Gordon Cruse was sweating in the shower. Developing sores that wore his flesh raw in the groin. Soaking sheets and pillows nightly with sweat. “And my snoring had become so loud, Patty couldn’t sleep unless she went to sleep an hour before I did. Mornings, if I sat down and watched the news, I fell asleep. I wheezed. Had trouble moving, breathing.
“I was terrified. I felt I was going to die. I looked into the mirror one morning, said to myself, ‘I can’t deal with this on my own.’
“I had no idea what I weighed. I thought 300 to 350 pounds–where human beings end and livestock begin. In January 1987, I stepped on scales for the first time in nine years. I weighed 431 pounds. I couldn’t believe it. I had to face up to the fact: I’m a sideshow.
“For me obesity happened,” says 31-year-old attorney Cruse. “It wasn’t something I intended to do. You don’t wake up one morning and say, ‘Gee, I think I’ll start getting fat today.'” And once he was fat, says Cruse, it never occurred to him he could lose weight. “I didn’t understand how I was putting on weight, so I didn’t understand how I could take weight off. I didn’t recognize that I used food as a reward. I’d eaten that way all my life. I didn’t know anything else.”
Daily exercise and a medically supervised, protein-sparing fast (520 calories per day) administered by a weight-loss clinic brought six-foot-tall Cruse to his present weight, 195 pounds–less than half what he weighed 14 months ago. For the past three months, Cruse has participated in a maintenance program, keeping a daily record of his weight, of calories eaten and exercise taken, and attending a weekly maintenance class.
Studying the menu in a family restaurant, Cruse says, “You want to talk before and after? Before, I would’ve ordered country-fried steak, gravy, fries, cole slaw, Coke–sugar straight up.”
He tells the waitress, “Please, no mayonnaise on the tuna-steak sandwich.”
After she’s turned back to the kitchen with his order, he admits that he could fall off the wagon, weigh 400 pounds again. He knows that some 95 percent of people who lose weight gain all the weight back in one to two years. Cruse says, his voice fierce, “You’re an alcoholic, you quit drinking, you can live without booze. Someone who has problems with food? You’ve still gotta eat.
“I can’t let life take me in and do what it wants.” Cruse makes a fist and gives the table several healthy thumps. His voice rises. “If you don’t face facts of what you eat and how much you exercise, you might as well kiss weight loss and maintenance good-bye.”
Unmaking his fist, Cruse laughs and admits, “I’m very militant. Get a hold of an issue and won’t let go. Like the moray eel. Once it bites, you have to cut its head off.”
“Before” photgraphs are spread out on the table. “This picture bugs me the most.” Cruse points to a bearded, bulging figure, looming over a backyard picnic table. “Those trousers were 60-portlies. The beard hid a triple chin.
“Back then, I would just long to be able to buy something off the rack. Something really nice, like this.” Cruse strokes the lapel of his dark blue Nino Cerutti double-breasted suit jacket.
His haircutter suggected that Cruse now looks like actor Jack Nicholson. In the face in the photograph, it is difficult to find the features in the face across the dinner table. “Dying and being reborn,” or “facing death and coming back to life”: that’s what Cruse says it’s like to go from 431 to 195 pounds.
A quartet of nicely dressed young women has been seated nearby. One is extremely overweight. “I used to sit in that spot,” says Cruse. “Be like that woman. She seems real happy. Her friends say, ‘She’s such a nice gal.’ A lot of people liked fat Gordon. He was always fun, never had anything negative to say. Had such a great sense of humor. You could joke about his size. He’d laugh–ha, ha, ha. That Gordon, so easygoing. Great guy!
“Inside, he was very unhappy. He felt small, belittled. Very belittled, by the whole world and by myself. I felt such anguish that I could not deal with my obesity.
“That young woman, perhaps she feels content this evening–her friends are around her, she’s going to eat a delicious dinner. But what she wants more than anything is to take that weight off, and she doesn’t know how.
“I want to tell people like her, ‘There’s a way out.’ But I know, from my own experience, no amount of talking will help until the person wants to deal with it.”
A typical American diet–high fat. That’s what Cruse grew up on. Sunday breakfast was fried potatoes, cream-style corn, sausage, bacon, fried eggs, biscuits, butter, jam. By the sixth grade, Cruse weighed 214 pounds. “‘Baby Huey,’ I was called. I was a fat toad, chosen last for every team.” His four younger brothers and sisters, children of a 25-year Navy man and his wife, never became obese.
In high school, Cruse lifted weights, shot put, threw the discus. “I felt good in those years. I was fairly beefy, but strong, not really fat. But I believed I was fat.”
During his first two years in college, as a political science major, Cruse kept at weight lifting. He still was not outlandishly overweight. But he had thought of himself as fat since grade school. “I’d never been thin. I had no concept of what it would mean to be thin, stay thin.
“Food remained the way I rewarded myself. My bag of Oreos? My gold star. If I did well at the gym, got my bench press to over 300 pounds, leg press to over 700, I’d say to the guys, ‘Let’s go out for a pizza!’
“Romance? Girls asked me for help with homework or told me about boyfriend problems. We would become emotionally close. But sex, romance? No.”
As a junior and senior, Cruse stopped going to the gym. He gave up on his appearance. “If people didn’t like me because I was fat, screw ’em.” He put on more pounds. “My last year in college, I broke my first chair.” His weight steered his life. “My dream was to be an astronaut. Part of my decision to become an attorney was made because I needed a profession in which I could use my mind. I was too fat to use my body!” By the time he entered law school, Cruse had become entirely sedentary–“Never got off my butt except to go to the law library.”
During his last year of law school, Cruse married Patty (now a special-education teacher) whom he’d known since they were in high school. Patty, five foot three, was never obese. “At most,” says Cruse, “she was 20 pounds overweight.
“She married me fat,” Cruse figured, “she really loves me.” But love didn’t make Cruse feel he’d turned from “fat toad” to Prince Charming. He still felt ugly. After marriage, he ate more, gained more. So much more that not long after he passed the bar, he broke his “first serious, well-built chair.
“I had to eat at least 5,000 calories daily just to maintain my weight. To put on pounds, even more. But then I didn’t know calorie counts of any food. And nutrition? I thought, ‘I go to McDonald’s, I get the four basic food groups–I get bread, I get meat, I get vegetables, I get dairy.’ To me, then, food had no consequences.”
For breakfast, Cruse built double-decker bologna sandwiches: “Bread, mayonnaise, bologna, bread, mayonnaise, bologna, bread.” With the sandwich, maybe he’d eat chips, drink Coke. At McDonald’s he might eat a second breakfast with a coworker: scrambled eggs with sausage patty, English muffin, hash browned potatoes, large Coke. Lunch could be a medium or large pizza shared by two people.
Early afternoon, there were Hostess Ding Dongs, fruit pies, milk. At Fuddruckers for dinner, he ordered the half-pound hamburger, “loaded it up with mayonnaise and cheese, had fries, a brownie on the way out.” Playing canasta on Friday night with friends, Cruse could pop down a package of shortbread cookies. At home, he sat in front of the TV. “Had my remote control, my chips, my Coke. That was life. I couldn’t do much else. I didn’t want to go out, deal with being in the public.
“Closet eating. From 1983 to ’85, I started that. I had begun to truly feel my obesity, to perceive myself as ‘fat,’ to recognize how others saw me. Some guys get gratification by going to strip joints. For me it became ‘I’ll stop at the bakery and get four eclairs.’ The two I took home were in a box. The other two, I’d sit in my car in the parking lot and eat. Drink my milk, play the radio, then wipe my mouth off, toss the bag in the Dumpster on the way in the house, carry in the box, hand it to Patty.”
By 1985, says Cruse, “I had developed this whole secret life of self-gratification.” He couldn’t discuss his clandestine eating with Patty. He was too ashamed, too riddled with self-loathing. He tried not to think about it and gained more.
As he grew past 300 pounds, his size made him increasingly aware that everything was designed for the thin. Cars. Seat belts. Turnstiles. Movie seats. Disneyland. Roller coasters. Airplane seats and bathrooms. “Forget chairs with arms,” he says. “You can’t fit into them.” At a private club, as someone’s guest, Cruse cracked his chair. “I heard it go ‘pop.'” He became, he says, “exquisitely attuned to sounds of crunching, cracking.” He broke sofas, a Ford Escort seat, toilet seats.
As an attorney Cruse had to be extremely good. “Couldn’t afford to be anything else. My clothes were impeccable–tailored, single-breasted suits in dark colors with pinstripes, properly fitting shirts, and polished wing tips. But when a new client sat down, I’d see shock in the eyes. I had to get in there, fast, and establish my ability, before there was a chance for any question about my appearance.”
Although Cruse became increasingly successful in his profession, he didn’t, he says, acknowledge his success. “Everything good you do,” he says, “is overshadowed by your obesity, by the obvious fact that you’re a guy who can’t control your eating. You can have every vice known to man–be a dope fiend, a functional alcoholic. Nobody need know. With obesity, everyone knows. You’re subject to everyone’s criticism on the weight issue. No matter how well you do anything, forget it.
“Your obesity is a moral issue, and you’re a moral weakling. You’re at the other end of everyone’s gun. It’s ‘fat people have no willpower, self-control, self-esteem, dignity.’
“And making fat jokes,” frowns Cruse, “is something everyone can do.” People referred to him as “the tubby lawyer,” “that fat guy,” or “the really big character.” A judge sent a clerk out into the courthouse hallway to “bring in the fat attorney.”
Until Cruse took steps to confront his obesity, he didn’t acknowledge the abuse. “I couldn’t take delivery of that much grief. Now, I recall how much I hurt. Then, it was, ‘Where’s my next cookie?'”
Dinner eaten, Cruse has pushed aside the plate. From his pocket notebook, he takes a sheet of paper and spreads it out on the table. “PCR–personal calorie record,” he explains. “Calories in, calories out.” He writes in figures on the sheet’s printed lines. “A 580-calorie sandwich there, two ounces of bread, four-ounce piece of fish.”
An average dally intake for him now includes a bowl of All-Bran, fish, rice, potatoes, or pasta, five cups of vegetables, six cups of fruit. Before his fast, Cruse rarely ate vegetables, certainly not broccoli or cauliflower–which he derided as “plant brains.”
“I am habituated,” he says, folding up the PCR, returning it to his notebook, “to records, keeping track of what I eat and what I do–my physical activity. This week, so far, I’ve walked 65 miles.”
Why didn’t Cruse deal with his obesity sooner? He did, he says, try several diets with Patty. She would lose the 10 or 15 pounds she wanted to. But Cruse had so much to lose, he would become discouraged, return to chips and cookies, comfort foods. Planning to exercise for weight loss, he bought a bicycle, rode it four times, bent its front wheel. The bicycle gathered dust.
He offers what he calls a “chickenshit but accurate” answer: “I didn’t deal with my obesity sooner because I felt it was OK for me to be obese because I didn’t want to deal with my obesity.”
A series of events brought Cruse to a point at which he felt he had to lose weight. In October of 1986, he walked into an elevator in his office building, and two women already in the elevator backed into the corner. They looked, says Cruse, “absolutely terrified.”
Another factor was not being able to buy a suit any larger than a 60-portly. “And even that didn’t fit comfortably. They had to let it out.”
Cruse went to his doctor and said, “I don’t know what to do.” Fortunately, his doctor found him in relatively good health. “What we have here,” the doctor said, “is a fat ‘physical’ person.”
“‘Surgery,’ I told him, ‘that’s out. I’m not going under the knife.’ He told me, ‘Surgery doesn’t work anyway.’ He sent me to the Institute for Health Maintenance’s Risk Factor Obesity Program in San Diego.”
In November 1986, when Cruse first met with the institute’s director of behavioral sciences, Jeffrey Penner, Cruse told Penner, “Except when it comes to food and weight, I determine my destiny. But food calls to me, tells me what to do.”
At the institute, a two-phase program of fasting and maintenance is offered for “morbidly obese” adults (those who weigh at least 20 percent more than the accepted range for their height and bone structure or whose weight puts them at medical risk). Cruse learned that the next fasting group would not begin until mid-January. “But I told myself, ‘I’ve waited this long, I can wait two months.'”
Penner recalled his initial meeting with Cruse. “Gordon,” said Penner, “was very large.” He remembered that Cruse wore a suit. “That was unusual for a man his size. People who weigh 400 pounds sometimes have stopped taking care of their appearance.” Penner recalled, too, Cruse’s “seriousness, his determination to deal with his obesity.”
The 145-pound, five-foot, eight-inch Penner has none of the abstemious mien typical of diet gurus. He grew up in Queens as a fat kid and admits that he obsesses about ice cream, but he also reminds his listener that he practices what he preaches: he keeps food records, eats a low-fat diet (a maximum of 30 percent of daily calories derived from fat), and exercises daily. Penner, who received his PhD in clinical psychology in 1980, suspects that his own experience of being an overweight child made the institute’s work particularly appealing to him.
Why does he think so many Americans are morbidly obese? “For the same reason that there’s an epidemic of cancer and heart disease: our diets are high in fat and our lives are deficient in exercise. End of story.”
Agreeing that the fast is a superb “tool” for weight loss, Penner added that, unfortunately, “there’s nothing to be learned from the fast. It teaches you nothing.” The fast can, he said, even lead people to a dangerous “subjective experience of having acquired willpower.”
“I’ve said to Gordon, ‘It does not impress me that you’ve lost 230 pounds. It’s great. But it doesn’t impress me, and it shouldn’t impress you, either. What will impress me is that if one year from now, two years, five years, you weigh 200 pounds.'”
Bottom line, said Penner, “we help people change eating habits. A friend said to me not long ago, ‘How can you talk about eating vegetables as if it’s doing brain surgery, as if it’s this skill that has to be learned?’
“It is a skill. If you’re a nonswimmer, you’ve seen other people swim. It looks simple. It can be described. But being able to describe a habit is different than knowing how to execute that habit, and for people who have become extremely obese, making low-fat food choices, such as eating vegetables, on a regular basis is a sophisticated habit that has to be learned.”
To learn that habit, said Penner, takes time. “Someone like Gordon has spent 30 years making incorrect food choices. You can’t expect him to alter them–bang–in ten weeks. . . . In order to be successful in managing your weight, you need to go against the grain of this society.”
Was there a down side, I wondered, to such monumental weight losses as Cruse’s?
No one, answered Penner, ever said to him that he or she was unhappy to have lost weight. But those who have been extremely obese, he said, may find themselves, once they are slender, “angry, very angry. Why? Because everyone suddenly treats them better. From the point of view of the person who has lost weight, and in reality, nothing about that person has changed. It’s other people’s perceptions of him or her that have changed. That’s very difficult for some people to deal with.”
At the Cruses’ condominium, Scooter the dachshund has just returned from a five-mile walk with her owners. Patty, a small, blue-eyed blond, breaks out a cold Diet Dr. Pepper and curls up on the couch.
From the closet, Gordon has taken out his only remaining pair of “before” trousers, 60-portlies. He shakes them a bit and says, “Waddle, waddle, huh?”
He sits in the recliner. “I couldn’t do this ten months ago,” he says, crossing his legs. “And I filled this chair! I had stomach out to my knees when I sat down.”
“Forget me sitting on his lap to cuddle or something, no way,” says Patty. “Before, we didn’t talk about Gordon’s weight. It was never an issue. It was just the way we lived our life.”
When Patty began a new job, fellow employees would ask her about her husband. She’d say, “He’s not a Don Johnson, not good-looking, but I’m so lucky to be married to such a good person who treats me so well.”
Cruse says, “I always felt self-conscious when we went to a party and I met her coworkers. I would imagine people thinking, ‘That pretty woman, she’s really married a horse.'”
“Children would make fun of him. They’d turn to their mother and say, ‘Mommy, look at that fat man.'”
“If I were alone, I would walk down another aisle. If I were with Patty, I’d just shrug. I didn’t want her to know the remarks bothered me.”
Patty didn’t realize how much weight Gordon was gaining. “It’s like driving down the same road every morning to work. You don’t notice the changes.
She didn’t raise an eyebrow when she saw wrappers for fruit pies, Ding Dongs, Burger King in his car. “We were both junk-food alcoholics. I had food wrappers in my car.” She worried, though, about his weight. “I’d think, ‘If we quit eating those greasy hamburgers, quit eating on the run, he’d lose weight.’ Maybe in the back of my mind I thought, ‘Perhaps he has a metabolic disorder, an endocrine imbalance.'”
One evening in November, Gordon came home. “He said, ‘I went to the doctor today. I’ve made up my mind to do something about my weight.'”
Between Christmas and January 14, when Gordon was scheduled to start the fast, says Patty, was “binge city.” She worried. “But I thought, ‘Well, this is just the last hurrah, something he needs to get out of his system because he won’t have it for a while.’ So I looked the other way.”
She was skeptical about him remaining on the fast. “I wanted him to be successful. But I felt, ‘He’ll be on it a couple of months, then quit.'”
“January 14, 1987, last thing I had to eat was a hamburger at a Wendy’s. Then I went to class. That first night, I was thinking, ‘I’m finally doing something about it.’ And I was scared I’d fall–last six or eight weeks, not finish the program.
“Week one passed. I lost 19 pounds. I wasn’t ever hungry. I liked the fast. I didn’t have decisions to make about food. But I knew, ‘If I take the first bite of food, my ass is bought and paid for. I’ll never get back on the fast.’ People who dropped off then came back to class, they had the real balls. I would never have had the courage.”
Eating in front of Gordon made Patty feel awful. And she missed, at first, the dinner “ritual.” But watching other people eat didn’t trouble Cruse. He drove Patty to Taco Bell, to Wendy’s. “Or, he’d call me at home and ask, ‘Shall I bring you something home for dinner?’ Sometimes he’d cook dinner for me. On my birthday, he invited all our friends to a restaurant. He drank Tab, we ate.”
“The fast is like this invisible shield,” Cruse says. “You don’t have more control, but you sure seem to! There’s not that sense of major catastrophe looming about what you will eat.”
At the end of the first month, Cruse had lost 50 pounds. After that, he dropped between five and seven pounds a week. He kept cutting new holes in his belt.
“Six weeks into fasting, I stopped snoring.”
“I woke him up and said, ‘Are you alive?'”
“I sat up and asked, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Gordon, you aren’t snoring!'”
One night, lying in bed before he went to sleep, Cruse realized, “‘I can feel my ribs, my collarbone!’ I didn’t know I had a collarbone. It’s kind of sad in a way.”
As the fast progressed, Cruse began to seem, to Patty, almost overconfident. “I was afraid he’d crash and burn. ‘If that happens,’ I asked myself, ‘what will I have on my hands?'”
Their life together was changing. “Instead of coming home, eating dinner, turning on the television, he went out and walked. But it wasn’t nerves,” said Patty. “He simply had more energy.”
After the weight loss went past 100 pounds, people Cruse had known for years did not recognize him. He ran into his law-school roommate. Says Cruse, “He thought I was my younger brother.” Cruse would meet old clients in the waiting room. They’d say, “We’re waiting for Gordon Cruse.”
“And then Gordon began to say, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore,'” says Patty. “I’d agree with him, and I did! I’d say, ‘I don’t know who you are anymore, either. You’re so impatient. You have no tolerance, no compassion anymore.'”
One morning, Cruse looked in the mirror. He didn’t recognize himself anymore. He went into counseling.
“It all began to come out then,” says Patty. “All that had been hidden. Gordon said, ‘I always thought I would be repulsive to you.’ And I said to him, and it was true: ‘You were never that way to me.'”
Says Cruse, “I was so good at repressing how I felt. I didn’t even know back then that I had those feelings. I couldn’t afford to know.”
“But here was someone I loved so much,” says Patty, “someone I would support to the end of time. It was almost unbelievable to me he felt this way. We’d always been close, close friends. I was shocked that something that important I had no idea of. I cried and cried and cried that night. And we spent several more nights, talking until late hours. Lots of tears, and lots of Kleenex.”
As Cruse’s weight dropped, he tossed out the 60-portlies, traded in the Ford Escort, and Patty began to wonder, “Will he still want me?”
“She felt I didn’t need her anymore. ‘But I want to be with you,’ I’d say.”
In counseling, Cruse expressed dissatisfaction with the balance of power in his marriage. While obese, he felt Patty controlled their relationship.
“I never perceived myself as in control,” says Patty, “or that he did what I wanted all the time. I saw it as 50-50. But Gordon said that he felt he was so heavy, so fat, he’d lose me, that I would leave if he didn’t do what I wanted. That wasn’t what I saw.”
She admits, though, that Gordon is, nowadays, more assertive, that she has made adjustments to that assertiveness.
At the end of October 1987, ten months after his last Wendy’s burger, Cruse finished the fast. The weight-loss period has been an “emotional time for both of us,” says Patty. “Also expensive.” They figure some $4,000 for the program, $10,000 on clothing. “Underwear, shoes, boots, belts, suits, everything,” says Patty.
“Also dental work,” adds Cruse, explaining, “There was so much fat in the gum tissue that I lost gum. Even my crowns had to be redone.”
The psychologist whom Cruse consulted warned him that if he were to maintain this new weight, he would need a new reward system. “‘Food,’ he told me, ‘isn’t going to make it.’ The green lights were on, then. I’d always wanted a Porsche. Now, I have one. Now I can fit into one.”
“New wedding rings,” says Patty, wriggling her fingers, letting diamonds scintillate under lamplight, “for the trial by fire–the fast.”
As Gordon’s weight dropped, so did Patty’s, from size-16 slacks to size-10. She began to walk with him, four or five miles a day. She gave up junk-food meals, red meat, butter.
“Now,” says Cruse, “all I have to do is maintain, the roughest part.”
To which Patty replies: “If I can help it, I won’t let him regain the weight. To me, now Gordon matches what he always was inside. I always knew there was somebody beautiful inside. Now the person you see matches the person I always saw.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Craig Carlson.