I read Marya Hornbacher’s landmark memoir about her experience with anorexia nervosa many years ago. In 2015, I re-read it and wrote an updated review, which I am reposting here as/is.
Back in 2003, when I had just started writing product reviews on Epinions.com, I posted a review of Marya Hornbacher’s groundbreaking book, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. This book was originally published in 1998. I remember that very clearly, because at the time, I was working at a restaurant and didn’t have a lot of money to blow on books and music. I really wanted to read it. So did everyone else that used the local library. I finally checked it out months after it was first published, then bought my own copy. Marya Hornbacher’s storytelling blew me away. She’s close to my age, too, so I could relate to some of the cultural references she made during her coming of age years, even though she’s from Minnesota and I’m from Virginia.
I recently decided to re-read Marya’s book, even though I read it a few times years ago. It’s been a long time since I was last diet obsessed. Though no one would believe it to see me now… and they probably wouldn’t have believed it then, either… when I was a teenager, I used to diet obsessively. I never made myself throw up or binged, but I did used to restrict food and would, on occasion, go without eating for days. It’s been many years since I last did that. I find that now, if I try to starve myself, I can’t really function very well. I get pale, shaky, confused, and extremely short tempered. Though it’s been awhile since I last fainted, I imagine if I went too long without food, I probably would. I used to faint all the time when I was younger.
As a teen and college student, I would starve myself all the time. I did it, in part, to lose weight. I probably also did it for attention, and because I had very low self-esteem and hated myself. Some of my friends knew, but my family never did. If they had known, I doubt they would have cared that much, since I have never been thin. Either that, or they wouldn’t have believed me, unless they had seen it for themselves. I do remember my mom yelling at me once when she hadn’t seen me eat in awhile, but it seemed to be more out of annoyance than alarm. I have since come to realize that a lot of times, my mom is annoyed about being concerned. The two conditions go hand in hand for her. If I’m honest, I’m kind of the same way. I get worried, but it annoys me when I feel worried.
So anyway, I just finished Wasted yesterday. I can’t say I’m as blown away by it as I was in the late 1990s, though I still think it’s a damn good book. She starts at the beginning, explaining that her parents, though still married at the time the book was published, were a very dysfunctional couple. They had weird food habits. Marya would have friends over and there would be “nothing to eat”… or, at least nothing that kids would like. Her mother didn’t keep sugar in the house, so there was no chocolate, no sugary cereals, no Cheetos or potato chips…
By the time she was in fourth grade, Marya was a full blown bulimic. She later progressed into anorexia nervosa and was deeply entrenched in it by age 15. As a teen, she was hospitalized three times. The first time, it was for bulimia, so she had fewer restrictions than some of her fellow patients, who were there due to anorexia nervosa. She gained and lost weight repeatedly, eventually reaching a low of 52 pounds in 1993, while a college student. She very nearly died. In fact, doctors once gave her a week to live. She managed to rebound and recover, though she was eventually diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder with atypical features. I read about her experiences being bipolar when I picked up her book, Madness: A Bipolar Life, published in 2008.
Marya Hornbacher definitely knows what she’s writing about, though her experiences were very extreme. She’s also a very vivid writer who has a relatable voice. Her eating disorders, while bad enough on their own, were mixed with alcoholism and drug abuse. She got involved with males… guys she didn’t know well and didn’t care too much about. At the same time, she was extraordinarily talented. She spent a year at Interlochen, a Michigan private high school for artistic teenagers and, according to Hornbacher, a hotbed of eating disorders. Her health suffered so much there that she had to leave after a year, yet she still managed to achieve a lot. She won a scholarship to American University in Washington, DC, Bill’s alma mater as well as my older sister’s. She did not graduate from American, though, because once again, her eating disorders got in the way.
Throughout the book, Marya offers “interludes”, passages written after she had supposedly recovered. She explains what it’s like to read her files, written by medical and psychological professionals who took care of her. She also writes about physical damage she did to herself and how it affected her circa 1996. I have no idea if she still has physical issues nearly twenty years later. I would guess she does.
I suppose if I had to offer a criticism of Wasted, I’d say that it may be dangerous reading for some people. Those who have struggled with eating disorders may find it triggering or “too informational” on how to maintain the disease. For example, Marya writes that many bulimics eat certain brightly colored foods so they have a marker when they vomit to see what’s come up. That’s a trick that may not have occurred to those reading her book for “thinspiration”. Some people recovering from an eating disorder may feel compelled to try some of Marya’s methods themselves.
On the other hand, I don’t know how in the world Marya could have written her story without describing the disease and what she did to maintain it. While being more vague about the extremes of her illness– for example, not telling readers that she got down to 52 pounds– might have made this “safer” for people who have anorexia nervosa, it also would have made for much less compelling reading. People who don’t understand eating disorders and don’t know why they are so dangerous should know about the more dramatic aspects of the illness. Aside from that, people with eating disorders are forever looking for “thinspiration” anyway and they’ll find it wherever they think it exists. An Amazon.com underwear ad could be triggering to someone with an eating disordered mindset. I don’t think it’s possible to completely protect people from themselves.
In any case, Marya Hornbacher’s first book, written when she was just twenty-three years old, is brilliantly composed, full of candor, and uses vivid language. I do recommend it to those who wonder what would compel someone to starve themselves, binge, and purge. Those who struggle with eating disorders may do well be be cautious.
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