By Dannye Romine Powell
January 9, 2019
Tommy Tomlinson (John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer)
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 Observer readers believe they know Tommy Tomlinson.
After all, he wrote a prize-winning column for 15 years (1997-2012). 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.” (Simon & Schuster, $27.)
Here, in prose honest enough to raise blisters on your own skin, Tommy, 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. After all, he’s been a Pulitzer finalist in commentary (in 2005), and his work has made two appearances in “Best American Sports Writing.” He spent a year at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow.
No matter his accomplishments, Tommy, who’s 55, says he’s always “craving an emotional high, the kind that comes from making love, or being in the crowd for great live music, or watching the sun come up over the ocean.”
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.
“The Elephant in the Room” is a knockout.
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.
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