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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