Our Hen House is one of our favorite resources for activists and vegans. Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan are multimedia queens, with a weekly podcast (more than 320 weeks without a break), plus single-issue podcasts on vegan cooking and animal law, news and feature articles in online magazine format – the exact right amount of content to fill the change-making toolbox and nurture our mental health as activists.
Jasmin is also the author of the new book Always Too Much and Never Enough, about her “journey to find herself through juicing, veganism, and love, as she went from fat to thin and from feeding her emotions to feeding her soul.”
Spoiler alert: Jasmin goes vegan. But, as an ethical vegan, this awakening doesn’t in and of itself lead to massive weight loss. Stay tuned for what comes after that.
It’s fascinating, and at times a wee bit uncomfortable, to read a friend’s memoir as she goes from childhood to teens to college and beyond. It’s like having an intense conversation with that friend, but learning more about that friend than they’d likely share over lunch at Veggie Grill. It’s a process of learning “Too Much” about that friend. But also “Never Enough.”
We recommend the book to anyone who has struggled with weight, health, self-esteem, or a relationship with food that is best described as ‘it’s complicated.’ We also recommend gifting it to any non-vegan with a similar personal story.
We asked Jasmin about the book and about her work.
I am so lucky in that my brilliant editor, Allison Janice, over at Penguin Random House’s Berkley, is an ethical vegan. One conversation with her and I knew I wanted to work with her. So I was in very safe hands with my book. And my agent, Steve Troha over at Folio Literary Management, is extremely vegan-friendly, and really gets it regarding the importance of authenticity in my message and in my voice. I realize, even in seeing these words, how unusual a situation that is for an author.
Steve gave me great advice early on, back when I was writing the book proposal. He said that any time I felt myself teetering on proselytizing, I should take a step off of my soapbox and tell a story instead, from my perspective. One place in my book where I really took that to heart was the scene where I was watching a documentary that ultimately resulted in me going vegan. Rather than explain factory farming in a “teach-in” kind of way, I talked about how it felt – in my body, in my nerves, in my heart – and what memories it touched on inside of me, when I learned about the ways farmed animals are exploited for their meat, milk, and eggs.
As a result, I think that scene is a lot more accessible to non-vegans who may read my book, than if I were just telling them what I think they need to know, and what I think they need to do about it. At the same time, I feel I am being fair to the animals I’m talking about, since I am telling their story about the horrific ways they are being treated behind closed doors.
I rarely went to the doctor, and I was very young then – I went vegetarian in college and vegan at 24. When I was a vegetarian, and not yet vegan, all I ate was mac and cheese, cheese omelets, and cheese pizza, so I’d imagine my health was pretty poor, and it is true that my cholesterol was something I had struggled with since childhood. I certainly felt like shit all the time, and had no energy, despite how young I was. I also had a pretty intense depression that had lasted for many years.
My highest weight was after I was already vegan. I had gained a lot of weight when I went vegan, thanks to consuming a diet full of nothing but processed junk food, and never eating a vegetable. When I was 30, and had already been vegan for a number of years, I had very high triglycerides, and my doctor told me I was on my way to heart disease. At the time, I weighed in the 220s (I’m 5’4”), and was constantly achy and tired. I also had a lot of skin problems, including adult-onset acne, and painful boils on my legs. I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without being incredibly winded. It was a scary moment in my life, and it shocked me, especially because I was so young, and a passionate, knowledgeable vegan. (I even had a master’s degree in Health & Healing, and was a certified holistic health counselor.)
Looking back on it, it’s so obvious: As I said, I never ate a vegetable. It’s not as though I ate vegan junk food every now and then; I ate it all the time. So, the roundabout answer to your question is that my poorest health was, ironically, during my veganism. (And that’s thoroughly avoidable, as is evident now, since I’m incredibly healthy, feel terrific, and have none of the aforementioned health concerns or issues.)
I’m still a passionate juicer, and I do juice fasts from time to time in order to “reboot,” but green smoothies are a part of my everyday life. For three years, I juiced every month for many days at a time – ten days one month, three the following, then ten, then three, and on and on. I don’t juice as much nowadays, but I begin every morning with a hearty green smoothie. And yes, I buy juices when I’m able to.
For me, juicing and drinking smoothies have much different purposes. I juice fast as a way to get rid of toxic behaviors I have started to collect, and to just press pause on pieces of my life that sometimes lead to addictive behaviors. But I drink smoothies because I love them, and because it’s a really easy and quick way of getting lots of fruits and veggies into my body. As long as I start off my day with a smoothie, I feel like I’m setting a positive, healthful foundation for the day, both physically and emotionally.
As to your question about people who want to begin to nourish themselves, I would advise looking at it holistically – not only in terms of what you’re eating, but, in general, what you’re consuming, and why. That includes people, work, play, or lack thereof. My journey toward uncovering personal authenticity started when I began to untangle the ways I was being betrayed by Big Ag, but the real work began when I started to really pay attention to the ways I was betraying myself.
The reason I bring this up is because I think it’s a multipronged process. Sure, I could advise someone who is seeking nourishment to start to replace certain meals with smoothies, but if the rest of their life is full of toxic people or an imbalanced workload, then a smoothie will only go so far. Self-care is something that I try really hard to notice on a consistent basis, and it’s especially important for animal advocates to pay attention to. Nourishment, at least for me, means being conscious about what and how I’m eating, as well as who I’m surrounding myself with, if I’m getting outside enough, moving my body, and whether I’m having any fun. For me, juice fasting triggers me to take tabs on all of the above, which is why it works so well for me.
Which came first? The rescued chicken or the vegan egg?
For me, the only time I was able to successfully find health, both physically and emotionally, was when I found peace within my body. And that came as a result of self-care. But I was, of course, further motivated by how good I was feeling, and how much more “in my body” I began to feel as I started to be able to move freely. For me, one couldn’t exist without the other, but self-care was the impetus.
First of all, we use “indefatigable positivity” as a strategy, even when we aren’t necessarily feeling positive. There’s a lot to be sad and angry about, and we are – we’re sad and angry. And that’s when we consciously latch on to hope, if we’re able to. We celebrate the small victories, while also allowing one another a safe space to vent, or weep, if that’s where we are. But we always bring it back to positivity. For our activism, that’s key for longevity.
But we also have hobbies – both individually and together – as I imagine the two of you have. I love tap-dancing, for example, and when I’m in class, I find it impossible to think about anything other than what my feet are doing. Tapping really gets me out of my head and my workspace, things that otherwise follow me everywhere. I also go running, which is vital to my mental health, and allows me space to be with myself that I wouldn’t otherwise know how to access. Together, Mariann and I go to the theater as often as we can manage, which is a pastime that we love and we share.
Doing something unrelated to animal rights is really important for us, since we basically eat, sleep, and breathe animal rights. Something tells me you can relate.
It’s been really gratifying to have so many people from all walks tell me how much the concept of being “always too much and never enough” resonates with them. There’s this one excerpt I have been reading at a lot of my book talks that mentions how, when I first got a car, I would sit in the hidden part of the parking lot behind Burger King and eat my multiple cheeseburgers at record speed, while blasting Patti LuPone cassette tapes. It was the only place where I felt fully genuine and free – though of course, that was an illusion.
Many people tell me how much that particular scene speaks to them – hiding our most shameful parts in spots where we think no one will look, except the thing is, we still look at ourselves. So many people have told me that I was telling their story, which really blows my mind, especially since I have long felt I was alone in my angst, my longing, my use of substances and their substitutes (mainly food, sometimes toxic relationships) to hide my truths.
I felt the food I ate was always too much – I couldn’t stop grasping for more, more, more – yet it was never enough. And I felt I, myself, was too much – taking up too much space in the room, both physically and energetically – yet I was never enough, never living up to what society expected of me, or what I felt my mother expected of me. Many, many people can, it seems, relate to that idea, of constantly longing for something that’s just out of their reach, only to (I hope) discover that it was inside of them all along. My book is for anyone who has questioned assumptions, about the world and about themselves. I hope that process allows the reader to ultimately embolden themselves to become more real and balanced.
I really like what the memoirist Dani Shapiro said about this topic: “It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons. Writing memoir has the opposite effect. It embeds your story deep inside you. It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.”
There were aspects of writing my memoir – which, as you said, includes showing some very hairy warts – that were difficult, and some aspects that were surprisingly simple. I wrote about very intense stuff, like being date raped, and as I was writing it, I sometimes felt entirely unflappable. But then, hours later, I would be flushed and crying, and not put together why, until I realized that, “oh yeah, I just wrote about this incredibly sad thing from my life….” But I don’t think it’s cathartic, exactly, because – and, not to pretend to sound altruistic here – but I’m trying to use my story as a lens for readers to view themselves, somehow. I’m trying to paper-mâché together some kind of pandemonium and turn it into a sentimental tchotchke that will make others stop and stare, then maybe start sculpting something themselves. So even though it’s a memoir, it’s not entirely about me.
The sometimes tricky or vulnerable parts of this process are happening right now, and they revolve around my book now being out there and being read, which is something that is constantly throwing me for a loop. But I feel extremely lucky, and I’m passionate about the power that personal narrative has to create change, and I try to always keep that thought front and center. But still, yeah, it’s really weird sometimes to think about how accessible I just made my demons, in case anyone wants to visit them. It’s also odd to me to realize that this memoir will always exist, memorializing what, in the grand scheme, is just a moment in time. In some ways, I have started to look at this part of my life as a sequel to my memoir. I keep wondering what’s next, and how or if my book being out there will impact my personal trajectory.
It’s wild. It’s bananas. It’s wild bananas. I have been lucky enough to have contributed chapters to a few anthologies that have the same style as my book, but having an entire memoir – 340 pages of my story – is, yes, definitely surreal. It’s funny though, because when I was an overly dramatic kid, I think I was fairly certain that there would be a day when my story would be widely known. I’m sure it was based in some kind of dream of stardom, but even just that glimmer of hope that “one day people would know…” really got me through some rough times. I was horrifically bullied as a kid, and as a young adult, and even in my darkest moments, I somehow knew that I’d tell my story one day. So, yes, it’s wild, but it also makes complete sense to me because, in a way, I knew it would happen all along.
As for where I go from here, that’s an excellent question, and I welcome ideas! I will tell you what I won’t do: I won’t write a cookbook (and you’re welcome for that). I won’t write a “how to go vegan” book, because, excitingly, that already exists (through and through). I see two options: I will either go the route of fiction (which is much harder to sell than personal narrative), and of course I would still bring in veganism and animal rights as much as humanly possible (but in a way that I would hope had mainstream appeal), or – more likely – I will write another memoir. The second memoir would likely take one of the several themes in Always Too Much and Never Enough and expand upon it. I do have a few vague ideas – like focusing on gender, sexuality, grief, or relationships – but, frustratingly, it’s all still pretty amorphous. No matter what I do, it will be, in some deep sense, about animal rights. How I feel about animals, and what’s happening to them, is inevitably part of anything I write, since it is such an important part of me.
There’s also the very real possibility of turning Always Too Much and Never Enough into a one-woman show. I’ve already started work-shopping possibilities and speaking with potential collaborators. But that’s still pretty far away at this point.
Our Hen House (www.ourhenhouse.org) is a media nonprofit that my partner, animal law professor Mariann Sullivan, and I started in 2010. We’re most known for our twice Webby-recognized, weekly Our Hen House podcast (we have never once missed a week of production since starting in January, 2010; as I type this, we are producing episode 321). On the show, we provide fresh commentary on news items, products, movies, and campaigns, from a vegan perspective, and we interview celebrities and activists about the ways they are changing the world for animals. It’s all very upbeat and brassy, and we have a lot of fun.
We also have two other podcasts – The Teaching Jasmin How to Cook Vegan Podcast (wherein I am the befuddled one, and a visiting chef shows me my way around the kitchen); and The Animal Law Podcast, which Mariann hosts (quite brilliantly), and which always goes into the fascinating details of a particular and timely legal case pertaining to animal rights.
OHH is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and for people who are interested in keeping vegan indie media alive, they can become a flock member! Just check out http://www.ourhenhouse.org, click on donate, and join the party.