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When “Titanic” came out in 1997, Andie Mitchell and her mom saw the now-classic film more than 20 times.
Aside from her burgeoning teenage crush on Leonardo DiCaprio, Mitchell couldn’t understand what compelled them to pay for tickets twice in one day when they could barely afford groceries.
“Mom was a grown woman, after all, and a world-weary one at that,” Mitchell writes in her memoir, “It Was Me All Along.” “She wasn’t the kind to fawn over a movie so severely.… I couldn’t, she couldn’t, articulate what brought us back to see it, time after time.”
A decade later, they put their “Titanic” mania in perspective. The year the movie was released, Mitchell’s father, an alcoholic with clinical depression, was found dead at an Arizona train station, 2,000 miles from his Massachusetts home.
“I think it was the only time I felt like I could sit in the dark and cry,” Mitchell’s mother said of those hours spent in the theaters. “For three hours, anyway.”
At 350 pounds, Mitchell’s dad also had been somewhat Titanic himself. While her mom worked four jobs to keep the family afloat, the father and his little daughter sprawled in bed, eating snack cakes and watching television.
Mitchell’s mother, an avid cook, also plied her daughter with treats, handing her a cupcake or a fudge pop before rushing off to work. Mitchell learned to associate food with comfort. She ate when her father got drunk and became violent. She ate when kids teased her at school. She ate when she felt hungry and especially when she did not, always with passion and reckless abandon.
Mitchell describes food lovingly, at times with desire. Alone in her apartment, she baked “double fudge brownies as fat and dense as bricks, coconut white-chocolate blondies, cashmere custards so thick they’d remain stuck to a spoon held upside down, spicy molasses cookies, and all things that conjured lust.”
When she stepped on a scale shortly after her 20th birthday, she weighed 268 pounds.She vowed to lose weight, running endless miles, joining Weight Watchers and counting calories. But then her eating habits veered to the opposite end of the spectrum.
She weighed 133 pounds. Physically, she felt better than ever, but her relationship with her boyfriend suffered. Eating out at a restaurant became daunting.
“The moment we were seated, I felt a cold sweat break out all over me, like hives,” she writes. “The menu. The options. The decisions. The hidden calories. What I wanted. What I should want. How much oil? Is that a fancy way of saying fried? I was lost.”
Like anyone who has overcome addiction, Mitchell gradually accepted that her relationship with food was a symptom.
“Amid the chaos of my childhood and the insecurity of my adulthood, I could control food,” she writes. “When I felt nervous, food was reassuring. When I was anxious, food was soothing. When I was sad, food lifted me up. For every single emotion, I could turn to food. What I hadn’t realized until that point was that losing the weight meant turning away from food. It meant betraying my best friend.”
Now she often take 10 minutes to savor a single doughnut, which she used to devour by the dozen.
She never loses her gentle, self-effacing sense of humor, and she doesn’t swerve into self-help territory. Her descriptions of diet and exercise do not read as prescriptive, perhaps because they are so often laced with fixation or dread.
We aren’t surprised when the friendly former prom queen gets a job on the set of “Shutter Island,” which filmed in Medfield, Mass., her hometown — nor does it seem a stretch when she meets DiCaprio, the movie’s star and her “favorite human.”
Mitchell might not have seen it coming, but fat or thin, we liked her all along.
Angela Lutz, an intern with the University of Missouri-Kansas City Master of Fine Arts creative writing program, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It Was Me All Along, by Andie Mitchell (229 pages; Clarkson Potter; $24)