Prologue

Prologue

I am a fat woman in a thin body.

I am a thin woman in a fat body.

I am a fat girl in a thin body.

I am a thin girl in a fat body.

Fat girl, fat woman –

Fat woman, thin girl –

Thin girl, fat woman –

Fat woman, fat girl –

Fat girl, thin woman –

Thin woman, fat girl –

Fat girl, fat woman –

Fat woman, fat girl –

Fat girl, thin girl –

Thin girl, fat girl –

Fat girl, fat woman...

Around and around

I go,

Not-so-merry-go-round.

Fat is my truth,

Consuming above all.

Two tales, one body,

One body, two tales.

Two bodies?

Thin narrates a sudden lie,

Fat an epic truth,

*A Tale of Two Bodies*

Another truth:

Fat, I am shamed;

Thin, I am raw.

A bared secret:

I turn to fat,

In a flash;

I dwell in fat.

I have journeyed to thin –

A distant land,

A short sojourn.

I am a fat woman walking.

I am a thin girl running.


*

Friday, October 20, 2017

Summer: An Open Letter to My Friends Who Have Recently Lost Weight

The author doing what she likes doing best:
Curled up in a shawl and reading.
Skopje, Macedonia, Lile Ordev's flat, March 2011
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(I wrote this on June 8, 2011, mostly as a reminder to be kinder to myself – fat or thin.
“This Time Would be Different,” I told myself: I would keep the weight off.
Unfortunately, I regained most of it.
A reminder to take nothing for granted.
A reminder to celebrate life, no matter what, because the tomorrow we are given may not be the tomorrow we expected – or wanted.
In fact, tomorrow is not guaranteed.)

Dear Friends,
Be kind to your former self.
Love her, love him.
Don’t be so hard on that person who decided to take matters seriously and lose weight and gain a healthier body. Remember, it was that brave person who made an important decision to spend a significant amount of money and admit publicly that he or she needed help.
Do you remember that day so many months ago, how tentative you felt about going to Weight Watchers (or whatever program you selected) and how it all seemed so difficult and impossible?
Do you remember hiding in the back of the room, trying not to be noticed? Well, you came back the next week, and the next week, and the next week...
You have made it this far, and it was because of your strong fatter self that you are still here.
So instead of dissing him or her, you should look at that old photo of yourself and thank him or her for his/her bravery and strength.
Don’t focus so much about her big butt or his big belly; forget about the double chin, big waist, and the larger number on the scale; those are superficial things.
Instead, celebrate your improved health and physical strength.
Take that old photo and try to look past the fat and think about the good things that your former self offered.
For example,
Were you kind?
Did you have a sense of humor?
Did your family love you any less when you were fat?
Overall, were you happy with your life?
You offered those positive aspects back then, just as you offer them now. While your exterior has changed, your interior hasn’t changed a whole lot.
Yes, you may have not been happy with your heavier body, which is why you took the important step of doing something about it.
Back in September 2010, I was happy with myself and my life; I had just returned to the States after a fantastic year abroad, where I walked just about every day. Although I was fat, I was fairly fit – had I not experienced a scary health warning, I might have been content to stay as I was.
Maybe your reasons are different from mine, and that’s cool; perhaps you found your own body repulsive or were having mobility issues. We all have our own motivations for seeking help.
However, I fear that if you scorn your fat photographs, you are dismissing an important part of yourself, the very best self who got you where you are today.
Besides, if you find yourself backsliding (and most of us do, if even just a little), you will find yourself closer to the “old” you, and wouldn’t it be nice if you loved that self, no matter what she or he weighs?
In the past, I would ridicule my own “before” photos by posting them on the refrigerator and poking fun of them; now I realize I was indulging in a form of self-hatred.
I won’t do that anymore.
If I post any “fat” photos on this blog or on my refrigerator, it will be in spirit of celebration, not as images of scorn.
Instead, I’ll take out any disdain on my plus-size clothes; unlike photographs, clothes do not represent who I am – I’m the kind of person who must be reminded to buy new threads when my old clothes become threadbare, even when I’m slim.
I’m more likely to shop in my closet rather than at the mall; after all, jeans from 2001 are basically the same as jeans from 2011 [and 2017].
No matter your weight, love yourself, and…
Stay cool!


Winter: Let’s Talk White and Thin Privilege


Created from a photo:
The author as a young person -- circa 1969
_________________

(This chapter isn’t quite where I want it, and I’m not sure if it will make the final cut into my book, but I thought I’d toss it out there.)

My husband Jerry and I entered the gleaming, dripping in money medical center, located in a tony neighborhood near Timonium, Maryland.
Jerry was dressed in a striped shirt and Khakis; I wore a sports tee-shirt and denim clamdigger leggings – way underdressed for our expensive surroundings (I didn’t care – I wore a pretty necklace, what more should they want?).
We had been there just once before – not quite familiar with the building layout – so we must have looked slightly confused.
I had to use the facilities, but I knew that the restrooms had to be accessed via a security code.
“You remember what the code is?” I asked Jerry.
Before he could answer, a lady ahead of us looked back and said, “Oh, it’s **** for the ladies’ room and **** for the men’s.”
Casually and without hesitation.
We had never met her.
Think about that: we were strangers.
We thanked her and went about our business.
Encounters like this happen every day; we don’t think about them – they are just small moments paving the way for an easier path through life.
But what we experienced was an example of subtle White Privilege. On the fly, assumptions had been made about us: an average white couple who looked like they belonged in that medical center.
Never mind that we could have been unsavory characters, albeit white, up to no good.
The sad part: in most of these encounters, white people don’t even recognize their White Privilege status – which is part of the problem.
At first, I didn’t, even though I was in the middle of writing this chapter and thinking a lot about it!
It was only after Jerry’s appointment that – DING, DONG! – it hit me.
I asked Jerry if he had observed a recent instance of White Privilege.
He had not.
He looked surprised when I pointed it out – and then his aha! moment.
You see, we need to be reminded about privilege, and, more important, we should listen to our minority friends and peers when they tell us that, yes, they are treated differently than we are.
That an African-American stranger, especially one not dressed for the occasion – you know, tees and clamdiggers – probably would have been treated differently in that medical center.
At the very least, that lady would have told an African-American couple that they could get the bathroom code from their doctor’s office.
Most likely, she would have ignored them.
If the man had been wearing a hoodie, she might have had a visceral reaction.
Might she even report the man as being out of place? Perhaps to a custodian or to a receptionist – if his actions seemed out of place, even the police.
So what does White Privilege have to do with Thin Privilege?
Hang with me – I’m getting there, albeit via twists and turns.
For now, keep this in mind: if you are fat or have ever been fat, you understand Thin Privilege all too well. It’s not quite the same, of course – navigating life while Fat is not going to be fraught with fears of dying by violence while living day-to-day as Black.
But fat people understand clear instances of Thin Privilege, always easier to note when one doesn’t enjoy it.
Let’s begin with White Privilege.
In 2017, the “Us” and “Them” camps seem more divided than ever.
As I write this, a great debate rages whether “taking the knee” at sporting events is a valid form of protest or a sign of disrespect against the flag and the military.
It started in August 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, then of the 49’ers, decided to sit out the National Anthem to protest the treatment of African Americans, particularly the police killings of black men and some women, many who were not even suspects. 
Since then, Kaepernick’s means of protest has evolved into kneeling on one knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and has spread throughout the NFL (National Football League), adopted mostly by African-American players.
The “Us” side: mostly white people dripping with White Privilege who believe that not standing with hand over heart is the ultimate insult to flag, country, and veterans.
The “Them” side: mostly African Americans who do not enjoy White Privilege and have a genuine societal beef, insisting that taking the knee is not disrespectful to the troops or anyone else but a valid protest of racism and mistreatment.
This very topic came up recently in a setting of all white people, most agreeing that if one does not stand for the national anthem, he or she should be arrested and charged with a crime.
“That would go against the First Amendment,” I said.
“Not standing for our national anthem is un-American,” one person said.
“Peaceful protest is American and patriotic.” I reminded them that the First Amendment protects the voice of the minority, because the majority voice does not need protecting, that it’s easy to speak out when just about everyone agrees with you.
In other words, it doesn’t take courage to parrot the majority view.
The room grew silent.
I was hoping that some insight had seeped into their brains.
But, no.
One woman piped up: “Well, it’s just disrespectful.”
The others agreed, and the subject was changed.
Sigh.

After reading Roxane Gay’s stunning memoir Hunger, I was struck just how much covert racism still exists –
Hell, these days, forget about covert; particularly in the age of Trump, it seems that overt and ugly racism is on the rise – a day doesn’t go by that some outrageous act of violence against an African American hasn’t been reported on the news: Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner – iconic names for all the wrong reasons.
In August 2017, the remarks of Lt. Greg Abbott, of the Cobb County Police Department (Georgia), seemed to confirm that African Americans are being targeted by the police: Abbott was caught on his dashcam telling a white woman during a traffic stop not to worry. “…You’re not black,” he said. “Remember, we only kill black people. Yeah. We only kill black people, right?” (1)
While I could offer a grocery list of atrocities perpetuated against minorities in the past five years, I won’t – this is beyond the scope of my book.
See for yourself by Googling “hate crimes.” 
I’m not sure what first drew me to Ms. Gay’s memoir; certainly, the title was a draw – aren’t fat people constantly hungry and not always for food?
I must have known that her life story would somehow resonate with me, although I had never heard of her or seen her photo – I didn’t even know her race, which, as I began reading, assumed was white. I was pretty much into the book before it dawned on me that the author was brown, when she began weaving into her narrative stories about her background and family.
Had I known this fact, would I still have selected this book?
I’d like to think so, but I can’t say for sure.
But I’m glad I did.
My eyes were opened wide to what Ms. Gay has experienced as both a minority and an obese person. Add Lesbian to the mix, she has won the trifecta of what can make a life a living hell.
Not only has the author experienced fat discrimination, but she has also had to navigate a world that still discriminates against brown people and other minorities.
Hunger is dark, somber, and mostly not hopeful.
While Gay does not offer diet advice – she warns readers that they should not read her memoir for “inspiration” – it was the impetus for this book.
So at least one reader has been “inspired.”
After writing Memoir Madness, I swore up and down that since the rest of my life has been relatively normal (translation: too boring for readers), I would not inflict my minute woes on a general audience.
I mean, how could my experience as an entitled white woman ever top Ms. Gay’s experience as a fat Lesbian Brown American?
But after reading Gay’s painful account of her life, I realized that I needed to write this book, irrespective of audience interest –
I would write it, and maybe they would come – or not.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about White Privilege, perhaps because of Hunger and the current political climate, which has encouraged white nationalists and blatant racists to crawl out of their hidey holes and into the light.
Although this unearned perk favors me, a whiter than white person, it irks me that White Privilege exists.
It shouldn’t exist, but it does.
And while it’s obvious to people of color, most white people are clueless, preferring to believe that after 50-plus years of civil rights we should now dismantle the mechanisms currently in place to protect the rights of minorities.
Voting rights? Done.
Head Start programs? Don’t need them anymore.
Affirmative Action? Not fair to white people.
Improving racial attitudes? African Americans need to get over themselves and start pulling themselves up by the bootstraps and stop whining about systemic racism.
I hear this list of Civil Rights progress all the time, usually accompanied by a long sigh and the ubiquitous eye roll.
Of course, much progress has been made, but I fear that this era of regression, which, if allowed to continue its current trajectory, may spark another Civil War and spell the doom of this country.
Let’s just consider some ways in which being white affords people an easier passage through American life.
As someone who experiences White Privilege, I will never be pulled over by the police while driving White. In fact, I have never been pulled over at all (knock on wood), and I have been driving for over 40 years.
If I am pulled over – because of a real infraction – I’m probably not going to get beat up, shot, or even killed. I might just get a warning, especially if I am young, female, and beautiful (Youth Privilege?).
When I shop, I will never be tailed by store security while being White. If I am caught stealing, it’s because security saw me stuff merchandise under my blouse. Chances are, I would get off easier than an African-American male, perhaps even just a warning.
If I am ever questioned by the police regarding a crime, the officers will not automatically assume I’m guilty of something nefarious just because of the color of my skin – they will study the evidence to decide if I’m a suspect. If I am convicted of a crime, I am more likely to receive a lighter sentence than an African-American woman.
No one will ever cross the street because he or she fears me, even if I’m wearing a hoodie and eating Skittles in the “wrong” neighborhood.
No one would ever claim that I was awarded my Fulbright just because of my whiteness. I can be reasonably assured that others believe that I earned that award because of my carefully-prepared application, good references, teaching experience, and writing talent, not because of my skin color.
No one would question my intelligence based on my white skin – unlike the brilliant President Obama who suffered an onslaught of insults and abuse from white-trash bumpkins because of his skin color.
Even though I can acknowledge the existence of White Privilege, I have no idea what it would be like to drive a car or walking while being Black – I mean, really know. Feel it –
Although, early last spring, I got a small taste of what it must be like going through life without White Privilege.
It so unnerved me that I posted about the experience, both on Facebook and my main blog Like This Page:

Today, I got an inkling of what it must be like being an African American in the United States of America.
It was cold and raw today, so I wore my hoodie and mittens.
As I was checking my phone before finishing up my walk, I heard this angry voice behind me:
“Hello? Hello? Can I help you with something?”
At first, I ignored it – he couldn’t possibly be speaking to me. I didn’t know him, and he had no reason to speak to me like that.
Again, he yelled, “I said, ‘Hello, can I help you with something?’”
Confused, I turned around, and said, “No, I’m fine.”
A young man – maybe mid-20’s – in shorts and a tee-shirt, stopped short, obviously embarrassed. He slunk away.
Why this happened didn’t hit me until I was about two blocks away; yes, this is what it’s like being white in America – on a visceral level, we just don’t get what African Americans experience every day.
It took me two blocks to figure it all out, and that is sad.

So what does White Privilege have to do with Thin Privilege?
While there are major differences between the two Privileges, there are some significant similarities.
I’m an expert when it comes to Thin Privilege: I have both enjoyed it and been denied it – mostly denied, given that a disproportionate part of my life has been spent existing while fat.
Thin people glide through life effortlessly, at least on a superficial level – this is not to say that life is all roses and smiles for the Thin – thin people still have bills to pay, children to raise, careers to manage, problems to solve, and marriages to work at – but the Fat have a whole other level to navigate, which I have discussed in Spring: Fat Woman Body.
As I write this chapter, I am technically a thin person, so I now experience Thin Privilege.
I would define Thin Privilege as a societal perk experienced by people who are deemed to be average size – you’ll know it when you see it – just as White Privilege has been granted de facto upon by white people by virtue of their skin color, not by their characters and actual accomplishments.
As a thin person, I have shucked a cloak of unwanted visibility – I can “pass” as an average person, I can weave in and out of a crowd without drawing negative attention – or any other kind of attention. At first contact, my body size no longer defines me, unless I choose to emphasize my exterior – if I want to be “visible,” I can dress the part by wearing flamboyant or even slinky and revealing outfits. Given my natural inclination toward shyness and modesty, this isn’t a likely scenario. But that’s not the point – the point is: I am now able to choose when, how, where – or if – I want to be visible.
I can blend or stand out – I can choose to not be preoccupied with my size and shape and concentrate on my real interests and hobbies, for example, writing this book.
In short, I no longer need to worry about being judged because of my size.
For anyone who has never been fat, this may not seem to be a big deal, but I assure you that it is – the fact that my size is not the first thing people notice is such a relief; how I present myself is totally up to me, not by my dimensions.
Thin Privilege means being able to pay reasonable prices for my size of clothing, and I can expect to find stylish clothes in any department or discount store – no more shops or departments specializing in plus-sizes.
Thin people are viewed as being more intelligent, energetic, and ambitious than their fat peers. Also, thin people are not perceived as looking sloppy or unprofessional based solely on their size. As a result, thin people are more likely to be promoted at work and given larger raises.
I no longer receive unwanted suggestions from friends, family, and even strangers about joining a weight-loss program. If anything, people are now likely to push more food my way, along with a concerned warning not to overdo my weight-loss. “Surely you can eat whatever you want now,” they’ll say as they shove a piece of chocolate cake under my nose.
Uh, no. It doesn’t work that way for a Fat Woman Walking.
As a thin person going to the doctor, I no longer dread the scale, even though I swear that my doctor’s office has set its scale at least five pounds too heavy. My doctor no longer automatically monitors me for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other “weight-related” maladies. If anything, she warns me not to lose any more weight. “You’re perfect just the way you are.” – music to my ears, although I would still like to shed that last five pounds.
Shhh! Don’t narc me out.
The media don’t describe my thinness as part of an “epidemic” – a bit too breathless of a pronouncement, in my opinion, regarding larger body shapes.
Not all heavy people are unhealthy, just as not all thin people enjoy robust health.
I no longer need to scope out public spaces to make certain that I will fit into them – I fit into all chairs, with or without arms, and the narrowest of restaurant booths. If anything, wooden and metal chairs just about kill my tailbone and back – okay, now I’m just complaining about minor inconveniences suffered by thin people.
A thin person can navigate a buffet line and pile her plate as high as possible, and no scrutinizing food police will come a-calling. In fact, she will receive looks of admiration, tinged with envy that say, “That lucky duck can eat whatever she wants!”
Note that I use the third person here because if I eat whatever I want, I can expect to gain at least five pounds. Overnight. And kick in an indefinite binge, perhaps lasting years.
Thin Privilege can have its downsides as well – for one, unwanted sexual attention by strangers and peers. Even women “of a certain age” have experienced inappropriate comments by men who, somehow, believe that all women are fair game and that “Take a Hike” doesn’t apply to them. Even as a thin female senior citizen, I’m no great beauty, but that doesn’t seem to matter – my thin body seems to attract the skeezy underside of the opposite sex.
I don’t think I’m unique in that matter.
As a fat person, I didn’t get that kind of uncalled-for attention, although some very obese women have discovered – and cashed in on – a subculture of men who have a fetish for watching obese women eat and strip naked online. – certainly, a worthy topic for someone other than me.
White and Thin Privilege share this commonality: both are based solely on superficial attributes: skin color and body size, nothing more.
Those who do not enjoy Privilege of either kind are treated differently, and not in positive ways, and those who enjoy both are often unaware of how easily they glide through life, at the expense of non-privileged folks.
While I have somewhat of an insight into the existence of White Privilege, I cannot really know and feel, on a visceral level, its lack – all I can do: remain aware and vigilant about my own beliefs, biases, prejudices, racism (yes, even self-aware people are still prejudiced and racist, at least on some level), and to constantly question my own motives and knee-jerk reactions to uncomfortable situations.
One cannot earn “White Privilege”: you either have it or not – it has been automatically granted or denied, based solely on skin color.
Fair?
Of course not, but that’s what happens in the United States of America.
Depending on circumstances, “Thin Privilege” can be “earned,” by the process of losing weight, but, often, it is unearned – if someone has been thin for her entire life, then she has no idea what it is like not experiencing Thin Privilege, except to think,
“There by the grace of God, go I.”
Let’s now consider some ways in which being white, albeit still fat, offers an easier passage through American life.
As a fat white person, I will never be pulled over by the police while driving Fat.
If I am pulled over – because of a real infraction – I’m probably not going to get beat up, shot, or even killed. I will likely get a ticket and, perhaps, an accompanying eyeroll, but I will leave the encounter pretty much intact, albeit a lighter wallet and a few points on my driving record. As I said earlier, a thin, white person could very well get a warning instead of a ticket, especially if the offender is also pretty and young – once again, Youth Privilege?
When I shop, I might be tailed by store security while being Fat – but only if my size raises suspicions of merchandise hidden under my clothing. Even so, unless I am caught stuffing stolen goods under my blouse, I will not be apprehended. If I am caught, I would likely get off easier than an African-American male, perhaps even just a warning – that is, if it’s a first offense.
If I am ever questioned by the police regarding a crime, the officers will not automatically assume I’m guilty of something nefarious just because I’m fat – they will study the evidence to decide if I’m a suspect. If I am convicted of a crime, I am more likely to receive a lighter sentence than an African-American woman.
No one will ever cross the street because he or she fears me, even if I’m wearing a hoodie, although I might be mocked for eating Skittles while walking Fat.
No one would ever claim that I was awarded my Fulbright just because of my fatness. I can be reasonably assured that others believe that I earned that award because of my carefully-prepared application, good references, teaching experience, and writing talent, not because of my size, although some unenlightened folks might wonder how a fat person could win any prestigious award.
While being Fat, job applicants or employees may be passed over for jobs or promotions – such prejudice is subtle and largely unprovable, but fat people recognize it when they experience it.
Unlike minorities, fat people are not protected by Federal, State, or Local law.
Unfortunately, some privileged folks might question, on a subconscious level, the intelligence of fat people – this is borne out in popular media (TV, movies, books, and comics), where fat people are often depicted as lazy, stupid, bumbling, unaware, and/or comedic – something shared with African Americans.
As a chubby elementary school pupil, I was treated as if I had limited intelligence, especially after moving to Iowa from California, where the 1950’s public school system was in deep financial trouble – in second grade, I was going to school for only half days – lagging far behind the excellent Catholic school system in Sioux City I found myself trying to navigate. It was only after my sixth-grade teacher discovered my advanced reading level that I was no longer labelled as “slow.” To my chagrin, I was assigned more challenging work.
I have always “enjoyed” White Privilege; I don’t know any differently – it would be too easy to assume that my human experience is universally enjoyed, to stick my head in the sand, and not acknowledge the truth of the black experience in daily American life.
But I have also been denied “Thin Privilege” – certainly not as powerful as “White Privilege” and, with its lack, not as potentially fatal.
Long after I have finished reading Hunger, the book has stuck with me – I cannot fathom how Roxane Gay has navigated her life with her triple whammy, quadruple if you add “woman.”
Yet she has managed to carve out a significant writing career, two best sellers, and a rigorous public speaking tour, all while being African American, Lesbian, Fat – and Female – no way does she intend to fold up her tent and hide.
Unlike the fat me, who pretty much hid from public life.
Part of that may have to do with my natural shyness and reticence – though I am more outgoing as a thin person.
Still, I’ll never win any awards for being Ms. Social Butterfly of the Year.
While writing about my journey has helped tremendously, I must recognize that my experience pales that of Roxane Gay’s.
Quite simply, in life, I was dealt a more conventional hand.
I must continue writing about my experience – my pain is still my pain – but I now do so knowing that my journey toward physical and mental health will be less fraught with traumas, and, therefore, the burden I carry will be lighter.
I can only imagine the heavy burden borne by Ms. Gay – I admire her fortitude and unwillingness to allow White and Thin Privilege to stop her from what she wants out of her life.
I admire her.
I highly recommend Hunger.




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 (1)   Hauser, Christine and Jacey Fortin. The New York Times, “‘We Only Kill Black People,’ Police Officer Says During Traffic Stop,” 30 August 2017.




Thursday, September 28, 2017

Summer: Mother, Me, and the Demons (1)

Photo on left: The author and her grandmother, June 5, 1968, just before she left for L.A.
Photo on right: The author's mother
____________________

I have a complicated relationship with my late mother.
I spent most of my youth in my grandparents’ custody, for my time with Mother had been sporadic and haphazard – life, in her house, often filled with drama, domestic violence (on her part; she married nice men), and insecurity.
Mother was smart, beautiful, artistically talented, and sweet – when she was sober.
When she was drinking – which was most of the time – she was unstable, mean, and slurry. It was like she was speaking another language, which, in a sense, she was: the language of drink.
The language of drink is a mish-mosh of incoherence and mispronunciation with a good dose of anger.
Woe-be-onto-me if I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. She never hit me – she saved that for her men – but she had a way of making me feel as if I were the smallest and thickest person in the world.
I was terrified of her, this tiny, wobbly five-foot woman who could barely walk a straight line; even as a child, I probably could have poked her lightly and she would have fallen over in an unconscious heap.
No, it wasn’t a physical fear; I was afraid she would stop loving me.
What the child Jennifer didn’t understand: drunks are totally self-absorbed, and love is conditional, premised on how quickly they can score the next drink – in my mother’s case, a beer.
After my high school graduation, my grandmother decided that I should go to California and get reacquainted with Mother, who I hadn’t seen since I was 10, when she had blown into Sioux City for a visit.
She had spent most of that two weeks trolling local bars at night, doing God-knows-what, sleeping in during the day, hungover.
But now Mo felt as though Mother was stable enough to host her 17-year-old daughter for a few weeks. By June 1968, Mother had a new family: a common-law husband and two boys, two and four.
Mother insisted she was up to the task, telling Mo she had quit drinking.
What could possibly go wrong?
Mo’s plan for me was to spend the summer looking for a job in Canoga Park and then finding my own place.
Perhaps eventually enrolling in Dental Hygiene school and maybe even USC.
My agenda was slightly different: to bask in the Summer of Love, which, unfortunately, had already begun its cultural descent into the waste heap of history.
Always a girl out of step with her time.
On June 5, 1968 – a date burned into memory because my hero Robert F. Kennedy lay dying at Good Samaritan in L.A. – I flew into L.A. International, where Mother, my stepfather, their two kids, and my boyfriend “F” (a vet, fresh from Vietnam, with whom I had corresponded for the past year) awaited me.
Mother waved from a roped off area.
I hadn’t seen her in seven years, but she looked the same, except that she seemed thinner and smaller. Her hair was now a two-toned color: platinum bangs and auburn locks around her shoulders, the two colors separated by a turquoise hairband.
She wore a slinky, black jumpsuit and jangly, flashy costume jewelry: hoop earrings, turquoise necklace, and bangles.
She was heavily made up, pale caked face powder topped with rouge, thick red lipstick, false eyelashes, and lots of black eyeliner and mascara.
A slim, 100-millimeter cigarette dangled casually from her fingers, a stream of blue smoke drifting off behind her – in those days, even in California, smoking in public places the norm.
Despite her skintight garb and flashy jewelry, she looked childlike and vulnerable – and so small, not the omni-presence of my childhood.
Looking back, I can scarcely believe that she was just 37, 30 years younger than I am now.
She would not see 50.
In flight, I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay with Mother, after all; part of me was still angry at her for not being the nurturer I wanted and needed, the mother who would have remembered my birthday, the cheerful mom who would have called long distance and spoken to me in a crisp, coherent voice.
The mother who loved unconditionally.
During various summer visits with my great aunt in Hollywood, I had refused to see Mother – probably just as well. From what I have heard, she had been at a low point in a life consisting mostly of low points.
But, now, at landing, my heart did a little flip; I felt impatient, anxious, and excited – and curious – to meet her.
Over the phone, Mother and I had agreed to put the past behind us, to make a fresh start, to make things good between us – but could it work?
Would Sober Mother, with her new family, be settled and loving and ready to be the mother she should have been for the past 17 years?
Has she forgiven me for being an angry child, just as I am trying to forgive for being an absent mother?
“Jeffer!” She said, invoking my childhood nickname and waving madly, just to make sure I didn’t miss her. “Over here!”
In that moment of first contact, she seemed normal enough, though a bit brassy and overly made up.
But it was California, after all, where just about everything was – and still is – exaggerated.
I waved back and wended my way through the crowd toward her, my stepfather, all dapper and dressed up in a pin-striped suit, and two shy tow-headed boys, my brothers.
My boyfriend F, dressed up in a leather jacket and khaki pants, stood at the side, a goofy grin plastered on his face and smelling like a perfume factory – on his own, he had decided to drive to the airport to meet me, although he knew my family would be picking me up.
Later, Mother admitted an instant dislike toward F, referring to him as a “sneaky swinger” – Mother may have been a drunk, but she enjoyed a well-honed bull-shit detector, and F was certainly full of it, I later discovered, certainly another story.
“Bobby’s still alive,” Mother said. She pulled me into her arms.
I smelled beer, which surprised me; she had insisted to Mo that she had quit drinking for good.
“I thought you’d want to know. Ma said you took Jack’s death hard.”
“That was almost five years ago.” I kissed her cheek, which, in addition to the alcohol, smelled like powder, tobacco, and Lilies-of-the-Valley.
“Yeah, but you know how it is. Negative karma and all.”
I didn’t know – I nodded anyway.
She looked me over and took a drag from her cigarette. “Honey, where on earth did you get that outfit?”
I felt my face reddening; evidently, my mauve polyester skirt and jacket set, the kind that old ladies wore and still wear, with matching, low-heeled pumps and a light blue blouse, did not impress her.
“Goodwill?”
I nodded.
“Figures.”
“It wasn’t my first choice.” My typical outfit consisted of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and sneakers.
But Mo had insisted that unless I dressed the part of “pious young lady,” she wouldn’t pay for my plane ticket, so I complied.
“I believe you,” Mother said. “We’ll have to get you some new clothes and then dump that” scanning my outfit, up and down “– thing – off at Goodwill.”
I nodded – I was on board with that plan.

* * * * *
I soon discovered that Mother disliked fat people, even if they were just a little bit fat.
The day after I arrived, Mother said, “I don’t know what Ma’s been feeding you.” She patted my stomach and checked out my backside. “Woo! You’d be a knockout if you’d shed about 20 pounds. Cleo (2) can hook you up with some diet pills.”
Diet pills?
“Who’s Cleo?”
“Oh, just my best friend. She lives in Bel Air. Her housemate –” Mother clears her throat “– is a nurse.”
I could feel the air hissing out of me. Yes, I was a bit chunky, but I had already done the diet pill dance and wasn’t anxious to do it again. Still I didn’t want to disappoint Mother, at least until we had established a rapport. “I dunno…”
“This is California, honey. Men like their women sleek and gorgeous. You’ve got to crush the competition.” Sighing and shaking her head in disapproval, she looked me over again with even a more critical eye. “You can’t go out in public looking like a lump.”
I’m not that fat, am I?
As if she had read my mind, she added, “You’ve got good potential: nice boobs, slim legs, good cheekbones, and gorgeous hair. By next month, you could be a star in the making. I’ll ring Cleo…”
“Mo says it’s not safe to take pills without a prescription.”
Mother rolled her eyes. “Would I give you something dangerous?”
I had to think about that, given her propensity toward the wild side.
But I figured that Mother meant well.
Still, I was queasy about popping diet pills, especially ones dispensed from a stranger who happened to know a nurse who might have filched the pills.
I hated them when I was eight years old; after all, they obviously had not worked.
Besides, they made me half crazy, keeping me up well into the night.
I still cringe when I think of those sleepless nights, when my head and heart pounded from the night terrors:
Cancer! Polio! Nuclear war! Nikita Khrushchev! Communists! Death!
Darkness –
The dark has never been my friend.
– Random thoughts, one tumbling after another, in rapid succession, and I couldn’t stop them.
Tossing and turning in my bed, begging and praying for sleep to come.
Finally, at first light, my eyes growing heavy – when it was time to get up for school.
No one could figure out why I would fall asleep during arithmetic class, but, then, no one bothered to ask me about my sleeping habits. I was too young to make the connection – until I had been taking the pills for about three months.
Then I had to pop downers at night.
I am now a night owl: do I prowl half the night because of those childhood pills?
As if she read my mind again, Mother said, “Why don’t you just try them for three weeks? You should be able to drop 20 pounds easily. And then you’ll never ever have to take them again.”
I wanted so much for this summer to work out, to finally win my mother’s love, just like crazy Junior, the oldest and wildest of my little brothers, had obviously done in his short four years.
If being skinny was a prerequisite, well, that’s a price I would have to pay.
“Okay, I’ll give it a shot.”
“Good.” Mother picked up the phone and dialed.

* * * * *
Cleo made a dramatic entrance into my life, bearing a large bottle of white pills that looked like small mints.
“Bennies,” she said. “Take one every four hours.”
Which I did faithfully.
After taking the diet pills for about 10 days, I felt as though I was about to jump out of my skin.
I had lost count of how many times I’d circled the backyard, playing toss-the-stick with Baron, Mother’s large German Shepherd.
After a rough start, Baron and I had become good friends, having arrived at an understanding after I’d whacked his snout with a newspaper after he snapped at me.
This day, Mother called me inside.
Junior, a special needs child suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (a term not coined until 1973), was in the kitchen, naked, jumping up and down on the kitchen table while eating baby food cottage cheese, laced with marijuana seeds, straight from the jar.
I soon learned that Junior’s diet was limited to pot-infused cottage cheese, strong coffee doctored with cream and four spoons of sugar, and a joint, which he smoked after every meal, before bed, and when he awakened.
To this day, I wonder how he survived; he seemed to have had more energy than all of us put together, including me, who, on the diet pills, climbed the walls.
I can only imagine how Junior must have felt inside.
But the kid was a royal pain in the ass, sucking the air out of the room, always on, always whining about something, always picking at himself and everyone else.
He was like a perpetual buzzing, dive-bombing fly – harmless but annoying.
I was so concerned that I called Mo and complained about Junior’s hyper antics – although I left the marijuana part out. I feared I’d be yanked back to Sioux City if Mo knew that her grandson was being dosed with weed.
Besides, as Mother rationalized, Junior needed to be seriously calmed down – Marijuana seemed to be the only option.
“He’s retarded, Jeff,” Mo said softly, over long distance. “You have to be understanding.”
I felt ashamed for being so intolerant; after my conversation with Mo, I tried not yelling at the kid when he got on my nerves. Really, I did. But sometimes....
“Jeffy! Jeffy!” Junior screeched, not once breaking his stride.
I waved to him just before I rounded the corner into the rec room, to slip away from him.
“I need your opinion on something,” Mother said, holding a cigarette in her right hand and a beer in her left.
I thought she was going to ask my opinion on how to handle Junior. Instead, she pointed her cigarette at the wall. “You think it needs painting?”
Really? I thought. While Junior ran wild like a Tasmanian devil, Mother was mellow and nonchalant and all worried about paint, yet whenever I curled up on the sofa with a book, it got on her nerves.
In fact, my very existence seemed to get on her nerves.
I looked around. The yellowish walls did seem a little dingy, but nothing a little soap and water wouldn’t have fixed. “Maybe.”
“I think I’ll hire a painter.”
“I can do it!” I had never painted a wall before, but how hard could it be? Besides, it would be something to do, a way to blow off some of this extra energy and make myself at least a little bit useful.
And get Mother off my back about getting a job. I had applied at several places, but I didn’t drive and public transportation was spotty, and potential places of employment in the Valley were far apart.
Mother laughed. “Thanks, honey, but I think we need a professional.”
“I know I could do it. Please?” I thought that if I made myself useful around the house, it would take some of the job-hunting heat off me.
“I just don’t think so....”
She hired a professional painter.

* * * * *
As the painter spiffed up the walls, Mother glowered as I plopped back on my butt, settling in to read Lenny Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, a book she had given me because she, a former stripper, had known Bruce and his ex-wife Honey personally.
Little monster brother continued ripping around, filling the house with his antics –
Nary a peep from Mother.

* * * * *
The author after the diet pill diet
____________________

Three weeks later, I popped my last pill.
I stepped onto the scale: 120.
I no longer had to worry any more about cutting my appetite – I could now eat whatever I wanted.
It had been a month since Mother called Cleo about the pills, and ever since, both women had been monitoring my progress, making sure that I didn’t eat any starch, fat, or sugar.
My diet had consisted of two poached eggs (breakfast), carrot sticks and an ounce of cheese (lunch), and two ounces of broiled lean meat or fish and a plain lettuce and tomato salad (dinner).
“You’re so lucky, Jeffer, that you live in California,” Mother reminded me each morning. “You can get fresh lettuce and tomatoes year round.”
But I was tired of it.
Still, in my unformed 17-year-old mind, 20 pounds in four weeks wasn’t too bad – now I realize that such rapid weight loss was not only unhealthy but also unsustainable.
In that moment, though, I felt thin–gaunt even – I liked how my hip bones jutted out and my new sculpted body appeared.
I liked my smaller breasts.
I was ready to face the world, to strut my new stuff.
It had been tough, though – Cleo’s pills had been potent, much stronger than the ones from my childhood.
During that three weeks, I hardly slept.
Fortunately, I, without a care, could sleep late; I didn’t have to get up for school and no job prospects were in the wings, so Mother and I stayed up all night, she slurping beer, smoking, and working crosswords, I drinking Tab and reading trashy romance novels – that is, after having struggled through Lenny Bruce’s book.
I no longer had the inclination to worry about the problems of the world or Bobby Kennedy’s death – I was too hepped up.
I didn’t like Cleo, but Mother obviously adored her; I have never figured out why. She was a Lesbian, and Mother hated Lesbians – called them dykes – although she adored gay men, and to the chagrin of my stepfather surrounded herself with them – they flattered her and made great drinking and dope buddies.
Somehow, Cleo got a pass from Mother’s anti-Lesbian rhetoric.
Cleo was one of those women who had been around. She didn’t hesitate to talk about her sexual exploits in the crudest of terms; despite her sexual orientation, she claimed to have balled over 500 men, although I doubt that there would be 500 men out there who would want to touch the woman, let alone – well, it was enough to make me sick.
Also, an unpleasantness wafted from Cleo – she smelled like rancid baby oil, which she rubbed all over her leathery skin – and she looked at least 50, although she was only 39, two years older than Mother. Her hair, a dead straw, hung from a thin ponytail, and her voice cracked, probably from the cigarette that never left her lips.
“Gawd,” she would cackle in her loudest voice – which carried anyway, with or without volume – as she pointed out a stranger in Zayres. “Get a load of them balls on that dude.”
Mother would blush, still cracking up, as the target scurried away from these gross women who presumed too much. Sometimes Cleo would grab Mother by the arm, and they would follow the hapless fellow around the store. I never went along on these expeditions – I hid out in the junior section – so I don’t know if these guys gave them the dodge or if Mother and Cleo just got bored with the game and gave up.
Once, when I couldn’t dodge the dopey duo in time, a victim called Cleo’s bluff: “Ya think so, lady? How’s about givin’ ‘em a workout?” And then he gave me the leering once over. “‘Course, I’d prefer this little one here.”
A chill ran down my spine.
Mother grabbed my arm and hustled me out of the store, leaving behind Cleo and the stranger.
“Get in the fucking car,” she said. We sped off without Cleo. “That bitch!” She clung onto the steering wheel and floored the gas pedal. “Who the hell does she think she is?”
Later, after Mother cooled down and everyone was friends again, Cleo told a ribald story about spending the day in this guy’s apartment, engaging in all kinds of sexual acrobatics, positions I have never heard of before and wouldn’t want to talk about now.
Besides, I didn’t believe one word of it.

* * * * *
At the end of summer, Mother finally got fed up and kicked me out of her house.
Instead of fulfilling Mo’s grand plan, I had sat around all summer, sleeping in, reading bad novels, devouring the Bennies, hanging out with the Vietnam vet from Beverly Hills and drinking Bali Hai on Sunset Boulevard, running around with some Malibu kids of movie industry people, smoking weed with them, and dropping LSD for the first time.
Eventually, even Mother grew disgusted at my laziness and handed me off to Auntie, my great aunt and Mo’s older sister, who didn’t suffer young fools lightly.
Auntie lived on Hollywood Boulevard and agreed, with strict conditions, to take me in on a temporary basis.
Where Mo was short and squat, Auntie, considered quite a beauty in her day, was tall and statuesque. Where Mo was blunt and to the point, Auntie was sneaky and manipulative, but they shared one common trait: they abhorred lazy bums, and I was fast becoming one.
“You have to get a job and your own place, or I’m sending you back to Sioux City,” she said, wagging her long, skinny finger at me.
She didn’t exactly set a deadline, but I knew her patience was not unlimited.
And I wasn’t anxious to return to Sioux City.
Long story short, I landed a job as a credit checker at Bank of America on Sunset Boulevard, right on the strip, and a room in a boardinghouse for “young working women,” where I had a roommate who was still in high school – a real party girl who pretty much did what she wanted to do, while her dad dated a bevy of young and gorgeous Latinas.
Within six months, I had returned to Sioux City, for reasons I have outlined in my book Memoir Madness – suffice to say that I lived a colorful life within a short period of time.
While still in Hollywood, I saw Mother only sporadically; our summer together had not brought us any closer.
In fact, she had the audacity to judge me for my marijuana smoking and LSD use.
Within a year, Cleo was dead (suicide by pills).
In 1973, I would see my mother one more time when we both happened to be in Sioux City at the same time. By then, I was married to Jeff, my first husband; our son Eric was three. Mother was drinking heavily and seemed to be in a perpetual kerfuffle with Mo and Dee Dee (my grandfather) and other relatives.
She spent most of her visit in local bars and fending off advances from my childhood dentist, who I had bitten when I was nine – he did not appreciate Mother dragging me along when they met for lunch.
– I wasn’t his favorite person.
Six years later – April 24, 1979, to be exact – Mother, at age 48, was found dead in bed – probable cause of death: a crapped-out liver.
A sad end to a sad life.

* * * * *
Postscript: Within six months of Cleo’s diet pills, I gained the 20 pounds back and for the next year hovered between 130 and 140, until I became pregnant – my post-baby weight shot up to 180.
Throughout my adult years, my weight would yo yo, up and down, between 120 and 230 pounds (the mid- to late 1990’s my heaviest weight).
So far in my life, I have achieved 120 on the scale five additional times: in 1970, 1973, 1980, 1984, and 2000, the first on some self-inflicted plan that involved starvation; the second the seminal Weight Watchers diet (high protein and no bread, potatoes, or pasta and liver once a week); the third back to starvation (another self-inflicted regimen involving 500 calories and one meal per day); the fourth on a still-popular meal delivery plan currently promoted by a celebrity with the initials of M.O.; and the fifth a return to the old diet pill routine and no-carb diet, prescribed by a skeezy diet doc – at this point, I should have known better, but, alas, I had once again been seduced by the lure of the quick fix.
At no point did I maintain 120 for more than a few weeks or even days, because those diet plans were not sustainable for the long haul.
These five diets do not even include the myriad regimens in which I never even sniffed at 120.
During my fat interstices – most of my adult life – I must have started and stopped various diets – it seemed that each day started with good intentions and ended up in Bingeland, where buttery mashed potatoes was my go-to food, among other high carb and high fat delights.
I hope this time will be different, that I will have finally slew my life-long demon, but I have quoted this chapter and verse several times in my life, and I absolutely cannot not take success for granted –
Mother also tried to tame her demon, but in the end, the demon won.
___________________

(1)    Parts of “Mother, Me, and the Demons” have been adapted from “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” to reflect my real story. Full Citation: Siegel, Jennifer Semple, Adapted from “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Are You EVER Going to be Thin (and other stories), West Conshohocken (PA): Infinity Publishing, 2004: 145, 146, 149-151, 156-157.
(2)    “Cleo” is a pseudonym, but she was a real person.