- Filler Up!
Deb Filler has asked her father, a baker and Holocaust survivor, for his challah recipe all her life. He refuses to give it to her, saying, "why would you want to learn how to bake ten dozen loaves of bread?" He doesn't seem to hear her when she responds that she only wants to bake one loaf. The dimensions of his life experience are so much greater than hers, to the scale of ten dozen to one. With each bite, he returns to what food meant in the camps; with each bite, she obsesses about her weight. This is a family traumatized by food: its lack or its presence, the starving or replete body. The overweight, her father tells her, didn't make it in the camps. How can the daughter transform her father's devastating history as a survivor, and his working life as a baker, into a legacy?
By the time Deb bursts dancing onto the stage with a wad of dough in her hands, the audience has been observing the set for a while. It's a kitchen. Not one made of plaster and paint, but a real working kitchen with a refrigerator and an oven. Something real and complete, not just intimated, is going to happen here. Deb, playing 27 characters from her life, all of whom have something to say about her appearance, is going to bake a real challah. Her father's challah and her own. [End Page 169]
Deb introduces herself by telling us that she was literally born in a bakery. In this family, bread is the measure of all things. "Look Max! She's twelve pounds. That's twelve and a half loaves and one cinnamon bun!" exclaims her mother to her father. (Deb cradles the dough like it is a baby.) Bread is precious. It means life to her father and love to Deb. Bread is also Deb's downfall: the forbidden carb, the source of her shame.
Fat is how she is seen by the world. Fat is how she thinks of herself. Her first professional acting gig after she moves to New York from New Zealand is as a nameless "Pudgy Earthquake Victim" in a disaster film. Her weight breaks the stretcher she's carried on and everybody laughs. As an overweight female actor, her identification as "pudgy" supersedes her role as "earthquake victim."
While she's talking, she's also working that dough.
As she kneads it and punches it and lets it rise, she summons up the people behind the voices in her head, the relatives and neighbors and acquaintances she's been listening to all her life. She tells of the pivotal moment when she realizes that her mother, the "magician in the kitchen" who serves weekly feasts big enough to "feed an army, the Russian army," is bulimic, trying and failing to both eat and not eat. "Uncovering that secret," she tells us, "was kind of … like taking the lid off this giant cauldron filled with people telling me what to do with my body."
In calling forth these voices in her monologue, Deb performs the way in which the female body is constituted in the public sphere. This process was described by Judith Butler in Undoing Gender:
The body has an invariably public dimension; constituted as a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is mine and not mine. Given over from the start to the world of others, bearing their imprint, formed within the crucible of social life, the body is only later, and with some uncertainty, that to which I lay claim as my own.1
A "cauldron," a "crucible" … The stage too becomes a place in which things are stirred and transformed. Through the unfolding of her performance, Deb transcends weight as the singular definition of self. She reassigns the priorities over that body which is hers and not hers. This enables her to make something of her father's...