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My father's binge eating and secret food addiction has had a lifelong impact on me
This essay is written by a known author, under the pseudonym C.L. Kemp.
I’m four or five the first time I recall being taken along on one of my father’s junk food binges. My mother asks him to take care of some shopping and other errands, and to bring me along while she stays home to tend to my baby sister. The particular errands escape me, but to this day I remain haunted by the calorie-laden detours in between.
My father is a compulsive overeater, what they called in the ’70s a yo-yo dieter, currently a member of OverEaters Anonymous. Since revealing the details of other people’s addictions is verboten in the Twelve Step realm, even for those who might have in some way injured you while active, I’m covering for my dad once again, using a pseudonym for this essay.
My father’s struggles with weight and body image pain me terribly. They make me feel sorry for him, and protective of him. But I feel compelled to write this because his secrets have damaged me, and I’ve been burdened with them for too long.
Back to that binge trip. First stop: White Castle. Dad returns to the car with a childlike glee that fills me with great tenderness for him. He’s clutching a paper bag dotted with translucent grease spots, a treasure trove of burgers so miniature even a little kid like me can devour two or more.
Next stop: Carvel for soft serve cones with sprinkles. Finally, a local discount department store, where he treats himself to a quarter pound of Jordan almonds and half pound of salted cashews, still glistening and warm from the counter heat lamp. He buys me a massive lollipop, a multicolored sugary swirl the size of my head.
“It’s called an all-day sucker, because it can last all day,” he explains. It’s my reward for being a “special girl”—for keeping quiet. “This is our special secret,” he tells me at each stop. “Just between you and me.” I’m forbidden to tell my mother, who is tasked, daily, with preparing him meals adhering to whichever diet he’s currently on.
Weight Watchers. Weigh of Life. Pritikin. Atkins. Liquid amino acid fasts. My father takes dieting very seriously. He so hates being fat that he resorts to drastic measures—a prescription for diet pills, amphetamines called “black beauties,” which will cause permanent heart damage; getting injected with pregnant women’s urine, the human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) believed to boost metabolism. Such extremes are necessary to help him resist the siren song of sweet, fatty, and salty foods. But depriving himself seems to only amplify their call, and eventually he succumbs. He yo-yos from fat to skinny to fatter, his metabolism further weakened after each severely restrictive regimen.
In ways spoken and not, my father teaches me it’s important to be skinny. He’s not just obsessed with his diet and weight; he keeps tabs on everyone else’s too. I learn from him that my mother has “thunder thighs.” Looking back at photos from that time, I see a beautiful young woman of average weight and size. At 11, he tells me I’m “getting a gut” and should “do something about it,” after my stepsister and I have performed a dance in midriff-baring hula outfits he brought home for us as souvenirs from Hawaii. Perusing these photos now, in my fifties, I see a tween of normal proportions.
At seven, I learn from him I have a “grande culo,” a big “tuchus.” They’re jokey asides he makes in front of company, when a boy from the neighborhood and I stage a play wedding my father officiates. “Now turn to C.L. and repeat after me,” he says to my groom: “Grande culo tienes tu.” After my groom complies, my father translates: “You have a big ass!” Everyone nervously laughs. In a flash, I go from being the beautiful bride, all dressed in white, to the girl in the room with the notably outsize tush. I’m shattered.
This happens in 1972, the same year as “the ice cream incident,” an interaction that, as petty and minor as it might sound, will haunt me the rest of my life.
Sunday school has just let out, and the Good Humor man is strategically positioned near our synagogue. I don’t really want any, but my dad insists on buying me a Toasted Almond bar, his favorite.
He opens the thin paper wrapper for me as we walk to the car. He takes a bite. A big, grown-up bite. Actually, it's even bigger than that. He takes a compulsive overeater bite. To my seven-year-old’s eye, it’s at least “half.” I haven’t yet learned fractions, so to me, the word “half” just means a lot.
At home, my little sister flaunts before me a candy necklace. “Mr. Stevens got it for me from the ice cream man,” she says, referring to a neighbor.
“Mom, can I please get a candy necklace from the ice cream man too?” I beg.
“She already had an ice cream,” my father interjects.
“But he ate half,” I protest. In the childhood dessert economy, where I’m allowed only one serving a day, this registers as a serious injustice.
“I did not!” my father shouts.
“You did, too!” I cry.
“She’s lying!” The arguing escalates from there, and 46 years later, the repercussions of this one stupid goddamned ice cream pop linger.
My father has a lot at stake. He’s on Atkins, peeing on sticks to make sure he’s achieving “benign dietary ketosis,” eliminating excess sugar from his blood to burn fat.
My mother doesn’t know who to believe. She’s wise to my father’s bingeing, having found him popping Mallomars between swigs of milk late at night. Nevertheless, he is so intractably insistent on his innocence.
My parents send me to my room to “think it over” and see if my memory of the incident changes. While we’re apart, it’s actually my father’s memory of the incident that changes slightly. He cops to maybe having taken “just a tiny little taste off the top,” which, even if it were the truth, would have fucked up his diet.
When they invite me out of my room, I’m stick to my original version of the story. He stands by his new teeny-tiny bite alibi. I’m told I have to stay in my room all day, and then apologize. I don’t want to apologize because I’m not wrong. My father stops talking to me for days. I begin to doubt my own version of things—and myself in general. This is one of the most damaging aspects of my father’s crime.
In my early 30s, my father will accuse me of lying about something else, and use that ancient event as ammunition. “I knew you were a liar from the time of the ice cream incident,” he says, and even though I know I’m telling the truth once again, my self-doubt deepens.
A few years later, my stepmother will complain about finding napkins embossed with the Carvel logo in their car in the same way other wives report discovering lipstick on their husbands’ shirt collars.
One night after work, I meet my father for a restaurant dinner. After shunning the carrots and white rice that come with our meal because they’re “too glycemic,” he brings me back to his Manhattan apartment, where he inhales right before my eyes an entire pint of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond, never stopping for a second to offer me any. One minute he’s pulling the pint out of the freezer, the next he’s polished it off. When there’s none left, he holds the empty carton and looks at me with a bewildered, helpless expression that breaks my heart. “I don’t even remember eating it,” he says.
In that moment, I know with a new level of certainty that I was not the liar that day in 1972. I would like to say that I stop doubting myself, but that would be a lie. Maybe I doubt myself less. I have a hard time releasing my anger—not just about the ice cream incident, but all of it: being introduced by my father to toxic diet and weight loss culture; his projection of his body image issues and displacement of his shame onto me; the anorexia my sister and I would both need treatment for in our teens and early twenties. I compound the problem by becoming angry with myself for not being able to release the anger. The anger becomes muddied with sadness and compassion for my father.
I struggle to find compassion for myself, to not beat myself up when I eat ice cream or other sweets—to allow myself to enjoy them in front of people without apologizing for it, to allow my body to fill out a little, to swear off the dieting and over-exercising I’ve hurt myself with for so much of my life. To allow myself to stop bearing my father’s shame and keeping his secrets.
Does it count if I don’t tell you who I am?
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