Just weeks after getting rid of gender-segregated toy aisles, Target put out an inspiring new ad showing girl and boy “Star Wars” fans playing together. Check it out.
YAY Target! THANK YOU. I did all of my back to school shopping at your store and will continue to shop the hell out of your chain whenever I need supplies for my children. I’ve got to admit, part of me can’t believe this blog post has to be written at all, that I feel the need to congratulate Target and express my gratitude, that my headline isn’t satire that belongs on The Onion. But sadly, as the mom of 3 daughters, I speak from endless personal experience of the rampant sexism in kidworld where gender equality is hardly allowed to exist even in our imaginations. Here’s a video where my youngest child, like many kids in America, was teased at preschool for wearing “boy shoes” in her case, “Star Wars” sneakers.
It’s kids like her who Target is helping now, because in spite of my daughter’s promise to keep wearing those shoes, and in spite of having a feminist mom, she was “choosing” “gender appropriate” footwear by kindergarten.
In May, I went on Fox News to support Amazon’s similar decision to drop gender categories from its toys. After I was intro-ed by an annoying gender police siren, I was told, as I’m so often told, that children just “pick “the toys they want. I’ve been repeatedly “informed” that girls are just born obsessed with how they look while boys who are denied toy weapons will bite their toast into the shapes of guns. That’s just how we are. As I told Fox News, in nicer words, we don’t have a fucking clue how we are. Our brains are wired up based on actions we engage in, and these connections are never made more rapidly or elaborately than when we’re little kids. Why wouldn’t we want to expose our children to more stories, more experiences, more colors than pink?
There are a couple reasons why I bought Brooke Shields’s memoir There Was a Little Girl The Real Story of My Mother and Me. I grew up in the 80s and remember images of Shields, from the infamous “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” ad to her hair perfectly coiffed to cover her breasts in “Blue Lagoon” to that child-woman face staring at me from magazine cover after magazine cover.
When I saw the book at my local store, I was curious about her story, the one behind all those images. I was also drawn in by the book’s title There Was a Little Girl. In some ways, I imagine what happened to Shields, the contradiction of being a real, emotional being beyond all those “beautiful” photographs of her, the three dimensional versus the two dimensional, is an extreme version of what happens to girls everywhere, the paradox of being seen yet not being seen at all.
In the first pages of her book, Shields writes that she wants to tell the real story about her mother. She resents the characterization of Teri Shields as an aggressive stage mom. Shields believes that her professional life saved her, it was a way for her to exist in a world beyond her mother’s frenetic one. The real danger, Shields writes, was that her mother was an alcoholic, self-medicating her depression and anxiety. Her mother was ill. Teri was loyal to Brooke, obsessed with her, and conscientious, but while those characteristics may imitate aspects of love, they aren’t real love, the kind of love that makes a child feel happy, safe, and strong. Instead, Teri used her daughter like a tranquilizer, a buffer between her and the world, a passive receptacle for her thoughts and beliefs, almost like a translator, to communicate with the outside, all the time, making Brooke think it was her choice to play that role.
Problems started to happen when Brooke finally took steps to become more independent. Her mother undermined or ignored these attempts, instead of supporting Brooke, took her moves personally, continuing to only see the Brooke that she wanted to see, the one who was most useful to her, the one in the photographs.
There Was a Little Girl is a sad, raw, and beautiful book about how one person’s alcoholism affects those who love her.
After a depressing day of girls gone missing at the movies, it was great to see Katniss in the lobby of the Metreon in all her glory. I cannot wait for “Mockingjay,” nor can my 11 year old daughter who devoured all of the books. The Hunger Games trilogy remains one of the only fantasy worlds where gender equality exists, and it’s a dystopia.
I admit it, I’m judging Danielle Steel’s new picture book “for little girls” by its cover: a smiling chihuahua wearing a pink bow and jewelry sitting in a purple sparkly stiletto. The book in called Pretty Minnie in Paris.
The Publisher’s Weekly blurb tells us it “will delight young fashionistas.”
Inspired by the adorable adventures of bestselling author Danielle Steel’s own Chihuahua, Pretty Minnie in Paris is the stylish, ooh la la tale of a fashionable Parisian pup out on the town. Lost backstage during a noisy, crowded fashion show, tiny Minnie is separated from her owner, the girl she loves best. Quel désastre! But chaos turns to couture when Minnie unexpectedly finds herself the star of the runway. With a dreamy Paris backdrop and an atelier full of adorable outfits, Pretty Minnie in Paris is sure to be in vogue as the season’s must-have tale for little girls—and Danielle Steel fans of all ages—who love clothing, glamour, glitter, and all things à la mode.
On Amazon.com, Cookie writes:
Adorable!! So pink and glittery and girly. Plus Paris and fashion! Swoon! Perfect for little girls who love pretty things.
How did I find out about Steel’s debut contribution to kidlit? A full page ad in Us Weekly. Here are 3 books I wish had ever gotten that kind of PR:
Ming-Li looked up and tried to imagine the sky silent, empty of birds. It was a terrible thought. Her country’s leader had called sparrows the enemy of the farmers–they were eating too much grain, he said. He announced a great “Sparrow War” to banish them from China, but Ming-Li did not want to chase the birds away. As the people of her village gathered with firecrackers and gongs to scatter the sparrows, Ming-Li held her ears and watched in dismay. The birds were falling from the trees, frightened to death! Ming-Li knew she had to do something–even if she couldn’t stop the noise. Quietly, she vowed to save as many sparrows as she could, one by one…
This story is based in truth: Sparrows were eating up grain so Mao’s solution was to make the Chinese people bang pots and walk the land for days. Exhausted sparrows fell dead from the sky. As a result of the sparrow massacre, crops were decimated by insects free of predators. The Chinese people went into years of famine and millions died. In this fictionalized version, Ming-Li saves her people by rescuing the sparrows and coming to a true understanding of what farming really is.
Reel Girl rates Sparrow Girl ***HHH***
Stone Girl Bone Girl
I first heard about the young fossil hunter, Mary Anning, in an Ivy and Bean book. I was thrilled to learn more about her in this beautifully illustrated story. Anning begins her life surviving a lighting strike that killed her nanny. She is passionate about finding fossils and is teased for it by the kids at school who call her “stone girl, bone girl.” In 1811, when Anning was 12 years old, she discovered an Ichthyosaurus skeleton, one of the most important fossil finds is history. She goes on to survive her father’s early death, her work supported by two rich female benefactors. I love that this book also features those powerful, wealthy, ethical, smart women. How often do you see that combo in kidlit?
Reel Girl rates Stone Girl Bone Girl ***HHH***
The Story of Ruby Bridges
In 1960, four African-American girls were ordered to integrate two white elementary schools in New Orleans. Ruby Bridges was sent to William Frantz Elementary as the only African-American student. When children and parents taunted her and police did nothing to protect her, the national guard was sent in to escort her to and from school. At that point, the white kids stopped going to school. Ruby stayed on and learned her lessons. One day her teacher saw her stopped in front of the taunting crowd, moving her lips. Later, Ruby told her teacher that she was praying for those people. Eventually, the white kids came back to school. This story is amazing on many levels; it is remarkable to see how brave Ruby is and that she has such a great, strong spirit.
Reel Girl rates The Story of Ruby Bridges ***HHH***
Yesterday, in the book store when we were buying a present for someone else of course, my 8 yr old leaped for joy at the sight of Chris Colfer’s latest The Land of Stories A Grimm Warning.
Note on the cover, the girl is front and center, also she’s standing ahead of the boy. Do you know how rare this image is in kidlit? Even series like Harry Potter and all the Rick Riordan books show consistently the female characters a step behind the males.
While I was initially dismissive of the books (Redone fairy tales again? Written by a “Glee” actor? Who is 23 years old?) The Land of Stories is the series is that got my daughter really into reading. Here is what I blogged after she finished the first two books:
“My daughter plowed through the book, requested its sequel, and then finished over 500 pages in about a week. My daughter, now just turned 7, read most of the book herself, so I only got snips here and there, when I read it to her. From the scenes I read, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. The protagonists are twins, Alexandra and Conner. I get annoyed by how books with a female protagonist seem to need to balance her with a co-starring male. Can’t we just see the female protag? Or what about sisters? Or female buddies? Why is that pairing so rare?
But in most parts of Land of Stories that I read, Alex is a strong and brave character. Here are a couple passages that won me over as we neared the finish of the second book, The Enchantress Returns.
“You have to save the fairy-tale world, Alex!” Conner said. “You have to save the Otherworld and Mom, too!”
Alex’s grip around her brother’s feet tightened. “I can’t save anything without you,” she said.
“Yes, you can,” he said. “It was always meant to be you! You’re the one who got us here and you’re the one who is going to get us out! You heard the ghosts– you’re the heir of magic! You’ve got to defeat the Enchantress so this world can go on!”
“I can’t do it alone,” she said, terrified to lose him.
“Yes, you can,” Conner said. “I’m really sorry about this.”
Conner kicked Alex off of him, and the vines consumed him entirely. They dragged him and Trollbella down into the ground and disappeared.
“Conner!” Alex yelled after him, but it was no use. He was gone.
Alex looked across the camp just in time to see the vines pull Red, Froggy, Jack, and Goldilocks into the ground with one, final heave. As soon as Trollbella, Red, and the others clinging on to them had been taken, all the vines in the campsite disappeared into the ground. They had com efor the queens.
Alex got to her feet and looked around in shock. In a matter of minutes, all of her friends and her brother had been taken from her. She had no choice but to finish the quest alone– it was all up to her now.
Love it! Of course, as I reading this to my daughter, I was thinking: “Right on, Conner, get out of there. Alex needs to do this.”
Unlike Harry Potter’s magical world, this Fairy world has an almost equal number of females and males in power in the government, with a the Fairy Godmother at the head, and the evil enchantress as the villain. Here’s a passage that describes the governing group.
Hung across the wall from top to bottom were Queen Snow White and King Chandler, Queen Cinderella and King Chance, Queen Sleeping Beauty and King Chase, Queen Rapunzel. and members of the Fairy Council. And now, withe the inclusion of Red and Trollbella, the entire Happily Ever After Assembly was at the Enchantress’s mercy.
I appreciate all the subtle ways Colfer recognizes female power. The female characters are not princesses but queens and they are listed before their male partners. Red is Little Red Riding Hood and Trollbella is the leader of the Trolls. It’s great to read a story about what happens to these princesses after they marry and their adventures are supposedly over. It’s also nice that Rapunzel remains unmarried. It’s interesting that Colfer makes an effort to pair the others and gives the kings big roles. It’s sort of like giving a female protags a male twin, and other passages I read, the deference of the Queens annoyed me.
Here’s the passage that made me a true fan. How does Alex find the strength to save Fairy-tale world all alone? She has a dream where goes into a cave and meets four little girls: Lucy of Narnia, Alice of Wonderland, Dorothy of Oz, and Wendy of Neverland. They five girls talk together about the various ways Alex could try to destroy the Enchantress.
She looked up at the girls and around the cave. “Now I understand the meaning of my dream,” she said. “Deep down, I knew I could never kill the Enchantress, so I was searching for another way. The cave represents my questioning and you represent the answer— because ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always thought of you when I had a problem.”
“Why is that?” said Alice.
“I suppose I’ve learned so much from you,” Alex said. “I always wanted to be as loving as Wendy, or as curious as Alex, or as brave as Lucy, or as adventurous as Dorothy– I always saw a little bit of myself when I read about each of you.”
I’m not a fan of Wendy, but I named my oldest daughter Lucy and my second Alice after those incredible characters. I really enjoyed the pages where they come together and mentor Alex, giving her sage advice from their own experience.
The writing in these books is not the greatest. There is a lot of word repetition in sentences like: “It happened so fast Alex wasn’t sure what happened.” Also, too many adverbs: “Her hair anxiously swayed above her.” But Colfer is twenty-three, for goodness sake. I’ll be following his writing career. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.
If you have read these two books, please let me know what you think. With the caveat that I have only read passages of them, Reel Girl rates Land of Stories ***HH***”
Here’s to hoping Book 3 is as good as the first two. I’ll let you know…
I’m a slow reader, and I read several books simultaneously, so finishing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in a couple days is a remarkable feat in my world.
This memoir starts with the story of a how Strayed’s life unraveled after her mother’s death in her early 40s from lung cancer. Stayed cheated multiple times on her husband, left him, spiraled into heroin addiction, and then went cold turkey from men and drugs, hiking alone on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I love this book. I can’t wait to see the movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
I don’t recall ever reading a book about a woman who writes of cheating on her loving husband and then chooses to be alone. Strayed’s writing style in open, honest, and raw. Here is one of my favorite passages:
What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d dome something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than it was what I wanted to do and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was also what got me here? What if was never redeemed? What if I already was?
I’ve read several interviews with Witherspoon where she speaks about the lack of roles for women, why she created her own production company, and her hopes for her daughter. Here’s one quote from the Columbus Dispatch:
In a series of meetings that Reese Witherspoon had with Hollywood executives in 2012, the actress grew increasingly frustrated by the answers she received to the question “What are you developing for women?”
The pickings were slim.
“I think it was literally one studio that had a project for a female lead over 30,” the actress recalls. “And I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get busy.’ ”
“My daughter was 13,” Witherspoon says, “and I wanted her to see movies with female leads and heroes and life stories.”
How cool is that? We desperately need powerful women, women with daughters, to put their time, energy, brains, and money into getting narratives with heroic, complex females out into the world. It does kind of bum me out that Witherspoon’s other project was “Gone Girl.” If you’ve read my blog, you know I hate what “Gone Girl” is about. Apparently, the director of “Gone Girl” insisted Witherspoon did not star in the movie. He wanted someone unknown, cold, and unapproachable. It’s interesting that being too cold is one of the criticisms Rosamund Pike is getting for her portrayal of Amy Dunne. Clearly, she is following the director’s orders.
I, for one, am thrilled Witherspoon is starring in “Wild” instead. I’m a huge fan of her work, especially “Freeway,” one of her early movies where she plays a violent, heroic Red-Riding Hood. I just read an article about Witherspoon in Vogue and there is no mention of “Freeway.” There almost never is which I don’t get. Have any of you seen it? It’s such a great movie.
“Wild” like “Gone Girl” is a best-selling book which hopefully will metamorphose into a blockbuster movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m already hoping Witherspoon wins another Oscar.
The psycho-female stereotype of “Gone Girl” has her defenders. Of course, the writer, Gillian Flynn, who posts on her web site:
“I’ve grown quite weary of the spunky heroines, brave rape victims, soul-searching fashionistas that stock so many books. I particularly mourn the lack of female villains – good, potent female villains . . . The point is, women have spent so many years girl-powering ourselves – to the point of almost parodic encouragement – we’ve left no room to acknowledge our dark side.”
Given my choice between allowing portrayals of women who are sexually manipulative, erotically aggressive, fearless in a deranged kind of way, completely true to their own temperament, desperately vital, or the alternative — wallowing in feminist propaganda and succumbing to the niceness plague — I’ll take the former.
It’s laughable that when a narrative promotes a stereotype, it gets depicted as unique. Once again, I go back to the first post I wrote on Reel Girl after reading the book:
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
Get that, people? Is this character alive?
Amy Dunne is a stereotype who fakes her own rape multiple times.
When the epidemic of violence against women in the USA is finally getting some national attention from Obama to colleges to the NFL, ‘Gone Girl’ reads like a Men’s Rights handbook
I wrote on Reel Girl:
“Gone Girl” makes violence against women into a punchline, and does this so well that even I laughed at the jokes…
There are a few core beliefs women’s rights advocates have worked hard to get the culture to understand:
(1) Women don’t want to be raped
(2) A woman who is raped did not bring the violence on herself
(3) The #1 killer of pregnant women is homicide
In “Gone Girl”‘ each of these beliefs becomes a mockery, perfectly executed with comic timing, plot points, and good acting to seem ridiculous. I’m going to summarize a few instances below though its from memory, so the quotes may not be precisely accurate, and you’ve got to see it yourself to experience the reaction, I don’t think the typed words on the page will do it.
When Nick Dunne seeks out another guy that his wife, Amy, falsely accused of rape, the guy says,”That’s Amy! She’s graduated from rape to murder.” I chuckled.
When it becomes public that Amy was pregnant (a faked pregnancy by the way) media and townspeople nod and knowingly say, “The #1 way pregnant women die is murder.” The scene is so cartoonish and Nick is so clearly a victim, that when hearing the line, even I rolled my eyes.
When Amy spins the story of how she never should have let another guy she accused of rape into her house, an FBI guy steps in with a concerned face and says, “Don’t blame yourself!” When I heard that line, I snorted.
Gillian Flynn is no Claire Messud. I wish she were.
All I have to say is: Oh my God, how could anyone read this spellbinding book and not like it?
The protagonist in the story, Hazel Grace Lancaster, is smart and outgoing but suffers from lung cancer. No one can read this book without bursting in to tears, and that’s good. If you have read this book and, like all humans, have cried, you felt a connection to the characters in John Green’s story.
This is probably my favorite book and movie ever, because the heroine, Hazel Grace, has to deal with so much when she’s only 17. Augustus Waters, Hazel’s boyfriend, always tells her she’s beautiful. That’s not all he tells her. He always says how amazing she is and how smart she is, because he knows she is so much more than another pretty face. I think this book is amazing and like my mom always does, I rate it HHH. I thought about what i was going to rate this, and it took some time to decide, but it really deserves a triple H. I have been wondering why I love this book so much and I have come up with a couple of reasons.
It makes you feel as if you are there and you’re watching it all happen.
It is written beautifully and has cliff hangers. I guarantee you’ll never get bored once in this book.
I was so connected to Hazel Grace, I felt like she was my sister, that I already knew everything about her before I met her.
If you have not read this enchanting book read it now, and you wont have any regrets. Some helpful advice: bring tissues when you do, trust me you’ll need them.
This morning I was reading The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan out loud to my 7 year old daughter.
Like her sister before her, she is obsessed with Riordan’s series. I, too, am a huge fan. The pacing is perfect. The characters are smart, funny, and brave. The writing is great. But I’ve got a an issue with the books. As I always blog on Reel Girl, if the pattern in The Lost Hero were in just one book, or even half the books, it would not be a problem for me, or for my kids, or for kids in general. My problem is the repetition of the same old, same old in narrative after narrative after narrative. Read this passage and see if you can tell me what my objection to Riordan is:
“There’s four of us,” Hedge whispered urgently. “And only one of him.”
“Did you miss the fact that he’s thirty feet tall?” Leo asked.
“Okay,” Hedge said. “So, you, me and Jason distract him. Piper sneaks around and frees her dad.”
They all looked at Jason.
“What?” Jason said. “I’m not the leader.”
“Yes,” Piper said. “You are.”
They’d never really talked about it but no one disagreed, not even Hedge. Coming this far had been a team effort, but when it came to a life-and-death decision, Leo knew Jason was the one to ask. Even if he had no memory, Jason had a kind of balance to him. You could just tell he’d been in battles before, and he knew how to keep his cool. Leo wasn’t exactly the trusting type but he trusted Jason with his life.
There are many disturbing passages in Kelsey Osgood’s memoir about her struggle with anorexia, How to Disappear Completely, but one of the most chilling is the description of her active pursuit of the disease:
I would get so thin that I would be the physical embodiment of sadness, and there would not be a flicker of doubt in the universe that I was exactly that: thin and sad. I would be consumed and ravaged by thiness, by the pursuit of it…I didn’t need something to have; I needed something to be…It never occurred to me to lose weight in any healthy way, to strive for a body that ‘looked good.’ I wanted to be repulsively thin, and I knew how people got that way, by being anorexic.
With this passage, Osgood debunks the myth that anorexia is dieting gone too far. In reality, anorexia is its own entity, an identity, a discipline, a religion.
Osgood grew up in suburban Connecticut, and she longed to be unique and special. In her local library, she devoured books by women or about women’s lives including Girl, Interrupted, I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, Prozac Nation, Sybill, and Wasted. Osgood writes:
It wasn’t a particularly well-stocked establishment, but there were still many books about young people, mostly girls, who felt crazy or who were crazy. I didn’t think I was crazy, but kind of wished I were. Crazy people were privy to a universal truth, I thought, destined for artistic greatness, their words indelibly scalded into the collective unconscious.
Combining those two goals, for artistic greatness and identity, anorexia seems like the perfect solution:
Becoming a professional patient, a ‘hopeless case’ seemed akin to selling one’s possessions and dropping out to live on a commune or defecting to Canyon Ranch for a long term detox. And besides, one of the most ‘hopeless cases’ I read about actually ended up confounding the doctors’ prognoses, recovering, and then writing books, so what were a few years lost to psychosis if you ended up a famous author on the other end? If I were actually crazy, I would be allowed to exit, at least for a while, the real world, a place I found at once deeply overwhelming and utterly lacking. I wouldn’t have to do the things I always considered pointless, like take math tests or sit up straight or tell white lies. I wouldn’t have to be what I thought I was: short, stumpy, decidedly unglamorous, not outstanding in any particular way. Normal. Or maybe nothing at all.
With these descriptions of anorexia, Osgood has written a hugely important and unique book. I’ve read so many eating disorder memoirs myself, and as Osgood points out, again and again, those stories romanticize the sickness.
The lowest weight one reached remain a point of pride, not shame…Nine times out of ten, writing about anorexia beguiles the at-risk population for all the wrong reasons and the person writing about his or her own struggle fuels the fire by producing a long, hubristic poem, a elegy, an ode to a presence gone and dismissed. An homage. The writers know they’re up on the invisible podium to speak out about their journey to the brink of death (oh, yeah, and back) and they know too, that the ones listening closest are the young ones eager to enlist in the starving armies.
Eating disorder memoirs just like the internet’s “proana” and “wannarexic” communities, act as a how-to, showing girls how to be best anorexic they can be. Recovery communities are full of people who trade tips on how to be a better anorexic, comparing weights, a competitive training ground. Osgood’s book is different because she never acts as if sickness is cool or desirable or inspiring or beautiful. Here’s a typical description of a patient:
She would lift the phone off the receiver and dial with the ends of her long, yellow fingernails…her skin was covered with stretch marks, jaundiced and flaky. The room stank of dead cells…
Osgood attempts to do what no other eating disorder memoir I’ve ever read has done: she de-glamorizes anorexia and exposes it as the ugly, stuck, boring, waste-pool that it is. How to Disappear completely also illuminates the paradox of the narrative females too many females in our culture are stuck in: only as victims can they be heroes, only when practically invisible can they exist.
So intrigued by this original and insightful book, I went to Osgood with some questions. Here’s our interview.
I started my blog Reel Girl because I have three daughters, and I was appalled by the lack of strong female protagonists and female heroes in kid culture. What do you think about the lack of female heroes, how the thin, “pretty” girls are the ones who get to star in the limited roles offered, to exist at all, really? Part of what “inspired” you wanted to become anorexic was the stories you read when you were a girl, the eating disorder memoirs and crazy girl memoirs. If young women’s stories involved other narratives besides the thin/ crazy/ pretty victim, do you think that would make a difference as far as girls’ attraction to anorexia?
Yes, I definitely think it would make a difference. Or at least, I think it would be a good start! I read an article recently that pointed out that even in books for very young girls––under ten, that is––the heroines are more often than not “scrappy” or “very small.” I think that might have started from a good place, but one that assumed a more male logic––big is better, so the underdog, who should win in the fable, should be small––on a female population. Eventually, it kind of curdled into what we have now, which is that no heroines are anything other than slim. As for me, what attracted me to the narratives of mental instability as a teenager was this idea that in order to be creative, one had to be melancholic or tortured. In some ways, I think I thought if you were psychically tortured, you wouldn’t have to work; that was a creative output on its own, and if you wanted to write a book post-facto then it would just pour out of you as if divinely inspired (insanity as a state of religious transcendence was also something I very much believed it.) Now, having been tortured and subsequently written a book, I can safely confirm that this is NOT what happens! It’s just as difficult a slog as ever.
While you go out of your way to describe not to glamorize anorexia, to show the ugliness of the disease, you’re still writing a book about it. You went to visit all of your former hospitals and you write about Googling people you were hospitalized with. Is it possible to write a book about how boring anorexia is and not be fascinated by the disease? Are you still fascinated and compelled by it?
I think no, it isn’t possible to do it without being, on some level, fascinated by it. I was hoping to reverse the narrative and to ask some questions about the disease that had never been asked before. But ultimately, yes, I am still interested in it, though I think “fascinated” might be a little strong. A writer often works on a book for years before it gets published, so by the time they’re invited on radio shows and panels, they’re often a little bored of the topic by virtue of having wallowed in it for so long! That was my experience, anyway. I am interested now not so much in anorexia as a disease but in the ways we define mental illness as a culture––because I believe it’s very much still culturally defined, particularly with regard to behavioral problems like anorexia and addictions, though the establishment would love us to believe they have more of an idea than they do that it’s biologically locatable.
When I had an eating disorder (I was bulimic, not anorexic) I was often told– in the recovery community, no less– that I would never get better. The best I could do was “manage” my disease. Today, I am 100% cured. My eating disorder is gone. Did you have the experience of people telling you the same thing? Do you consider yourself cured? Was writing the book part of putting the sickness to rest? The recovery community is so sick, so how do people get better? Is it possible?
Yes, this absolutely happened to me! I don’t know if I remember anyone saying that I would never recover point blank, though I’m sure it happened over my ten years in treatment. The eating disorders recovery community has completely absorbed the 12-step belief that once you are sick, you are always sick. I cannot fathom why anyone would find this empowering––comforting, maybe, because you don’t have to use your agency or blame yourself or give up your safety blanket completely, but empowering? No, no, no. It drives me insane (pun so not intended) these days to see personal essays about anorexia or bulimia in which the writer states that, “Eating disorders are like alcoholism––they never fully go away.” And there are many of them. I become literally enraged. I used to blame the writer, but then I realized, he or she was probably told this by some group therapist at a treatment center and thought, “Well, she must know what she’s talking about, because she’s a counselor and I’m one of the ‘crazy’ ones.’” But the truth is that how we define sick and well and normal and aberrant and psychiatrically compromised and stable is still mostly cultural, which is not to say that it’s “made up,” but rather that we have a choice as to how we want to shape our narratives, and what we want to tell struggling young people that they are capable of. Do we want them emerging into the world believing they can only have part of life? That, to me, is crazy.
I consider myself fully recovered, definitely, and I am not afraid to say that when asked. There is perhaps one cell in my whole body that pines for the days of starvation, but that cell is considered a total weirdo by all her cell friends. In all seriousness, though, there was a time when I would have considered being “recovered” unfathomable or, more importantly, shameful––that is, I believed it meant the crumbling of the will, not the assertion of it. Now, I see all the passivity and misguidedness and wastefulness endemic to anorexia and it baffles me that I ever considered devoting my life to it.
Perhaps writing the book helped me to bring my personal struggle to a close, although I would have to point out that one needs to be at least mostly well to write a book (it’s almost a test of endurance, psychologically and physically!) Does that mean I think everyone needs to write about his or her journey to recover? Absolutely not. My book is paradoxical in that the narrative I created was about resisting narratives––a friend once compared it to David Foster Wallace’s attempt, in The Pale King, to write about boredom without being boring (and yes I took that as an enormous compliment)––which some might see as impossible. I mean, even if the narrative is oppositional, it’s still, at its core, a narrative. So I still was seduced by the prospect of telling my own story, but in the end, recognized and continue to recognize that the story will never be fully knowable. If that makes sense, which I’m sure it doesn’t.
One thing that I said about getting better in the book I think is really key, and that is moving away from the eating disorder as a topic on which one dwells. I mean this as much in regard to recovery––and the psychoanalytic instinct to wonder where the “origin” of one’s problems are––as I do with regard to the dwelling necessary to being actively ill. What I mean by this is: at some point, get out of therapy, and try to conceive of yourself as something other than a patient. (This is easier as you get older––when the same people you were once doing bong rips with are now becoming clinical psychologists, you start to realize that the adult-child dynamic you once thought present in therapy was not quite as clear as you once thought!) If your therapist is good, he or she will be leading you in that direction already. I said the opening statement in the book with regard to my little friend who is now a grown-up; I immediately noticed, when we met up years after being hospitalized together, how curious of a spirit she was, and how much I could tell she wanted to experience. She learned, as I did, that if you are actively anorexic, you simply cannot have a wide variety of experiences. I found that for me personally, becoming a spokesperson for “awareness” felt in many ways similarly constricting in that I was still forcing myself to identify as an anorexic (recovering, recovered, whatever.) It’s still succumbing to the desire to label ourselves, which I’d like to push back against, personally. So that didn’t really work for me. But it works for some people, I guess?
You write that anorexia is unique in that people seek it out, they want to be sick, whereas alcoholics, for example, wish they could drink like normal people. But sickness, especially mental illness in the artistic community seems comparably romanticized. One of my favorite books about this phenomenon is “Against Depression” by Peter Kramer. He wrote this book, because while touring for his best-seller “Listening to Prozac,” people often asked him: What if Van gogh took Prozac? What about Kierkegaard?” Kramer believes that artists created not because of mental illness but in spite of it. He writes that while qualities of the disease of depression– alienation, hyper-sensitivity– are romanticized, other common and frequent symptoms such as disorganization, poor memory, irritability, difficulty changing intention into action, paranoia, anxiety, lack of resilience, vulnerability to harm, paralysis, hostility, impatience etc are often downplayed or ignored. Kramer believes that alienation– the ability to step back and look at the culture or political bodies while separate from them– can be a useful skill. But getting stuck in alienation is a sickness. Depression is a ‘stuck switch,’ an impairment in the stress/ response system. When I blogged about his book, I wrote “Basically he’s saying artists don’t need a little bit of depression to create art any more than women need a little bit of anorexia to be fit.” Long intro, but here are my questions: Did you write your book, in part, to show the other symptoms of anorexia, the ones not glamorized?
I did, particularly the existential torment I found so hard to live with. Now, I often speak at schools, and I’ve had to rethink yet again what is effectively dissuasive. I remembered as a teenager not caring a whit about things like bone density and heart damage and lanugo––almost like a rock and roll, I’m-so-dark-death-doesn’t-scare-me kind of thing––so I never lead with medical consequences. Instead, I tend to start with social stuff; I tell them about how, right after I graduated college, I became painfully aware of the fact that my friends were growing and maturing and I was not. I couldn’t go to a restaurant, let alone have a romantic relationship! So I started to really conceive of what my life would look like: attenuated, though my death would be long and slow; painfully boring and isolated; and basically not very meaningful. By that I mean, I wouldn’t be able to do anything significant in the world, because I would likely be too tired. Childless, also, that was very depressing. When I say this to kids, I can tell they hear me; they want to be in lock-step with their friends, and I’m basically telling them that will never happen if they choose this path. (Granted, it probably won’t happen for a whole other host of reasons, but that’s for them to find out!)
Given this comparison, do you still think anorexia is unique in being a disease that people seek out?
Yes I do. That is, I think it is unique in that the population attracted to it is perhaps the most conscious of its aspirations. But I do think that generally, while it’s unlikely someone may endeavor to become depressed or to nurture the behaviors of a depressive, there is a certain pride in being diagnosed––with basically anything—these days, which is very bizarre. Not so long ago, people fought tirelessly against being put in a box. Now, I feel like people are THRILLED to be in the box. So often people report to me with palpable glee that their therapist told them they probably have x, or y, or z. Recently a friend of mine bragged that her therapist told her she was a little psychotic. (She isn’t.) And I was like, “Why is she so happy about this?”
There is so little tolerance for non-pathological “bad feelings” that I think people either create the pathologies or fall into the psychiatric establishment’s hands and allow their behavior to be labeled pathologized. Being diagnosed (again, with basically anything) kills two birds with one stone, too: it allows you to feel special/different, but also to fit in, because psychiatric problems are the contemporary norm. This all sounds very conspiracy theory-esque, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is not such a thing as organic mental illness, or that all psychiatrists are out to medicate us into a Brave New World-style stupor, but I do think we compulsively ferret out the wrong in people even when it’s not there, or when exposing it and obsessing over it is potentially more harmful than helpful.
What do you think about the cynical/ skeptical world view: If I’m miserable, I’m smart and unique but happy people are stupid? The idea that joy is superficial rather than a profound choice? How do your views on this relate to anorexia and eating disorders?
I think this is a very real belief many people have, and I myself had it for years, and that any expectation of feeling ONE way all the time is reductive and stupid and possibly harmful. Something counterintuitive happened to me on my journey to wherever it is that I am now: I realized that for me to be “happy” meant to be intellectually engaged, and I happen to be more interested in things that many people might consider dark or depressing. So in some way, I still think a lot about objectively “sad” topics, but the end result is with me feeling more fulfilled than I would be if I were to convince myself that it had to be sunshine and rainbows all the time.
Are you writing another book? What are you working on now?
I tell myself every day I need to start on book two! And I want to, I really do, but I keep procrastinating by writing essays and shorter pieces. I was going to write another memoir, about the time I spent as a writer’s assistant to a true crime author who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but I’m sort of second-guessing it. Requests taken!