and thoroughness of this one. The chapters are meaty in this 300 page book, and the details are painstaking to the point where you at first wonder if you’ll become bored by the countless weigh-ins, repetitive food descriptions, and obsessive thought accounts; but instead of boring it’s gripping. The bulk of the book occurs in a pretty small amount of the time, the year when she really let the eating disorder completely take over her life and she ended up with only 82 pounds on her 5’7″ frame. This lead to severe joint pain, passing out on a movie set, and a frightening list of diagnoses.

It would be heartbreakingly depressing, if you didn’t know there was redemption waiting. When you pick up the book you know there’s relief at the end. Portia ends up with Ellen DeGeneres (spoiler alert) who, ironically, originally lost her television career at the point where Portia was beginning hers, which made Portia even more terrified to live life as an out lesbian. At some point Ellen (who Portia didn’t meet until several years later) represented to Portia all the reasons why she should live her life clandestinely, skulking around measuring out her life (and tuna) in coffee spoons and having imagined affairs with the girls in her dreams. It was too great a risk to be honest and open and accept herself, too dangerous.

Ellen did take a hit, a very big professional and personal hit, when she came out as a lesbian. But she not only helped herself, but she helped the world grow, and come back and accept her. They even gave this woman, this scourge of the earth who would dare admit to the world that she wasn’t the heterosexual lady she played on TV, a shot at a daytime talk show aired at a time when grandparents and bewildered housewives would watch with pearls clutched, and think “Hey, this Ellen lady isn’t really that bad after-all. She’s funny, and kind, why she may even be good.”

And Portia no longer has to hide. She and Ellen shared their wedding generously with the world through photographs, video footage, and a touching Oprah episode. Ellen talks about her wife on television, and sometimes it pans over to Portia, glowing in the audience.

And now this book, a particularly candid one that exposes every crevice of the once tortured soul of Portia de Rossi (who was once Amanda Lee Rogers and is now legally Portia Lee James DeGeneres), puts out some of the actress’s most devastating moments for everyone to see. It’s a brave move, and it will help a great many people who struggle with food, image, sexuality, self esteem, or feeling like an outsider. In other words, if you are human, you’ll be deeply impacted by this book. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, it could save your life.