Is it possible to have differing, but equally valid, moral and ethical positions on the film “The Whale?”
I sure hope so. I could be about to test this in what follows.
Whatever your views on the film, on food, on obesity, on “fatphobia,” —that entire constellation of issues— I invite you to read this essay as my own personal thoughts on my own personal journey over the past decade.
I was deeply moved by Brendan Fraser’s performance, in ways that struck me very personally and very painfully. I thought his performance was Oscar worthy, and I’m very glad he won. I found it to be a story worth telling.
I cried during the movie. I cried a lot afterwards, and found myself deeply identifying with the character of Charlie.
I suppose good art does that for us. We see ourselves in the stories. Even though there’s much about this story that differs from my life and journey, much of it existentially also hit home…perhaps even in ways beyond what the artists intended. (Again, that’s what art does…it stirs us up…)
I was never 600 pounds. But less than ten years ago, I was an “out of control” 300-plus pounds. Fraser’s amazing performance stirred up a wincing pain of personal recognition.
I’ve written about my own journey toward a more healthy relationship to food, eating, and weight, in a journal entry called:
It’s still painful for me to read, and was very painful to write, as it describes some deeply personal hard-learnings about myself, my life, and my history.
I have come to understand and believe that I have an addictive personality in relationship to food that, if left unacknowleged, could easily lead to being hundreds of pounds overweight.
It helps *me* to name it as addiction. (This, perhaps, is where some readers might differ with me…)
Therapy and lots of work on reframing my understanding of food-as-fuel, not as a drug, are helping me with this, every day. It’s a daily journey. My own journey entailed looking back through time too…addictive personalities run generationally in my family, often related to alcohol. Suicide also generationally runs in our family.
But as I look at our lives, it appears some of us in our extended family —myself, my Aunt, my Grandfather— have apparently chosen *food* as our soothing drug of choice.
My Grandfather spent his last half-decade in a bed, much like Charlie…alcohol and decades of over-eating to soothe his pain, had ravaged his body. He was a shell of man. It was hard to look at him, much as it was hard to look at Charlie in this film.
My Aunt was morbidly obese, and in and out of care facilities for a decade. She struggled with obesity in ways that were deeply painful to all of us who loved her; and who visited in the *dozens* of hospitals and long term care facilities she found herself in over those ten years. It was a slow decline. Yes, she had other health issues. But obesity made it all worse. Again, she was in and out of DOZENS of care facilities….and that example impacted me.
As a son, it was especially hard for ME to watch my Mother watch her only sister slowly die, and to vicariously feel her complete helplessness.
(Therefore, I also somewhat identify with the character of Liz too, as she helplessly watches Charlie…that felt familiar too…)
Here is what I believe…
Alcoholics can kill themselves in a few weeks-to-months of heavy drinking.
Drug addicts can kill themselves in single night, with one wrong dose or mis-labeled substance.
Those of us who soothe with food *may* be able to live healthy and productive lives for years. (Maybe even for all of our reasonable adult lives…)
But some set of us who soothe with food cannot.
Some set of us —I include myself in this set— slip into what I call “time-release suicide.”
We know exactly what we are doing to our bodies. We know exactly the potential physical costs.
But the addiction is so strong that we are “powerless” to make other choices. (To use AA language…)
I’ve read online criticism of the film related to scenes where Charlie is gasping to breathe, coughing, choking on this food, or having a heart attack. People have suggested that the Daniel Aronofsky over-reached in dramatizing those moments in ways that are “fatphobic.”
All I can tell you is… *I* did all those things too.
I never woke up after a night of binge drinking, wondering “what have I done?”
But I routinely experienced moments where I felt the kind of fear I saw in Charlie’s eyes during the film… a fear that thinks, “My God, what if I am dying, right now?”
When I was actively and slowly committing “time-release suicide,” I regularly gasped for breath. I ended up in the hospital with heart palpitations, thinking I was dying. I *physically* felt *terrible* much of the time. I knew all of this, even as I ate whole pound cakes, downed jars of peanut butter, and secretly scarfed hamburgers and burritos outside the view of loved ones and friends.
So, no, I didn’t find the performance overblown, nor did I (personally) see it as “fat shaming.” What I saw was a horrific dramatization of my own addictive personality; the one that lives in me still, and probably always will.
I felt gratitude for where I am now, but deep sadness at remembering “the fat guy inside me” and my own moments of physical terror at what my actions had wrought.(Moments when I thought I might die, or be very ill…)
So, that’s my view of my journey, and my reaction to this film. I would guess everybody’s journey is different.
Even in the years since I first wrote the essay on “time-release suicide,” I see shifts in how we talk about all of these issues in our culture. And so, you may see all these issues differently. You may believe the film, or even some of what I am writing here, is “shaming.”
I can only speak for myself: Everything shifted for me on the day I stopped looking at my eating issues as a moral failure, and started simply looking at them as health issues and a matter of how I can love myself. The key has been a shift in my understand of the question “what is the loving thing to do for my body?”
As I wrote in my blog, I just didn’t feel good, (physically good) most of the time. I wanted to feel better. So, I learned a lot about how the food industry TRIES to addict us to processed foods, like the liquor industry tries to addict us to alcohol…like drug pushers want us to be addicted to coke. Realizing that these so called “foods” in fast-food chains are DESIGNED TO ADDICT…that was a key lightbulb.
“Oh…those are my pushers…”
Getting old is hard enough without the metaphorical and physical weight I was carrying. I didn’t want to die young. Like Charlie, I also had a daughter. I was routinely gasping for air trying to keep up with her.
And it gradually dawned on me that I wanted to be around to see her grow into adulthood. It gradually dawned on me that my own self-destructive disordered eating affected other folks beyond myself. It affected her future. My wife’s. My friends and family.
Hell, the truth is I might get hit by a bus tomorrow.
I might get cancer.
I might get dementia.
I could still be a terrible burden on my loved ones as I age.
Life is risky.
But about ten years ago now, I made the conscious choice to frame my eating as a “time-release suicide,” and I realized that I didn’t want to do it any more. I wanted to live as long, and as healthily, as I could.
Like all addictive-behavior, I slip up. A lot. I try to be gentle with myself when I do, but I am not always gentle. One thing I now believe: it’s a lifelong journey.
If you’re on this road, please know that change is possible, but that the road is *hard,* and there are no magic bullets.
A hard “moral” of this film is that everyone gets “the position of choice for their own life.”
That means refusing medical care.
That means choosing a path you knowingly admit could lead to death.
That even means choosing “time-release suicide.”**
I truly believe there is much about life that is worth living. I believe there is hope for everyone. This film starts at the end of Charlie’s life…way too late for any change for him. I think that’s what hit me so hard…knowing that without certain changes, I could be that guy.
I believe my life is better when I consciously eat healthier foods, in healthier quantities. I truly grieve for anyone who believes they are in the throws of an addictive cycle. I would be happy to be support you from afar, any way I can…if any of you reading this believe I could ever be helpful.
So, in sum… your mileage may vary.
But, for me, this film hit me in a deeply personal ways. However it hits you, I thank you for listening to my perspective.
** One final note, please do not hear that I am saying that all folks with weight/food issues are committing “time release suicide.” I am saying *I* was.
Some folks, without addictive personalities, wrestle with these issues for other biological and physical reasons.
Just as alcohol affects each person differently, so too does food.