Betsy Lerner recently spoke to LILITH news editor Alice Sparberg Alexiou about her recently-published Food and Loathing: A Lament (Simon & Schuster, $22), about her struggle with compulsive overeating disorder.
LILITH: What made you tell your story?
Lerner: I tried to suppress it for years. I tried to write it as a novel….I remember the day I was inspired to finally start it. I was on a train coming from Provence with my husband. I hadn’t brought a notebook along. I think that liberated me. We’d overeaten on this trip, and my husband and I were joking that we’d start a diet “on Monday.” I asked my husband for a sheet of paper. I began to write. The truth is, I’ve always wanted to tell my story. I’ve always been picking up the carpet to show the dirt. But I never calculated this.
LILITH: You give the reader a lot of painful details, such as the death of your two-year-old sister when you were very young, your thoughts of suicide and subsequent hospitalization. all of which help to tell your story. Your book is about a lot of things—not only your struggle with mental illness, but also about families, and grief Can you address that?
Lerner: My sister’s death went largely unmourned. My parents did the best they could; they stayed together. But there were no grief counselors running around then. I never felt safe. I had to take care of myself
LILITH: Some might find your portrayal of your parents quite brutal.
Lerner: [laughing] I thought I was kind of generous! My mom is shocked, but also supportive. She’s making me a book party. She knows it’s important to me; she set me up to be a writer. But it’s definitely hard for her.
LILITH: One of the psychiatrists you describe in your book refused to take your compulsive overeating seriously, even when you were suicidal. Is this a cautionary tale?
Lerner: When you’re in need of treatment is when you are the most vulnerable. This doctor was a major father figure to me. I was in his thrall. I wanted to believe his version, that I was a phony.
LILITH: You talk about how much you hated your body when you were a teenager. Is there a Jewish angle to this obsession with body image?
Lerner: Definitely! Jewish families are a lot about food; a lot of love is handed out in the form of kugel. There was a lot of obesity in my family. And I certainly felt that food was love. When I was little my father and I used to go to the movies and binge together.
I was a chubby Jewish girl from the suburbs. No matter what I accomplished, that was all I was. I was deeply ashamed. Suburban equaled small minded, chubby equaled not beautiful. And Jewish meant superstitious and ethnic, not glamorous. I was never happy about being Jewish. Yet I was drawn to Jewish writers. I love Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, Woody Allen.
LILITH: Are you still conflicted by your Jewishness?
Lerner: Yes. I’m intermarried, I left the suburbs. My husband and I are not raising our daughter, who’s five, Jewish. But when my parents die, I know I’ll sit shiva.
Oh, and I’m still chubby. And still Jewish.