Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book review: Portia de Rossi's memoir

I admit I was not expecting much from Portia de Rossi's new memoir, Unbearable Lightness. Her meticulously documented marriage to Ellen DeGeneres notwithstanding, I just did not have a good grasp of who Portia de Rossi was. I never watched Ally McBeal. I have seen only a few episodes of Arrested Development. Therefore, Portia was a vague figure to me. I could never quite conjure what she actually looked like.

But since reading Portia's affecting memoir—which chronicles her harrowing eating disorder, her shame over being a lesbian, and her frantic drive to prove she was special—I now have a distinct impression of this remarkable woman. This impression took time to develop, however. In the first chapters I was frustrated because Portia was a nebulous character in her own memoir. I did not have a sense of her as a physical person moving through the world—and because I did not come to the book with a clear image of her, she was an elusive presence in the pages. At one point she gave a rare summary of what she was wearing—the uniform of a social outcast, she said. "A vintage Iggy Pop T-shirt, faded black denim jeans, and a pair of perfectly worn black leather engineers' boots." I grew to understand that this hazy presentation of her physicality was likely the author's strategy. Portia de Rossi is clearly an intelligent person, and the writing is decent. Her use of the unreliable narrator device is effective as we experience life through her warped perspective. Her wispy presence is apt, not just because she is starving her body, but because—as a woman whose disorder spirals out of control as her career soars—she is hiding in plain sight.

I also admire that Portia is willing to give us the ugly details of what it means to binge and purge—memorably wiping vomit with her T-shirt after she forced herself to puke into a bag in her car. This is not glamorous stuff. As her disorder expands from bulimia to anorexia, she portrays self-starvation as tedious, disgusting, and frightening. Self-hating insanity. In fact, Portia modestly and, I think, responsibly, downplays her successful Hollywood career and instead concentrates on her personal hell. We clearly get the message that her obsession with her weight was a hindrance, not a help, to her career.

Another achievement of Unbearable Lightness is that we come away convinced that Portia is a good and kind person despite her self-centered obsession with the superficial throughout most of the book. She is loving toward her friends, discreet about her colleagues, and generous with those who contributed to her troubles. Her mother is no angel in this story, but Portia is apparently forgiving, as the evidence suggests Portia would have been within her rights to crucify her "Ma" in this book.

The comic skill that Portia brings to her acting surfaces from time to time in the memoir. In explaining why she changed her name from Amanda Rogers, she says she simply hated her birth name: "It was so ordinary, so perfectly average. It had 'a man' in it, which annoyed me because every time I'd hear someone refer to a man, I would turn my head, waiting for the 'duh.'"

Lastly, I was glad to read about Portia's journey toward coming out, as difficult as it was. Because she now is wed to Ellen, it's easy to forget the importance of her specific lesbian visibility. How many other conventionally beautiful and out Hollywood lesbians can you name?


Anonymous said...

Like you, I had very little knowledge of Portia de Rossi before reading this book. I received it as a give-away; it is not something I would have purchased.

As someone who deals with eating disorders in a professional context (but who has never dealt with them personally), I was floored by her excellent descriptions of this disorder from within. I have read many books on this topic for my work, but never one so searing and memorable.

I was disappointed, however, that she gave her mother such a pass. As a parent myself, I know the inestimable impact parental behavior has on children. Kids model everything on what their parents do. Portia has obviously come a long way, but at least as far as what she will publically write about her mother, not far enough to acknowledge a major source of her disorder.

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

I agree with you about the extent to which Portia's mother seemed to contribute to the eating disorder. I thought Portia showed great restraint (or forgiveness or generosity or grace) in not railing against her mother for the damage she did to her young daughter's body image. Are you saying you think Portia had a responsibility to further explore the impact of the poor parenting?

Anonymous said...

Dear SG: No, I don't think she has a responsibility to delve more into this in a public forum. I just hope for her own sake that she has acknowledged--more than the book does--her mother's role in all of this. Until she places the blame where it lies (outside of herself), she will never fully recover.

Sapphist Gazetteer said...

Good point.