Once, 10 years ago, Irish-American writer Ethel Rohan overheard two strangers in a bar discussing a friend who had lost her brother to suicide. “The grief may kill her before her weight does,” they said. That phrase stayed with Rohan, and she started writing a novel about it, drawing on her own experiences with suicidal depression, body shame, and loss, as well as research about the shocking prevalence of suicide in Ireland and around the world.
Now, that novel — her first 00 is finally in the world. The Weight of Him tells the story of Billy Brennan, a 400-pound husband and father in rural Ireland who has just lost his oldest son, Michael, to suicide. But instead of letting grief or weight kill him, Billy decides to use them as motivation to change his own life and the lives of those around him. As it charts his efforts to raise awareness about suicide and repair his relationships with his loved ones and himself, the novel is heartbreaking but never sappy, uplifting but never treacly. It’s the kind of book that promises redemption, but only if its messy, flawed characters work hard for it, failing over and over again along the way.
I sat down with Rohan in her San Francisco home to talk about the novel, Ireland, and the power of literary fiction in a world full of political fictions.
The Millions: As a woman, as a feminist, I think of body shame and emotions around weight as pertaining mainly to women, but that’s not really true. How was it writing about the particular issue of weight from a male perspective?
Ethel Rohan: Frankly, with Billy, it almost got to the point, maybe out of necessity but almost naturally, where it wasn’t about gender, it really was about the person, the human being. That did cross my mind sometimes. I had so much fear, honestly, and I think that’s another reason why it took so long. I was just very afraid of the subject matter.
My struggle with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, was a secret until it got to the point where “I am going to die, I need help.” And then it became less of a secret, but still to this day, I have really close friends who have no idea. But I’m ready to own that now, and I realize how important it is for me to raise my voice in that regard. Because when I was there, I would look and I would research, and I was checking stuff online, and I couldn’t find myself in anything I read, because, yes, I was suicidal, but I was highly functioning. Yes, I was able to hold it all together, but at enormous internal cost. I just think it’s important to get that narrative out there, because we don’t see enough of it.
But the idea of body positivity, body shame, all of that. I could only be true to Billy, and I learned about Billy just like any other author does with their character: by putting him in scenes, putting him in situations. What does he say? What does he think? What does he do? All of that, just getting a level of confidence there, where I felt, “Okay, I can’t speak to the topic as a whole, but I can speak to Billy, whom I’ve gotten to know really well, and I can be as honest as I can, authentic as I can, with that.”
I think the added layer of authenticity that I brought to it was also the other piece of me: I am a survivor of childhood physical and sexual abuse. So I know body shame really well — not in the same way that Billy does, but that also gave me a level of confidence that I can speak to this. I’m coming at it in a different way for different reasons, but…When I was younger, you know, I’m from a working-class Dublin family, we were poor. We did not have a lot. So one of the easy ways for me to access comfort was food. But there was also that element that Billy struggles with: On one hand, it’s comforting, but then it spills over into a form of self-punishment. And I’ve been there, and I know what that’s like. And that’s also how I misused food.
So I’ve never been fat, but I do know what it’s like to have an unhealthy relationship with food and with your body. And I suppose that then, if you like, the third piece of it all was that my mother was fat, and did struggle with addiction in various forms, including overeating. It was just bringing all of that and hoping that I could do right by the subject matter and by the characters with that knowledge that I had.
TM: You’ve lived in San Francisco now for longer than you lived in Ireland, is that true?
TM: For both of the main thematic issues, obesity and suicide, in this book, it seems like the Irish attitudes that you’re depicting are somewhat different from the American ones. In particular, I was struck by how Billy tries to get publicity for an issue and go on TV, and his family’s reaction was like, “No, we don’t want this attention, we don’t want publicity.” Because from my perspective, that would be a very laudable thing here. That would be the most “useful” thing you could do with your grief — or that’s how it would be perceived. Could you talk a little more about that?
ER: I think it comes down to just how deep that stigma still runs, around suicide in particular, around mental illness in general. I think it does get back to this idea that it’s a weakness, so it would be families not wanting to be seen to be weak, tied up in guilt. Families not wanting to be seen to have done something wrong that led to the suicide. And I think it’s that very Irish and maybe very human survival instinct of “It’s too painful. I don’t want to look at this pain too closely. I want to go on. I just want to try and pick up the pieces as best I can.” I think for [Billy’s wife] Tricia, it was very much like “I’ll never get over this, but all I can do is hope as best I can and just get through each day.”
It’s the shame, and it’s the stigma, and the publicity as well. That’s very Irish, this idea of keeping small and not drawing attention to yourself.
TM: That was the most foreign thing to me.
ER: Yeah! But that rings so true to me. It really is about keeping small. It kind of goes back almost to…it’s a parental ideology, but I think it becomes even bigger if you really want to go back and look at the psychic scars of being a colonized country. It’s just the idea of “Be quiet, don’t cause trouble, stay in your place, knuckle down, just get the work done.” And, as well, I think, an attitude of “If we don’t look at it too hard, it might go away.” I think the Irish are really good with the pain factor, just not looking at things too closely.
My father would have been very, very like that: “I can’t look it’s too painful.” And my mother would have been erasing the voice, “be quiet,” that kind of thing. “Don’t draw attention to yourself, and by God, don’t draw attention to us.” So I think those voices were very much in play, and although they kind of came directly from my parents, I think they came from the culture and from patriarchy right across the board.
She’s unfortunately an all-too-obscure Irish writer and she died a few years ago, but Nuala O’Faolain was an Irish journalist, and she wrote a couple of memoirs, and she said — I read it once and it stayed with me for many, many years. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. — she said, “My Irish childhood took the I away from me. I felt ‘I’ was erased.” Not to point the finger at the Irish, but I think it’s culturally true. It’s one of those hard truths that we need to look at. And I think it does come from being colonized, but it is also like every country in the first world, we’re part of a patriarchal system. And the powerful are controlling everything, and they have the voice, and you just be quiet and stay in your place.
And here we are, 2017, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.
TM: On that note, how do you see the role of fiction in our new hellscape? [Laughter.]
ER: I have to believe it’s more important than ever. It sounds almost clichéd: What can you do? What should you do? But I have to believe it matters, I really do. Because I know my experience as a reader, and thankfully, there have been studies from way more reputable sources than myself, who have shown that reading does generate empathy. It does allow us to understand, because it humanizes.
I read recently, I want to say the University of Oregon, they did a study where they had a large group and they show them some footage of famine…it was sort of this idea that “Look at all these thousands and thousands that are starving. Can you donate? Can you help?” And they got very little response. And then they brought in another group, and they show them one child starving, and everybody donated.
So it’s the idea of what’s happening right now in the U.S. is so huge. I’m one, I can’t make a difference. Whereas if you looked at one particular person, be it Muslim or whoever else, and they tell you their story and they tell you their fears and say, “Help protect us. Stand up for us.” That, I think, is going to be much more powerful, and I think that’s what books do. A particular protagonist, it humanizes, it makes it very personal, and it just gives you a window into experiences. Because I think a lot of what’s happening now is, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, this idea of “It’s not affecting me, so while I might be upset that there might be lies, there might be collusion, or whatever else, especially if I’m white and middle class, it’s not going to affect me, so let’s just hope.” It’s that deflection again. It’s just: “Hope it all goes away.”
TM: “Don’t look at it.”
ER: “Hopefully this is just a little blip.” Whereas if you’re directly in the line of fire…you know. So I think fiction does have that power to humanize, to generate empathy, and to just make us understand what it’s like. What it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to be marginalized, what it’s like to be terrified, what it’s like to be the recipient, the subject, of racism, bigotry, all of that that we can’t appreciate if we don’t experience it.
TM: I think this book in particular is about going from a feeling of powerlessness and in many ways being very objectively, factually powerless — once Michael has killed himself, there’s nothing you can do to bring him back — but it is about figuring out, through all your messy emotions and all the things that you can’t control, what you can do.
ER: Yeah. And I think that’s something throughout my life that’s helped me survive. As a kid, as an adult: What can I do? Because it would be very easy to buckle beneath all the things I couldn’t control that were happening outside of me and that I was suffering from.
I didn’t think this book would be that idea of…because I’m asking that, and so many people I know are asking that: What can I do? And I think we each have to find our answer to that, and it could be something tiny. Like you said, with Billy and the grief, if you can’t bring Michael back — and I knew that pain, when you just want to bring people back and you can’t — it’s like, “Okay, what can I do?”
TM: I sort of felt that way when Trump got elected. I went into the same sort of magical thinking people have when they lose a loved one, where I was like, “Okay, we just need to make this not have happened. Reality just needs to change.”
ER: Yeah, it’s just like, “What is the one thing that would have…?” There’s just so much, and it’s heartbreaking. And part of the grief process is letting go of that incredible ache to just turn back time. How many of us, for many different reasons, would give anything to turn back time? It makes you realize how human you are, and we do have limits, but we are also, for the most part, way more powerful than we realize. And that’s something that I’m really holding onto right now.
I remember vividly being a kid in school and learning about the Holocaust, and my question back then was “What would I do? Who would I have been?” And I couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t fathom how it could happen. And now here I am.
TM: I know, and it’s like, “Oh, this is exactly how it happened.”
ER: Exactly! And I see how messy and complicated…you don’t know what to believe. Like, your question: How powerful do I think fiction is? Fiction got us where we are. But it was dishonest fiction, whereas hopefully — I like this! — hopefully the antidote to that is honest fiction. Or at least one of them. It will only do so much, but it could just keep stoking the fire within each of us, and then we could put it into more actual terms.
TM: Narrative does get its hooks into people in a way that facts don’t.
ER: And Trump used it. Look how he used it. But that’s the key. It’s dishonest narrative, and it’s such an impure intent and purpose behind it. And I do believe in the power of honest fiction and narrative where the intent is to humanize, to engender compassion and empathy and understanding. Just kind of like a walk in somebody’s shoes. I didn’t know! I didn’t make that connection! But that makes me hopeful that…If we want to know how powerful narrative is, look what he’s doing. One of the first things he’s trying to do is shut down journalism and writers, because he, like every other dictator and fascist before him, they know the power of the written word and of the media and journalism.
Because sometimes when you’re down there, you’re wondering what you’re doing. And with this book, I almost gave up so many times, and it was fear. Beyond the usual writerly fear of self-doubt and failure, it was the subject matter. Why am I telling it? What am I going to accomplish? And all of that. But it would not let me be. Billy would not let me be, and all of the characters — Tricia, all of them, who for some readers may not be likable — I loved them all. They stay with me, and I stuck with them, and here we are.