"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Life News
From the earliest years of her Montana childhood until she was a 42-year-old New York literary agent, Frances Kuffel ate with a vengeance. Her 338-pound body made her the subject of ridicule and forced her to suffer excruciating physical pain. Kuffel was 44 before she ever got a pedicure, or wore a tailored suit, a cashmere sweater, or even a pair of lined pants. Running was out of the question, because most days, walking was too much for her to bear. She’d had sex before, but she’d never gone out on a date, or even been told she was pretty. The world was something she observed from a distance.
But in March of 1998, Kuffel decided to make a radical change after recognizing the parallels between her eating habits and her best friend’s alcoholism. She braved her first Overeaters Anonymous meeting at a Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., church basement that day, wearing elastic-waisted pants (“Lane Bryant’s largest size”), a black T-shirt (“permanently stiff with perspiration under the arms”), Keds without socks, and an unlined raincoat. There she encountered a room filled with women of all shapes and sizes: “These women got it, had done it all,” she writes. “Eaten, been fat, lost their lives, come into a church basement and admitted the problem.” Kuffel cried through those first few meetings before her 18-month journey to the “Planet of Thin” took off. And though she was quick to lose the weight — 188 pounds in all — through a carefully regimented diet and, eventually, an exercise program, she was slow to realize that life was to be experienced, and that she could become an active participant in it.
A year after completing her diet, Kuffel started writing about her metamorphic weight loss. “Passing for Thin: Losing Half My Weight and Finding My Self” is the wrenching, often sardonically funny memoir that sets out to evoke the experience of living in a new body after 40 years of being confined by her obesity. As a person who had always consumed “so much so steadily that it would be hard to isolate the peaks,” Kuffel not only had to recast the role of eating in her life — paring her food down to three carefully weighed and measured meals a day — she had to figure out how to buy clothes that flattered her new curvy, distinctly feminine figure, learn how to take a compliment, wrap her mind around the fact that people found her pretty, funny and smart. And, once she began to date for the first time, she had to navigate the murky waters of love and heartache. Perhaps the most difficult step: Kuffel had to purge the nasty bosses and abusive friends who undermined her confidence and believe herself worthy of respect from everyone, especially herself.
I met with Kuffel, now 47, at a Brooklyn Heights Starbucks. Not long into our conversation, she confessed to suffering a relapse over the summer — her second (she mentions one in the memoir), in which she gained about 50 pounds — and that she’d gone back on her “abstinent” diet, cutting out all flour and sugar so that she could once again fit into a Size 8. Kuffel did appear slightly different than her author photograph — gone were the contact lenses and black leather jacket, to be replaced by thick, ironic horn-rimmed glasses and a cozy cardigan and T-shirt. But she is striking even in her schlep gear, and I couldn’t imagine how she could have carried the burden of so much weight.
Her acid wit, however, speaks volumes about her decades of psychic pain. In both her memoir and in our interview, Kuffel uses this humor to circumvent uncomfortable issues, offering vague — if occasionally droll — retorts to questions she is either too polite to refuse or to which she may not yet have the answers. The memoir’s subtitle is rather misleading: Kuffel retreats when asked about the bullying older brother, Dick, who terrorized her and her brother Jim; reminisces about romantic longing and two recently failed relationships when our discussion turns to sex; and stresses that her lifelong eating disorder has less to do with emotional issues and is a matter of biology. She seems to be in the thick of her self-discovery pursuit — conflicted between wanting to be a public subject in her role as a memoirist while eager to preserve her privacy. In a sense, this makes her book all the more poignant: Even at her most reticent, Kuffel reveals the profound impact this transformation has had on her body and her soul, as she is forced to contend with all that she has steeled herself against for so many years.
Why did you write “Passing for Thin” now?
I was fascinated with what was happening to me as I was losing weight. Nobody has really spoken of the aftermath of weight loss. Living in that new body and not getting to hide behind excuses is incredibly hard.
You never knew your body without the excess weight, until you were in your 40s. Does it feel like you’ve been reborn?
Oh, yeah. Feeling myself moving and walking down the street, and feeling the lining of wool pants against my legs. I’ve never had pants that had silk or nylon lining. It’s icy cold, but so sensuous. I can feel the seams and the waistbands and it’s very erotic. I love seeing my feet at the end of my jeans.
Before you lost all that weight, you never seriously considered your clothes before. Suddenly you were forced to reckon with this aspect of femininity for the first time in your life.
I was 44 when I finished losing weight and started to really have to dress myself. I have four wardrobes: a Ralph Lauren wardrobe, which is tailored, traditional and beautiful; a middle-aged post-hippie girl thing; a SoHo designer wardrobe that conveys an “eat shit and die” message to the world, short black skirts, black tights and leather; and then I have my slob clothes. Those clothes give me personality when I don’t know what to be. It’s a dialogue I have, like putting on armor or a costume. Those are pretty much the core parts of me.
When I was heavy, I had a dialogue with clothes, too, but I didn’t have the choices or the definitions. They don’t often make fat clothes in fabrics that are as delicious as thin clothes. I had a few favorite things, but [my clothes] were shapeless.
You describe entering this new body almost like entering adolescence.
Along with anything else that happens to somebody who loses this much weight, their closets empty out. I had a manic period where I was just snarfing clothes up as quickly as I could. There was an inevitable crash after that, too. You can do all the fixing up and glamorizing of the outside that you want and still feel obese and unworthy underneath.
I think everyone has an original myth about themselves. Mine has to do with being given up for adoption and feeling like I need to be pathetically grateful and therefore pathetic to make my way in the world. It wasn’t something I was taught. I come from one of the nicer parents in the world.
How old were you when you learned that you were adopted?
I always knew. There’s a whole wonderful story about how my parents got a call the night I was born, but in my little demented imagination, I think I turned it into this big brouhaha.
Do you think your “original myth” affected your eating habits?
No. I could’ve been as happy as George W. Bush, and I’d still be eating. I’m just a compulsive overeater. Yeah, I have pain that goes along with it, but I don’t blame my myths or stuff in my childhood for it. I’m a great piece of biology. Two thousand years ago, if we were trying to survive in Ukraine in a terrible winter after a disastrous summer, you’d lose, I’d win.
Early in your memoir, you say that you and your two older brothers, Jim and Dick, “lived in an unpredictable muddle of shifting alliances, imminent violence, and a subtle electric undercurrent of predatory sexuality that our busy parents were not hep to. Dick turned it on Jim and me, leaving us to exorcise the taint (not quite a stain; he didn’t go that far) by finding safer harbor in our own ways. My safety was in food.” You go on to say that your oldest brother, Dick, was rapacious, and you suspect you may have been shielding yourself from him with your obesity.
He was. They often say obesity is protection against intimacy or sexuality and that could be what I did. But I truly think I was going to eat anyway. It might have added fuel to the fire that I had a problem with it.
You were a compulsive eater, even as a young child. Do your parents remember when it started?
My mother said my first sentence was, “Eggs are done.” We had this egg timer, and I apparently loved soft-boiled eggs. When I was 6 months old, my mom said I had a beatific look on my face at my first taste of ice cream. I think probably every baby has that reaction to ice cream. Still, they knew that there was a major problem. My father was a physician, and my parents were worried, but I think they saw that it hurt me so much — that it was so humiliating that they didn’t want to hurt me any more than I was hurting myself. If I wanted to go on a diet, they would try to help, but there was very little pressure. My parents went, “This freaks her out so much to talk about, let’s just back off. She’s a smart girl. We love her, and when she’s ready to do something about it, she’ll do it.”
Is your family used to the “new Frances”?
Yeah. They have nothing but delight. This summer I bottomed out. I was eating (the only major post-diet relapse). My brother Jim said, “I always worried this would happen again. But this is the first time I know that you’re going to get it together. You’ll take care of it.” That was the thing that allowed me to get it together. I miss food. Food was such a cure-all.
Any particular kind of food?
I’d always go for the baked stuff. Then I would go for the salty stuff. Always the carbohydrates. Flour, flour, flour. I miss being able to turn on and off certain functions. If I was bored I could eat. If I had a lot of reading to do I could eat. If I was scared of people I was having dinner with, I had the food to focus on. I ate as a metronome, especially for reading, or watching T.V. I have the attention span of a gnat.
Is getting used to your new self an ongoing process?
A friend said to me last night, “You are heavier, and I know you are upset about that. But you continue to change and it isn’t just body size. You’re prettier than you were when you lost the weight, and you’ve gotten prettier every year.” In that first year or two (of being thin), there was a ragamuffin quality to me. I was trying to figure out stuff. I was always so worried: Would people recognize me? I always manage to get it wrong. I’ll introduce myself to someone I’ve known in the past, and they’ll just look at me like, Are you a lunatic? Or I don’t, and 10 minutes into something, they’ll go, Frances? I was walking around pretty hunched in those days. It took a long time to loosen up and trust how I looked. All of that metamorphosing still goes on.
When you were over 300 lbs., you said you didn’t feel a 36-pound ovarian cyst, or notice how swollen you’d become because of it. Did you lose the numbness when you lost the weight?
There’s a lot of pain as bones get exposed. The insides of my knees, and bones in my shoulders would hurt. I would fall down because your center of gravity changes. Suddenly shoes are way too big. I had to replace almost all of them. I had a ring that fell off into the mailbox. But I have less pain now. I was in a lot of pain when I was obese, constant headaches, constant acid indigestion. My back and feet hurt terribly. My cab rides went from being $3,000 a year to $250.
The tradeoff of losing fat on my feet — and my feet ached — was that I didn’t know that I had one toe that’s too long and one toe that’s too short. It displaces the weight onto the ball of my feet and I get the most incredibly painful corns. There were things like that where I was just getting to know my body. Who knew I had this problem?
Having all of these new experiences and feelings must have felt like a stimulus overload.
When I got thin, sometimes those jokes that I might make at the counter for a cup of coffee were suddenly flirting. I didn’t know that. It took a lot of dates to get that I was part of the date, that I wasn’t there as a talking head.
Once I went on a diet, I wasn’t sexual for a couple of years. It was way too much for me. When I stopped overeating I was really consumed with losing weight and with the crises at hand and it was as though that switch got flipped off. I knew that at some point dating, love and romance was going to be a question for me, but it was scary simply because of lack of experience. I think that emotionally I didn’t need to add that to what was already complicated. I was thrilled to bits that I could tie my shoes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to turn out to be pretty. I just needed to slow way down. It took a while after I lost the weight to really begin to come back to it.
Obesity seemed to protect you from the rest of the world while simultaneously humiliating you. Do you have different shame issues now?
What is dating and sex but shame? I always felt shame when a relationship didn’t work out: What did I do wrong? I wasn’t good enough. I’ve been very quiet on the dating front since this summer. When I was obese, I did a lot of pathetic yearning and self-sacrifice for people I was in love with. I would do anything for them. I would skip anything or miss anything or disappoint other people for that person and rarely confessed what I was feeling. There was a lot of anguish. Because I was raised with brothers partly, I’m a good pal to men. Men I had crushes on very often wanted to be friends with me because I was a good friend.
You said that your obesity placed a burden of guilt on your friends, creating awkward, often uncomfortable situations, and you went through a lot of friends at the time.
People got tired of me (an inability to participate in many activities, the self-loathing and moroseness). They went on to get lives. With the publication of the book, there’s been a lot of bounce-back, and there were people that you just drift apart from and there were never any hard feelings. And then there were a lot of losses because of going into a 12-step program and losing the weight (focusing on “abstinence,” ridding herself of unhealthy influences).
Before, I would cancel plans or not want to see people because I wanted to eat (alone). Now it’s because this stuff exhausts me. For having lots and lots of extra skin, I don’t have as much emotional skin on me as it seems a lot of people do.
Is it still a pleasure to eat?
Oh yeah. I’ve been famously known to stand up after lunch and say, “There goes the only part of the day I’m going to like.” I love to eat. I’m a good cook. My food is delicious. I hate it when it’s over and it’s time to shut down. I don’t like it when people want to have a taste of what’s mine, because it’s mine, and it’s weighed and measured. I don’t like eating with people because I can’t eat the way I want to. I eat three meals a day, bottom line, weighed and measured at home. Certain foods I don’t eat — like corn, peas, grapes, bananas — because they have a lot of sugar in them. Nothing in between meals. That’s when I’m dieting. When I’m in maintenance mode, I add six ounces of carbohydrates at lunch, and a fruit after dinner. Still, I have the most vivid relationship with food.
Are there things you miss about your old life?
I miss eating. Every day.
Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonikMore Kera Bolonik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)