Unlike the high-achieving alumnae generally highlighted in Smith publications or in profiles online, I have instead held onto what I thought was a fairly modest ambition—I’ve wanted to be a writer. Little did I know the unexpected and soul-searching journey it would take to fully realize that ambition.
For years my seemingly simple goal did not seem unreasonable. Before attending Smith, I had written stories and lyrics for five full-length musicals, all of which were successfully produced. As an Ada Comstock Scholar, I completed book one of an epic fantasy-novel series and received the Gertrude Posner Spencer Prize for excellence in writing fiction.
In my 12 years since leaving Smith, I have been holed up in southeastern Vermont, maintaining a low profile and modest income while devoting my energy to my writing. I completed books two and three of the fantasy series, as well as a young adult novel. I’ve lived alone, worked as a program administrator and spent most of my spare time writing, rewriting and sending out queries.
Unfortunately, this intense focus on my secret, creative life magnified unhealthy habits and demons that had always been with me but now dominated: a two-pack-a-day tobacco habit, a disordered relationship with food, a morbid preoccupation with mortality, a reluctant atheism, agoraphobia and a tendency to remain withdrawn, hiding from the world. I managed my solitude by viewing movies I had seen multiple times late into the night and investing most of my emotional life into my two cats.
At age 55 I suffered a mild heart attack, which became a ferocious midlife crisis fueled by a panic disorder and a coldblooded reality check. I was a 324-pound, chain-smoking, Type 2 diabetic who had no life partner or children; no house or property of any kind; no actual career or second income; no savings, pension or retirement plan; no hope—and, it seemed, no glory. What I did have were an 18-year-old Toyota Corolla and a passion for writing.
Although I had never abandoned my passion, suddenly I could see it abandoning me—a consequence of my own fears and my failing to accurately see and accept myself. The shock kicked off a sustained anxiety attack, a four-year maelstrom that covered all manner of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual distress and required the utmost in terror management, psychotherapy, crying jags and frequent trips to the ER during hair-raising episodes of SVT tachycardia. When I found myself also contending with the ghastly symptoms of colitis, I assumed that my body was mirroring a life-changing transformational process.
But once I regained my footing, I realized that I might have a good story to tell. And several good reasons for telling it:
- Vindication The only way I could justify the havoc I had made of my life was to gracefully explain how and why I had failed. I should have been a book editor in New York. I should have been a professor of English. I should have had children. At the very least, by now I should have been settled and secure.
- Opportunity The misery memoir is a popular genre. If I could turn my panic disorder, multiple addictions and dysfunctional family into compelling prose, if I could forge the onset of aging, an obsessive fear of death and a hopeless longing for God into something accessible, I might finally gain a toehold in the only career I had ever wanted.
- Connection If I could be insightful, honest and compassionate about my struggle, my disclosure might be of service to others. Immediately after my heart attack, I quit smoking cold turkey, enrolled in the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program, worked out six days a week, joined Weight Watchers and lost 20 pounds. When it became apparent, however, that the real work ahead of me involved braving my anxiety and the emotional pain it masked, I pulled together a sizable support team of doctors, therapists and priests; helpers, healers and friends—people whose patience and kindness proved that it takes a village to make a happy, self-actualized adult. As I stepped into my own shoes and began experiencing the joys of authentic life, I considered the potential for heartening and emboldening others by exposing my vulnerability and acknowledging the charity of those I call the “angels we can see.”
- Inspiration After two chapters, I came up with the title Magnificent Obesity. I was thinking of the movie Magnificent Obsession when inspiration struck. Although I had no idea what the title was supposed to mean or convey, it caught the eye of an agent and then a publisher and, after the submission of a 60-page proposal, resulted in a book contract.
- Obligation Less than half way through the book, I became convinced that my only reason for writing it was that I had a contract and a deadline. I could not imagine how my story could be of interest to anyone else.
- Individuation Until now, I had written only fiction, tales of other people living other lives in other times. I had never written from personal experience. Now, given the challenge, I struggled to find my own voice and in doing so, began to find my own self.
By the time I felt stable enough to begin the book, huge buried parts of me had come up to the surface. I had crept more than halfway out of my hole. Although I was not the fabulous, empowered, completed human being I had imagined I would have to be in order to write the book, I was standing in the shower of light at the end of the tunnel, feeling whole, quite well and full of new beginnings.
But only after the book’s release did I discover possibly the best reason for writing it. The narrative reveals that when I was 12 and first putting on weight, my 14-year old brother bullied me mercilessly, though never in the presence of others. His verbal abuse created a vortex of fat-shame that can draw me in still.
Recently, when I called my mother to ask whether she liked the book, she blurted, “I am so sorry! I am so sorry, I didn’t protect you from your brother!” Startled by the force of her feeling, I wept and, in her burst of regret I encountered gratitude and relief. At last my longstanding grief found release and forgiveness in a surge of shared tears. The exposure, the acknowledgement and apology revealed the book’s true aim . . .
Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life, by Martha Moravec, is published by Hatherleigh Press/Random House (2014). Moravec continues to live in southern Vermont and is working on several novels, among other writing projects.