I like going to book signings—not just of people I know, but of people who interest me in some way. Yesterday, I dragged my friend Lena to a go to a book signing for one of those people who fascinate me—Portia De Rossi.
Best known for her portrayal of lawyer Nelle Porter on the hit show Ally McBeal,
Portia nowadays is happily known as the wife of comedienne and talk show host Ellen Degeneres.
Since my friend Lena got off work earlier, I coerced her into buying me a copy of the book and standing in line while I rushed to drive the four miles from work to Westwood Borders, where the book signing was going to happen. I thought I’d be there in ten minutes, but I had forgotten to factor in LA traffic.
I arrived thirty minutes later, and was actually grateful I had gotten there when I did. A car was just leaving a sweet parking spot right in front of the store while I was wondering where the parking lot was. I immediately pulled into it, and after a whole two minutes of trying to parallel park, I finally got my car decently straight.
Lena was already sitting in a line that wove in and out of bookshelves throughout the second floor of the bookstore. I paid her for the book and after chatting awhile, we found ourselves engrossed in our own books. While she read a book I would never understand (a book on computer programming), I read the first few pages of Portia De Rossi’s memoir: Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain.
I found myself instantly immersed in her words. I wanted to finish reading the book right there and then. The first few pages immediately gave me the sense that her memoir was going to be one of those raw and powerfully honest books which would leave a lasting impression about the particular issues it brings up.
In her memoir, Portia De Rossi talks about the inner turmoils that have plagued her since she started working as a model at age twelve. She talks about her battle with Anorexia, and the loneliness and fear of a life lived in the closet.
Here’s a description of the book, taken from Simon & Schuster’s website:
“I didn’t decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me disguised as a healthy diet, a professional attitude. Being as thin as possible was a way to make the job of being an actress easier . . .”
Portia de Rossi weighed only 82 pounds when she collapsed on the set of the Hollywood film in which she was playing her first leading role. This should have been the culmination of all her years of hard work—first as a child model in Australia, then as a cast member of one of the hottest shows on American television. On the outside she was thin and blond, glamorous and successful. On the inside, she was literally dying.
In this searing, unflinchingly honest book, Portia de Rossi captures the complex emotional truth of what it is like when food, weight, and body image take priority over every other human impulse or action. She recounts the elaborate rituals around eating that came to dominate hours of every day, from keeping her daily calorie intake below 300 to eating precisely measured amounts of food out of specific bowls and only with certain utensils. When this wasn’t enough, she resorted to purging and compulsive physical exercise, driving her body and spirit to the breaking point.
Even as she rose to fame as a cast member of the hit television shows Ally McBeal and Arrested Development, Portia alternately starved herself and binged, all the while terrified that the truth of her sexuality would be exposed in the tabloids. She reveals the heartache and fear that accompany a life lived in the closet, a sense of isolation that was only magnified by her unrelenting desire to be ever thinner. With the storytelling skills of a great novelist and the eye for detail of a poet, Portia makes transparent as never before the behaviors and emotions of someone living with an eating disorder.
From her lowest point, Portia began the painful climb back to a life of health and honesty, falling in love with and eventually marrying Ellen DeGeneres, and emerging as an outspoken and articulate advocate for gay rights and women’s health issues.
In this remarkable and beautifully written work, Portia shines a bright light on a dark subject. A crucial book for all those who might sometimes feel at war with themselves or their bodies, Unbearable Lightness is a story that inspires hope and nourishes the spirit.
And here’s a great review of the book on autostraddle.com
I usually go gaga over meeting favorite authors, but after reading about ten pages of Portia’s book, I was even more excited to meet her.
In writing, I find inspiration anywhere I can get it. I find it in the mundane events I witness everyday, stories I read about in the news, and in the people I meet.
You might be asking: what inspiration can I get from a memoir about Anorexia and coming out when I write middle grade fantasy?
Every story—whether it’s fiction or autobiographical in nature—is at its heart, a story about the human condition. Whether it’s a fantasy novel or a memoir— a story should always ring true in terms of human emotions and experiences. Portia’s battle with her self-image is essentially the same Twilight’s Bella’s battle with her own sense of self.
At the height of her Anorexia, Portia constantly compared herself to other models, and drove to be just as thin or even thinner than they were. Stick-thin models were her standard of beauty, just as Bella’s standard of beauty was her beau Edward. Every time Bella would see her reflection, she’d immediately go into an interior monologue about how ugly she is in comparison to beautiful Edward.
Real people are the inspiration for any fictional character. Whether they’re aliens or vampires, werewolves or elves, characters should always show a bit of humanity within them—in their thoughts or feelings—because how else would we humans be able to relate to them, if not through the mirror of own experiences?
There is a wealth of knowledge to be gained by reading about people’s life experiences. The challenges they’ve faced, the heartbreaks they’ve endured, their joys and accomplishments—all these things can be great inspiration for emotions our own fictional characters can go through.
Despite the seemingly endless line of people to meet and greet, Portia never stopped smiling. She greeted everyone with a genuine smile and eagerly spoke with us, as if conversing with long lost friends.
It is a natural human reaction to be more interested in hearing about someone we personally know, than someone we’ve only just heard of– so I relish meeting well-known people like Portia De Rossi. I enjoy hearing about their experiences from their own mouths, or reading about these experiences with their own words ringing in my head.
Reading the memoirs or works of people I’ve met somehow makes the story more real for me. Meeting the character of the story in person helps me see the story in my head in 3D.
I was ecstatic that I got to shake her hand and exchange a few words with her. She seems like such a great friend to have.
More than that, it is always a great honor to meet people like Portia. She has not only survived a serious eating disorder, but is using her own celebrity status to bring into light serious issues which people don’t normally like to discuss like anorexia, and same-sex relationships.
Portia De Rossi has put a face to the grave problem of eating disorders, and the tragedy of not being true to oneself. Her memoir is must read, if we wish to see for ourselves, how these two issues affect the lives of real people.
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