Book reveals the columnist even loved ones didn’t know
You think you know somebody.
Then that somebody writes a memoir about the most intimate details of his life.
You realize you didn’t know him. Not really.
Legions of Charlotte Observer readers believe they know Tommy Tomlinson.
He wrote a prize-winning column for 15 years, from 1997 to 2012. He wrote about falling in love with his wife. He wrote about his mom and his sister and growing up in Brunswick, Ga. All sorts of things that revealed the big heart of the man behind the photo.
But you won’t fully know him until you read his debut book, “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get
Smaller in a Growing America,” which will be published Jan. 15.
Here, in prose honest enough to raise blisters on your own skin, Tomlinson, who now hosts WFAE’s podcast “Southbound,” tells what it was like to grow up fat, and how frustrating it is trying to lose weight.
As he puts it, telling a fat person to lose weight by exercising and eating less is like telling a boxer: Don’t get hit.
“On top of that,” he writes, “some of us fight holes in our souls that a boxcar of donuts couldn’t fill.”
You’ll love Tomlinson’s prose. He’s been a Pulitzer finalist in commentary, and his work has made two appearances in “Best American Sports Writing” compilations. He spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow.
No matter his accomplishments, Tomlinson, 55, says he’s always “craving an emotional high.” So this isn’t a diet book. Not exactly. It’s a book about growing up, about struggle, about frustration, and, yes, about coming to terms with yourself, your responsibilities, your life.
He will come to Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. to talk about his story.
Q: “New Year’s Eve, 2014: 460 pounds.” The hardest words, you say, you ever had to write. Nobody knew that number. Not your wife, Alix Felsing, not your doctor. What did it take to put that number out there?
A: I told myself that if I was going to tell this story, I had to tell it right – I couldn’t hedge. In some ways, that number was the hardest part. It was something nobody knew about me, but I’m sure a lot of people wondered. So I treated it like a big old Band-Aid. I grabbed the edge and took a breath and yanked it off right there at the beginning.
Q: You give many reasons why you fell again and again into the sweet clutches of Little Debbie and Wendy. Loneliness. Shame. That USUCK-FM station that played in your head. Yet you grew up with loving parents in a peaceful home. What first caused the bad feelings that you learned to soothe with food?
A: I don’t know. I was always fat but I’m not sure when I first realized what that meant for me out in the world. The first really strong memory I have of when that made a difference was those relay races I write about in the book. We lined up and raced one another in elementary school, and in that moment it was obvious how fat and slow I was, and how much the other kids mocked me for it.
Q: You could, incredibly, read and write by the time you were 2 1/2. As loving as your parents were, they were not educated, and they worked long hours. Any chance you craved a kind of nourishment and companionship you weren’t getting, making you feel like a lost soul?
A: I do remember feeling lonely. I’ve felt that a lot in my life. Part of that, I think, was being the only child in my parents’ marriage. My brother and sister were way older than me and so they were out of the house by the time I really remember anything. I grew up to be an introvert, but I don’t know if that’s the chicken or the egg.
One of the main things I learned from my parents was the difference between education and intelligence. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become sadder and more outraged that my folks didn’t get a chance at a good education. I think that’s why I’m generally not impressed by academically intelligent people — often they took advantage of luck or circumstance. What I’m drawn to is emotionally intelligent people. That, to me, is a more valuable skill. And I’m sure that inclination comes straight from my mom and dad.
Q: Your beloved older sister Brenda died at age 63 of weight-related issues. You and Brenda had the same mother, different fathers. What factors — other than Southern biscuits and cornbread — played into your shared struggle with weight?
A: The main reason — for me and a lot of people of my generation — was the cultural shift from blue-collar to white-collar work. My folks worked in the cotton fields when they were kids and did manual labor of one kind of another until they retired. They could eat whatever they wanted because they burned it all off every day. By the time my brother and sister and I came around, we were able to work desk jobs. But we still ate like fieldworkers. That’s how we got fat.
Q: You didn’t consider surgery for your weight because it felt like giving up. Did you consider a 12-step program such Overeaters Anonymous? Or talk therapy?
A: I went to a couple of OA meetings, but they felt creepy and depressing to me, and I never felt like anything there helped me get better. Maybe If I had gone more it would have been different.
Q: Over and over you say the thing (overeating) that soothes the pain of being sad, lonely, down, ashamed — you name it — also prolongs it. You describe how loathing will boil up like acid reflux when you’re alone in a fastfood parking lot, plowing through a burger. “Trapped in the loop of pleasure and hate.” What is the first step in breaking that pleasurehate cycle?
A: Two steps, really: Find other pleasures, and figure out ways to hate yourself less. The first part was not bad — there are lots of other things I can get absorbed in. The second part requires a deeper understanding of WHY that self-loathing is there. That’s a big part of what I explore in the book.
Q: Toward the end of 2017 and into early 2018, you and Alix had a few brutal months. Your best friend, Virgil Ryals, died of a heart attack. A month later, Alix’s dad also died suddenly. Then in late January 2018, after a long illness, your mom died. How did all that stress affect your diet?
A: I gained a good bit of weight back during those months — maybe 25 or 30 pounds. (Tomlinson doesn’t want to disclose how much weight he has lost; he wants people to read it in the book.) It was stress, mostly, and a lack of exercise. The good thing about it is that I had been taking good care of myself, so I knew I could do it. We’re still not over those few months, but the fog has cleared enough that I’ve been able to work my way back down the scale. If I hadn’t had that success before all those things happened, I don’t know where I’d be now.
Q: Your honesty in this book often felt like tape being ripped off my own skin. The shame over playing basketball without a shirt. Covering your lap with a blanket on a plane because you couldn’t buckle the seat belt. Arriving early at a restaurant to nab a seat that would fit you. That honesty draws readers to you. But how hard was it for you?
A: Alix and I were talking the other day about my writing routine, and she remembered it better than I did. She said I’d get up, have breakfast, go write for several hours, have lunch … and then take a three-hour nap. I was emotionally drained just about every day. I’ve been doing the audio book recently, and even though I’ve lived with these words for a few years now, sometimes it was still hard to say them out loud. But in the end, if I was going to do this book, I felt like I owed readers an honest account.
Q: This book is not so much a diet book as a manual on how difficult it is for some of us to meet adulthood halfway, even into our 40s and 50s. Why do you think you came somewhat late to adulthood?
A: One main reason is that my weight kept me from going through a lot of the rites of passage of childhood. I never learned to ride a bike. I can’t really swim. I was never wild and feral physically in the way a lot of kids are. So it never worked its way out of my system. I think there’s always been a little kid inside me who was pissed off that he didn’t get to do the things every other little kid got to do.
Q: Finally, please share your three-step formula for dieting.
A: No. 1: Find some way to measure the calories you eat and drink.
No. 2: Find some way to measure the calories you burn.
No. 3: Make sure that every day, No. 1 is smaller than No. 2.
Tommy Tomlinson, a former reporter and columnist for The Charlotte Observer, has chronicled his struggle with his weight.
Tommy Tomlinson writes with searing honesty in his new book “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to get Smaller in a Growing America.”