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.
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.
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.
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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