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. 😉
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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