The Falcon | Volume 83, Issue 53
“When I was 15, I was punked out,” Suzanne Wolfe said. “ I still am.” Wolfe speaks for Last Lecture, an annual event at which professors give a lecture as if it were their last.
Photo credit: JOSH FLYNN/The Falcon.
Professor says struggle was a search for joy
By ASHLEY BOUCHER ,
Published: May 9 2012
Food is representative of a lot more than a full stomach or satisfied taste buds for English professor Suzanne Wolfe, who discussed at the annual Last Lecture keynote speech on Thursday the relationship between food, love and her battle with anorexia.
Wolfe discussed the deep influence her grandfather has had over her life, giving her everything from her sense of humor to her theological framework, and how his death inspired a reckless case of anorexia.
The Last Lecture series gives Seattle Pacific faculty members the opportunity to speak as if it were their last chance. Members of Ivy Honorary, SPU’s chapter of Mortar Board, voted for Wolfe to be this year’s speaker.
The series was inspired by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who delivered the first Last Lecture speech before he died of pancreatic cancer in 2008.
Wolfe began by joking about the somewhat morbid theme of the series.
“I think I’m in good health,” she said, “but the world is ending in December.”
In addition to teaching fiction and literature classes, Wolfe is executive editor of Image journal, which she founded with her husband upon arrival at SPU in 2008.
Her mastery of craft was revealed when she read “This is My Body,” an essay she originally wrote for an anthology about food. When asked to write the essay, Wolfe said she was taken aback, as she has battled with anorexia for most of her life.
“I was not a holy anorexic,” she said, “just a child looking for love.”
Raised mostly by her grandparents, Wolfe said her grandfather was her only true example of love, and without him, she thinks she would be “a very angry woman.”
Before her grandfather’s death, meals were happy affairs. In fact, it was at the dinner table where Wolfe’s humor was born.
“Gramps, why are your string beans all string and no bean?” she would ask.
While her grandmother was not amused by her first joke, her grandfather loved it.
But gay meals at the family table did not last forever for Wolfe. Change followed her grandfather’s death: she and her brother moved in with their single mother, and her grandmother cleared away all that evoked memory of Wolfe’s grandfather.
Because her mother worked long hours, Wolfe became head of the household and soon followed her brother’s example of getting into mischief.
“Meals were no longer a joy,” she said. “Food had become a thing, a deadweight in my stomach.”
Because she was out of the country when her grandfather died, Wolfe lamented the fact that she never got to say goodbye. She watched his usually lively garden turn to decay and felt her excitement about life — and food — die with it.
“Eating became a sin, and starvation, a virtue,” Wolfe said, explaining her eating disorder as her form of Nietzschean holiness, turning to drugs and sex as well.
“I was abandoning God as he abandoned me,” she read from her essay.
She questioned why God would ever take away her one true source of love.
When Wolfe became a mother, eating became a sign of love again.
“My children were Adams and Eves discovering creation,” she said of her children learning to eat more solid food.
Wolfe has two daughters and two sons; the latter were in the audience.
Wolfe said it took her many years before she could write about her grandfather She returned to her joking mannerisms after reading her essay.
“You kind of do mature, like a good cheese,” she said.
She said her inspiration for the essay’s title, “This is My Body,” comes from Catholic mass and that she utilized the metaphor of the Eucharist.
At the end of the lecture, students in the audience asked questions.
One student asked about the epiphanies Wolfe has had in her life. She said that having an epiphany is like God ringing your doorbell, and we have to make sure we answer the door.
“He isn’t trying to sell you anything; he’s trying to give you something,” she said.
Wolfe said the gift God is trying to give us is that of deep, true happiness in the form of being loved, and he would have us identify this deep happiness in our own lives.
“The place God calls you to is the place your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meets,” she said, quoting Frederick Buechner, a writer and theologian.
“What’s the food we give to others?” she asked. “Love.”
Wolfe said that teaching brings her true happiness, saying that her first teaching experience was “like cocaine.”
Wolfe’s son Charles Wolfe said teaching seems natural for his mom and that he thought it was wonderful she was chosen for the last lecture.
Suzanne Wolfe ended the lecture by playing “All My Favorite People,” a song by the group Over the Rhine.
“I hope I have fed you some few crumbs,” she said with a smile and then broke into song, inviting the audience to do the same.
“All my favorite people are broken,” she sang to the cool croon of Karin Bergquist. “Believe me, my heart should know.”
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