Are Anorexia Memoirs Really How-To Manuals?

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Photo: Moment/Corbis

The anorexia memoir is typically understood as a cautionary tale. One woman (or occasionally man) embarks on a quest for weight loss — it brings her to the brink of death; she returns with a story of recovery. Perhaps the story is cast in psychological terms (a turbulent family life, a desire for control); perhaps it’s extrapolated into sociological insight (the failures of feminism, the distortions of mass media). Yes, she was thin (and perhaps appears, thinly, on her book’s cover), and yes, she’s survived her ordeal (and published a book, no less), but her path isn’t one she can in good faith recommend. Her story must be a warning.

In How to Disappear Completely, Kelsey Osgood makes an alternative argument: The typical anorexia memoir is a how-to book. With their instructive details and seductive aura of tragic ambition, accounts of eating disorders can perpetuate disordered eating. Anorexics love stories, Osgood reports, and she’s closely attuned to the thought patterns involved in both anorexia and writing — she examines the logic by which her eating disorder operated and finds storytelling at its center. She’s written an anorexia memoir that’s largely a critique of anorexia memoirs.

Osgood dispatches swiftly with the idea of anorexia as an attempt to be pretty or fit in. “It never occurred to me to try to lose weight in any healthy way, or to strive for a body that ‘looked good,’” she writes. “I wanted to be repulsively thin, and I knew how people got that way, and that was by being anorexic.” The formative bad-influence reading material here isn’t (say) Vogue; it’s Reviving Ophelia, the nineties parenting book about imperiled teen girls, which Osgood read as a young connoisseur of mental-health lit. She liked books about crazy people, girls especially, and there were so many — interesting ones written in the service of eating disorder prevention and “awareness.” Most notably, Wasted: Osgood calls Marya Hornbacher’s 1998 memoir “a cornerstone, a beloved, poetic contemporary classic” in the “canon of eating disorders literature.” She remembers discussing it avidly with fellow anorexics.

The first and most basic case Osgood makes against the conventional anorexia story (whether it’s a memoir, a blog post, or a group-therapy confession) is that such accounts rely on numbers and rules — which are basically the raw materials of an eating disorder. What passes for stark honesty to the unpracticed reader (82 pounds, 320 calories a day) registers with the budding anorexic as a series of goals and guidelines. “I incorporated some of Hornbacher’s tricks into my own weight-loss repertoire,” writes Osgood. Therefore, How to Disappear Completely avoids lists of safe foods and exercise regimens, refuses to tally low weights and calorie counts.

This could be a familiar argument, given media panic over “thigh gaps” and online outcries over “thinspo” and “pro-ana” forums. But Osgood’s analysis goes beyond the questions of practical advice or waifish imagery. In her telling, anorexia’s competitive mentality makes hearing anyone else’s story an invigorating opportunity for comparison. Caroline Knapp, in her 2002 memoir Appetites, recalls reading The New York Times Magazine during her own seventies interlude of “starving" and coming across a profile of a girl with anorexia. She read the article “straight through to the end then read it again.” It was the first time Knapp had ever encountered the term anorexia. “I envied her drive and her focus and the power of her will,” Knapp reports.

And, alleges Osgood, the storytellers themselves tend to be complicit in this competitive fervor: They’re “getting something out of it,” she writes. Even for recovering anorexics, “the narrative toward rock bottom is more often than not a ‘war story’ told to impress the listener.” So Hornbacher writes, “Line up four apples and think about how you’d feel after a few days of eating that and nothing else” with what sounds a lot like pride. “I can function fine on an apple a day,” writes Emma Woolf — whose 2012 memoir is, in fact, called An Apple a Day. You wouldn’t be mistaken to detect something like bragging in their confessions.

“Anorexia is often the sufferer’s loud declaration that he or she is different from other people,” Osgood explains. “It’s what makes me special is a sentence that can be found in almost any firsthand testimonial about an eating disorder.” Her astute move is to read that sense of specialness as a defining characteristic of the anorexic mind-set. One early therapist calls Osgood a “mild case,” and her response is a defiant determination to become severe. “To label an anorexic ‘not that bad’ is to call him or her ‘normal,’ which is to say not sick at all, which is to say fat,” she explains. She describes hospital wards where there’s understood to be a resident “best” anorexic, and regional hospital circuits where certain patients have become “famous.”

The protracted tension of never eating, the wild release of a binge, a generalized feeling of lightheaded superiority to mortals — these lend themselves well to vicariously engrossing stories, no matter the author's intentions.  But they also lend themselves to the cultivation of a particular literary persona. Hornbacher’s hodgepodge of bookish reference points includes Sylvia Plath (of course), Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and Ophelia. Emma Woolf takes the project of literary genealogy a step further, and has actually claimed Virginia Woolf not just as a great-aunt (her father is related to Leonard Woolf) but also as a fellow anorexic. “It’s a painful moment of recognition — the image of Virginia is of someone suffering from anorexia,” she wrote in the Daily Mail, about a particular picture of the vaunted modernist. “Looking at that photograph of Virginia makes me wonder if it really does run in families.” She means anorexia, but “it” also seems to encompass the sensitive-madwoman creativity that an eating-disorder connection would imply for Emma herself.

It’s dismaying to realize how readily the perverse glamour attending anorexia dovetails with a certain sort of female-author archetype. One recent anthology of writing on anorexia included contributions from Jennifer Egan and Louise Gluck; the book prompted the Times’ reviewer to comment, “To read Going Hungry is to suspect an effort has been made to convince us there is no such thing as a superficial anorexic, no creature whose radical self-regulation comes unaccompanied by an impressive imagination or intelligence.” The mannerisms Osgood notes in herself and her fellow anorexic storytellers — pathological sensitivity, fragility, finely tuned angst, and quiet, self-destructive intensity — shade smoothly into a feminine-artist mystique, the equally trite counterpart to Hemingway-style authorial machismo. The clear-eyed rigor of How to Disappear Completely is a refreshing corrective to hazy clichés of genius and madness and romance and rebellion that cloud discussions of art and mental illness both.