Superhuman

Rebecca Mead

  • Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher
    Flamingo, 298 pp, £12.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 00 255880 7

Some years ago, the Sunday Times magazine published a memorable portfolio of photographs, nude studies of a young woman who had starved herself into an advanced state of emaciation. Shot in moody black and white, they were not so much portraits of an animated, living being as arty compositions of bone and skin: a nature morte, or near-morte, of body parts which just happened still to comprise a person. The accompanying text explained that the woman pictured wanted to illustrate the hellish consequences of anorexia in order to warn other girls away from experimenting with starvation. Yet there was an unspoken subtext to the words and the pictures which contributed to their haunting power: the unacknowledged narcissism of the subject. Anoretics – the correct medical term for the anorexia-sufferer, on which Hornbacher insists – are typically high achievers and perfectionists; they tend to be proud of their ability to get thinner than anyone else. So even though this girl looked like a Belsen victim, sick and consummately unenviable, it was hard not to think that at least part of the reason she had had the pictures taken was that she was proud of how she looked. She wanted to show off her shocking thinness, to parade her achievement, in the guise of cautioning others from attempting it.

There’s something of the same unspoken narcissism about Marya Hornbacher’s uneven new book, Wasted. Hornbacher was born in California in 1974, a year after the first articles about anorexia, the ‘slimming disease’, began to appear in the mainstream American press. At the age of nine, she became bulimic; at 15, she switched to anorexia, and spent the next several years in and out of hospitals, bottoming out, at 20, with a weight of 52 pounds and a life expectancy of a week. This book was written three years later, by which time, Hornbacher tells us, her medical classification is ‘Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’. ‘It’s still there,’ she writes of the desire to throw up her food. ‘It wheedles at me, after dinner: Come on, you’re stressed, wouldn’t it feel better? You wouldn’t be so full. Come on, just this once? It’s always there, every day.’

This book, then, isn’t a memoir of ‘recovery’, written with cagey confidence from the other side of illness, as was Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp; nor is it an exploration of a long-past period of madness, like Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, an accomplished account of the two years she spent at the McLean mental hospital in Massachusetts in the late Sixties. It’s a missive sent from inside a sickness; not just a description of what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder, but an expression of that disorder – a symptom, even. The book is strangely bulimic in character: Hornbacher crams her text full with quotations from Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, James Agee and Alice through the Looking Glass, adding footnotes that cite the medical or anecdotal literature – gobbets of prose which capture her sense of self, swallowed whole and regurgitated. From the dust-jacket on (Hornbacher is pictured, skinny and sad-eyed), the book has an air of perverse exhibitionism, as if writing about her thinness is a way of keeping her illness alive, albeit in a transmuted form.

Hornbacher doesn’t come up with a simple explanation of why her life came to be ruled by one eating disorder or another, though her constellation of childhood conditions is relatively typical. White, middle-class and of above average intelligence, she was effectively an only child (her father also had two children from a previous marriage), the lynchpin in a troubled relationship. Her parents were both in the theatre, and both, she tells us, were funny about food – her mother tending to the anorexic while her father leaned towards bulimia. A marriage crisis caused the family to move to Minnesota when Hornbacher was eight, and by this time, by her own account, she was a disturbed child, compulsively rearranging the items on her dresser, developing systems of magical thinking: eating an apple sandwich in just so many bites to ward off unhappiness. Shortly after the move, she discovered that she could achieve a sense of emotional release by making herself vomit, and that discovery became a way of life.

At 12, she says, bulimia took over her life. She upped her vomiting from once to two or three times a day: ‘I did not put a bite of food in my mouth without considering if, when and where I would throw up.’ Hornbacher is good on the peculiar, secret rites of the bulimic. She describes how, when bingeing, she would be sure to begin with brightly-coloured foods, like Doritos, before starting in on the pizza and the cookies and the pretzels; when she vomited orange, she’d know that she’d expelled everything she’d just ingested. She describes doing hours of calesthenics in her bedroom, ‘wondering if, at the age of 14, I could get a plastic surgeon to do liposuction on every inch of my body, suck each molecule of fat out, leaving me with nothing more than a gleeful clattering set of bones.’

At 15, Hornbacher went to boarding school, to an academy which specialised in the arts, where all the girls talked about the need to lose weight. It was here that she switched disorders. ‘I distinctly did not want to be seen as a bulimic,’ she writes. ‘I wanted to be an anoretic. I was on a mission to be another sort of person, a person whose passions were ascetic rather than hedonistic.’ By December, she had decided to eat 100 calories a day; after going home and eating more during the Christmas holidays, she determined to eat only on Sundays, and then to restrict herself to rice. That summer, after months of starving, bingeing and purging, she was committed to an eating-disorders unit, the first of three such hospitalisations within a year. Uncured, she was sent to a juvenile mental institution. She smuggled in laxative tablets, illegal contraband, by hiding them in her shoes on arrival. Released after seven months, she relapsed quickly: left alone in her parents’ house for the weekend, she went on a bulimic rampage, described with cinematic vividness.

I stood at the counter, shovelling cereal into my mouth on automatic pilot. I ran out of cereal and moved on to bread, ran out of bread and moved on to eggs, leftovers, ice cream, crackers, stopping every so often to puke in the dark bathroom, staggering back to the kitchen, bumping into door frames and walls that suddenly stuck out in strange places, moving on to the soup that my father had made for me to eat over the weekend. I ate all the soup and threw it up, whole noodles and carrots and peas flooding the toilet bowl, splattering the walls, spinning away when I flushed.

By midnight or so, I’d eaten everything in the house except the lime marmalade that had been sitting at the back of the refrigerator for as long as I could remember. I didn’t eat the dog food, either. But I thought about it.

The strength of Wasted lies in passages like this one: the wretched depictions of a life out of control, their urgency accentuated by the sense that Hornbacher has put less distance than might be comfortable between herself and the girl whom she describes. Towards the end of the book she charts the madness of anorexia with excruciating precision: the toilet paper she stuffed in her shoes to stop the soles slamming into the bones of her feet; her surprise, as she looked at herself in the mirror, at seeing a ‘tail’ – her coccyx, which ought to be blanketed by flesh, suddenly visible.

Less effective are her attempts to analyse her experience, which are often banal. She picks the occasional argument with bits of conventional eating-disorder wisdom: in contradiction to the theory (by no means universally held) that anorexia is a girl’s frightened attempt to halt the sexual maturation of her body, Hornbacher contends that the anoretic is trying to assert her independence, to shed the helplessness of childhood by being an expert in self-starvation. It’s an unremarkable insight, but one of her better ones. More often she offers a muddled bit of un-thought-out theorising: ‘Maybe, in some small way, my anorexic body was an apology to my father for having become a woman,’ she says while trying to understand the rift that occurred between them after he learned that she was sexually active. ‘Even that is problematic. It’s far more plausible to me that my anorexic body was a confused statement directed more at the world than at my father, both an apology for being a woman and a twisted attempt to prove that a woman can be as good as a man.’ And so on. Self-involvement is a hallmark of eating-disorder sufferers, but it can make for dreary reading.

One gets the sense that Hornbacher, for all her years of treatment and therapy, hasn’t yet absorbed her experience. As a memoirist, at any rate, she has been encouraged to be prematurely confessional. Her memories of her early childhood have the aimless quality of an analysand’s free associations: ‘Late summer droughts, the wavering air above the road, out back behind the creek, the dapple-grey horse in the yard down the road, the chokecherries, sour, and lemon trees, walnut trees, women in white. The pink stone steps of somebody’s pink stucco house, the oranges we ate with some lady.’ Therapy, like artistry, works best when its effects are everywhere present and nowhere visible; the lineaments of Hornbacher’s hours on the couch are a little too obvious. And the therapeutic process seems far from complete, which makes Wasted less than satisfying as a literary event.

The book is not just a literary event, however: Hornbacher says that she wrote it to alert others to the temptations and dangers of eating disorders. ‘I would do anything to keep people from going where I went. This book was the only thing I could think of,’ she writes – and no doubt she’s sincere. But books have other objectives, and other results. At the very beginning of her adventure into bulimia, Hornbacher says, she took out of the library The Best Little Girl in the World, an account of anorexia nervosa. ‘I wanted to be her: withdrawn, reserved, cold, wholly absorbed in her own obsession, perfectly pure. Shutting everything out,’ she writes. Now she is, and it is worth considering whether any would-be anorexia-sufferers will be similarly spurred to competition by her superhuman self-abuse.

There’s a point where Hornbacher describes how, quite recently, she fell sick after dental surgery and lost 15 pounds in two weeks:

My hands make their way to the sway of my back, snake down to press the twin knobs at the base. My hands, shy as hands meeting up with an old lover, touch lightly, in that breathless disbelief: Are you really here … I wait for [my husband] to say: You’ve lost weight. I wait for the rush of stubborn pride it will bring, the release of being caught red-handed in bed with someone else.

Wasted is, among other things, a covert love-letter to the eating disorders which sustained her, and, in turn, a new way of sustaining them. Anorexia, Hornbacher says, is ‘a visual temper tantrum’ – an attempt to compel those around you to notice how upset and angry and pained you are, as well as demonstrating how successfully single-minded you can be. Writing a book can be another way of doing exactly the same thing.