What a disturbing insight into the world of 1980's bodybuilding, full of steroids, stuffing and starvation, and style over substance. My psychologist colleague loaned me this book by Sam Fussell, an Oxford-educated English major who decides he's done being terrified of New York City's crime-ridden streets. He wanders into the local YMCA and begins lifting weights, intrigued by the huge men pumping iron, shouting obscenities, acting like they own the world. Months later, Sam has become one of them. He gives up his life to pursue muscle perfection, moving to southern California and meeting a fascinating cast of beefheads (to the detriment of his relationships with family and friends). Sam sacrifices even more of himself to enter bodybuilding competitions. Eventually the addiction runs its course and he becomes disillusioned, making a quick exit from this weighty world.
The author's attempts to explain why he was drawn to this bodybuilding didn't completely resonate with me. Why was he so much more frightened of being mugged than others in NYC? The classic emotional pain that can begin almost any addiction is present--Sam talks about disliking himself, wanting to hide who he really is beneath an armor of muscles--but I didn't get a good sense of why he hated himself. After reading Real Boys : Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood and The Adonis Complex: The Secret Crisis of Male Body Obsession (both excellent books, by the way), I wonder if Sam faced bullying or some sort of abuse in his childhood.
This is a great quote about the joys of numbing out:The gym was the one place I had control. I didn't have to speak, I didn't have to listen. I just had to push or pull. It was so much simpler, so much more satisfying than life outside. I regulated everything, from the number of exercises I performed each workout to the amount of weight I used for each exercise, from the number of reps per set to the number of sets per body part. It beat the street. It beat my girlfriend. It beat my family. I didn't have to think. I didn't have to care. I didn't have to feel. I simply had to lift.
It felt like the story ended abruptly and I want to know more about what motivated him to escape the addiction. I'd like to know how the author is faring these days. I hope he's not suffering health problems from steroid abuse. I hope he's learned better coping skills for managing painful feelings. I hope he's developed some quality relationships in his life.
As you can see, I grew to care about Sam Fussell. His story is likable, interesting, and compelling.