Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: eating disorders

Report From The Body: Venus de Milo.

When I was a kid I used to pore through my mother’s art books she’d bought for the one term she’d spent as a fine art student at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University. On the bookshelf behind the end table next to the chair lived a red cloth-bound art-history volume that had black-and-white reproductions of great works of art throughout Western European civilization. Because at this time, African and Native American and “oriental” art didn’t count.

Of all the photos I pored over—even more than Michelangelo’s David (which I’m not sure was represented in its entirety, I think they must have cropped the photo at the waist, the way CBS cropped Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show) I think I most closely studied the Venus de Milo.

Venus-de-Milo

At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand what I was seeing. I didn’t understand that all cultures formulate their ideas of beauty. I didn’t even half-comprehend the irony that as I was studying this photo, my own culture was coming up with these images of sexual beauty:

farrah-fawcett-pinup Bo-Derek

And then Karen Carpenter starved herself to death, and the first stories about anorexia started appearing in the Time Magazines that used to come to the house.

Now, I understand, YouTube has videos giving instructions to girls and women about how to do it well. That is, how to starve yourself.

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I found this amazing shot of the Venus de Milo today.

venusdemilo

At 10 or 11 I didn’t understand how to look at this sculpture, but today here’s what I notice from this shot: Aphrodite has abs. Her strength shows. And she has quite a nice bit of padding underneath her skin. Her belly looks like mine (or, my belly looks like hers).

She’s well-fed. She’s fit. She would not fit into a Size 2, or even into a size 6.

She doesn’t have cleavage. Her collarbones aren’t sticking out.

Her posture is upright. She’s confident. (She’s a goddess, right? But still.)

And her face. Her gaze isn’t seductive. She’s not thinking about what other people think about how she looks.

She’s not trying to sell herself to any bidder. She’s occupying her own body.

//

The other day my friend Noah, who has 20-some years sober, said to me that he’d been living in his head. “I’m way up in my head these days,” is the way he put it, and he sounded trapped.

“Can you get down into your body?” I blurted, only half-knowing what I was asking.

He fastened his blue eyes on my face. “I don’t know what that means,” he said, surprised, thinking.

When do you live in your head? When do you live in your body? 

(Originally published August 30, 2013.)

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Renee Zellweger And The Fallacy Of “Total Abstinence.”

Ceci n'est pas Renee Zellweger.

Ceci n’est pas Renee Zellweger. And Our World Is Rocked.

So apparently we should be paying attention to the fact that Renee Zellweger has further fucked up her face. Whatever she did this time—and there are a million writers out there trying to scratch out a measly buck tracking down doctors willing to speculate about what it was—clearly it wasn’t the first time she commissioned knife and/or needle against herself. She’s been bingeing on Botox for years.

A lot of the publications that are running this shit have surprisingly venerable histories. The Atlantic, for example. I mean The Atlantic published Emerson, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson and Mark Bleeding Twain, for godsake. What the hell are they doing? Playing vulture to the carrion of our voyeurism. We wrote snarky shit about her Lemon-Head face and that made her fuck herself up, and to top it off it makes you read what I’m writing now, because don’t you wish you had her rich-and-famous life? etc.—this is how Big Media make their money.

I used to read Time Magazine when I was a kid. It was practically the only non-religious publication, besides the Pittsburgh Press, that used to come to the house. That was back in the 1970s, when the magazine first spun People off its “lifestyle” pages, since Time, Inc. was no longer publishing Life. Way back when, for chrissake, Time used to publish James Agee. His novel A Death in the Family and his nonfiction account of southern tenant-farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, were books whose language and commitment of their author (admittedly ill with alcoholism and probably more besides) shaped my idea of what it meant to be a writer: You had to do a good job, not just for yourself but also for your sources, for your readers, and for the writers who had come before you.

Now nobody owes anybody anything. It’s a free-for-all—market laissez-faire.

//

Let Us Now Praise Famous MenAgee had been under contract with Fortune to write a piece about cotton sharecroppers, but after spending time with the impoverished “Gudgers” he found he no longer had it in him to use these poor people as tools to produce the shiny happy piece that Madison Avenue required, so he said Fuck It: I’ll make a book instead. You know how many copies he sold?—1,000. In nine years. The publisher waited nine years before putting it out of print. Today a sales record like that wouldn’t last six months.

The 1960s civil rights movement resurrected the book, and it hasn’t been out of print since then. Because its excellent language and deep integrity speak for themselves. They teach people how to be human.

By the same token, the headline for the Time story about Zellweger’s latest cosmetic “fix” lacks integrity—”Leave Renee Zellweger’s Face Alone!” It’s a manipulative, “hurry-up-and-wait” kind of line: Hey everybody, I’m gonna set fire to myself, so DON’T look at me!

But what pisses me off so much about this Renee Zellweger “story,” if you can call it that, has nothing to do with Renee Zellweger herself but with the fact that the media perpetuate this self-destructive thing that women do to ourselves—this compulsive looking in the mirror, the constant examination of ourselves, a fixation on self. Which is one of the roots of addiction: selfishness, self-centeredness. Obsessive self-reference. My bro David Foster Wallace wrote in “This Is Water”:

And the so-called Real World will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.

We read about Renee Zellweger but we’re really thinking about ourselves. You can bet that next week her face will be on the cover of People. We might read People in the grocery store line and go home and eat a big bowl of ice cream, because even if Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face, she’s rich-and-famous and automatically has a better life than we do. Automatically. Then sometime in the not-too-distant future we (automatically) go to the doctor and ask for Celexa so we can be not-depressed, or we steal or cop some Adderall so we can lose some weight and regain our “concentration.” Or whatever.

If you have kids in your life, and if any of the kids are American girls, you have been watching the progression of true insanity from generation to generation due to this kind of snowball effect between the media and its consumers. I mean until the 1970s, at which time society had sustained a 15- or 20-years’ barrage of Twiggy-style ad images, anorexia presented only in isolated cases. If the media produce this garbage, there will be huge audiences to eat it up; the audiences won’t stop buying it (will we?), and Time, Inc. will definitely not stop producing it if they can “brand” and sell it. The same with Kraft, Inc. If they can produce this “pasteurized processed cheese-food,” otherwise known as “American cheese,” they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up.

The same with the drug companies. If they can brand and sell this stuff—the drugs—they will create a market for it, and we will eat it up. “Got PMS? Ask your doctor for Sarafem.” Or whatever.

A couple weeks ago I told my first-year students to read David Foster Wallace’s essay “This Is Water” and to write an essay exploring ways they had become enslaved by some attitude. It shouldn’t have surprised me (but it did) that so many of the women wrote about their obsession with their weight or some other aspect of their appearances. With “beauty.” The few men I have in this class wrote about their obsession with “success.”

Plus ça change, and all that.

//

Recovering Body_smallWhen I sat in front of an audience of 1,000 a couple weeks ago to talk about my new book and took questions about physical recovery from addiction, the first was from a woman who wanted to know how I “deal with food”: I have put into print my compulsion to eat sugar, and the questioner wanted to know how I manage to feed myself. We can quit drinking alcohol, the logic goes, but human beings can’t just starve.

In mulling this question over it has occurred to me that in fact I am not completely abstinent from all drinks—just drinks that hurt me. And that includes soda. … I can’t be completely abstinent from all food or drugs—but I can choose not to put food or drugs in my mouth if they’re going to change my reality (in other words, the truth). If a shot or a beer distorts the truth for me, then should I never drink ANYTHING, even water? If sugar screws with my head, should I not eat ANYTHING?

I can’t quit eating or drinking altogether, but I can quit putting into my body stuff that hurts me—stuff of all kinds, including the smorgasbord of “stories” that tempt me to Feed My Head, telling me how to think about the ways Renee Zellweger has fucked up her face.

I can’t abstain from the mirror. But I can choose to stop talking shit about the person I see when I look there.

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Reviews: “Black Swan” And “The King’s Speech.”

Today is “One Plus One” because I have one year and one day of continuous sobriety… yay. More on that later.

Also because I’m reviewing two films I saw over the holiday, both of which illuminate problems and solutions faced by addicts seeking (and sometimes not seeking) recovery.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman Black Swan

Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

An enjoyable psycho-ballet-thriller. Natalie Portman, who was miscast as Anne Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl because of her lack of voluptuousness (and her inability to shed her American accent), was fine as Nina, the anorexic-bulimic-workaholic ballerina whose body is controlled at home by her mother (Barbara Hershey) and at work by her artistic director (hot Frenchman Vincent Cassel, who was also marvelous as the Duke of Anjou in Elizabeth).

Nina doesn’t own herself.

Trying, like a good little addict, to please everyone, she drives herself, working late nights until even the company’s rehearsal pianist calls it quits and tells her to go home and find a life. But she has no home, because her mother rules her apartment, even crashing in an armchair in her room. … Her body rebels with rashes and adhesions, which she goes to great length to hide. Another more sensuous ballerina in the company (Mila Kunis) tries to befriend her and mentors her in the art of popping pills and seducing dudes in clubs—a kind of false “letting go” which leads to delusions and paranoia, sending Nina past the point of no return. She wills herself through all her obstacles and eventually gets what she wants—professional success, approval, billboards on the side of Lincoln Center, etc.—but at a huge cost, and she never comes close to trusting or connecting with any of the other characters despite their best efforts. Which is the point: her illness drives her to complete isolation.

The King’s Speech

Colin Firth in The King's Speech

Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech.

The King’s Speech and Black Swan are about the same problems, really: childhood abuse and the illness it creates, including illnesses of obsessiveness and compulsiveness comparable to addiction, if not also including addiction; and reclaiming ownership of the body in an effort to reclaim self-expression.

“I have a voice!” shouts Colin Firth as the stammering King George VI. “Yes, you do,” says Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, his speech therapist cum psychotherapist/sponsor.

I loved The King’s Speech. It was good to see Helena Bonham Carter playing something along the lines of a real human being for once, rather than a demented psycho wiccan, or an animated character. She makes a decent human being.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, cheerfully refusing to co-sign Bertie’s bullshit.

The aspect I liked best was the relationship between Bertie and Lionel. “Bertie” was the pet-name used only by the king’s family for the king himself, and Lionel demanded to use the nickname. The moment I liked best, the one I wrote down, was the moment when Lionel and Bertie negotiate their initial meeting: Lionel tells Bertie not to smoke and makes it clear he is not going to, as it were, “co-sign any bullshit.”

As the film progressed, their relationship began to parallel a sponsor-sponsee relationship. For example, it turns out that Lionel isn’t a “doctor” of speech therapy but rather a former actor who started using his experience in drama to help shell-shocked veterans of the Great War to reclaim their powers of expression: just one guy using his experience in the service of helping other suffering guys. The guy he’s helping now, it turns out, was starved by his nanny, abused by his parents, bullied by his brothers, put into painful leg-splints to correct knock-knees and made to use his right hand when he was naturally left-handed. Isolated as royalty, he could tell no one about his feelings. His fear almost literally choked him.

“My sign doesn’t say ‘doctor,’ and I don’t have any letters after my name,” Logue tells Bertie, after the Archbishop of Canterbury (an always formidable Derek Jacobi) questions his credentials and attempts to replace Logue with his own candidate. The king wavers in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, feeling forced to fire the man who has been the only person in the world to whom he could confide any of his fears—the root of his stammering problem: fear.

“Your majesty,” the prelate says imperiously, “your function is to be advised, and I have advised you. My duty is to look after the person on whose head I am to place this crown.”

“Thank you, archbishop,” Bertie says finally, “but it is, after all, my head.”

The ending, naturally, is historic. But the way in which Logue helps the king deliver his first wartime speech, in the film at least, is a brilliant piece of sponsorship. All along the way he lets Bertie make his own hesitations and mistakes and decisions. He allows himself to screw up. He waits stuff out. He cares, but he remembers it’s about the job and not about his own ego. Though he’s dealing with the top dog, he might just as well be helping any schoolboy. And the man heals.

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