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Why Roxane Gay Turned to Overeating After Being Gang-Raped at Age 12

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Koury Angelo

Growing up in suburban Nebraska, Roxane Gay was a happy, straight-A student from a loving family. But at age 12, she was gang-raped  by a boy she adored and a group of his friends — and her life was upended overnight. 

“Everything I thought I knew was shattered,” says Gay, 42, of the brutal assault in a cabin in the woods in 1986.

Mired in self-loathing, she did not tell her parents — or anyone else — what happened. Instead, she found herself in a shame-spiral in which food became solace and overeating turned her lanky body into a “fortress.” 

“I didn’t ever want to be over-powered again,” explains Gay, who reached 577 lbs. at her heaviest. “I thought if I’m fat, boys won’t come after me. I wanted to make myself bigger.”

While her size hasn’t stopped her from finding success (she’s the best-selling author of Bad Feminist), or love (she’s in a committed relationship with a woman), the fall-out from the rape have had repercussions lasting for decades. 

Now, in an astonishingly candid new memoir, Hunger, excerpted exclusively in this week’s issue, Gay details her emotional journey and examines “how much suffering is born of sexual violence.”

For much more from Gay and an exclusive excerpt from Hunger, please pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.