After the barrage of memoirs published since the 1990s, I’ve learned to set expectations low, especially for female-written ones. I’m female and a writer, so misogyny is not a factor. It’s just that too many are overwrought, Sad Sack, navel-gazing about emo issues: unrequited love, mother issues, infertility, jealousy, sibling issues, feeling ugly.
So I was quite delighted about a new memoir, enLIGHTened, by Jessica Berger Gross. It’s about yoga, weight loss, family trauma, and finding one’s true self (yes, all chick-ish topics) and YET it was intelligent and sympathetic. It takes a good memoirist to be revealing but not toorevealing.
Gross grew up with an abusive (verbally and physically) father in Long Island, adopted her mother’s coping mechanism of overeating, and struggled throughout her youth, into her 20s, with obesity. At 5′ 2″, she weighed 150lb before she finally learned to moderate: to eat when physically hungry, not emotionally. Obsessed with her looks and fitness bikini body training, by age 30, she shed 40lb; today, at 36 or 37, she’s kept the weight off and lives with her husband and toddler son in Vancouver.
Her intro to yoga came early, during a drama camp at age 14. But it took a decade for the yoga to stick and become a dedicated practice. Still, though the intervening years, she dabbled with more gusto than the typical class goer (that is, she might have been wayward but she was never a sheep). She’s studied with many big names: Baron Baptiste, the Jivamukti school, Patricia Walden, Judith Lasater, Marla Apt, Bobby Clennell, and currently with Louie Ettling.
The book is mainly memoir, but those with short-attention spans (or who expect website-type distractions) will be pleased to find vegetarian recipes (she’s a fish-eating vegetarian), asana descriptions, Yoga Sutras, quotes by the greats (TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga, among the best guides out there, is most-oft quoted), and catchy lists (eg, Top Six Signs You Are Eating Too Much).
Gross is a very-likable narrator and that counts for a lot. In one anecdote, she describes a Baron Baptiste teacher-training retreat. In a touchy-feely group session, participants talk about their bodies, sharing bouts with eating disorders, diets, the competitive vibe in yoga classes, where there’s pressure to be thin and dressed just so.
While others seemed to feel fine about their bodies elsewhere but sometimes self-conscious in the yoga world, Gross was just the opposite: “As unsure of myself as I felt in the rest of the world, the yoga room was the one place where I felt beautiful, where I’d forget all my self-doubt and the extra weight I carried.”
Overall, I’d give it a thumbs-up. No major flaws in her writing. But here are three gripes about Gross’s food choices:
1. Pineapples are her staple fruit, but can a self-described locavore justify eating three or four of these Hawaii-grown imports a week?
2. Gross discourages eating meat (for health, animal compassion, and eco reasons) but encourages eating fish and shellfish. But what about overfishing? What about the environmental mess caused by shrimp farming in SE Asia? See www.seachoice.org.
3. Raw, cold tofu is not “disgusting”! Ask any Japanese-cuisine aficionado. Or read Judith Thurman’s fascinating 2005 article on artisanal tofu in The New Yorker.