book reviews, mental health, psychology

A review of Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia, by Hadley Freeman…

Leave it to Amazon’s suggestive selling feature to sell me things I didn’t think I wanted. Before last month, I had not heard of journalist Hadley Freeman, or her new book, Good Girls: A Story and Study of Anorexia, which was published on April 18, 2023. Now that I’ve just finished reading Freeman’s personal story about her experiences with anorexia, along with anecdotes from people she knew when she spent months in eating disorder programs in London, I can say that I’d definitely read another one of her books. She has a very engaging style, and her talent for turning phrases makes her writing interesting and an overall pleasure to read.

I also enjoyed Hadley Freeman’s story, because she and I are somewhat close in age. I’m almost six years older than she is. There was a time when that would have been a significant age gap, but once you get to middle age, that gap really isn’t so wide anymore. Her book was interesting to me, because we were young at the same time. I got a lot of the cultural references she made. Good Girls is about her experiences with anorexia nervosa, but it’s also about the experiences of people she met while “in hospital”. A number of the women she interviewed are my age or slightly older. I could relate to them and their stories because of that closeness in age.

Freeman included some interesting anecdotes about some of the cases involving her fellow patients that invite more research and study for my blog. Regular readers know I’m a sucker for a scandalous story, and she made me aware of a couple of them in her book. Perhaps on a day when I have writer’s block, I will think to revisit Good Girls and be reminded of those stories, which I will then write about. As I’ve discovered through blogging since 2010, I’m not the only one who is a sucker for a scandal… even the low level ones that are only interesting on a local level. šŸ˜‰

Everyone has a story, and Hadley Freeman is no different. She is a British-American journalist who was born to a Jewish family in New York City. Freeman spent her early life in New York, where her father worked in finance. Freeman has dual American and British citizenship, and continues to live and work in both countries.

When Hadley was eleven years old, her family moved to London, and Hadley was plunged into a similar, but different culture. I could relate to that. I was born in Virginia, but moved to England when I was about three years old. I stayed in England until I was almost six years old. Although I was in England as an “Air Force brat”, that experience really left a mark on me, and I can remember being bewildered when we moved back to the US, having doubled in age. Granted, Hadley Freeman was eleven when she moved, so surely she had a concept of countries and continents and such. But there are some significant differences between life in the United States and life in England. As Freeman points out, New York and London, though both big cities, are very different. Hadley had some trouble adjusting.

When she was about fourteen years old, Hadley began suffering from anorexia nervosa severe enough to land her in the hospital. She spent the next three years in and out of different psychiatric hospitals in London, occasionally being treated by an arrogant doctor who apparently did more harm than good. Most of the hospitals where Freeman was treated are not specifically named in this book; Freeman does mention one clinic that was eventually renamed where a fellow patient had spent time and was exposed to a predatory male nurse. I did some preliminary research about the nurse and found his case was covered in the news. I’ll be reading more about him.

Freeman’s experiences put her in contact with other people who suffered from eating disorders, including a few men. Not everyone she met had anorexia; some were diagnosed with bulimia, while others were compulsive or binge eaters. Because the hospitals were residential, she had the opportunity to get to know the other patients. She eventually lost contact with her fellow patients, as social media wasn’t a “thing” in those days, and she had been discouraged from keeping in touch with them. Therapists had told her that staying in contact with other people with eating disorders could encourage her to keep up the destructive behaviors that had led to anorexia.

Years after her final release from hospitals, Hadley Freeman decided to reach out to some of her old friends. She found that a number of them were eager to speak to her about their experiences. So, while Freeman writes about her time on the eating disorder wards in the 1990s, she also includes stories from others she knew back then. In one case, the story didn’t come from the fellow patient, as she had died by her own hand. Instead, Freeman spoke to the woman’s family. This particular patient was a talented actress who had starred in some television and theatrical shows before she ended her life. I had not heard of her before I read Good Girls, but I looked her up and now I want to know more about her.

The theories and treatment modalities for treating eating disorders were different in the 1990s than they are today. I read several Amazon reviews from irate readers claiming that Freeman’s book is “dangerous” because she doesn’t delve into the most recent research regarding eating disorder treatment. I don’t think this book is supposed to be about current treatments or theories. It’s a memoir. Freeman is writing about her experiences in the 1990s. There is an audience of people who would be interested in reading about Freeman’s experiences during that era, even if the information she includes is not as useful to people who suffer from eating disorders today.

Many years ago, I read Cherry Boone O’Neill’s 1982 book, Starving For Attention. Cherry Boone O’Neill is Pat Boone’s eldest daughter. She suffered most extensively from anorexia nervosa in the 1970s. Her book includes theories and treatment modalities from that time, which would probably be thought of as “wrong” and “dangerous” today (even though Cherry ultimately survived and has five adult children). I wouldn’t go to Cherry’s book for information about how to help someone with an eating disorder in 2023. I don’t think that’s its purpose. It’s a story about her experiences, which has worth in and of itself. I think I feel the same way about Hadley Freeman’s book, Good Girls.

I wouldn’t recommend Good Girls to a worried parent or spouse of someone with an eating disorder, desperate for solutions or answers as to why eating disorders happen. There are other books written by experts for that purpose. Freeman does include comments from physicians and mental health professionals about today’s treatments, but I didn’t really feel like that was the main idea of her book.

Freeman eventually became a “functional anorexic”, after “cramming” at different British schools to pass her “A-levels”. She wound up earning her university degree at Oxford University, and then curiously embarked on a career as a fashion journalist. She found she had an “in” with people in the fashion industry, because she was very thin. After about ten years of that, she moved on to other areas. She’s written for The Guardian and The Telegraph, and she has also penned other books. I enjoyed Good Girls enough that I would seek out her other books– after I’ve read a few that have been sitting in the “to be read” queue for awhile.

I do wish Freeman had expanded a bit more on the British education and healthcare systems. I wouldn’t have expected an in depth explanation per se, but a little bit of information about the differences between the U.S. and British systems may have been helpful to the many American readers whom I suspect will read this book. The U.S. healthcare system is much more expensive for consumers than the British system is. Freeman also mentions “sectioning”, which could be a foreign concept to US readers, as the U.S. system doesn’t really have “sectioning”, which allows healthcare professionals and family members to involuntarily commit adults for mental health treatment for illnesses that are life threatening.

Yes, a person can be involuntarily committed in the United States, but it’s my understanding that the system is broader in Britain, which allows for commitment for illnesses like anorexia nervosa that put a person’s life at risk. In the United States, the criteria for commitment is set by individual states and is more focused on an individual’s civil rights and potential for harming or killing other people. A look at the number of people who have been recently killed by gun violence in the United States might offer a clue at the discrepancy between the U.S.’s system and Britain’s system.

Overall, I’m glad I read Good Girls. I know a lot of people with eating disorders might not like it and will protest that it lacks value due to its “dangerous and outdated” discussions of eating disorder treatments and theories from the early 90s. I would like to remind those readers that discussions about past treatments and theories are still worth reading about, if only because they provide a historic view of how things were handled in the past. History is useful, as it offers a look at where we’ve already been. This book isn’t a volume on how to treat eating disorders in 2023, although it does include some commentary from healthcare professionals of today. It’s mostly a memoir, and should be regarded as such.

On a side note… maybe one distressing side effect of reading Good Girls is that Freeman mentions the fashion industry and certain models of the 1990s and 00s. Because of that, I fell down a rabbit hole, watching America’s Next Top Model. Talk about toxic! I’ve written about that show a few times, but I have a feeling this latest look will spawn some fresh content… particularly after I watched Cycle 8, which starred Renee Alway and the late Jael Strauss. I hadn’t watched ANTM in years, but I’m hooked again, and I think it merits some discussion. So stay tuned, if that piques your interest.

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true crime

Foreshadowing trouble…

This morning, I was looking at my Statcounter hits, and I noticed that I got one from Blackboard, educational software that is frequently used at colleges and universities in the United States. The person who hit my old blog was evidently at Drexel University. He or she read a post I wrote about a book I read, written by a college classmate who is now in prison. As I was revisiting that post this morning, I felt a little flabbergasted by how much technology has changed since my undergraduate days. When I was in college in the 1990s, we didn’t have Blackboard. In fact, we barely had the Internet back then. By the time I was in graduate school from 1999-2002, Blackboard was commonly used around the country.

Several years ago, on my old blog, I wrote a post called Prison. It was inspired by a thread I had read on RfM. Someone had posted that a family member was about to go to prison and they wanted information about what it would be like. I remembered that a few years prior, I had read a number of books about the prison experience. One of the books I read and reviewed was entitled A Woman Doing Life: Notes from a Prison for Women (2010). Although I didn’t realize it the first time I read that book, back in 2010, I actually knew the author, Erin McCay George. We went to college together in Farmville, Virginia. As I read Erin’s book the first time, I kept marveling at how much we had in common, right down to having attended Longwood University (then known as Longwood College) at the same time.

When I revisited Erin’s book in 2013, it suddenly dawned on me who she was. Longwood was a very small, close-knit school in the 1990s. It’s grown a bit since I was a student, but it’s still a very friendly campus. I have many friends from my college days, which as of this year are 25 years in the past. I even still speak to former professors, and they actually remember me! Bill marvels about that, since he went to much larger American University, where he was just one of thousands of students.

Because the campus was so close-knit, it was easy to get to know “of” people. I wasn’t buddies with Erin George, but I definitely knew who she was. She was friendly with people I knew better, and in fact, had been a very controversial editor of our school newspaper. One of my friends worked with the Student Government Association and knew Erin because she was accused of embezzling money that was intended for the newspaper. Erin evidently left the country while the case was being investigated and never graduated from Longwood.

So, the next post I composed after “Prison” was called “I actually DO know Erin McCay George.” That post is now six years old, but it’s attracted a lot of attention that continues today. I got comments from several people who also know Erin, including one from one of her children, who was sent to England to live after her mother was sent to prison for 603 years for murdering her husband over insurance money. I’ve also gotten comments from college students whose professors are using Erin’s book in their criminal justice classes, as well as people who knew her at Longwood, or knew her husband’s family in England.

As I was rereading that post this morning, it occurred to me how pieces of a story can come together. It’s really fascinating. For much of my life, I didn’t have access to the Internet. Now that it’s as ubiquitous as indoor plumbing, I can communicate with people from all over the world and get more of a story than I would have otherwise had. But I also have the benefit of hindsight, and this morning, I’m remember the controversy that made Erin a campus name back in 1992.

It was all over a newspaper article that appeared on the front page of The Rotunda in the fall of ā€™92. Erin had penned an expose over the disparities in faculty salaries, and went as far as to publish them in the newspaper. Thinking about that situation now, it seems crazy that people would have gotten into such a tizzy over the salary information, especially since Erin George is currently doing 603 years for murder in a big death penalty state. But I do remember people were very upset about it and Erin came under fire for printing the information for everyone to see. Actually, looking at the numbers, I’m a bit horrified by how low the salaries were. I know it was 1992, but jeez, most of the profs weren’t making a lot of money!

This caused quite a stir!
And so did this.

Then, I remembered there was a controversy about condoms in the newspaper. I’m not sure if I’m remembering this accurately, and as of right now, I’m looking to see if I can find the actual issue, but I seem to remember that Erin was responsible for condoms being distributed within the newspaper. I could be wrong, though. I’ll keep looking to see if I can find the proof. ETA: I’m right. In the screenshot, you can read Julie Wiley’s comments about the infamous SEX issue of the paper. I don’t think I got an issue of that paper myself, even though they were freely distributed around campus. They went fast because college students are always keen to get things for free… condoms were probably especially valuable.

What I did find while searching the archives is a supportive letter to the editor written by a math professor from back in the day. Behold:

She could have been a legit editor, had she only managed to stay out of the criminal element.

In searching the archives, Iā€™m not finding the unsigned sheet Dr. Webber mentions. I suspect that some people in the know decided to put them in the paper after they had already been printed. The above letter would have been printed in the fall of 1993, but Erin was married by March 1994. My SGA friend told me that Erin abruptly left the country while she was being investigated for allegedly embezzling funds intended for the newspaper. Erin was also mentioned in The Virginian, Longwood’s yearbook, for making comments about how the yearbook was funded:

Incidentally, I also knew Julie Wiley when I was at Longwood.

I went looking for the infamous SEX issue, but I can’t find it posted anywhere. However, I did find the article about the SGA and its funding of the yearbook. Interestingly enough, the piece appears to be more of an editorial than a news article, yet it appears on the front page.

News or opinion? It’s funny to look at this article, since I remember a number of the people named within it. Most of them are not sitting in prison.

And the article got a lot of responses from the community…

I knew these folks, too… They had a good point.
MB Stradley is one of my friends. We got back in touch when she found an article I wrote about yet another murderer we encountered when we were students. Of course, when she wrote this letter, it was before Erin George was a convicted killer.

Anyway… it’s been interesting to take this walk down memory lane. It doesn’t seem like I graduated from college 25 years ago, but it’s pretty funny to read some of the back issues of The Rotunda during the Erin McCay years. It’s amazing what you can find when you look in the past. While I’m sure none of us ever thought the controversial newspaper reporter would one day wind up in prison and write a book that gets used in college courses, I think some of what was written in our college paper sort of foreshadows the fact that Ms. George was destined to find trouble. Farmville, Virginia is a pleasant, quiet, college town, but it’s had its share of craziness. On the other hand, rock star Jason Mraz was once a Longwood student, too.

See? It’s actually a great place to go to school. I loved my time there.

Edited to add: I found this clipping from 1992 about the infamous Sex issue of the Rotunda…

“College Newspaper Comes With Condoms” United Press International (09/25/92) 

Farmville, Va.–Longwood College’s student newspaper this week was published with a condom taped inside each copy. Erin McCay, editor-in-chief of the Rotunda, said, “The purpose of this issue was to raise awareness.” She added that she was “appalled by the Victorian attitude toward sex, and the grim repercussions that that attitude can have.” The newspaper was headlined, “SEX!! SEX!! SEX!! IN THE NINETIES.” The condoms were stuck on page eight in a box headed, “Just Use It.” Dean of students Tim Pierson said the issue was “inappropriate.” Advertising revenue paid for the condoms, according to McCay, who was summoned to a meeting Friday with Phyllis Mable, vice president for student affairs. The special edition entailed stories and commentary about date rape, AIDS on college campuses, and attitudes about sex as well as unrelated articles. A total of 1,200 copies of the Rotunda were distributed around campus on Monday night and were gone by early Tuesday.

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