Friday, May 20, 2011

The messes in our heads

15. Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi

Trigger warning: You might not want to read this book if you are recovering from an eating disorder or have an unhealthy relationship with food.

I was a teenager when Ally McBeal, a quirky show about a duck-face making, man-hunting lawyer become hugely popular, and I was among the people watching it. I was probably also one of many who was wondering whether the show required all of its female cast members to be anorexic. My friends and I compared notes on the cast's clothes: who this time wore a scarf to hide their sinewy neck, and who never showed their arms. I especially remember one picture of Portia de Rossi partying outside filming the show, and her limbs were just bone and looked oddly mangled.

That picture can be found in this book, and its effect is well executed in the context. Heartbreaking.

If you excuse the cliché, Unbearable Lightness is a remarkably brave look into the brain of a person with a severe eating disorder. de Rossi lets the readers know how exactly she felt about her relatives crying because she was so thin, or her best friends pointing out anorexic-looking women at the gym with disdain: she thought that people were simply exaggerating when they worried over her, and she felt happy that she had finally become so thin that people actually had to remark about it. To her, her weight falling to a fragile 82 pounds was a sign of discipline that others were incapable of and besides, in her mind she did not do anything that everyone else around her seemed to be doing. Since the age of 12 she had been modeling and been told to lose weight, and ever since then she would binge on food until she was sick, and then she'd starve herself for the next photoshoot. It was normal to her, and she tells in the book how she was flabbergasted when her nutritionist was absolutely shocked upon hearing about de Rossi's binge eating habits that de Rossi herself considered reasonable.

The book is at the same time amazing in its candidness and how well written it is, but it's also scary. Because of the details that helps the reader to step into the mind of an anorexic, the book also reads as a "Becoming Anorexic for Dummies" book: how many minutes does one need to run before and after going to bed, how many lunges to do while walking normally in your own home, how little to eat and how to obsessively measure each morsel of food... This is not a book for anyone who is recovering from an eating disorder, because although the de Rossi does not glorify her eating disorder, I couldn't help but think, "Oh, she lost 20 pounds that easily?" before coming back to the notion that wait, that easy route is extremely unhealthy!

It's weird at the same time to want to tell everyone about this remarkable book, and yet at the same time not want people to read it, lest they get any ideas...

16. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks became familiar to me through Radiolab podcasts, where he would be a guest on shows that dealt with neurological disorders, such as prosopagnosia or obsessive compulsive behavior. The way he talks and has his own little neuroses was quite charming (and he has a wooden box filled with vials containing the elements from the periodic table... how cool is that?), so I started to look into his books. This was the first one to become available at the library.

It's a collection of clinical cases Sacks encountered before the 1990s, all dealing with neurological disorders that go from absolutely fascinating to terrifying. There is a man who had stopped recognizing objects and people, and would only recognize people if they had something on their face or the way they moved that nobody else had; there's a lady who lost control of her limbs if she was not looking at them; an old man thought he was still in his early 20s because he could not remember anything new that happened to him, and so on.

Sacks doesn't just recount these cases and puzzles, but also talks in depth about the hormonal imbalances, medications or any other reasons that may have triggered what he calls neurological deficits, and often he goes back to referring his best-selling memoir Awakenings, which was later made into a movie--simply because the drug L-Dopa used with the patients in Awakenings was helpful in so many of these cases where people got stuck in time, had Tourette's or other compulsive behaviors.

Often humorous, yet sad, these short essays reveal how scary our brains can be.


  1. Mulla on Sacksin Musicophilia jos haluat lainata. Aivan mielettömän hyvä. -karoliina

  2. Hei, mieluusti lainaan! Miulla on "Migraine" ollut kirjaston odotuslistalla jo monta kuukautta, mutta Sacks on näemmä suosittu.