A Q&A with Lisa Kotin
Today, we wish a Happy Publication Day to writer, director, and performance artist Lisa Kotin and her darkly humorous memoir My Confection! In My Confection, Kotin tells her coming-of-age tale through her sugar addiction and binge eating. We caught with up her to ask about the impact of her writing on her relationships with food, her family, and her recovery, the impetus of sharing her story, how she sought help to get well, and the healing process.
My Confection and your previous performance pieces draw on your experiences with food and with your family. How has writing and performing helped or hindered you in repairing your relationships with both?
Since the age of five, performing my plays has been one of the best ways for me to express myself to my family. Some years ago I performed my show “Beyond the Fridge” in Santa Barbara. This was by far my most personal show, about my struggle with sugar and self-image. While I could never talk to my parents directly about my struggle, it was very freeing to express it to them from the stage. In all my shows, they never took the material personally. They loved my work, which really helped repair a lot of my old scars. After all I went through with my addiction, with my body, with sugar, as an audience they were able to watch, listen and appreciate me. The inherent fourth wall of theatre and the fact that I was playing a character helped them easily digest the material, whereas the written word may have been tough for them to swallow. I don’t think I would have been able to publish My Confection while my parents were still alive. And while my siblings have always enjoyed my shows, I understand this is a tougher view for them. After my sister Lauren, with whom I have the best, most honest relationship, read the book, I was shocked to hear her say, “I had no idea how much pain you were in.” She also wanted me to know that, regarding the part where I am bingeing on cake and my mother asks me to “save some for Lauren,” according to my sister my mother was always telling her to "save some for Lisa.” (Because don’t we all know, there are two sides to every story.)
In the book you never shy away from honest descriptions (no matter how unflattering) of human bodies. Since shame about your body was a major part of what you had to overcome, how were you able to write about it so freely, and why did you feel it was important?
Exposing myself comes naturally to me. Not just for entertainment’s sake, but as a way to connect with my audience. Whether from the stage or on the page, I have always found it inspiring and healing to share my story. Perhaps taking control as the storyteller gives me a false protection. But when I identify/expose my defects, whether in my body or my personality, and if I can make you laugh, feel something or identify, I feel more connected to myself. Sharing my darkest thoughts and fears about my body, about myself, takes away some of their power. When an audience/reader can relate to what I am saying, I feel less alone. Less isolated in my shame.
Several times, you compare the men in your life to food. Referring to both, you write, “If it’s sweet, I’ll eat it.” How were the decisions you made in your romantic life been influenced by your eating disorder?
When I was in the food, in the sugar, I had little or no self-love/respect. It was a merry-go-round of bingeing, hitting (another) bottom, cleaning up my act, seeking out a man to try to fill me, feeling bad because the romance didn’t turn out to be what I fantasized it would be (how could it when my vision was so distorted by my self-destructive behavior?) then going back to the food/sugar. Because I had little or no love for myself (with my success contingent on artistic success or romantic attraction), because I would never be good enough, I attracted men who could not love/want me in the raw, in my imperfection. A man who wanted me wholly would have been a turn-off. Why would I want to be with someone who actually liked me for who I was? It wasn’t until I began to accept/respect myself that I could be attracted to someone whose love I could accept.
You write that the professionals who you went to for help often dismissed the severity of your illness because you didn’t look like you had an eating disorder. How did this impact your motivation to get well?
It used to enrage me when health professionals remarked “but you’re not fat.” It was wrong of them to judge me by my appearance, and to not listen to my words, but part of my addiction is/was getting approval of others, having others validate what I already knew to be true in order for me to accept it. It was recently gratifying to read about a condition called TOFI: THIN outside, FAT inside. Of course, the fat I store internally (which may play a part in my health issues) is not the only issue. It is also the fat in my head, the weight I carry in my mind—about my faults, my imperfections. When you see yourself a certain way, when you carry that image, nothing anyone says will change that. Change is an inside job. That said, it was not until I received a medical diagnosis of “metaplasia,” a condition which precedes dysplasia, which precedes cancer, was I willing to really start to take responsibility for my health. When I read that metaplasia meant cellular inflammation, and that I could affect that condition with my diet, I was finally scared into sobriety/abstinence. At least for the moment. It truly is a day-by-day, moment-by-moment process.
From Overeaters Anonymous meetings to homeopathic medicine, you go through a lot of treatments during the decade or so that makes up the bulk of My Confection. What do you have to say about the importance of continuing to try, even when healing seems out of reach?
I learned in O.A. that acceptance is the answer. This is not to say I do not still want what I want when I want it. But when I take a step, when I make a call, when I take a walk, when I put pen to paper, when I do something to get out of my head, I am making progress. It truly is progress, not perfection, that counts. I have heard many people in the 12-step rooms talk of coming back over and over, even when they were still in the food (sugar), allowing the energy of the room to carry them until they could love themselves enough to put down the food. Healing is not in the end result, but in showing up on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis.
In My Confection, you don’t shy away from vividly describing food, like “honey-dipped apricots so plump and moist they squirted when you bit” or “the gooey, buttery cookie...leaving caramelized brown-sugar.” It’s the opposite method of your first Overeaters Anonymous group, which tried to avoid naming foods. How does your decision to bring such detail to your writing impact you as a recovering sugar addict?
Coming out of the pantry, so to speak, identifying my addiction, is a positive thing. Admitting the power chocolate has had over me is very powerful. There are many foods I lust for that are not healthy choices for me. When I write about these foods, especially ones I have a history with, telling you about them takes some of the energy out of them. I don’t want to be afraid of food/sugar. This is not to say I am cured of my longing for these foods. I am mostly amused by the names people gave their forbidden foods in O.A. so many years ago. But if you call it a deep-fried round carbohydrate with a hole in the middle of it, or if you call it a donut, I’m probably still going to want it. Whether or not I eat it is another story.
How do you feel your Jewish identity influenced your relationship to food?
Despite my frequent rejection of a Jewish identity, the traditionally Jewish foods my mother prepared for me and the foods her mother prepared for her and the foods her mother prepared for her still run through my blood. I don’t care how many glasses of organic pressed green juice and bowls of organic adzuki beans, brown rice and steamed kale I ingest, they will never comfort me in the same way a steaming bowl of egg noodles and cottage cheese will. But my addiction to many of these traditional foods, most of them sweet, goes deeper than the food. It is a deep longing for belonging, a longing that has not been satisfied by an identity as a Jew. And so I continue to search for a place of peace, just like the wandering people of my past. I search for a safe place to exist. In the world. And in my body.
You’ve recently launched your vlog series “True Confections” on YouTube. What do you discuss in your videos and what do you hope to accomplish with the series?
My videos are meant to be an entertaining and informative view into the twisted, dark mind of a sugar addict. As in all my work, I try to present my ideas with humor, because although addiction is a serious matter, humor can be a very effective means to carry the message. Here are a few of the episode titles:
Why DO I Want Sugar?
What Is a Sugar Addict?
Coming Out (of the Pantry)
Some Ways I've Tried to Quit Sugar
Some More Ways I've Tried to Quit Sugar
I Am (Not) Powerless Over Sugar
Farewell My Love
About the Author
Lisa Kotin is a writer, director, actor, and performance artist based in Los Angeles. She graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and went on to perform original shows combining physical comedy, monologues, and short films in the United States and United Kingdom. Kotin’s show Temporary Girl, which drew upon her experiences at 100+ temp jobs, is about a dysfunctional family as seen through the eyes of an office temp, and was adapted into a movie that Leonard Maltin praised as “bright and original, with the definite ring of truth.” Follow her on Twitter at @LisaKotin.