She’s known for her candor about her weight, her dieting struggles, and even the trials of The Bachelorette but in a new interview in this week’s PEOPLE, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner reveals there is much more to her story.
In her candid new book of essays, Hungry Heart, excerpted in this week’s issue, Weiner, 46, not only reveals she had gastric bypass surgery in 2006, but also painful personal details about her father, who abandoned the family when she was 16, struggled with mental illness and eventually became a drug addict.
For Weiner, it was the most difficult chapter to write. “As a novelist writing, I would think this is the worst ending ever. There was no reconciliation, there’s no big talk or explanation. He’s awful for 10 years and then he dies,” she says of her father’s death from a crack overdose in 2008.
“For a long time I would just tell people he had a heart attack, which is true. I wouldn’t say he had a heart attack because of heroin and crack. But when I started talking about it, people would start sharing their stories and I feel like the more we can talk about them, the better.”
Although she once had tender memories of her father, a child psychiatrist who taught her to love poetry, by the time she was an adolescent, she and her three siblings had begun to see him unravel – and lash out unpredictably. “With my Dad, you never knew who you were gonna get,” she says of those years, “which Dad would show up.”
Many of those memories are still painful to write about. “He made me feel ashamed of how I looked and eating let me not feel ashamed,” says Weiner. “Eating let me not feel anything. But then of course I’d eat and feel even more ashamed.”
His criticism left her feeling “powerless” and often stuffing her feelings down with food. “Even then, I knew that my options were either to be in the body I had or to be a little bit hungry all the time,” she says, “and I wasn’t any good at being hungry.”
Although she often didn’t know of his whereabouts, she’d hear from him intermittently through the years, mostly when he needed money.
WATCH: Jennifer Weiner ‘Hungry Heart’ Exclusive Cover Reveal
Then in 2008, she got the phone call that her father had died. “I knew it was coming,” she says. “He was abusing prescription drugs. You just don’t think crack and heroin. It was like feeling someone had thrown something heavy right at my chest. There were so many pieces to put back together.” Most shocking of all, was finding out their father had a young son, then 3 years old, with a woman they knew nothing about.
“You tell yourself, ‘Well, it’s not going to get worse.’ You find out your father has died in a bathroom with his head in a trash can of an overdose of heroin and crack and then you realize it’s not gonna be over,” she says of her shock. “I just remember thinking I don’t know how I’m ever going to have a good or happy memory of my dad.”
For more details about Jennifer Weiner’s relationship with her father, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
The happy – and unexpected ending – she did find was meeting her half brother, now 11. He spends summer with Weiner and her kids and her mom in Cape Cod. “My daughters are fascinated they have an 11-year-old uncle,” she says with a smile. “It’s unconventional and he’s a really good kid.”
As for her decision to write so honestly about her family in her new book, she says, “It’s a weird and imperfect situation but I think many of us have weird, imperfect situations.”