Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi

There comes a time in most people’s life when they read a book that changes their outlook so profoundly that they want to thrust it into the arms of others and demand that they read it ASAP, for me that book is Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi.

Subtitled A Story of Loss and Gain, you know you’re in for a painful read from the get go but I wasn’t expecting it to be this heart wrenching, even after watching de Rossi’s interview on Oprah.

Opening with the revelation that she is regularly woken from her slumber by the voice inside her that continually asks ‘What did you eat last night?’, Unbearable Lightness dives straight into de Rossi’s life during the filming of Ally McBeal when her eating disorder really came to the fore.

de Rossi interweaves her early life with that of life in LA, from becoming a model at age 12, changing her name at 15 (she was born Amanda Lee Rogers), to landing her first acting role and the decision to drop out of law school to pursue acting in the US. 

It’s all dealt with in simple but powerful prose directly from the eye of the storm because de Rossi decided to speak from the heart of the issue rather than as a healthy person looking back making it obvious what was going through her mind at any given point in time.

Inevitably this book also deals with de Rossi’s battle to accept her sexuality and it’d be hard to imagine not including this aspect because at certain times this struggle seems (to me at least,) to enable her to fall deeper into her eating disorder. By that I mean, it seems that she felt she couldn’t control one aspect of her life so turned all her attention to following a strict diet and exercise regime which spiralled out of control and led to both bulimia and anorexia.

On meeting and getting together with Mel Metclafe she writes, ‘So it was surprising to me when I felt a rush of sexual attraction to Mel. (It was surprising to him, too, when I showed my attraction by breaking into his Holiday Inn hotel room, pummeling his chest and face and stomach while yelling ‘I’m gay’, and then having sex with him.)’

Instead of returning to the Australia after filming, they met on the set of her first American flim The Woman in the Moon, she followed him to LA where they eventually married. 

‘Almost immediately after arriving in LA, however, the rush of sexual attraction evaporated into the thin air of my wishful thinking. By the end of our first year together, despite my desire to be attracted to him, my latent fear of my sexuality was simmering and about to boil. I was almost positive I was gay. So I married him. The fact that I got shingles the minute we returned from city hall didn’t deter me from my quest to appear normal.’

It was round about this point in the book, which is only the first chapter, that my tears started to fall. As a gay woman hearing of anyone being on a ‘quest to appear normal’ by denying their true feelings is absolutely heartbreaking.

What’s even more heartbreaking is the fact that de Rossi ‘came out’ to her mother at 16 when she’d discovered a copy of The Joy of Lesbian Sex under Portia’s bed. Her reaction was that it was ‘nobody’s business’ and therefore didn’t need mentioning to anyone including close family.

Perhaps this isn’t as shocking when you consider that de Rossi’s mother started commenting on her daughters weight when she was only 12 and would give her hints and tips on how to improve her diet.

It’s from this that de Rossi’s struggle with food began, or at least it’s seems that way to the reader even though Portia herself never once lays the blame at her mother’s door.

Years of yo-yo dieting finally give way to an ever decreasing calorie intake, dropping to just 300 calories a day when de Rossi was at her lowest point, and a strict exercise regime which saw her spend all her breaks on the Ally McBeal set hidden away in her dressing room running furiously on the treadmill while trying not to mess up her make up so the make up team wouldn’t get mad at her.

Gut wrenching in it’s detail of just what de Rossi survived on the thing that actually upset me more than anything is the secrecy surrounding eating disorders. On moving into a new apartment she reveals that she had originally wanted to live with a friend but due to her eating habits couldn’t.

‘I had originally wanted to live with Erik. I wanted to buy an apartment that was big enough so I could have Erik as my roommate. But the thought of what the pantry in the kitchen would look like stopped me from pursuing it. Erik would buy food.’

For me this was the most distressing passage of the entire memoir, the fact that her eating disorder stopped her from asking a friend to live with her was just too much for me to take and I actually cried myself to sleep after reading it.

We all know there’s a happy ending to this story, de Rossi finally got help for her eating disorder, something she was kind of forced into to begin with, following her collapse on the set of the movie Who Is Cletis Tout? in 2001. Acceptance of her sexuality also came and she is now married to Ellen DeGeneres.

I cried while reading this book and finishing it was no different, I cried for three hours straight when I put the book down having read the final passage. And while that might not sound like the kind of book you’d like to read I urge you to read it anyway.

Through de Rossi’s struggle and her beautiful ability to make you feel every emotion along with her I have never felt more confident and secure in my own skin. I’m not perfect by any means but I’m here and I’m me. And do you know what? I’m actually okay with that.

I’ve told myself this many times before but it was only after reading Unbearable Lightness that I actually meant it for the first time, hence the profound reference in the opening paragraph. For that I’d like to thank Portia de Rossi for having the guts to tell her story in such a gripping manner.