book reviews, celebrities, LDS

But wait– there’s more! My review of Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died…

Yesterday, I wrote my first post about Jennette McCurdy, a former Nickelodeon star who just wrote a book called I’m Glad My Mom Died. I bought that book on August 9th, and started reading it a few days ago. I just finished it a few minutes ago. Before August 9th, I didn’t know the first thing about Jennette McCurdy. Now, I feel like I know her. We have some things in common. Actually, if I’m honest, I think she has things in common with my husband and his younger daughter.

A couple of hours after I shared my first post about Jennette McCurdy on Facebook, an old friend commented that she looked forward to my review. She wrote that she had to read the book. Now that I’ve finished it, I agree with her. She should read it. I think she will relate to Jennette McCurdy’s story, too. I think a LOT of people will, in spite of the shocking title that some will feel is in poor taste. Some people think that anyone who gives birth is automatically some kind of angel. And some are just as quick to judge someone who has given birth. Our society tends to look at mothers as people who are always either way above reproach, or people who can be condemned to the depths of hell for making the simplest mistakes. A lot of us forget that moms are people, too. In fact, they are just people, first and foremost.

Jennette McCurdy grew up thinking that her mother was amazing in all ways. Debra McCurdy had a vision for her only daughter’s life. From the age of six, Jennette was expected to share in the dream, as her mom made her audition for commercials, take acting and dance classes, and be cute and charming for casting directors. Debra McCurdy had breast cancer; it was diagnosed with Jennette was two years old. Debra was not above using cancer to get sympathy and preferential treatment, either for herself, or her daughter. Jennette loved her mother, and she hated to disappoint the people she loved. She was a natural people pleaser, trained since early childhood to make other people happy, regardless of her own needs or desires. Later, when she became an adult, she became co-dependent, settling on bad relationships with toxic people instead of holding out for people who were better, and weren’t abusive to her.

So Jennette went along with her mother’s vision for her life. She smiled for casting directors, and put up with her mother’s intrusive and weird behaviors. She didn’t complain when her mother hoarded things, and forced her and her three brothers to sleep on mats. She wasn’t confrontational when her mother used the money she earned to pay her mortgage. And even though she didn’t like being an actress, she didn’t want to upset her sick mom. She she acted and became successful, portraying Sam Puckett on iCarly and Sam and Cat. It almost destroyed her. Life in show business is toxic. Add in a toxic mother, and you have a recipe for lifelong issues. People don’t realize it, but fame and money aren’t tickets to happiness. Some of the most miserable people are wealthy, famous people.

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned a few of the more shocking things that happened when Jennette was growing up. Here’s a quick and dirty list.

  • At age six, Debra McCurdy forced her daughter to audition for agents. She had a knack for acting, but she hated it. Her mom made her act, anyway.
  • At age eleven, Jennette started growing breasts. Breasts weren’t good, because they made her look mature. Looking young was good for Jennette’s career, especially on Nickelodeon. So Debra taught her eleven year old daughter how to restrict calories. She noticed when Jennette gained weight and chastised her. She wouldn’t let her eat pineapple, because it was high in sugar.
  • As a young teenager, Jennette still sat in a booster seat in her mother’s car.
  • As a teenager, Jennette’s mother showered her, using her prior experience as a beautician as an excuse– to make sure her hair was pretty for the casting directors. Sometimes, one of her brothers would be forced to join her in the shower.
  • Jennette’s mother discouraged her from being a writer, because she said writers dress frumpy and get fat. She didn’t want Jennette’s “peach butt” to turn into a “watermelon butt”.
  • Jennette’s mother criticized Jennette’s father, Mark, for not working hard enough and being lazy. And she said it was hard for her to have to rely on a child to pay the bills.
  • Jennette’s mother sent her endless abusive text messages, emails, and voicemails calling her filthy names and accusing her of “giving her cancer”. Then, she signed off with “love”, and demanded money for a new refrigerator.
  • Jennette’s mother didn’t have an appreciation for her daughter’s likes and dislikes. She bought her inappropriate gifts and expected her to be delighted with them.
  • Jennette’s mother never told her who her “real” father was, or that the man she thought was her father, wasn’t actually her dad. She never told her that her biological dad had wanted to be in her life.
  • Jennette’s mother was a NARCISSIST.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I write a lot about narcissists. I strongly suspect my husband’s first wife is a narcissist. I’ve written many– some would say– inappropriate blog posts about my husband’s ex wife. I probably shouldn’t do that. It might put me at risk. But, I figure that there’s not much more she can do to us, since she deprived Bill of a relationship with his daughters for many years, and she tried hard to ruin his relationships with his family of origin. If I hadn’t immediately recognized her as the abuser she is, she probably would have tried to ruin our marriage. This is another thing that Jennette has in common with Bill and his daughters. You see, Jennette’s dad– Mark– was not actually her father. Debra McCurdy had an affair with a trombonist and he was the biological father of three of her four children. She never told her daughter. And, just as Ex did her best to sever the relationships her first two husbands had with Ex’s three eldest children, Debra McCurdy did the same to Jennette’s bio dad.

Jennette McCurdy doesn’t mention the word “narcissist” until the very end of the book. I was glad to see she recognizes that extreme behavior for what it is. But, as I read the book, even recognizing that she was a celebrity, I could relate so much. Not because I was raised by narcissists, but because I’ve been the second wife of a man whose ex wife is almost assuredly one. The behavior is VERY familiar. It’s also not hard to see where Debra McCurdy’s behavior came from, as Jennette writes about her equally narcissistic grandmother, whose levels of entitlement are off the charts.

A different interview than the one I shared yesterday about Jennette McCurdy and her explosive new book.

It may seem I’ve given a lot away in this post. Actually, the meat of the story really comes after Debra dies, in 2013. As I sit here, reflecting on that year, I realize that 2013 was some time ago. It doesn’t seem like it was nine years ago. I guess that’s what happens when you turn 50. Nine years doesn’t seem like it was so long ago. Jennette is now only 30. She lost her mom when she was just launching into true adulthood. Debra’s death came after many false alarms– “dress rehearsals”– as Jennette puts it. When her mother died, she was devastated. She still believed the fake version of her life story. It wasn’t until later that she got the truth, and that’s when Jennette’s life was endangered. She turned to bulimia, alcoholism, binge eating, and anorexia. She had lots of bad sex with inappropriate partners, and engaged in codependent behaviors. She abandoned Mormonism, for the most part. I wouldn’t necessarily think that was such a bad thing, except it was the one place where she got comfort as a child and had a few somewhat healthy role models (and knowing what I know about Mormonism, that is, in itself, a sad statement).

I think the part where I was the most stunned and gleaned the most insight was when Jennette’s very first therapist– an earth mother therapist/life coach named Laura– delivered a truth bomb that Jennette simply could not handle at the time. Laura was the first person to point out to Jennette that the idealized version of her mother– a fantasy version that did not exist– was fake. And that all of the things Jennette believed her mother did to “help” her, were in fact, toxic, abusive, and exploitive. Laura was right, of course, but even though she delivered the truth very gently, Jennette still couldn’t take it. It wasn’t until later that she was ready for therapy, this time with a male eating disorder specialist named Jeff. I think I would have liked Jeff more than Laura. Women who act like nurturing “earth mothers” usually annoy me. I seem to relate better to men… as long as they don’t try to control me.

I read a large portion of this book aloud to Bill. It spawned a very interesting and insightful conversation. I think his daughter should read I’m Glad My Mom Died, but I know she’s very busy with Mormonism and her young family. I also fear that reading this book could be triggering for her, because I suspect she will identify with a lot of it. I, for one, found this book very enlightening. I don’t share all of Jennette’s issues, but I relate to much of what she writes about eating disorders and alcoholism. And again… I’ve been married to a man whose Ex is a lot like Debra McCurdy on MANY levels. Ex wasn’t my spouse or my mom, but she’s affected my life, just the same. And it’s all so familiar. As I read this story to Bill, he agreed that it was all so very familiar.

One thing I liked about this book is that Jennette’s chapters are short, well-edited, and easy to digest. I think the short chapters are good, because she drops a lot of “bombshells” that could be shocking for many readers. Her writing is sometimes brutally honest. She uses profanity, and there are some very frank descriptions of sexual encounters, bulimia episodes, and alcoholic escapades. I would caution anyone who has suffered from eating disorders to be cautious about reading this book, because some of Jennette’s stories might be triggering.

My heart kind of broke for Jennette, as she wrote about giving her very first blow job as a consolation to a much older boyfriend, because she wasn’t ready for sex. It broke again as she wrote about her actual first experience with intercourse, with someone who didn’t deserve the honor. And then the guy with whom she had much chemistry turned out to be not so good, either. All I could do was think about how useful it would have been for Jennette to have had a good, stable, loving role model in her mother… or, at least someone who saw her as more than a wallet and status symbol. I’m sure that when the truth hit Jennette, she realized that she wasted a lot of time, money, and affection on someone else who didn’t deserve it… and how heartbreaking it is that the person who probably deserved her love the least, was the person who was responsible for her very existence.

Most of the Amazon reviewers have given I’m Glad My Mom Died good ratings. I’m glad to see that. I think we live in a time now when more people are seeing mothers as fallible, and we’re learning that they can be held accountable. However, I have a feeling there will people who will dislike this book only for the title. They will see it as disrespectful, mean, and shocking. It’s kind of “in your face”, not unlike the Reddit “Am I the Asshole” columns. I would urge anyone reading this book to forget that Debra McCurdy was Jennette’s mom and “deserves” respect and love simply for being her mom. Debra McCurdy was an abusive liar, grifter, and leech. And while she no doubt had mental health issues to go with her cancer, that’s no excuse for stealing her daughter’s childhood and encouraging her to be unhealthy and unhappy. Mothers, ideally, should always put their children ahead of themselves– at least as long as their children are actually children. Debra failed in her mission, and it’s a blessing that her daughter has recognized that she’s worthy of better while she’s still young and can recover her health.

I give I’m Glad My Mom Died a full five stars and a hearty recommendation. But please be advised… this story isn’t for the faint of heart. It can be triggering. It can be offensive. You will probably find yourself gasping in shock, surprise, and dismay a few times. And you will probably laugh a few times, too.

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book reviews, healthcare

Repost: A review of Almost Anorexic, by Dr. Jennifer J. Thomas…

Sorry… one more repost as I try to decide on today’s fresh content. I wrote this review for my original blog on August 30, 2016. It appears here as/is.

When I was younger, I went through some pretty disordered eating rituals.  I was obsessed with my weight and how it looked on me.  You’d never know it to look at me then or now, but I engaged in some behaviors consistent with eating disorders.  I was not really a binge eater or a purger, but I did sometimes stop eating.  There were a few times when I was younger that I’d actually stop eating for several days.  My weight would go up and down, along with my moods.  I could be funny, goofy, and almost manic, or very depressed and angry.  Some people thought I was so moody that more than one person asked me if I was bipolar.

It took many years, but I finally quit obsessing so much about my weight.  Sure, I’d love to be a lot thinner than I am now; but I no longer obsess about my weight.  I don’t starve myself or force myself to exercise more than I want to.  I do engage in some behaviors that might be considered disordered to some people, though, and that’s one reason why I decided to read Almost Anorexic: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem? (The Almost Effect).  I also read this book because I myself have studied public health and social work and this book might be considered professionally relevant to me if I actually practiced.

Published in 2013, Almost Anorexic was written by Dr. Jennifer J. Thomas, who is (or was) an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in the Department of Psychiatry, and Jenni Schaefer, a singer, songwriter, speaker, and author who suffered from eating disorders and managed to recover.  This book is the fourth in Harvard Medical School’s “Almost Effect” series.    

Dr. Thomas goes by the name Jenny, so in order to make things less confusing for readers, she is referred to as Dr. Thomas in this book.  Jenni Schaefer is referred to as Jenni.  My name is also Jenny, so I felt like I was part of the club!  In any case, Dr. Thomas and Jenni keep their writing conversational and personal as they explain why they wrote about a condition called “almost anorexia”.  Basically, what they mean is that there are many people out there who are eating disordered, but don’t quite qualify for a formal diagnosis of a specific eating disorder.  

The book is called Almost Anorexic, but it’s actually about a spectrum of eating disorders– everything from orthorexia (an obsession with clean, healthy eating) to binge eating disorder (binging on food, but not purging).  My guess is that they chose to call the book Almost Anorexic because anorexia is probably the most dramatic, the most recognizable, and is certainly the most lethal of recognized eating disorders.  I think it also has more of a fascination factor and less of an “ick” factor than, say, bulimia does.  

This book is for anyone who “flirts” with eating disorders.  The authors offer insight into what eating disordered behavior is.  Eventually, toward the end of the book, there are some strategies offered to help combat the behaviors that can lead to full blown eating disorders.  I got the sense that preventing full blown eating disorders was what the authors were really after, though they did recognize that many people suffer for years engaging in behaviors that make them miserable and can ruin their health.  

One thing that I appreciated was that the authors point out how eating disordered behaviors, even if they aren’t bad enough to qualify for a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa or bulimia, can do a lot of damage to a person, physically, emotionally, and mentally.  Aside from that, life is short and obsessing about calories, food, exercising, what others look like and what you look like to others is a serious waste of precious time.  It truly doesn’t lead to anything but self-destruction and makes life much more difficult than it needs to be.  The authors recognize that their readers who might be struggling with disordered eating should strive for moving beyond those “almost anorexic” behaviors, but they also know that actually doing that is very difficult for most.  So they offer some good strategies and encouragement, along with anecdotes that make the reading more interesting.

I have read a lot of books about eating disorders over the years.  It started when I was a teenager and got to a fever pitch when I was a young adult.  Lately, I don’t read as much about eating disorders as I used to.  The topic just doesn’t interest me as much.  However, I did notice that the authors, particularly Dr. Thomas, whose voice seems to be the principal in this book, mention a lot of books that I’ve read.  I was really impressed when she mentioned Fasting Girls, which is a really great book about the history of eating disorders that I remember reading when I was a college freshman in 1990. She also mentions Cherry Boone O’Neill’s classic anorexia memoir, Starving For Attention, which I read for the first time in 1986.  

So, not only has Dr. Thomas got a lot of professional experience and training, she’s also read some of the best books.  But she also includes a lot of the latest research in a way that will speak to younger readers… the ones who are addicted to pro-ana or pro-mia Web sites or refer to their eating disorders as “Ed” or some other name.  “Ed” is the little voice in your head telling you you’re too fat or that you look awful in your favorite jeans.  “Ed” is the voice that tells you to engage in unhealthy and obsessive behaviors.  Dr. Thomas and Jenni explain strategies as to how to get “Ed” to shut up and go away, even as they acknowledge how difficult and scary it is to do that.

A lot of people struggle with “eating disorder not otherwise specified” or EDNOS.  That is essentially what “almost anorexic” refers to– having subclinical signs of an eating disorder that don’t quite qualify for a diagnosis.  Not being full blown anorexic or bulimic doesn’t mean you aren’t suffering or doing damage to your health.  That’s really what this book is about, as well as encouraging readers to take care of themselves and get healthy.  I think it’s an excellent read for a lot of people… many of whom never talk about “Ed”, but hear from “Ed” every day.  I give it five stars and a hearty recommendation, especially for those actually suffering.  I think it’s slightly less helpful for family members and friends, though it’s probably worth a read by them, too.

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mental health

The “twisties”… a world class gymnast is smart enough to know when to QUIT!

Simone Biles is in the news again. This time, it’s not because she managed to pull off some incredible gymnastics feat at the Tokyo Olympics. This time, she’s in the news because she pulled off a different kind of incredible feat. She knew when to quit.

Dominique Moceanu knows Simone’s struggle.

Regular readers might have noticed that I follow women’s gymnastics. I’m not an obsessive fan, or anything. In fact, I have zero gymnastics talent myself. I could never so much as turn a cartwheel, even when I was a young girl. I just like to watch gymnastics, in part, because of the drama of the sport, and because of the insane violations of physics gymnasts are able to do. I’m impressed by the grace and athleticism of gymnasts, even if I know that there’s a dark side to the sport.

Simone Biles is known as the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Two days ago, she proved why she’s the G.O.A.T. by bravely pulling out the team competition at the Tokyo Olympic Games. She also pulled out the the all around competition, and will not be defending the gold medal she won in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Simone introduced the world to a special condition that gymnasts get. That condition is called “the twisties”, and basically it means that while she was in mid air, Simone lost focus and the ability to control her body, putting her in great danger.

Biles’ performance at the Tokyo Games has been notably off kilter. Last week, she qualified to compete in all of the event finals, but her routines weren’t going as brilliantly as they historically have. We didn’t know it at the time, but Simone was dealing with incredible stress that was messing with her mental health. Amazingly enough, it’s a sign of her overall mental health that she decided to leave the competition. She was wise enough not to keep going, despite the extreme pressure she’s no doubt been under for years. Biles not only had the incredible pressure to perform at the Olympics, she also had some personal family drama, as just last month, her brother Tevin Biles-Thomas, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in a 2018 shooting incident. No doubt, Biles’ brother’s legal problems were an added source of stress for the world class gymnast.

I’ve been watching women’s gymnastics long enough to have seen and heard about some really horrific accidents. There’s the now deceased former Soviet gymnast, Elena Mukhina, who attempted a Thomas Salto just weeks before the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Mukhina had told her coach that she was going to break her neck trying to do the Salto. Her coach told her to get over her fear. Unfortunately, Mukhina knew her limits better than the coach did, but lacked the ability to say “no”. She attempted the Salto, under rotated, and landed on her chin. Sure enough, Mukhina’s awful prediction came to pass. She broke her neck, and spent the next 26 years a quadriplegic. In 2006, Mukhina died at age 46, due to issues related to the paralysis.

A memorial video for Elena Mukhina someone posted on YouTube.

There’s also Julissa Gomez, who was about my age. In May 1988, the fifteen year old gymnast, daughter of Mexican immigrants, had a terrible accident that left her paralyzed. She was in Tokyo, Japan, planning to compete in the World Sports Fair. Gomez was attempting to do a Yurchenko vault, but had never gotten completely comfortable with her technique. Sometimes, when she would try to do the difficult maneuver, her feet would miss the springboard. In those days, gymnasts vaulted on a horizontally placed horse, rather than the table that is used today.

Gomez was warming up on May 5th, 1988, practicing the Yurchenko for the vault finals. She ran headlong toward the vault; then, her foot slipped on the springboard, causing her to slam head first into the vault. From that instant onward, Gomez was paralyzed from the neck down. She was placed on a ventilator, which tragically became disconnected. The lack of oxygen caused severe brain damage. Gomez missed her Olympic dream, and spent the next three years languishing, until she finally died in August 1991, at age 18.

A memorial video someone made for Julissa Gomez.

It should be mentioned that at the time of her death, Julissa Gomez was coached by Al Fong, who also coached the late gymnast, Christy Henrich. Henrich, who was also about my age, died in 1994 at age 22, after she suffered a harrowing ordeal with anorexia nervosa.

You can see Christy shake her head after a disastrous tumbling pass. The commentators say she looks “tired”. It turns out she was actually starving herself.

Gomez was previously coached by Bela Karolyi, who is well known in the women’s gymnastics world for his bigger than life personality, as well as his allegedly abusive methods. It was Bela Karolyi who cheered on Kerri Strug in 1996, convincing her to vault a second time at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, even though Strug was seriously injured. Fortunately, Strug did not end up paralyzed after that historic vault, but I would not be surprised if she still has issues with that ankle.

It turned out that Kerri didn’t even have to do this… the American team had enough points to win the gold without the second vault.

If you watch Kerri do this vault, you can see that she was running on pure adrenaline as she raced toward the horse and flipped through the air, landing on one foot. It’s amazing to see. At the time, people hailed her as a heroine, and she was the talk of the Games. I will admit, this is definitely the stuff of true grit. Since Simone Biles’ decision to pull out of Olympic competition, people have been looking at Kerri Strug’s vault differently. Some have been saying that Biles doesn’t have as much “grit” as Strug did in 1996, but others have noted that Kerri should have been allowed to say “no” to that second vault. She was clearly injured, and doing a second vault with such a severe injury put her at extreme risk.

Moceanu miraculously avoids falling off the beam after missing a skill.

At the same Olympics, Dominique Moceanu clawed her way on the balance beam. She almost fell off after making an error in which she hit her head. She was extremely lucky she wasn’t seriously injured. Moceanu said no one checked her after she hit her head on the beam.

In July 1998, Sang Lan, a Chinese gymnast, came to New York City to compete at the Goodwill Games. During warm ups for the vault event final, Lan, who was known as an excellent vaulter, attempted to do a “timer”, a simple vault meant to help the gymnast familiarize herself with the equipment. She fell, landing on her head, seriously injuring her spinal cord, and she was unable to raise herself off the mat. Lan spent the next year in New York City, paralyzed from the chest down. She remains paralyzed today, at age 40. Through physical therapy, Lan eventually regained some use of her arms and hands.

Connie Chung asked Sang Lan if she knew the vault was “all wrong” when she was in the air. Lan said she knew. She must have had “the twisties”, too.

It really saddens me to read comments from people who say Simone Biles didn’t “belong” at the Olympics. What kind of bullshit is that? She is an exceptional athlete who has proven time and again that no one else can touch her. Now that she’s pulled out of the all around, it’s anybody’s guess who will take home the gold. Although even if Biles hadn’t pulled out, that would be true. I remember in 1992, watching teenaged gymnast Kim Zmeskal slip off the balance beam at the Olympics in Barcelona. At the time, Zmeskal was thought to be the favorite to win the gold. Seconds into her routine, that dream of winning gold was over for her. Her teammate, Shannon Miller, ended up in the spotlight instead.

Poor Kim. She was only 16 years old… and she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.

I also remember Kristie Phillips, who at age 14, was billed as the “New Mary Lou”. By the time the 1988 Olympics rolled around, Phillips had grown taller and gained weight. She wasn’t the gymnast she had been in 1986. And she didn’t make the Olympic team. She was named “second alternate”, which meant she didn’t get to go to Seoul. The devastation of that caused Kristie Phillips to suffer terrible mental health issues, to include suicidal ideation. I was so sad for Kristie, as I had been watching her during the Olympic Trials and really rooted for her.

Kristie’s foot went out of bounds on her floor exercise, shattering her Olympic dream.
Kristie tells Oprah Winfrey how she felt after she didn’t make the Olympics.

Women’s gymnastics is a truly beautiful sport. I love watching it, but I think if I had a daughter, I would not want her to be a gymnast. Besides the incredibly difficult and dangerous skills gymnasts do, there’s also the horror of the sexually abusive former team doctor, Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of gymnasts under the guise of giving them “medical care”. Simone Biles was one of Nassar’s victims, and I’m sure the trauma related to that contributed to the mental state she found herself in this week in Tokyo.

Because Simone knew when to quit, she won’t be facing a tragic future… or NO future at all. She can move on after gymnastics. And so what if she didn’t win gold for America? She’s already done that! We have no right to demand anything at all of her, but we especially have no right to tell her to keep going when her body and mind have told her it’s time to quit. Because when it comes down to it, after the Olympics, athletes are on their own. They have to move on beyond the glory days. Very few of them become rich and famous from their athletic pursuits, and I’ve read many sad stories of former great athletes who didn’t know what to do with themselves once the Olympic dream was over for them.

Simone Biles is only 24 years old– a baby to most adults. But consider that age 24 is very old for a gymnast. She’s been under a lot of stress for many years– physically, mentally, and emotionally. The Nassar case happened fairly recently– add in the legal battle her brother was recently fighting, the tremendous pressure to win gold for America, and the tremendous physical and mental toll gymnastics places on its participants, and you have a woman who must have been on the razor’s edge of sanity. And yet, it’s a clear sign that Simone Biles is very sane, because she knew when to QUIT! And she no doubt knows there is life beyond the Olympics.

I would love to see Simone Biles compete in the event finals next week, if that’s what she wants to do, and she is fully prepared to do it. But even if she doesn’t compete, I still think she should be commended for being wise. No medal is more important than a person’s life and health. I don’t have a concept of “the twisties” as a gymnast might. My body can’t do what their bodies do. But I do know what it feels like to be mentally unhinged, and I know how disorienting and scary that can be, even for someone who isn’t trying to defy the laws of physics. Simone Biles made the right decision and has served as an incredible role model, not just to budding gymnasts, but to anyone suffering with mental health issues. She is to be commended for taking care of herself and having the ability to say “No”.

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book reviews, YouTube

Repost: My review of Catherine: interesting book about a British woman with anorexia nervosa…

I wrote this review for Epinions.com on June 16, 2013. It appears here as/is.

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to stumble across a pro-ana blog. Pro-ana, for those who don’t know, is a movement that sees eating disorders as “lifestyles”.  The author of the blog had posted a list of books and films she’d used for “thinspiration”; that is, she’d read or watch these books and movies to inspire herself to engage in anorexic eating habits.  I noticed her list of films and she’d included a film called Catherine, which was a made for TV film on BBC in the 1980s.  Someone posted Catherine on YouTube.  I watched it, then discovered that the film had been based on a book published in 1986 by Maureen Dunbar, Catherine’s mother.  The book, Catherine: The Story of a Young Girl Who Died of Anorexia Nervosa, was based on the true story of Catherine Dunbar’s seven year struggle with eating disorders at a time when a lot of people didn’t know much about eating disorders.

Fascinating British movie about Catherine Dunbar, who died of anorexia nervosa.

Catherine’s story

Maureen Dunbar begins by writing about how her 15 year old older daughter, Catherine, was sent home from boarding school in 1977 because her headmistress was very concerned about her.  Catherine had stopped eating and lost a lot of weight.  Catherine was accompanied by her younger sister, Anna, who was still healthy.

Maureen Dunbar explains that she had four children, two older sons and two younger daughters.  She had weaned Catherine early from breastfeeding because her kids were all born close together.  She was exhausted trying to keep the breastmilk flowing.  From that time on, Catherine was a difficult eater, though she was basically normal and healthy until she hit her teen years.  It sounded a little like she blamed herself for her daughter’s troubles, which was kind of sad to me.

When Catherine came home from school that day, Maureen Dunbar had no idea of the seven year nightmare that was to follow.  Over the ensuing years, she would see her beautiful daughter lose weight until she became emaciated.  Catherine would be sectioned under Britain’s Mental Health Act more than once.  She would run away from hospitals and refuse to cooperate with health care providers and family members.  Eventually, she would get to the point at which she just gave up on life and waited to die.

Catherine Dunbar died at the age of 22 on January 2, 1984.  She weighed about 50 pounds.

My thoughts

This book is based on Catherine Dunbar’s diary and her mother’s own memories.  It’s a very frank discussion of anorexia nervosa, with some family drama thrown in.  Maureen Dunbar was a more permissive parent, while her husband, John, was much more stern.  The two often butted heads over raising their children with John wishing to be stricter with Catherine, especially about her eating.  The Dunbars had marital problems, which were both exacerbated by and played into Catherine’s illness.

Maureen Dunbar mostly seems extraordinarily dedicated, except for one period in which she left home because she couldn’t deal with the stress of being at home and her marital problems.  She eventually came back to tend to Catherine, who was both trying to launch an independent life and dealing with her severe eating disorder.

This is a fairly short book.  I read it in a matter of hours while the power was out the other day.  Dunbar includes photos of her family and includes shots of Catherine, who was extremely thin toward the time of her death.  I managed to find a used copy of Amazon.com, though they may be hard to come by.  The book is now out of print. Someone has posted the film version on YouTube and it’s somewhat close to the book’s version of events.  I will warn American readers that it helps to be familiar with British slang; otherwise, you may not understand everything.

Overall

Catherine is a very British book, in terms of how it’s written.  It’s been out for many years so it may be hard to find.  But if you are interested in true stories of people who have suffered from eating disorders, it may be worth tracking down a copy of Catherine.  This account is wrenching; I really came away with an idea of how helpless Catherine’s family must have felt as they watched their loved one wither away into nothing.

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book reviews, celebrities, religion

Repost: Cherry Boone O’Neill’s book, Starving for Attention…

One last repost, since I posted reviews of her sisters’ books. This is the first book about the Boone family I ever read. I originally read Cherry’s book in 1989 or so, but I reviewed it for Epinions in 2003 and updated the review in 2011. It appears here as/is.

For some reason, I recently decided to re-read Cherry Boone O’Neill’s 1983 memoir Starving For Attention after reading it for a high school paper I wrote when I was seventeen. It was interesting to revisit this book again after all these years, mainly because I have a totally different perspective now. Right now, I’m an adult and, in a manner of speaking, I’m a mental health professional. Back then, I was a high school student who was interested in eating disorders and had to write a book report.

Cherry Boone O’Neill is Pat and Shirley Boone’s oldest daughter. She has three younger sisters– her mom had four daughters in three and a half years! When Cherry was born in Denton, Texas in 1954, Pat Boone was just beginning his meteoric rise into teen idol status and attending college. Fourteen months after Cherry’s birth, her sister Lindy arrived, born in New York City. In 1956, Debby Boone was born in Hackensack, New Jersey. Then in 1958, youngest sister Laury was born. In the midst of his burgeoning career and the quick expansion of his family, Pat Boone managed to graduate from Columbia University, earning a degree in English. It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned and the young family moved to California.

Cherry writes that she was always eager to please, and having grown up with very strict parents who were strong Christians, she was especially motivated to toe the line. She also felt very responsible for watching her sisters. Debby was the most rebellious of the four sisters, while Laury was a mischief maker. Cherry tried hard to bring home straight A’s. The girls were also incorporated into Pat Boone’s act, especially since he had a TV series, the “Chevy Showroom”. The girls made their television debut on the last episode of that program. As they grew up, they made albums, went on tours, and appeared as guests on other television shows like the “Flip Wilson Show”, “Merv Griffin”, and “Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour”.

When she was a teenager, Cherry began to have emotional problems brought on by school pressures. Rather than face classes that gave her trouble, she would fake illnesses and stay home. While she was at home, she would eat high calorie foods and watch TV. Before too long, she realized she was gaining weight– so much that her school uniforms no longer fit her. Horrified, she made the decision to control her body. She put herself on a sensible diet and ordered a couple of gadgets that were advertised in the back of teen magazines. One gadget was a pair of “Bermuda shorts” that hooked up to the vacuum cleaner– it was supposed to suck the fat off of her body. Another was a pair of stretchy leg wraps that made her legs look thinner. She started exercising more. Gradually, the diet turned into anorexia.

At first, Cherry’s family was proud of her. Then they became concerned. Cherry writes about an incident that occurred one Christmas after Cherry skipped dinner and then binged and purged when she thought everyone was asleep.

My distended stomach ached– I must have looked six months pregnant. My food frenzy began to slow down when I could no longer walk without bending over. Did I get everything I wanted? I guess so– besides I can’t eat any more.

But wait! Some chocolates! I’ll chew on those on the way upstairs with a glass of punch.

Once in my bathroom, I completed the now familiar ritual I’d begun this time with that first bite of turkey. I forced my finger down my throat. After several gut-wrenching heaves I regurgitated as much as I could until nothing but small amounts of bile tinged pink with blood, emerged. I wiped off the toilet and began rinsing my beet-red face when I was startled by a hard knock on the door.

“Cherry, what’s going on?” My father’s voice was stern.

My heart pounded. I’m just going to the bathroom. Why?” I quickly straightened my hair, straightened air freshener, turned off the water.

“Open the door, Cherry. You know the rules about no locked doors in this house.”

“You and Mommy lock your door sometimes,” I answered back.

“Open this door, Cherry! Right now!”

“All right! All right! Just let me get my robe on,” I stalled, trying to open the window for fresh air. Then I calmly unlocked and opened the door.

“It doesn’t take you fifteen minutes to go to the bathroom, Cherry.”

“I haven’t been in here fifteen minutes,” I lied.

“I was outside after taking a sauna and I looked up and saw your bathroom light on. I waited, listened, and I know I heard you vomiting.” His eyes glistened with anger.

“I did not! I swear! I was just going to the bathroom and washing my face!”

“Look here, Cherry,” he said, gripping my arm and pulling me back into the bathroom. “Look at yourself! Your face is red, your eyes are bloodshot, the room stinks and you’re telling me you didn’t throw up?”

“I didn’t, Daddy! I promise I didn’t! I was going to the bathroom. I’ve been constipated so my face gets red. Honest!” My voice quavered with fear. Tears welled up in my eyes.

“Cherry, I don’t understand this. I know you’re lying, but it’s late and I have to get up early. We should both be in bed– it’s been a busy day. But don’t think we aren’t going to discuss this when I get back from Chicago! Now go to bed, and don’t you get up again– for any reason!”

Suddenly he was gone and I stood alone in front of the mirror. I stared at my gaunt face, then burst into tears. 

Stories of family squabbles like this one pepper the book, first with Cherry’s parents and next with her husband, Dan O’Neill. Cherry’s family was very close and loving, but some might say they were overly strict– to the point of being smothering. Corporal punishment was employed on the girls into their late teens.

Cherry did do some shocking things while she was ill. One night, after enjoying a nice dinner with her fiance, she promised him she would go straight to bed. But as she walked through the kitchen, she noticed that there were a couple of lamb chops in the dog’s dish. Cherry loved lamb chops, so without thinking, she got down on her hands and knees and started eating them, not realizing that her fiance was at the window, watching her… until he started rapping on the window!

I enjoyed reading this book because it has the elements of a story that I enjoy– biography (or autobiography as the case may be), a fair amount of drama, some trivia and anecdotal information, and a touch of comedy. However, there isn’t a whole lot of medical information in this book and the little bit you do find is quite dated. After all, Cherry suffered from anorexia back in the 70s, when many doctors had never even heard of the disorder. If you want to read an autobiographical story about anorexia with more up-to-date information, you would do better to read Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted. Even that book is a little dated– the author was treated in the late 80s and early 90s and treatments have changed drastically since then.

This book led me to believe that Cherry was never hospitalized for long for her anorexia (there is some brief detail provided about one hospital stay she completed as an adult). There are pictures included of her, however, when she was ill. One disturbing photo shows her at 82 pounds, right before her first appointment with Dr. Raymond Vath, a psychiatrist in Seattle who is credited with helping her get past anorexia. She looks positively skeletal in that picture, as well as in a couple of others that show her at 88 pounds, eating at a picnic. There are a couple of other pictures that show her performing with her family– the illness is not as easy to discern in those.

Starving for Attention has been out of print for some time and may be hard to find. You may be able to locate it at a public library or on http://www.half.com. I think it’s a worthwhile read, although I don’t believe it’s the only book you should read if you want to learn about eating disorders. By the way, Cherry and her husband had given birth to their first child, Brittany, at the end of this book. As of now, Cherry has had five children, proving that those with eating disorders can eventually go on to have children.

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