On Christmas Eve in 2014, journalist Tommy Tomlinson got a harrowing text: She’s gone.
It was about his sister, Brenda Williams. The official cause of death was infection: she dealt with swelling that led to sores on her legs, one of which got infected with MRSA. But her weight—she weighed well over 200 pounds—caused the swelling.
Her weight was what killed her.
It was that realization and devastation that caused Tomlinson, then 50 years old and weighing in at 460 pounds himself—to confront his own odds and a lifestyle that made a grease-drenched trip through the drive-through feel like coming home. Tomlinson’s new book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, which will be released by Simon & Schuster on Jan. 15, chronicles the yearlong journey that followed.
For those who’ve followed Tomlinson from his days as columnist at The Charlotte Observer, where he was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in commentary, to his current role at WFAE, where he hosts a podcast called SouthBound, the memoir is
full of the stellar storytelling you’re accustomed to. But this time, he turns the lens on himself: an overweight man in a nation that offers super-size options on one hand and countless weight-loss products in the other, a country that perpetuates the problem while also offering disdain for those who succumb.
But Tomlinson doesn’t blame the system, whether it’s the deep-fried Southern cooking he grew up with or the easy accessibility of Wendy’s. And his journey is one that is universally relatable, whether you’ve struggled with weight, addiction, or even just the shame of knowing your bad decisions have far-reaching consequences for your loved ones.
SouthPark sat down with Tomlinson, now 54, to discuss his background, his weight-loss journey, and the process of capturing it all in a book. Lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me about the food you grew up with.
I would describe it as the best possible version of Cracker Barrel—homemade and way, way better. Lots of fried stuff, country-style vegetables, cornbread, biscuits, and lots of good desserts: pecan pies, banana puddin.’ And you wash it all down with
sweet tea. It was a fairly common Southern table.
You talk in the book about how that lifestyle developed.
My mom and dad grew up on farms, and they would work from dawn to dusk every day. So, they could eat as much as they wanted and they’d burn it off because they were working like dogs. Well, when I came along, through their hard work, I was able to grow up in a life where I didn’t have to do those sorts of things. But we still cooked like that and still ate like that.
You also have had a lifelong affair with a redhead named Wendy.
Fast food is so ubiquitous and easy to get. Growing up, a trip to Burger King was a night out for us. Once I got my own car, I could go through the drive-through any time. It became a serious habit. Wendy’s especially.
You frame the story, month by month, over a year. Why did you structure it like that?
My sister died Christmas Eve. So I was already planning to do the book but didn’t know how I was going to do it. And I was really feeling the pain of all the stuff with her and it just made sense to frame it that way. And the calendar is an easy way to
keep track of things.
As a journalist, you’re used to writing about other people. Was it hard to look inward?
Oh yeah. The other day, I trying to figure out what my routine was when I was doing the book. Alix said I would get up in the morning, have breakfast, and say, “I need to go write.” I’d write for a few hours, and then I’d come out, I’d have lunch, and then
I’d take a nap. I’d sleep for two or three hours because I was just emotionally exhausted. I don’t remember that—it’s all sort of faded into a blur—but apparently, that was the routine: go get wrung out, then sleep a couple of hours.
At what point did you bring Alix into the writing process?
Pretty early on. One of the books that was a role model for me was a book by David Carr called The Night of the Gun. David Carr was a really bad drug addict. When he went to write his memoir, he went back to all these people and said, “Tell me what
this was like because I only vaguely remember. Tell me so I can hear from your perspective.” That’s what I did for this. There were two crucial people I needed to talk to: Alix and my mom. So I did the David Carr way. My mom and I sat at her dining room table, and with Alix, we sat down at our dining room table. I turned the recorder on—which is obviously awkward with someone you talk to all the time—and just tried to have a conversation.
On the topic of Alix, some of the book is extremely personal about your relationship. What type of conversations did you have beforehand?
We had quite a bit of conversations ahead of time. I said, “To write it, this is what I’m going to have to talk about.” She’s more naturally private than I am, so I think some of the stuff in the book is going to be more difficult for her to hear other people
talking about than it will be for me. Everything in there I ran by her. But to her credit, as a person and a journalist [Alix used to work at the Charlotte Observer], she felt like they were true and accurate and they belonged in the story.
I know your mom passed away in the last year. Did she get to read a copy of the book?
She saw an earlier version. It was close to being done. She said there were two issues: there was too much cussing. And—she was a teetotaler—that if she knew how much I drank in college, she wouldn’t have sent me so much money.
There’s a pretty heartbreaking moment in the book, on the last day of your junior year of high school. The football coach thinks you’re a senior, and you don’t correct him.
It was the last day of my junior year of high school. I see the football coach and he says “Congrats on graduating. It’s too bad. I could have made you into a football player.” In that moment, I thought “It’s too late for me.” I often wonder how life would have been different if I’d made a different choice. We make those same choices every day. Every day all of us make decisions that determine whether our life gets better or worse.
In the book you talk about “the man who walks inside you.” Who is that man?
It’s basically the new, improved version of me—or who I hope is the new and improved version of me. One of the things I think about is that, despite all these struggles, I’ve had a pretty good life and I’m pretty well liked. So, if I transform myself physically, is that going to transform me so mentally or emotionally that I become a less likable person? When I get down to where I want to be, and feel like I’ve shed all this weight, will I be essentially the same person, just smaller? Or will I be a whole different person? And if so, who is that?
Do you feel like a different person?
I don’t feel that way yet. But I’ve tried really hard not to be the person who talks about it all the time, like, “Look what I’ve done on my Fitbit today.” I don’t want to be like that former alcoholic who can’t talk about nothing but AA. One thing that I really think about a lot now is what my close friends are going to think. They know most of what’s in there but not all of it. And I wonder if, having read the book, they’re going to think less of me. That I might not be as appealing a person to some of them now that they can see all the flaws. There will be an information imbalance—they’ll probably know a lot more about me than I know about them.
Your book is so raw, like the best memoirs are. How did you do it?
From the beginning, I thought, If I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to go ahead and do it. I can’t half-ass it. I’ve read memories and stories where I felt like the people held back. It makes me think, “Why would you do this if you weren’t going to
tell the story?” So once I decided to do it, I said I’m going to go all the way.
Was there a point in your yearlong weight-loss journey, where you thought, ‘I’m doing this. I’ve got momentum”?
That summer, in July, we went to Greenville, South Carolina for our anniversary. That whole weekend we walked more than usual. It was super hot. And at the end of the day, I was soaked in sweat and achy, but I wasn’t totally wiped out like I normally would be. And that’s when I thought, “maybe this is starting to kick in for me.”
I love the part of the book—and I won’t give it away here—where you get to the core of what makes habit change for you so hard. It’s so relatable.
Even if someone doesn’t have a problem with their weight or know anybody who does, I hope they find something there because it does get down to the core issues of maturity and sacrifice. Those are the things everybody has to deal with. Everybody has something—even when they think they don’t, they probably do. I’m hoping it finds an audience beyond just the niche of people who have issues with their weight.
How long has it been since you’ve had fast food?
On December 3, it was 1,000 days.
This book is not a how-to for weight loss. But, for other people who are struggling with weight, with addictions, what’s your message for them?
This book is about is me trying to figure myself out in a way that I’d sort of avoided before. I’d never really spent a lot of in-depth time trying to think about why I do the things I do and how those things became habits. I went into it not knowing myself
very well, to be honest, and not wanting to look too deeply. And in the process of looking deeply, I figured out why I do some of the things I do, and that became key to figuring our how to stop doing those things.
How do you feel different today?
I feel it in my body. The way my clothes fit. The way I feel walking down the street. The number (on the scale) is a good measure of it and a good validation of it, but I can just tell just in the way I move around in the world.
What has changed for you since you started this journey?
I was just talking to Alix about this, and she said I’m more light-hearted. Things don’t weigh on me as much. I’m a little more resilient, more able to roll with the punches. I think that’s because I don’t have this burden on my head every day of “Am I ever going to be able to tackle this in a reasonable way?” Even though I haven’t gotten to where I want to go, I now know I can do it. And just knowing that has lifted such a burden off of me.
Photos by Richard Israel