Billy traveled in time back to the veterans' hospital again. The blanket was over his head. It was quiet outside the blanket. "Is my mother gone?" said Billy.
Billy peeked out from under his blanket. His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor's chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn't stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing tri-focal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones. The glitter of the rhinestones was answered by the glitter of the diamond in her engagement ring. The diamond was insured for eighteen hundred dollars. Billy had found that diamond in Germany. It was booty of war.
Billy didn't want to marry ugly Valencia. She was one of the symptoms of his disease. He knew he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her, when he begged her to take the diamond ring and be his companion for life.
This passage bothers me. I love Vonnegut's writing, and I love Slaughterhouse. However, there is an inherent meanness in the paragraphs above. I'm not criticizing Billy's mental illness, or his antipathy to marrying Valencia. It's Vonnegut's description of Billy's fiancee that bothers me. She's "as big as a house because she couldn't stop eating."
That description of Valencia demonstrates a blind spot in society. It is not alright to mock a person because of race or gender or sexuality or age or mental illness or physical disability or religion. All of these things would elicit a shit storm of comments and criticisms. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Islamophobia. Ageism.
Yet, it's alright to describe someone as being "as big as a house." It's a line that Vonnegut uses to paint Valencia as stupid and ugly and repugnant. He uses it for a laugh. I can almost see him typing that line, picking up a cigarette, taking a drag, and then laughing until his smoker's cough kicks in.
Vonnegut was a sensitive man. He protested against the Vietnam War. He was a part of the Civil Rights movement. You name a "liberal" cause from the 1960s, and Vonnegut was on the right side of history. Yet, he uses obesity as a punchline. That disappoints me.
Of course, Vonnegut is a product of society. It's still okay to make fun of fat people to this day. As a health care worker, I have to undergo sensitivity training when it comes to people with weight issues. Make no mistake about it: obesity is not a choice. Obesity is a disease, just as much as alcoholism. It's not okay to make fun of people with diseases.
I am particularly sensitive to this issue at the moment. On Monday, my wife is undergoing weight loss surgery. She has been preparing for this moment for several years, off and on. She has struggled. She has failed. She has cried. So, when I read Vonnegut's description of Valencia, I think of my wife's constant battle, and it pisses me off.
I am not going to change anybody's mind about obesity with this blog post. If you laughed at the above passage, you will probably laugh at the person in the movie theater who can't fit into the "normal" seats. Because, sadly, it's still an acceptable form of bigotry.
But, remember this: nobody chooses to be fat.
Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for his wife's beauty and bravery.