I just finished Kelsey Osgood’s book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. I don’t remember what prompted me to read this book, which is Osgood’s first and was published in 2014. I seem to remember seeing it referenced somewhere and described as a “good” read. Having just finished it, I will agree that this book is pretty good. Osgood’s descriptive writing reminds me of that of a novelist. She uses a lot of excellent vocabulary, some of which I had to learn while reading. Kindles are great for that.
I learned some new lingo, too– like “wannarexia”. Osgood’s take on anorexia nervosa is that it’s “contagious” and transmitted by the dramatic triggers of popular books, movies of the week, and pro-ana Web sites. Along with her thesis, then, are jargon words like “wannarexia”, which she describes as a person who wants to be anorexic, but isn’t actually really anorexic. Interesting indeed… and not something I had read before in the vast number of books I have read about eating disorders over the years.
How to Disappear Completely is supposed to be a chronicle of Kelsey Osgood’s experiences with anorexia. She spent a lot of time in several eating disorder units in New York, particularly at Cornell University, where she runs into all kinds of characters who suffer from eating disorders of different kinds and severities. Her commentary about the people she meets in treatment is very compelling. Interspersed within those stories are her own comments about the dangers of documentaries like Lauren Greenfeld’s Thin, and books like Steven Levenkron’s The Best Little Girl in The World, which many people find “triggering”. She also discusses people like Mary Kate Olsen, who at 17 years old in 2004, was deposited into rehab in Utah. Officially, the reason she went to rehab is because she had anorexia, but there were also rumors swirling that she actually had an addiction to cocaine and her parents thought people would be more sympathetic to a diagnosis of anorexia.
As I finished Osgood’s book today, it occurred to me that I really didn’t feel like I had read her story, per se. Instead, How to Disappear Completely comes off more as just commentary. I was certainly impressed by the many, many books Osgood had read on the subject of anorexia. Some of the books she mentioned were published decades ago, like, for instance, Fasting Girls: the History of Anorexia Nervosa, which was originally published in 1988. She also mentions Steven Levenkron, of course, who wrote The Best Little Girl in the World in 1978, back when very few people had ever heard of eating disorders. And she also mentions Hilde Bruch, author of The Golden Cage, which I remember reading when I was in high school. Marya Hornbacher’s famed memoir, Wasted, is liberally referenced, as is Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, and Susana Kaysen’s Girl Interrupted. Like Osgood, I’ve read almost all of them. Unlike Osgood, I’m not sure I can conclude that reading those books necessarily leads to the development of a mental illness.
I think a lot of young women do kind of admire people with anorexia nervosa. Let’s face it. Our society values thin, beautiful women. Being thin means being in control of one’s appetites and being able to wear anything. I remember being very young and compulsively reading dramatic accounts of anorexic heroines, like Levenkron’s “Kessa Dietrich”, an aspiring dancer who dieted herself down to 73 pounds and almost died until Levenkron’s male therapist character, Sandy Sherman, saves her from her obsessions. In that sense, maybe some of Kelsey Osgood’s comments are somewhat truthful. There probably are young girls out there who get exposed to a novel about anorexia, decide to try the behaviors themselves, and then fall into a terrifying downward spiral. However, I doubt that’s the main reason why people become ill with eating disorders or any other mental illness.
I did find Osgood’s comments about how “real” anorexics viewed “wannarexics” they’d run into on eating disorder units interesting, and also a bit disturbing. She wrote, implying some disdain from other patients, about how some patients weren’t actually truly “sick”, and were really just seeking attention by mimicking the “real” anorexics and bulimics. It seems to me that if someone needs attention that badly, they probably should be in treatment. Whether or not a so-called “real” anorexic thinks they merit the attention is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it? By feeling the need to mimic destructive behaviors and actually succeeding, aren’t the “wannarexics” also doing harm to themselves? Doesn’t that harm also need to be addressed? And shouldn’t we be concerned when a person feels the need to engage in eating disordered behaviors, regardless of why they do it? That obsession to try to be like an anorexic is, in and of itself, kind of sick, isn’t it?
Osgood also discusses how in the warped world of anorexia, the best anorexic is a dead anorexic. Because somehow, the obsession is so twisted that one can never be thin enough… or sick enough. There’s constant competition among people with anorexia nervosa, and it seems there’s always some drive to be the most dramatic. Osgood’s premise is that this dramatization, particularly in books and movies about anorexia, is part of the problem and a major reason why eating disorders have become so common. I think there could be something to Osgood’s hypothesis, but her conclusions are a little bit half-baked. And again… I don’t think she really told her story. This book is more an observation on anorexia nervosa as it manifests today.
I do think Kelsey Osgood is a talented writer. She uses a lot of engaging language that I found a pleasure to read. I can see that she earned a M.F.A. at Goucher College, which no doubt helped hone her writing chops. However, this book is poorly focused and doesn’t quite meet the mark of what I was expecting it to be. It was a lot of writing about other people and other books, and not so much about Osgood’s own story or creating her own book. Aside from new vocabulary words and eating disorder lingo, I’m not sure I learned a whole lot of new things by reading this. Still… some readers might enjoy Osgood’s way with a setting up a vivid scene, as she does when she describes some of the characters she met when she was in treatment.
I would recommend this book to those interested in reading it, but I can think of other books about eating disorders that I think are better. The aforementioned Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher, is in my opinion, a better book. However, Wasted is also very triggering for some people because it’s very detailed… and that is the kind of book that Osgood criticizes the most. On a scale of 1 to 5 stars, I think I’d give this book almost four stars. The colorful writing nudges the score closer to four, but the lack of a focused thesis and the author’s own story brings the score under that mark.
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