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Inheriting an Obsession from My Mother

And writing my way to forgiving her


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I came running into the house, my cheeks flushed from swinging. My mother was sitting at her favorite perch, the embroidered rocking chair.

"Honey, I want to talk to you about something," Mother said. "I think you should be like the big girls and go on a diet like them. Would you like that?"

A diet? What was a diet? I was 10 years old and a skinny little thing: at 5 feet, I weighed all of 85 pounds. I didn't think about my body much. But I loved to be like my big sisters. Sure, I'd go on a diet.

So began years of restriction, fasting and forced-weighing. I deeply wanted to make Mother happy and to lose weight now that she had convinced me I was fat. But my sense of autonomy — the healthy part of me that said, "Excuse me, whose body is this?" fought back, leading to a classic power struggle. I'd lose a couple of pounds, then pretend to diet, slip into the kitchen noiselessly to steal food, lie about how much I weighed, promise I'd go on a diet starting tomorrow and gain weight, of course. How could I not? Eating had become a morality play between the forces of good and evil. Gaining weight was inevitable. 

She was the jail keeper of the kitchen, but also my social worker and counselor, engaging in exhausting discussions with me about strategies for weight loss and comforting me when I would cry because I was gaining weight.

Ironically, I was only ever slightly overweight for my small frame — nothing to warrant all that obsession.

I'm 68 now, and a long way from that 10-year-old who went on a diet. These days, I'm pretty relaxed about my weight and body size.

If my mother were alive, I like to think we'd talk about that era with a clarity and wisdom neither of us had at the time. We might even laugh about it. But my mother died when I was only 25, still deep in the throes of my struggle with disordered eating and, as it turned out, her struggle, too. After her death, my siblings and I found Cheetos hidden in her lingerie drawer.

At the time of her death, my life looked successful: I had a loving boyfriend soon to become my husband and a career I enjoyed. But I thought about eating constantly, lived on Doritos and weighed myself seven or eight times a day. I couldn't see how weird my lifestyle was, because not only had I inherited my mother's anxiety, I had inherited her belief that thinking about weight all day was normal. The fact that she had forced me to weigh and had recorded my weight most mornings during adolescence did not strike me as strange.

One fall, the year I turned 50, I signed up for an online writing class. Our teacher gave us an assignment to write an essay in the third-person. I had never considered exploring this ancient drama from my mother's perspective — to imagine my mother like a character in a novel, to flesh her out. 

I began to write not about my mother but about Sarah, with Sarah's voice. Who was she, what drove her? My mother was a charismatic personality, a natural storyteller who could tell the same story over and over and still be riveting. 

But she had a dark side. As a chubby teenager, my mother had been taunted by her classmates. She wanted to spare her children the pain she had experienced. What was it like, I wondered, to see your daughters suffering? To want to help them so badly, yet be so powerless? To be reminded everyday of your own painful adolescence?

And what was it like to be a capable professional woman in the 1940s, with an MA in journalism, and to give all that up to raise children?

I wrote a scene based on a black-and-white photo of my mother sitting at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, smoking and thinking, the infamous scale out of the camera's view. As I wrote, I could feel the faded softness of her bathrobe, the taste of Nescafe on her lips, the texture of her cigarette.

I wrote for several days, building my mother's world, steeped in her story, thinking about it when I woke up and as I fell asleep at night. I wrestled with the words, adding imagined details. The more I wrote, the more I experienced my mother from the inside out and felt a logic in her behavior that I had never sensed before. Sometimes I would cry for both of us. She wanted so much to help me. 

When my classmates read the essay, they were appalled. "The lack of boundaries!" one wrote. My sisters, too, were outraged, my essay reminding them of what they too had been through. 

But as the writer, I felt an unexpected freedom, even lightness. My freedom came from the sweat equity of creating my mother's story. The manual labor of shuffling words around, replacing this phrase, deleting that one, struggling to find words to describe my mother through her own honest motivations, caused something to shift within me. I let go. My liberation felt almost physical.

Now I look at this photo of my mother with soft eyes. I imagine reaching out to her in her bathrobe, enclosing her in my arms and holding her. 

In 1979, on the advice of a therapist, Louisa Rogers mangled her scale. Stay tuned for that story! She prefers she/her pronouns.


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