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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I just took a lovely nap. It commenced after I finished reading Kim Chernin’s book, In My Mother’s House. Kim Chernin, born Elaine Kusnitz, died recently, which is probably how this book came on my radar. She was 80 years old. She was a lesbian, a feminist, a much regarded author with a doctorate, and the daughter of a famously communist mother, Rose Chernin. She was survived by her daughter, Larissa, who was her only child, born in 1963 while Kim was studying at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Married and divorced twice, Kim took her mother’s surname after the second divorce, as did her daughter. She is also survived by her wife, Renate Stendhal.
Kim Chernin died in December of COVID-19. Her only sister, Nina, had died when Kim was four years old. Kim owed her life to Nina, because when her mother got pregnant with her, she reportedly told Nina, then an adolescent, that she wasn’t sure she should have the baby. At the time of her pregnancy, Kim’s famous mother, Rose, was thirty-nine years old and very busy with her career as a left-wing activist. Nina reportedly promised their mother that if she would have the baby, Nina would take care of it. Sure enough, Kim was born in May 1940, and Nina took care of her. Of course, no one knew at the time that Nina would get very sick with Hodgkins lymphoma, which would kill her in 1944.
At the beginning of her book, In My Mother’s House, Rose is visiting Kim and Larissa, who was a young girl at the time. She’s asked her daughter to write a book about her life as a labor organizer and Communist Party. Kim Chernin, who was nationally known as an expert on body dysmorphia and eating disorders, agreed. It took her seven years to finish the book, which was originally published in 1983. The result is a multi-faceted book about one woman’s unusual and riveting history between two super powers, Russia and the United States. Rose told Kim about her life– quite a lot of which had already been lived before Kim was born.
Rose Chernin and Paul Kusnitz, Kim’s parents, were Russian Jews. They were born at the beginning of the twentieth century. When Rose was about thirteen, her mother moved her and her sisters from Russia to Waterbury, Connecticut. Rose became politically active as a young woman, dedicated to the idea of communism. She joined the Communist Party in 1932, three years after officially becoming a United States citizen. That year, the family moved to Moscow for a couple of years before returning to the United States. Kim’s father was an engineer educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so he helped develop the Moscow Metro (subway) system. The family returned to the United States in 1934, six years before Kim was born.
In the ensuing years, Rose Chernin was very active in promoting communism in the United States. Kim Chernin grew up hearing about the wonders of the Soviet Union, which her mother promoted as a more humane society. Kim read works by Marx and Lenin from a very young age.
In 1951, Rose Chernin was arrested for conspiracy to overthrow the government under the Smith Act of 1940. The Smith Act of 1940 set criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence, and required all non-citizen adult residents to register with the federal government. Rose spent a year in jail, in part because her bail was set at $100,000, which she could never hope to raise. The Immigration and Naturalization Service tried to deport Rose, but were unsuccessful because of a 1957 ruling that the Smith Act was unconstitutional.
I was initially drawn into the story about four generations of women in Kim Chernin’s family because of the richness in which the story was written. Kim was a very intelligent and expressive writer, and I got the sense that she and her mother had a complicated yet loving relationship. Kim grew up attending communist rallies with her mother, who was very much a supporter of worker’s rights and tenant advocacy and an opponent of racism. Naturally, Rose’s ideas ran contrary to the ideas promoted by the U.S. government. But there was a time when Russia and the United States were allies, as both powers fought against Hitler’s regime.
Kim also went to Yiddish school, although she rebelled against the teachings there. And yet, in reading her book about her mother, I can tell that the experience in Yiddish school left its mark on her as she weaves her mother’s voice in to story. Kim had a complicated relationship with her mother, and they are said to have fought “bitterly”. However, Kim also clearly adored her, and that loving quality is liberally injected In My Mother’s House. Rose Chernin lived a very long and productive life. She died in 1995 of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had just turned 94.
I’m glad I read this book. I promise, it’s not the book that sent me into afternoon slumber. Rather, I think it was because Arran woke me up at 4:30am and I couldn’t get back to sleep. I have always found the Soviet Union and Russian history very interesting. I also find Kim Chernin interesting because of her work as a feminist and expertise in the subject of eating disorders. Her trilogy about eating disorders, Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, The Hungry Self: Women, Eating and Identity, and Reinventing Eve: Modern Woman in Search of Herself, put her on the map as a writer. However, In My Mother’s House, is a loving and fascinating tribute to her mother, who was quite an amazing woman. It also offers a glimpse at Kim’s grandmother, a woman who never could adapt to life in the United States and was later sent to an institution, where she wrote beautiful letters.
Kim Chernin managed to impart her mother’s wisdom as she wrote in Rose Chernin’s voice, “You want to fly? Grow wings. You don’t like the way things are? Tell a story.” Words to live by… although I’m not sure I’m as good at following Rose’s advice as Kim was. May she rest in peace.
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At about this time last year, I was reading and reviewing a lot of books about the state of U.S. women’s gymnastics. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might know that about three years ago, former U.S. gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, was outed for the abusive pervert he is. He’s currently sitting in a prison cell for sexually abusing hundreds of female athletes over the course of his career.
Yesterday, I became aware that high powered elite gymnastics coach, 63 year old John Geddert, who had once called Larry Nassar a friend and a colleague, was charged with a couple dozen felonies. Mr. Geddert was supposed to turn himself in for arraignment at a sheriff’s office yesterday. When he failed to show up for his 2:15pm appointment, police went looking for him. They found his dead body at 3:24pm ET at a rest stop in Grand Ledge, Michigan. The cause of death was suicide.
John Geddert was a successful coach, having been the coach of the 2012 women’s gymnastics Olympic team. But he was also notoriously abusive to his athletes. According to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel:
“John Geddert used force, fraud and coercion against the young athletes that came to him for gymnastics training for financial benefit to him,”
“The victims suffer from disordered eating, including bulimia and anorexia, suicide attempts and self-harm, excessive physical conditioning, repeatedly being forced to perform even when injured, extreme emotional abuse and physical abuse, including sexual assault. Many of these victims still carry these scars from his behavior to this day.”
Indeed, in a number of the books I read about Larry Nassar and the huge sex abuse bombshell that was dropped on U.S. women’s gymnastics, John Geddert’s name came up frequently. He was described as the type of coach who would scream, throw things, and punish his gymnasts. Larry Nassar, by contrast, was described as quiet, gentle, and caring. The two men were said to be best friends, and Larry Nassar worked out of Geddert’s Twistars gym where he would minister to the injured girls. They would come to him looking for kindness and caring, having been beaten down by Geddert’s physically abusive tactics. It created the perfect storm for Nassar’s sexual abuse, which went under the radar for decades.
As the abuse was made public, attention shifted to John Geddert, who lied to police when he was questioned about Larry Nassar. Michigan Assistant Attorney General Danielle Hagaman-Clark said, “Mr. Geddert knew that Nassar was sexually abusing these patients and that he failed to take action. And that when he was asked about it by police officers during the 2016 investigation into Nassar, he lied about that.”
I’m not all that surprised that Geddert killed himself. He no doubt paid close attention to what happened to Larry Nassar. He probably also paid attention to what happened to Jeffrey Epstein, the fabulously wealthy bastard who victimized and trafficked scores of girls for the pleasures of wealthy and perverted men. Epstein was about to go on trial for his crimes when he was found dead of suicide in his jail cell. There was speculation that Epstein was murdered by those who didn’t want him to talk, but the official cause of death was suicide. I think either scenario is plausible, and I’m sure Epstein felt suicide was better than a lifetime in prison. John Geddert clearly felt the same way.
I’m sure there’s a lot of sadness regarding this death. Many of Geddert’s victims no doubt wanted to testify in court about what happened to them. Geddert cheated them out of justice. But Geddert probably also had friends and loved ones who are legitimately shocked by all of this. I feel sad for all of them. I’ve noticed a lot of comments chastising people who express empathy for Geddert’s friends and loved ones. I won’t do that, because I think those people deserve consideration, too. As awful as abusers can be, they usually do have some people in their lives who have no idea or love them regardless… and when the abuse does come to light, they suffer, but get little empathy. So I want to go on record that I empathize with everyone personally affected by Geddert’s suicide, regardless of how and why they are affected.
I feel sad for all of the parents, too. They no doubt thought they were doing a great thing for their daughters, enrolling them in gymnastics. They put their trust in John Geddert and Larry Nassar, paying them a lot of money for the training and medical care… only to find out that they abused their gymnasts, using them for their own pleasure. I know that I would be extremely pissed off if I had a child who was abused by someone. But then to realize that I spent thousands of dollars for my child to be abused and permanently harmed– I think it would send me over the edge.
So… I send my good thoughts out to those who are upset by Geddert’s cowardly decision to take himself out. I think it’s pretty clear that he was guilty as hell. At least he won’t be hurting anyone else. But that may be small comfort for those who were hoping to see him held accountable.
I know I’ve been writing a lot about eating disorders lately. I wasn’t actually planning to write about them again today. However, as today happens to be the first day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I think it’s kind of appropriate to write one more post. If you’re surprised there’s an actual week in February devoted to fighting eating disorders, you shouldn’t be. This has been an annual event for at least twenty years. I remember being a temp at the College of William & Mary back in 1998 and seeing posters for this week plastered all over the Blow Building, which was where I was working in the office of admissions.
Lately I’ve been passing the time watching old episodes of the 80s era family friendly comedy, Growing Pains, and I’ve finally reached the fourth season. Season four is when Tracey Gold, who played middle child, perfect Carol Seaver, started to become noticeably thinner. We didn’t know, at the time, that she was developing anorexia nervosa and would eventually drop her weight from 133 pounds to about 80 pounds.
Yesterday, I happened to see the episode “Homecoming Queen”, which originally aired on November 23, 1988. I was sixteen years old then, and pretty obsessed with dieting myself. I’m not sure I was still a Growing Pains fan at that point, though. The show had kind of jumped the shark by then, and I had a lot of other things going on at the time. It’s interesting to watch it now. I’m finding that it was a pretty decently written show, even in season four, which was the season in which the Seavers had their change of life baby, Chrissy. Anyone who grew up in the era of sitcoms knows that new babies or adopted kids always end up on the show as the original kids get too old.
The plot for “Homecoming Queen” is centered around Carol, who is nominated by her peers to be in the Homecoming court. Carol is shocked that they would think she’s pretty and popular enough to be queen. She sees herself as fat and ugly, and unworthy to be Homecoming Queen. She even considers refusing the honor, but ends up running when her competition erroneously assume she’s trying to sway people by being falsely humble.
About ten minutes into the episode, we see Carol having a terrible nightmare. Surrounded by her beautiful competition for Homecoming Queen, Carol is dressed in unflattering overalls that make her look huge. She’s wearing glasses and her hair is short and frumpy. As the principal and her peers laugh at her, Carol falls through the stage because she’s so fat. Then, her brother Mike, who constantly rides her about her weight, comes out and humiliates her, saying she’s “merely going through a stage…” as everyone laughs at her literally “going through a stage” because she’s so fat.
Tracey Gold has said that the fat jokes on Growing Pains were one reason why she became so preoccupied with her weight. As I watch that show now, I can see how the fat jokes really ramped up a lot in seasons 3 and 4, which was ironically when Tracey Gold was getting noticeably thinner. I don’t notice them as much in the earlier seasons, when she was legitimately heavier and her character was presented as nerdier and plainer. She gained some weight in 1988, but then lost about twenty five pounds with the help of a doctor, who put her on a 500 calorie a day diet.
Tracey Gold has also said that she had been diagnosed with the early symptoms of anorexia nervosa when she was eleven years old. I remember reading about that when I was in the eighth grade, years before she truly got sick with an eating disorder, around 1990 or so.
It seems especially tone deaf and wrong that the writers on Growing Pains saddled the Carol Seaver character with so many jokes about her weight, especially since she clearly wasn’t overweight at all. They also included “ugly” jokes, but I don’t notice as many of those as “fat” jokes. In fact, on the “Homecoming Queen” episode, Alan Thicke, who plays psychiatrist dad Jason Seaver, is shown offering Carol a piece of cake. When she says something along the lines of, “Oh, I’m not fat enough for you?” Jason starts to say, “Sure you are…” but then stops himself.
By 1991, the producers of Growing Pains, who had originally urged Gold to lose weight, suspended her from the show because she had become so skeletal. They required her to get treatment for her eating disorder before they would allow her back on the show. She did appear for the series finale in 1992, but she hadn’t recovered by then. She says that in one of the last scenes, the family is shown eating pizza and it’s very obvious that she was faking it. She says she’d forgotten how to hold a piece of pizza. I’m sure it was very traumatizing for her. Kind of like a phobia.
Which leads me to an opportunity for a nice segue… I’ve mentioned this before, but I think I wrote about it on my original Blogspot version of this blog. I happen to have a food related phobia myself– mycophobia, which is an irrational fear of mushrooms. I am a lot better than I used to be. When I was a small child, we lived in England, and there were huge toadstools in our backyard. I remember my parents telling me to never touch the mushrooms. I didn’t like mushrooms to start with, but somehow the directive not to touch them really hit home in an extreme way. I got to the point at which I would freeze and scream bloody murder if I simply saw one in the yard.
I remember my dad was pretty exasperated by my adverse reaction to mushrooms. He was kind of an old school disciplinarian and used to try to force me to eat everything on my plate. I actually have aversions to a number of foods, like unmelted cheese and most dairy products. I think this is because when I was very young, I was allergic to cow’s milk and it would make me vomit. To this day, I don’t drink plain milk, and aside from ice cream and butter, don’t eat most dairy products unless they’re in something. Like, I can’t bring myself to taste cream by itself, although I like it in coffee, and I would never eat a piece of cold cheese that hasn’t been melted. The flavor and the texture completely gross me out. Forget about any kinds of strong cheeses. I will vomit.
A couple of weeks ago, Bill made nachos with melted cheddar cheese. I can normally eat melted cheese, even if it’s cooled off. But on that day, the cheddar had a flavor that overwhelmed and ultimately disgusted me. I ended up throwing up. I do like some mild cheeses in things. I love dishes like lasagna and mac and cheese, and I like pizza, although as a child, it took many years before I would eat it. I can even eat cold pizza with cheese on it. I’ve read that some people can’t eat melted cheese, but they can eat it unmelted. Humans are so strange.
Anyway, yesterday, The New York Times ran an article about mushrooms, complete with a photo. I generally hide photos of mushrooms because even though I don’t run screaming from the room anymore, the sight of them makes me cringe and shudder. I imagine my reaction to mushrooms is much like Tracey Gold’s stated aversion to a lump of butter, back when she was very sick with anorexia.
I tried to hide the article, but for some reason, I wasn’t able to. I mentioned it on Facebook, and everybody laughed, which is rather predictable behavior among so-called friends. Now… I can understand why people laugh at this. I have a phobia, and many people think phobias are funny, especially when they are regarding something as ridiculous as mushrooms. So I don’t really blame people for laughing at my trauma. They’re ignorant and insensitive for doing so, but I can understand why they laugh. It’s probably my fault for mentioning it, although I mention it because it’s one of the many things that makes me unique. However, I did point out that people were laughing, but I was being very candid.
The photos on the New York Times piece weren’t too bad. The fungus looked more like sea anemones than mushrooms (to be honest, just typing that word skeeves me out a bit). I really get creeped out by pictures of mushrooms in food or toadstools (again– yecch). Like, they make me very uncomfortable. If sometime tried to make me eat one, I would probably have a full blown anxiety attack. Indeed, I did have them when I was a child and my control freak father would try to force me to eat things I didn’t want. Years later, he would call me a “hog” and shame me for being too fat.
A few years ago, I remember trying to eat a dish that had mushrooms in it at a fancy restaurant and I just couldn’t do it. They had to bring me a version without ‘shrooms. And this issue has come up at restaurants and when I’ve been invited to people’s houses for a meal. It’s always embarrassing to try to explain why I can’t eat mushrooms. Many times, people laugh out loud. I know it’s absurd.
You’d think I could tell people in the restaurant that I have an allergy. However, having worked in restaurants myself, I know that that’s also problematic, because the staff will then worry about my having a reaction. I don’t have an allergy, so I don’t want them to freak out about potentially causing anaphylactic shock or something. I won’t have a physical reaction if something I eat comes into contact with mushrooms. But if I can see, smell, or taste them in my food, the meal will be ruined, and I might end up vomiting or worse. I don’t mind if Bill eats them at a restaurant or something, although out of kindness to me, he doesn’t buy them at the grocery store and doesn’t cook with them at home. He’s also been known to switch plates with me if I order something that has them and his dish doesn’t. We have had situations, though, where both dishes have had mushrooms and I’ve had to get something else.
I once thought about becoming a chef, but ultimately decided not to when I realized that my phobia would probably be very problematic. In fact, sometimes my phobia has even led to embarrassing altercations. Below is a repost of a piece I wrote in 2017 for my original blog on Blogspot. I don’t expect anyone to read it– extra credit if you do– but it kind of illustrates how this issue sometimes pops up in my life. Incidentally, the obnoxious guy who laughed at me because of my phobia was recently fired for undisclosed reasons, and they never did spend all of the money that was left for their “party” at the Biergarten…
Phobias are not funny… (originally posted July 20, 2017)
Have you ever met someone with whom you immediately clash? I think that happened to me last night. Despite my rather funny personality, I don’t actually like parties very much. I have a tendency to get carried away sometimes, especially when I’m in the company of certain types of people. Not everyone can take my sense of humor and I don’t enjoy offending people. Sometimes I do, despite my best efforts.
Last year, the guy who hired Bill moved on to a new job in Hawaii. He left behind a huge collection of euro coins, which he donated to everyone he worked with. The coins were all counted and it came to the euro equivalent of about $800, which was used to pay for last night’s gathering at a biergarten (and, in fact, not all of the money was spent). It was a farewell dinner of sorts, since the company Bill has been working for lost its contract and many of the people who have been working with Bill are moving on to new jobs and/or locations.
We arrived too late to sit at the table that was already started, so we sat at a second table that had been reserved. Soon we were joined by another couple, the male half of whom will continue to be Bill’s co-worker because they were both hired by the new company that is taking over. The first thing that happened was the guy came up, looked at me, and said “Who do you belong to?”
I answered that I am Bill’s wife. He then made some crack about my being the daughter of the other guy sitting across from me. I’m not really sure what that was all about. Bill had told me a bit about this guy being a bit obnoxious and full of himself, so I wasn’t that surprised at his comment. This guy also referred to me as “Jen”, when I introduced myself as “Jenny”. That also happens to be a pet peeve of mine, when someone takes it upon themselves to change my name, especially when they’ve just met me.
I noticed his wife sitting in the corner with their son, whom I had met before. He is a very bright kid for his age and already speaks German pretty well. I could tell he is the apple of his mother’s eye. She was doting on him quite a bit.
As the evening wore on, Bill and I found ourselves talking about different subjects, including one of the Space A “hops” we took a few years ago. Bill told everyone about how we landed in Georgia after an overseas flight from Germany. We were really jet lagged. He’d gone out to get us some dinner. I would have been just fine with something from the nearby Wendy’s, but Bill decided to go the extra mile. He noticed a restaurant across the street and ordered take out. He brought back steaks, not realizing that they had been smothered with mushrooms.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you may already know that I do not eat mushrooms. In fact, I have a phobia of them. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth.
So anyway, I opened the carton he handed me and was immediately confronted by this piece of meat covered with ‘shrooms. They were totally grossing me out. I was pretty exasperated because I was exhausted and hungry. All I’d really wanted was a sandwich, and if Bill had just gotten something at Wendy’s, I could have had a sandwich and gone to bed. Instead, I was sitting there with what could have been a nice dinner that was rendered completely unappetizing due to the fungus. Aside from that, I was annoyed that a restaurant would put mushrooms on a steak without advertising that they were going to do so.
Bill was telling this story and people were wondering why I didn’t just scrape off the mushrooms. And that’s where the whole mushroom phobia story came in. Phobias are, by nature, ridiculous, irrational, and perhaps even funny. However, if you actually have a phobia, it’s not really a laughing matter.
My whole life, I’ve been laughed at for having a fear of mushrooms. When I was a kid, family members even chased me with them and yukked it up when I reacted with fear. I can mostly laugh about it now… and the phobia is not nearly as bad as it used to be. For instance, I no longer scream when I am confronted with mushrooms. I don’t like having them on my plate and I refuse to touch them or eat them, but I won’t freak out or anything. I still have a phobia, though.
I used to think I was the only person with this problem, but then I wrote an article about mycophobia (fear of mushrooms). In my article, I even referenced an episode of The Montel Williams Show that was about phobias. There was a woman on that show who was afraid of mushrooms and reacted the very same way I did when I was much younger. She actually saw my article and sent me an email. I got so many comments and emails from people who have unusual phobias and happened to read my article. In fact, a quick YouTube search turns up a number of videos about mycophobia (mushroom phobia).
I was trying to explain this last night. I will admit, a phobia of something weird like mushrooms sounds hilarious if you don’t make an effort to understand what having a phobia is like. I have been in some embarrassing and annoying situations due to this problem, but I can see why some people think it’s funny.
Of course, Bill’s co-worker thought my mushroom phobia was totally hilarious. He was cracking jokes and hysterically laughing at me, as was his son. I was trying to explain the origins of the phobia, which started when I was a little kid, and he was just having a knee slapper of a time laughing. I had been drinking beer, so I was feeling my oats. And I let loose with some really far out insults involving his testicles being covered with fungus. I’m sure whatever I said was shocking and disgusting. Sometimes, I have no filter, especially if I’ve been drinking.
I could tell the guy’s wife was horrified and it looked like she was trying to shield her son from the insults springing forth from me. I wasn’t sure if she was horrified by my comments, her husband’s comments, or the whole scene in general. But anyway, they made a hasty retreat. I’m sure they think I’m an asshole, now. On the other hand, I thought the guy was being an asshole for outwardly laughing at me and lacking empathy.
Meh… I really think sometimes I should not go to these kinds of parties with Bill. I’m sure a lot of his co-workers think I’m nuts. On the plus side, we did talk to a really nice lady last night. Too bad she and her husband (and their fabulous dog) will be leaving soon. Also, I gave our waitress the stink eye because she told me that putting a wine bottle upside down in a galvanized bucket full of melted ice is “nasty”. That sounded a bit like bullshit to me, but what do I know? She was happy when we left, though, because she was tipped handsomely.
You know that old song by Billy Joel? I know it well. It was a hit when I was a young child. The lyrics are timeless. The melody endures. Many of us would love to have a friend or a loved one who takes us just the way we are.
But is it always best to love someone just the way they are? Are there times when it’s unwise or unhealthy to take someone just the way they are? Obviously, yes, there are. My husband tried to love his ex wife just the way she was until he realized he couldn’t anymore. His own life was at risk by accepting her “as/is”. So they got divorced and he’s much better off for it. I don’t know if she’s better off. It’s not my business, anyway.
This topic comes up this morning after I read an admittedly bizarre “love story” in The New York Times. Adam Barrows wrote an article entitled “I Wanted to Love Her, Not Save Her”. The tag line read, “The first time we spoke, she was so weak she had collapsed. Why did that not alarm me?” When someone uses the word “alarm” in a tag line, you can be sure high drama is about to ensue. I was hooked.
So I read Adam Barrows’ story about meeting his wife, Darla. They were both working at a chain bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota when Barrows came upon his future wife passed out on the floor. Although they had been co-workers, he had never really spoken to her. He just noticed that she was painfully thin.
As Darla’s vision came back, she explained to Adam that she suffered from anorexia nervosa and hadn’t eaten in several days. He asked her if he could get her something to eat. She said no, and asked him to just sit with her for a minute until her strength returned. Adam sat with her and they developed a friendship. As they got closer and eventually “fell in love”, Darla continued to starve herself. Adam did nothing to get her to change her behavior. He writes:
I didn’t try to help her with that. I’m not sure why. It’s as if I accepted her struggle as a given, as a fact of her. I was struggling myself after a recent heartbreak and was trying to teach myself how to do basic things again: to think for myself, to walk properly, to hold myself upright, to sleep and to breathe.
To see her struggle to force down solid food, to watch as she spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine that she would chew to a paste before it would go down (this was her only meal some days) seemed not natural, of course, but also somehow unremarkable to me. I watched her starve and held her while she did it.
Some people might call that enabling. I called it love.
After months of traveling around the United States together, they ended up getting married. They had a son who turned 18 last year and, at this writing, have been together for 23 years. Adam writes that Darla eventually got somewhat better. She ate more and, over the years, put on some weight. He writes that before the pandemic struck, she was actually considering going on a diet, but didn’t end up doing it. While many people have gained weight during the pandemic, Adam writes that he and Darla don’t go to the grocery store much and that has had a “slimming effect”. I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll take him at his word that he and his wife are doing okay.
At the end of his essay, Barrows concludes:
Our married life has not been without conflicts. I have taken her for granted, put my needs ahead of hers, indulged my weaknesses. But I never have regretted the fact that I did the possibly irresponsible thing back then by not acting alarmed about her anorexia, by not pressuring her to do anything about it, and instead just loving her for who she was. She never wanted heroic intervention from me or from anyone else. She triumphed over her issues with food on her own terms and is happy for me to be sharing our story now.
I found this story kind of fascinating. I went to see what others thought of it. Most people seemed to conclude that Adam Barrows is some kind of an asshole. Here’s a screenshot of the first few comments. They are overwhelmingly negative.
Someone else wrote this rather scathing response:
Wow, less the confession of an enabler and more the confession of a narcissistic a-hole with a fetish for damaged, frail women. It’s so quaint to wax poetic about how deathly cold her hand was the time you found her after she fainted. It’s so sexy to talk about riding in the sleeper car with a starving person in desperate need of mental health intervention. You sound like a right tw*t.
I didn’t get that Adam Barrows is a “narcissistic a-hole” just based on this essay. It’s possible that he is one, but frankly, I kind of doubt it. Most narcissists I’ve known don’t have the ability to be introspective about their own faults. Adam openly admits that his wife had a problem. He also admits that he might have enabled her in her self-destructive habits by not insisting that she seek treatment. Some people would say he’s a bad person for not rushing her to a hospital or a rehab center.
On the other hand, there is some beauty in a person who simply accepts a person as they are. I didn’t read that Adam was encouraging Darla to be an anorexic. I read that he didn’t disapprove of her for who she was. He simply loved her. According to his story, she eventually got better. I don’t know how her improvement came to be. Was it entirely through the “kissing” treatment he writes of, or did she ever seek any kind of help? I don’t know… and I’m not sure if that’s the point of this story. It’s an article in the Modern Love section, which focuses on different kinds of love stories.
There are also people out there who consider eating disorders to be a “lifestyle”. I personally don’t agree with that viewpoint at all. But I’m just one person. As I’ve recently mentioned in other posts, there are a fuckload of eating disorders out there that never get any press. Who am I to say that one person’s eating disorder isn’t another person’s lifestyle. In fact, we don’t even know if Darla was ever diagnosed by a physician as having anorexia nervosa. We can only go by Adam’s description of her and her own declaration that she’s anorexic. When I was much younger, I used to go days without eating. I passed out a few times, too. No one would ever think of me as anorexic, even if I sometimes engaged in those behaviors.
I’m inclined to take this essay at face value. It wasn’t intended to be an in depth look at Darla’s eating disorder. It was a story about how Adam and Darla came to be in a relationship. I don’t think there’s enough information in this story to determine what kind of person Adam is. But that’s not stopping some people from judging him. One person wrote:
This is problematic in a variety of ways. The sentence about how Darla was actually considering a diet before the pandemic is particularly disturbing. This diet is apparently supposed to be proof that she triumphed over her anorexia, but it is not. Recovery is not about achieving a certain predetermined weight, it is about rediscovering comfort and joy in your body and the food that nourishes it. The author does not address this at all. He also minutely describes his wife’s eating patterns and ED rituals. The romanticization of theses behaviors is very triggering and could push ED survivors who read this article towards relapse. His wife’s battle with anorexia is ultimately just used as the backdrop for his coming of age story.
The only description Adam includes of his wife’s eating rituals is in a paragraph about how she would spread a thin layer of butter on a saltine cracker and chew it up until it became paste. He writes that some days, that was her only meal, adding “I watched her starve and held her while she did it.” I agree, that last sentence sounds awful on its surface. But looking a little bit deeper, I think it’s possible to see his perspective. It’s practically impossible to save people from themselves. It all comes down to deciding what you– yourself– can tolerate. It sounds to me like Adam accepts Darla as she is. And just based on his essay, I don’t get the sense that he necessarily encourages her to be anorexic. I think many people are making that assumption because he admits that he never tried to force her into treatment.
An argument could be made that a person who is extremely underweight and malnourished lacks perspective. But, unfortunately, when it comes to mental health care, a lot of Americans are shit out of luck. Mental health care is neither easy to afford nor easy to access, especially right now. Moreover, thanks to our civil rights laws, it’s pretty tough to force someone into treatment for an eating disorder. Even if someone is about to starve to death, our laws emphasize self-determination and the right to refuse care. It appears that Adam and Darla may be living in Canada now, as Adam is reportedly teaching in the English department at Carleton University in Ontario. I can’t comment on Canadian laws regarding the treatment of eating disorders or other mental health issues. He makes it sound like perhaps she no longer needs treatment, anyway. Does she need it, having apparently never received it? I honestly don’t know. All I know is what he’s written, and even that is pretty subjective.
One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that, in the vast majority of mental health situations that don’t involve some kind of biological issue, treatment works best when a person decides for themselves that they will cooperate. When it comes down to it, a person with an eating disorder needs to decide for themselves that they need help. They have to be motivated to get it. Perhaps if Adam had told Darla that he would be leaving her if she didn’t seek treatment, she might have found the motivation to get help. However, it’s my guess that she might have just as easily become resentful and angry about it. She may have seen him as trying to control and manipulate her. A lot of the angry women commenting on this piece would probably fault Adam for that, too. I think a lot of women blame men for most everything.
I told Bill about this piece and asked him what he thought. I know that if he were in this situation, he would have a really hard time watching. He would want to try to rescue. But he also tried to do that with his ex wife and he failed miserably. Eventually, it became too much for him to tolerate and, when she finally dramatically presented him with a divorce ultimatum, he took her up on it. Divorce was not what she had wanted. She was simply trying to be manipulative in a humiliating way. But he got tired of the bullshit and, ultimately, saved himself from her craziness by getting out of the marriage. He’s reaped the rewards and managed to stay alive, too.
Having recently watched a bunch of episodes of Snapped, and having witnessed my husband’s own dealings with a woman who is, frankly, very disturbed, I understand that this is a really tough situation to be in. Not knowing either of these people personally, I can’t judge if what Adam did was right, or if he’s a good person. A lot of people negatively judged Bill and me when I shared how Bill’s story eerily reminded me of an episode of Snapped I watched years ago. It was about a woman named Jessica McCord who, along with her second husband, murdered her first husband and his second wife over custody of their kids. I remember my blood running cold as I watched that episode. I dared to blog about how Jessica McCord reminded me of Ex. I ended up getting a shitstorm of negative armchair quarterback comments from people who wrongly characterized us as bad people. No… we aren’t bad people. We simply didn’t want to end up dead. And I believe Ex was capable of going that far. She threatened to kill Bill on more than one occasion.
Should Bill have tried to get his daughters away from his ex wife? Personally, I think so. In fact, I often encouraged him to try to do something about that situation, even though it wasn’t my decision to make. But, the fact of the matter is, we didn’t have the money or the time to wage a legal battle. It would have been very difficult to convince a judge to grant custody to Bill, especially since the girls didn’t indicate to us that they were unhappy with their living situation. It would have been great if he could have tried to get more equitable custody, but we live in reality. The reality is, it probably wouldn’t have worked. At this point, I’m simply glad he survived, and I don’t apologize for his decision to save himself. His daughters are grown now, and one of them has apparently forgiven him after confirming that her mother is mentally ill. The other remains estranged, but she’s almost 30 years old. She can reach out if she wants to. She chooses not to. As an adult, she has the right to make that choice for herself. Bill loves her anyway.
That’s kind of what I got from Adam’s piece. He loves his wife the way she is. Is it a good thing that he doesn’t press her to get treatment for her eating disorder? I know what most people would think. For me, it’s not so cut and dried. There’s something to be said for a person who loves someone regardless. And despite some people’s potentially erroneous assumptions that Adam prefers his wife “sick”, I get the impression that he had simply determined that he couldn’t be her savior. Moreover, it wasn’t Adam’s role to try to be Darla’s savior, simply because that’s what society deems is correct. What I got from Adam’s story is that he and Darla love each other and, against the odds, their love has survived… and so has his wife. I wish them well.