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Food & Identity

What we (don’t) eat - and who we are.

Going Hungry: Writers on Desire, Self Denial, and Overcoming Anorexia (Anchor, $15.95), edited by Kate Taylor, is an anthology of essays by writers who have struggled with eating disorders, including Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Glück and novelists Joyce Maynard and Francine du Plessix Gray. The authors are predominately upper-middle-class white women, but include a Latino male, a black woman and an observant Jew, each of whom offers unique and diverse perspectives. Ilana Kurshan’s poetic essay specifically references the strength of Jewish prayers and rituals and will be of interest to Lilith readers.

The nightmarish world of anorexia is graphically described in almost every chapter of the book. While a bit repetitive, the details will engage and educate the reader unfamiliar with the inner world of the eating-disordered person, whom John Nolan describes as one who “chews each bite silently and painstakingly” and is obsessed with “a refusal to let anyone see him eat… drink… . (or even) swallow his own saliva.” Other anorexic traits — such as a constant need for overscheduling and obsessing over slimness, as well as delighting in a sense of power and superiority from “loosely hung clothing” — are discussed by several authors.

Anorexia and bulimia are the tip of an emotional iceberg. And writing, Franz Kafka wrote, “is an axe to break the frozen sea within.” Every time a story is told, new details are unearthed and hidden meanings can be revealed. Francesca Lia Block writes: “I write about what is painful to me. This process transforms the pain into something meaningful, possibly even beautiful. It physically removes it from the prison of my body so I can look at it with perspective and share it with others.”

In reading this anthology, I wondered if the process of writing would have deepened self awareness for these sufferers and would illuminate their process of transformation. But the power of writing to thaw out the blue ice is explored less frequently than I had anticipated in a book of writers’ memoirs.

The editor of the anthology, journalist Kate Taylor, adeptly intertwines her own experience with anorexia with a thorough history of eating disorders in the past two centuries. At the onset of her illness, she believed creativity was fueled by her masochistic relationship with food, her body and hunger, a common motif. Not until she was well into recovery could Taylor reflect on how issues of identity and individuation regarding her family contributed to her anorexia: “ I used my anorexia to push myself out of the nest, and for years… I couldn’t relax around my parents. I can’t say when this stopped being so important, but it did. Today, I take pleasure in those parts of myself — my hunger for intimacy, my desire to mother and be mothered — that I was trying to shut off while I was anorexic.”

Although most of the individuals writing here have been able to overcome lifethreatening rituals, many here express regret, acknowledging that self-denial and the quest to be “thin enough” robbed them of years. Full recovery has been rare, it seems. Yet this grim conclusion contradicts my clinical experience; as a therapist and supervisor who has specialized in treating eating disorders for 30 years, I have consistently learned that indepth psychotherapy can be the pathway to healing symptoms and thawing the dynamic issues embedded in the blue ice.

Recently a new anorexic patient asked me, “Do people recover?” When you approach a rabbi with an important question, you often receive a reading list as an answer. I wanted to educate, motivate and prepare her for the journey ahead. I handed her Going Hungry.

Judith Ruskay Rabinor, a psychotherapist in New York, is the author of A Starving Madness: Tales of Hunger, Hope and Healing in Psychotherapy.