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Meet the Tommy Tomlinson you don’t know – the one his loved ones didn’t know, either

Tommy Tomlinson talks about fear, hope and ‘The Elephant in the Room’

Tomlinson, who has been overweight all of his life, talks about his journey, and his hopes for his book.
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Tomlinson, who has been overweight all of his life, talks about his journey, and his hopes for his book.

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.

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Tommy Tomlinson’s book is “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to get Smaller in a Growing America.” John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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.

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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?

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Tommy (in plaid, in back row) in Mrs. Clark’s second-grade class. Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

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.

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A young Tommy Tomlinson. Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

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.

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Tomlinson and his father. Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

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 good old 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.

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Tommy with his mother. Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

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 fast-food parking lot, plowing through a burger. “Trapped in the loop of pleasure and hate.” What is the first step in breaking that pleasure-hate 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. You show Alix to be loving, patient, kind, respectful. Any advice for partners of those struggling with food addiction?

A. I think one thing we didn’t do very well over the years is talk about it. It was an obvious issue for me — and by extension, for us — but neither one of us wanted to bring it up, because it was bound to cause anger or tears. Some days you just be quiet and try to be happy. Alix has been incredible at figuring out how to nudge me toward a better life in a gentle and loving way.

(Alix adds: “Losing weight is hard, and it takes a long time. Don’t put off important conversations until there’s ‘a better time.’ ”)

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Alix Felsing and Tommy Tomlinson. Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

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. There are many negatives to being the fat guy. On the other hand, as you say, if someone doesn’t like you, you can always tell yourself it’s because you’re fat. But what if I’m not fat anymore, you ask, and they still don’t like me? Any other disadvantages to letting go of Mr. Fat Guy?

A. It’s not really a disadvantage, but more of an uncertainty: I’ll have less of a sense of how to navigate the world. I know how to do that as a fat man — where I can reasonably go, what to stay away from, which chairs I can sit in and which ones I can avoid. Now I’ll have to learn situations all over again. That’s a good problem to have. But I’m always a little anxious when I have incomplete information. And as a thinner man, I’ll have a lot to learn.

Q. You describe an exercise called “shadowing,” where you wrote to a couple dozen friends — as well as your mom and your wife — asking them to share with you what they say to each other about you when you’re not around. Beneficial?

A. Absolutely. It confirmed what I thought — my friends and family love me, care about me, but worry about me and talk about me with concern among themselves. It hurts me to know that my weight is a topic of conversation when I’m not around — but of course it is. In the end, it made me feel closer to everyone.

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. I love the term you and Alix use for acting like grownups — adulting. You’re adulting when you wash the dishes right after supper. Adulting when you file papers instead of stacking them. Adulting — or growing up — seems to be the antidote for craving a Wendy’s double with cheese. Say how that works.

A. It’s just coming to terms with the idea that we’re responsible for ourselves — nobody is going to come pick up after us, nobody is going to stand over our shoulders and say “Don’t eat that.” If we want to have healthier, happier, more organized, more complete lives, it’s up to us.

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.

Tomlinson will be at Park Road Books Jan. 15; at Main Street Books in Davidson Jan. 31 ; at ImaginOn Feb. 7 ; and at Morrison Regional Library for a conversation on memoirs with Judy Goldman on April 27 .

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