Book Review: Unbearable Lightness by Portia De Rossi

Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi - Header

With my university psychology reading list having reverted back to its standard “textbook chapters and peer reviewed periodicals”, neither of which are really designed to be read over the morning porridge, I started to hunt for an alternative. How I came to discover Unbearable Lightness, Portia de Rossi’s memoir about her battle with anorexia and the contributing factors of a life under the Hollywood spotlight, I don’t know. I have an idea it was, once again, social media. But please don’t quote me.

I knew nothing about Portia de Rossi before I set about reading it. I couldn’t have described her appearance, told you her biography, or even her real name. It was purely her link to anorexia that drew me in; the same way it drew me in to Tina McGuff’s Seconds to Snap or Todd Tucker’s simplification of The Great Starvation Experiment. The fact she was famous was just context.

Ally McBeal (Cast) - Portia de Rossi Unbearable Lightness

I knew so little about her that when I discovered she was in Ally McBeal I still had to Google her name to see who she was, my only real interest in the late-nineties legal drama being it’s link to the songs of Vonda Shepard! But one thing that my search had uncovered was a constant admiration for the fluidity and naturalness with which Portia de Rossi writes. Reviews and commentators stating that she has a tone and style that is friendly and inviting, creating a world of colour and texture which best-selling authors would look enviously towards. And I totally agree.

Unbearable Lightness just flows from the page in a way that is easy to read, visualise and accept. I never felt like I was looking at a world beyond my knowledge, or that the glamour and fame of Hollywood was tinting my opinion and threatening my involvement. The heart of the book is Portia and it’s her personality that you fall for rather than her environment. She comes across as likeable and interesting, but most of all, she comes across as a puppet being driven to its death by an unrelenting master. Her story created huge amounts of empathy and sympathy within me, and as I sat there reading, I felt her pain and saw echoes of myself with increasing force; but more worrying, her words unlocked thoughts in my head I haven’t heard for a very long time.

Anorexia, sadly, can be a competitive illness. Even though it is actually a coping strategy, even though it’s an individual reaction to an event or trauma, more often than not you can trace shared personality traits from one to another. Often suffers will desire the need to be perfect, to be the best and will often talk about how they were driven lower, and further into the destructive disorder as a result of hearing about someone eating less, or weighing less; being the apparent “better” anorexic.

Anorexic - Portia de Rossi Unbearable Lightness

This isn’t something I have ever found, my illness has always been my own. I’ve read books and blogs, seen documentaries and heard interviews, and never once felt the desire to push myself harder, or to restrict my life further. Until now. I don’t know why, my life is a million miles away from Portia de Rossi’s but as the pages became chapters, and her story unfolded, I could hear the voice in my head questioning my life. I would read about how out of control de Rossi felt, and how she therefore, exercised more, or ate less, to address the balance, and in my head I’d start to question the bowl of porridge I was eating or the dinner I was enjoying.

“I don’t need all this food, I never used to eat this much. Cut it out, go back to how you were. You’re fat, stop eating”. Honestly, it truly scared me.

Even though the book really did, and still has, set free some scary and potentially difficult thoughts into my mind, I did finish reading it. I think that is in part down to the fact that I just wanted to know the outcome, how her battle with our shared enemy resolves, but also, because underneath it all she has fought through a life that is also triumphant and inspirational for all the right reasons and therefore, underneath everything, reading her story, discovering her life, I just found her fascinating. I would have liked to have spent a bit more time hearing about her brother, friends and even her dog, because they arrive like recurring extras to help move the story along but are never brought to the front. I felt like they were there, but always off limits. And that’s a shame, because like de Rossi, they seem really interesting.

Book Signing - Portia de Rossi Unbearable Lightness

As a book Unbearable Lightness is easy to read and amazingly honest in how anorexia nearly destroyed a very public life. It never felt slow, the story has a constant motion to it, even if I have to that at times it seems to cover ground it’s been over before. But that’s anorexia, and it’s demand for structure and routine. You live the style day, over and over. I think I’ve probably got more out of large portions of it (both good and bad) than a lot of people would as a result of being able to see a lot of myself in Portia de Rossi and the way we blindly followed the fatalistic rules anorexia creates; but I would also say, that, if you know or support anyone with anorexia, this book paints honestly and clearly the invisibility to reality and the normalisation of disorder that occurs when anorexia takes over a mind and grows as a coping strategy, and for that reason, it is well worth reading alone.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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