Tommy Tomlinson is a highly regarded journalist who was a longtime columnist for The Charlotte Observer. His articles have appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Garden & Gun and multiple “best of” writing anthologies.
Tomlinson also is morbidly obese and has been most of his life. His memoir, “The Elephant in the Room,” explores how he came to weigh 460 pounds, what it’s like to navigate the world as a man that size and how he set out to undo a lifetime of overeating.
But first, what “The Elephant in the Room” is not. It is not a book about dramatic weight loss and diet tips. There is one recipe, but it’s for a billion-calorie treat called Brenda’s Peanut Butter Logs, and they sound delicious. It also is not a book about fat acceptance or the ways our culture encourages unhealthy eating habits while simultaneously maligning the results.
Instead it is an unflinching self-examination of one man’s flaws and how they led him to make bad choices that piled up, one on top of the other, for years, then decades, until he was in so deep he couldn’t see a way out. And in the process of that examination, he begins to make a series of small changes that result in the slow shedding of pounds. (Spoiler alert: Tomlinson is still morbidly obese at the end of the book, but less so.)
What Tomlinson achieves is an entertaining and heartfelt mashup of memoir, meditations on his relationship with food and how his weight affects his relationships with the world, and a chronicle of his slow but steady weight loss. It is told with generous doses of gentle humor and the keen, clear insight of a seasoned journalist.
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Some of it is uncomfortable to read, like the detailed descriptions of his body and the toll the weight has taken on it. The shameful accounts of eating in secret and then lying about it to others. The embarrassing stories of breaking chairs and toilet seats.
But considering it’s a topic about which much has been written, Tomlinson manages to bring a fresh perspective to obesity, which affects 40 percent of the women and 35 percent of the men in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tomlinson holds himself accountable for his obesity and doesn’t try to blame society or genes. But in his quest to understand how he got to this point, he makes compelling observations about the evolution of diet and lifestyle.
The first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college, Tomlinson came from a family of working poor who spent their days toiling in factories, picking cotton and chopping wood. They depended upon a hearty diet of cheap, filling foods like biscuits and gravy, which they promptly burned off with physical labor. Tomlinson’s genes were programmed for maximum consumption for survival, and he grew up on a diet made for field hands. Unfortunately, he says, “you don’t burn off those biscuits so fast when you work at a desk in air-conditioning.”
In a chapter called USUCK-FM about that little voice in our heads that fuels self-doubt, he theorizes that fear was once a tool that helped us to survive. But now that “the commute to work no longer involves bears trying to eat us,” it has morphed into anxieties and phobias that stoke our inner critics. In Tomlinson’s case, that nagging voice convinced him he was unworthy of love, which triggered his compulsion to eat, which triggered feelings of self-loathing, trapping him in “the loop of pleasure and hate.”
Nevertheless, Tomlinson is loved. His memoir is never more eloquent and endearing than when he writes about his wife, Alix, and their devotion to each other. In many ways, “The Elephant in the Room” is a love story about a man who thought he didn’t deserve one. One of his epiphanies is that his weight kept him from getting too close to people.
“My big obstacle is food. But my struggle with food has created another hurdle that’s almost as big — the distance I put between me and the people I love.”
On multiple occasions, Tomlinson talks about himself as two people. Growing up, he’s “the smart kid with a sweet and lucky life” but also “the fool trying to eat himself to death.” Later in life, his “job as a journalist is to find the truth and tell it,” but his “existence as a fat man compels (him) to run from the truth and hide.” He thinks of his fat as a husk, “something I have to shed so the best part of me can come out.”
The book begins on New Year’s Eve 2014, when Tomlinson wore a size 6X shirt. His decision to change his life was not the result of your typical, hollow New Year’s resolution. Just one week earlier, on Christmas Eve, Tomlinson’s sister Brenda died from an infection related to obesity. Her death at age 63 and the heartache it caused her family was the catalyst that set him on his journey to not just lose weight, but to learn why he gained it in the first place. By the end, he wears a size 4X shirt, and as a reader, you’re with him every step of the way, cheering him on in his quest for a healthier and longer life.
‘The Elephant in the Room’
By Tommy Tomlinson
Simon & Schuster
256 pages, $27