Oral History

Carolyn Steedman

  • The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity by Kim Chernin
    Virago, 213 pp, £3.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 86068 746 5
  • Hunger Strike by Susie Orbach
    Faber, 201 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13682 6
  • Holy Anorexia by Rudolph Bell
    Chicago, 248 pp, £18.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 226 04204 9

Myths can be seen as particular kinds of symbolic story designed to explain all the other stories that people tell about themselves. In this case, then, we should expect their periodic recasting, as the day-to-day narratives shift and change. We are in the middle now of some quite explicit recasting, conscious attempts to reverse accounts, particularly psychoanalytic accounts, which place masculinity at the centre of the picture, and which have in the past defined femininity in relation to it. Mothers and mothering become the pivotal points of the daughter’s development, Freud’s hysterics become heroines, grimly and doggedly determined to tell a truth that the analyst will not hear, and Demeter now stalks the earth mourning all her raped and lost daughters, prisoners of phallocentrism or the underworld. The modern anorexic is seen as making a political protest through an act of courage, which in these three books is described as a bid for autonomy using the limited material that comes to hand – a woman’s body: but which can also seen as the ultimate denial of that body unto death. In Kim Chernin’s large claim in The Hungry Self, modern woman’s obsession with eating and not-eating might even provide the royal road to the unconscious that dreams provided for Freud.

Down there in Hades, did Persephone think obsessively about pomegranates while refusing to eat them; did she lovingly handle them, prepare them for others, watch them being eaten – and then, pigging out, eat just six seeds? If she’d been bulimic, she would have vomited them up. It is the detail with which the eating of the six seeds is recorded that must lead us to suspect that Persephone was anorexic, and that once inside her the seeds took on the weight and quality of horror, likely to swell to a mountain of food, manufacturing fat, swaddling and muffling her in a female body. Soon, she went home to mum.

These three books are concerned with this kind of female relationship to food, and with mothers, our first food. In this way, they are also to do with the investing of myths with new meaning. Kim Chernin and Susie Orbach write out of clinical experience, having worked with anorexics and bulimics in the US and Britain. Hunger Strike is partly a therapeutic handbook, but its author, like Chernin, also provides an analysis of eating disorders that deals in cultural and political terms. Rudolph Bell’s subject is historical: the anorexic behaviour of certain Medieval ascetic and saintly Italian women. Using modern clinical and feminist delineations of anorexia nervosa, he makes a convincing case for interpreting self-abnegation and self-starvation among these women as a ‘holy anorexia’. In his argument, anorexia is both a cluster of symptoms and an act of individual will that ‘has existed for centuries in European society, and is one aspect of the struggle by females for autonomy in a patriarchal culture’.

Anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating are highly publicised modern disorders of the relationship between (usually) young women and food. The symptomatology of anorexia nervosa, which technically describes loss of appetite or an aversion to food, but which in medical reality and common understanding is a process of self-starvation, has been added to recently by descriptions of bulimia, a cycle of gorging and purging, again in young women. Kim Chernin, who deals with bulimia rather than anorexia, gives it at times the appearance of desperate conviviality, carloads of American college women cruising the main drag for take-outs, spending vast amounts of money on vast amounts of food, and then, having binged together, vomiting together in the dorm. Orbach tells us that this kind of episodic bulimia (which is to be distinguished from the bulimic phases which some anorexic women experience) ‘is currently spreading through college campuses in much the same way that marijuana did some fifteen years ago’; and Chernin describes young women initiating each other into the techniques of effective purging.

Bell, Chernin and Orbach all draw more or less detailed parallels between medical attention paid to 19th-century female hysteria and that paid to 20th-century anorexia and (as has become increasingly common) describe hysteria and anorexia as female bids for autonomy and self-identity. But the difference between the diagnosed condition of hysteria and modern anorexia is the vast amount of information available about the latter, particularly to young women likely to become its adherents. Any reader of women’s magazines, especially those aimed at the younger end of the market, is likely to be familiar with a shortened version of the history and aetiology of the disease, as presented by Bell and referred to by Orbach: a first medical sighting by Richard Morton and described in his Treatise on Consumption of 1687, Naudeau’s account of a fatal case of self-starvation in 1789, in which the victim’s mother was clearly implicated; William Gull’s and Charles Lasegue’s independent recognition of anorexia as a clinical entity in the 1870s, and their delineation of it as a psychological disorder as well as a physiological one. Then, its aetiology refined by Charcot and Janet between 1890 and the First World War, a concentration on somatic rather than psychological factors followed in the inter-war years.

The magazine articles used to present the disorder as slimming that had gone wrong, and they told as well of the common medical practice of the Sixties and early Seventies, based on the theory that anorexic patients have to reach a certain body weight before any useful therapeutic work can be done. Increasingly, this practice of force-feeding is condemned, as Orbach condemns it, as ‘a kind of rape par excellence of the female body’. The work of Hilde Bruch and Salvador Minuchin in the Seventies and since might be used to suggest that there is something fundamentally out of order with the anorexic’s family, and that the anorexic is a young woman uncertain of the boundaries of her own self, likely to perceive the demands and wishes of others as her own. If psychoanalytic accounts which treat the disorder as a fear of oral impregnation are not directly referred to in these popularised histories, then most readers will know that self-starvation puts a stop to menstruation and is in some way or other a refusal to grow up, or become a woman. Much more recently, following Sheila MacLeod’s autobiographical account of anorexia in The Art of Starvation (1981), the magazine articles have included the direct testimony of the anorexic and the bulimic: we are asked now to listen to what the woman says and to see her starvation and her hunger as symptoms of a profound importance, to do above all with cultural perceptions and uses of women’s bodies. The young woman reading the magazines will probably also know that about ten years ago, about one in every two hundred adolescent girls was starving herself (the pattern of eating disorders has changed since the study of 1976 that gives us these figures, and the number of young women involved has almost certainly increased), and many women, young or not, would see something of themselves in Orbach’s opening salvo: ‘Every morning hundreds and thousands of women wake up worrying about whether it is going to be a “good” day or a “bad” day in relation to food. They feel remorse for what they ate yesterday and hope they will have more control today.’ Irritated at what often seems a self-congratulatory appropriation of a set of fascinating symptoms by women, commentators often ask about male anorexics, who do exist and who are increasing in number. They are in fact as irrelevant to a popular understanding of the disorder as they are to its aetiology: anorexia is the daughter’s disease. It is to do with dependence, with fear of flight and longing for flight, from the engulfing feminine, from mum. A man might fall ill of it, but it would be the daughter’s position he was usurping; or as Kim Chernin puts it (hopefully?), ‘if boys were less able to experience their mother-rage through acts of sexual domination over women and through the entire social system of female suppression, they too might need some other form of enactment in which rage and violence ... are directed against themselves. Then they too, might develop eating disorders.’

These are desperate and difficult problems, and both Orbach and Chernin (and, for different purposes, Bell) make important attempts to analyse symptom-formation in social and political terms, to see anorexia and bulimia, not as individual sicknesses, but as disorders that have something to tell us about the world we inhabit, and how that world produces disease. Orbach gives a history of the post-Second World War period in which changing patterns of parenting and the development of consumerism have given women an understanding of their bodies as commodities in the marketplace that can be changed at will in order to deal with the contradictory demands of their late 20th-century role. This is not Orbach’s only argument, but it is one of her central ones. She is asking how the world gets inside the head, and by what means social structure imparts its meaning to psychic structure. To ask these questions, the writer must set out on a historical path, and this is what Orbach briefly does, presenting a cursory and almost certainly incorrect history of the late Forties and Fifties, in which Western society dumped Rosie the Riveter in favour of the earth-mother in the kitchen, anxiously reading popularised versions of Freud, thumbing through Bowlby and listening to Winnicott on the wireless. The children, in this version of history, are now her sole responsibility, her earlier hopes are shattered, and her inconsistency in and ambivalence about mothering are expressed most clearly in her relationship with her daughters.

If the historical account is misleading or wrong – and all recent research into the post-Second World War period in the UK suggests that it is – then psychic structure can’t be explained in its terms. Bell and Chernin have dealt with the same question much more successfully, though in radically different ways. Holy Anorexia is based on an examination of the life of 250 Italian holy women who lived from the 13th to the 17th century. In this context, Bell presents detailed case-studies of Catherine of Siena, Veronica Giuliani and Margaret of Cortona. Margaret of Cortona is one of a group of married or once sexually active women who set out on the path of radical holiness, and Bell uses their experience as holy anorexics as a means of comparison with the cloistered and virgin ascetics. This is a book of detailed research, wresting understandings of parenting, breast-feeding, weaning and being a child from spiritual autobiography and letters, but particularly from vitae of these saintly women. These hagiographical accounts were sometimes composed during the holy anorexic’s lifetime, through conversation with her, sometimes after her death. Bell is particularly illuminating on the attractions of radical holiness for a very wide range of women from different social backgrounds in Medieval Italy, and on the different models of possibility offered by the Franciscan order and the Dominicans. The latter, influenced by the humanism of Northern Italian urban centres, allowed its holy women much more individuality than did the Franciscans. Anorexic Poor Clares, when ordered by their confessors to eat, usually did, and were cured. Dominican women, on the other hand, often pursued their radical course unto death.

It is relatively easy for Bell, following the path of detailed textual analysis, to posit how the world got inside the head of these women, for he is dealing with a structure of understanding – with Medieval Christianity – that was designed to enter the consciousness of its adherents. In this way, he can show the notion of possession by God, a mere formula for the ordinary devout Christian, given radical new meaning by the holy anorexic. It is ‘her body, the girl decides, with no small amount of pressure from catechism lessons only she takes literally, that brings death ... It is not any single zone – oral, anal or genital – that she becomes fixated upon, but her entire body all of which is hopelessly corrupt and impedes her salvation.’ It is food that sustains the corrupt body and thereby kills the soul, and it is the body that must be subjugated.

These holy anorexics refused food, disobedient in the face of their confessors’ orders, seeking their own ecstatic relationship with Christ, through starvation and death. Without modern clinical understanding of anorexia nervosa, Bell would not have been able to make the convincing interpretation he has. But what is strangely lacking from his account is any discussion of the meaning of food in Medieval Italian society. The modern anorexic knows a great deal about food, at least on one level. She knows about calorific values, has a detailed understanding of nutrition. When Orbach recounts the meagre diets of her patients what is listed is ‘good’ food – scant ounces of cottage cheese, a wholemeal roll subdivided, a quarter of an iceberg lettuce; and Kim Chernin’s bulimics go bingeing on the ‘bad’ – pizzas, ice-cream, full-fat cheese. When the Medieval holy anorexic broke her fast to down excrement and pus, what did she think she was up to? The insane confessor who ordered Veronica Giuliani to clean her cell with her tongue – what notion of purity disease and danger did he operate with as Veronica ate up the spiders and bugs she encountered there? Tuscans experienced severe crop failure from about 1300 onwards. What did they make of their 37 anorexic holy women of the following century, starving themselves against a wider involuntary hunger? And why did pious townswomen, trying to persuade the emaciated Margaret of Cortona to eat, bring a plate of stewed figs to her cell? Offering her this most effective purgative, what on earth were they doing, and what did they know and believe about food and its properties? Bell is silent on these wider historical questions.

Kim Chernin has avoided the difficult question of the relationship of culture and history to psychic structure by avoiding historical accounts altogether. The Hungry Self is an attempt to write a myth, and to a certain degree it is a breathtakingly successful attempt, simply because the book tells a story in which all the parts work together and are happily self-referencing. Melanie Klein’s work provides the framework for the baby’s anger at the breast, the root of all social aggression against the female body; Erikson is revised in order to argue that all the issues of development through which the child passes between infancy and adolescence are negotiated in a first essential form through the relationship of food to feeding.

She sits, ‘Anita’ does, ‘a tall woman, with dark, exhausted wary eyes’, in Chernin’s basement consulting-room, the California sun outside, and she delivers up her own vita, the story of her life, her eating, her mother, her purging. Sometimes women write to Chernin, they fictionalise their stories for her – ‘the brownish liquid gushed out of her’ (there are these rigours of the text in Chernin as much as Bell). Rudolph Bell points out, in one of his most interesting passages, the difference between Medieval vitae written by men about holy radicals, and vitae written by women. The sophisticated cleric often described the starving saint as doing God’s will; that understanding provided the form and style of the vita. But Franciscan sisters, ignorant of the ways of hagiography and writing about Eustochia of Messina in the 1480s, were quite clear that Eustochia had done it all to herself. In the Californian consulting-room, is the woman therapist sure of that? The long monologue halts briefly (how does all this dialogue get here: Chernin should tell us if she used a tape-recorder), and the therapist asks a question that allows the patient to implicate the world at large, the culture, the society; the patient rages at her mother. Later, the patient will see that it is not mothers who are at fault, but ‘a social system that has never ceased to oppress women’. Only then will they be able ‘to set free from the tangled knot of self-destruction and obsession the radical and healing knowledge that an eating disorder is a profoundly political act.’ Yet what has seemed more useful up to now, and will be useful to many women reading, is the painfully gained knowledge that a daughter does not have to stay with her mother because the mother binds with her own failure and her sadness.

Orbach, too, is quite precise about ‘situating the act of not eating in the realm of the political’, and she draws clear analogies between earlier feminist struggles, hunger strikes undertaken to gain the vote, and the anorexic’s action. Both Orbach and Chernin agree that ‘to subject one’s body to the rigours of starvation ... is an act of extraordinary desperation and courage’. The therapy that Chernin and Orbach offer evidently does provide a path to understanding and sometimes to cure, and neither of them forgets that Persephone, counting out her little seeds in the dark, was actually in hell. But on the evidence presented by both these books, understanding and succour come especially to women exploring a relationship with their mother, not by the excess of romanticism that calls sickness courage.

There is an argument in these books, and in Bell’s Holy Anorexia, that is being evaded, a line of thought that is not being pursued. Indeed, in Holy Anorexia it is quite clear where the author’s argument shifts, about a third of the way through, from being something to do with women’s bodies and their feelings about those bodies, to a more general and less illuminating argument about women’s struggles against patriarchal authority in the Church and the society at large. In 1488 a group of young men attempted the rape of Colomba da Rieta (a young woman well along the path of radical holiness) on the road to Spoleto. What stopped them in their tracks as they tore off her clothes was her hairshirt, the iron belt around her hips, the chains across her breasts: abused, starved and wounded flesh. Horrified, they ran off. Did she read horror in their eyes, see herself? For Orbach, the mirror is a truth for the anorexic, if only she will look: ‘It is not possible to change fundamental ways of being and self-conception before looking in the mirror and recognising who [one] is.’ She wants the whole woman to look there and see that the world has reflected her wrongly: but the woman is saying that it is her body that is the problem – its edges, its crevices, what goes in, what comes out. There is another history here, not written yet, but with its groundwork laid.