When Food Is Love: Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy by Geneen Roth, 1991, A Dutton Book, $18.95, pp. 203

Reviewed by John A. Speyrer

"Healing is about opening our hearts, not closing them. It is about softening the places in us that won't let love in. Healing is a process. It is about rocking back and forth between the abuse of the past and the fullness of the present and being in the present more and more of the time."

"Feelings cannot be skipped; you get out of them by going through them."

We must want to heal more than we are afraid to feel --- rage, grief, sorrow. We must want to heal more than we want anything or anyone else."

-- Geneen Roth

Beautifully crafted and fascinating to read, When Food Is Love is one of those unforgetable books, one which I invariably recommend to friends. Anyone interested in or in any of the regression therapies will appreciate Geneen Roth's insightful writings. No, even if you have never heard of psychotherapy you will nonetheless appreciate When Food Is Love. And you need neither an eating disorder nor a compulsion to enjoy it.

The author has written six books, this one, a bestseller, is her fourth. Written as a spiritual inspirational book, romance novel, confessional autobiography and psychotherapy self-help manual, it is guaranteed to pull your heart strings and at times knock your socks off! So it's not a no-calorie pulp and filler book; there is a lot of solid, stick-to-your-ribs insightful nourishment in its pages.

Her story is primarily about compulsive eating and intimacy but the universal truths in the book can be applied to any compulsive or acting out behavior. Roth believes that repressed pain from infancy and childhood is the culprit whenever such problems exist. The author, as far as I know, has never been in primal or a deep feeling psychotherapy, but open any chapter at random and you will be convinced that she knows well the terrain of repressed childhood/infantile feelings and that she has felt her share of them.

In small doses and throughout the book, the author returns to her childhood to recount a scene which is relevant to the story being told. She tells us repeatedly that the symptom of overeating is not the problem. Instead of the obsession with food, the problem is much more basic than that. The problem is about need, unmet need, frustrated need and the effects of the thwarting of one's early pattern in receiving essential love.

Food was always there, she writes, even when her parents were not. Geneen Roth's mother was physically abusive and addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her father, at times, absent and emotionally unavailable. She writes,

"Children must deny and ignore what causes them pain. Children must cling lovingly to those who abuse them, because given the choice between an abusive person and no one at all, there is no choice. The difference between someone and no one is the difference between life and death. . . . If a parent is absent, unavailable, abusive or dead, it is extraordinarily useful and often necessary to create a fantasy world in which that parent or a parent figure is alive, available, and loving."

The author says that curing one's compulsion is only the first step in getting well; letting love into one's life is the second and sometimes the most difficult step. Or as Jean Jenson, in Reclaiming Your Life: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Regression Therapy to Overcome the Effects of Childhood Abuse (p. 87) writes: "To consciously choose to behave differently from the way you feel compelled to behave is essential. . . ."

You've got to let go of the compulsion and seek love in the present so that you can feel your past. Geneen Roth writes,

"Being loved in the present brings up all the ways in which we were not loved in the past. No amount of love in the present, not a single person, not ten thousand people loving us all at once, can make up for or take away the pain of the betrayals of the past. . . .The only insurance against repeating the pain in the past is to allow ourselves to feel it fully and release it in the present."

"We are trying to protect ourselves from feeling a hurt that has nothing to do with our lives now; over and over, for the rest of our lives, we try to protect ourselves from feeling our past, and in so doing, we never allow ourselves to claim the present."

We must grieve (feel) those early hurts of our past. But to become aware of those pains we must take risks with intimacy in the present. This helps to lead those repressed hurts into consciousness.

Here is how the author explains intimacy:

"Intimacy is showing another person the parts of ourselves that we believe to be unworthy and thereby risking that they will turn from us the way our parents did. (A voice inside us screams: 'It was excruciating the first time and now you're asking me to go through it again?') Intimacy brings with it tenderness and humor, companionship and affection, but it also demands that we relive the most agonizing moments of being a child."

The vulnerability of intimacy can return us to our childhood, with the lover or companion being the parent. This can be painful for all of us. But those with an eating compulsion, especially need intimacy since "a refrigerator doesn't break hearts but a lover can or at least be a trigger."

As young children and infants we always wanted (and still want) what we did not get. We wanted love but did not get it and we believe that we still don't deserve it - what we needed back then. Hence we make poor choices and feel that the good choices are not for us. Sometimes we might rationalize that the guy is, well, just too nice to be interesting. But it's tiring to try to make the wrong person love us.

What neurotics want is to turn the bad boy into a good boy so as to repeat the earlier relationship with one's parents. But it won't ever happen - because the guy is a bad boy and he'll stay that way. It's all part of the struggle to change the way the other behaves as well as to stay in the old familiar territory. It feels comfortable there because we know the rules of the game. Making the bad boy into a nice guy would prove that we are lovable. But it's doomed to failure because the guy or gal won't ever change.

"We act as if we were . . . children -- conniving, waiting, demeaning ourselves for love. We are not attracted to people who are tender with us; rather we attract relationships that repeat the wounds of the past."

So ". . . it is not . . . the workaholics and the married men we want; we want the love we didn't get from our mothers and fathers."

If we were brought up with emotional violence or physical violence, it has become so familiar that we can actually miss the chaos. Without the chaos and struggle we become bored and find life unexciting. We can always provoke an argument or a fight if the moment becomes too tranquil. If friends or lovers are too agreeable we have no challenge as its hard to opt out of the familiar struggle.

But, When Food Is Love is not a book about victimhood.

"We were not responsible if we grew like a twisted plant reaching for a shaft of light in a darkened room. We didn't know better. But then, neither did our parents. They too grew up with parents who thought that children were always wrong and parents were always right, that children should be seen and not heard. Many of them grew up waiting for someone to toss them a scrap of dignityl"

Our fathers were molested by uncles, soldiers, teachers; our mother were taught to mistrust their bodies, to have babies, to put themselves last. Child abuse was rampant, but no one talked about it. Alcoholism was widespread but tolerated, revered as manly or regarded as funny. When a man hit a woman, he was putting her in her place, she deserved it. Our parents were victims, too. So were their parents.

Everybody is somebody's baby." (my emphasis)


The author has been conducting nationwide workshops on eating disorders since 1979. She has been a guest on television and radio shows and has written for and has been featured in Cosmopolitan, Time, Ms, Family Circle and New Woman magazines. She lives in northern California with her husband, Matt. Her next workshop will be held in Atlanta in October, 1999.

Geneen Roth's website: http://www.geneenroth.com/

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