book reviews

A review of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, by Kelsey Osgood

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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movies, nostalgia

Unrelated actresses who could be sisters…

Time for another lighthearted non-sensical posting. A few weeks ago, I decided to watch the first season of St. Elsewhere. It was a hit show when I was growing up, but it was always on after my bedtime, so I never got into it when it was still on prime time.

I always liked the theme song for St. Elsewhere. It’s so quintessentially 80s… and I really miss the 80s. The theme was composed by Dave Grusin. I recognize him because he worked with James Taylor when they did his 2004 Christmas album for Hallmark. James later released a Christmas album that had most of the songs from the Hallmark album, along with a couple more. I can’t believe how fast the years have flown by since the 80s. I wouldn’t want to repeat my youth, but there are times when I miss those simpler, more carefree times. They didn’t seem simple when they were happening, but compared to now, they really were.

Anyway, as I was watching that St. Elsewhere, I noticed that one of the actresses looked familiar. Barbara Whinnery, who played the quirky, sex-obsessed pathologist Dr. Cathy Martin, reminded me so much of Lisa Pelikan, another actress I’d seen in the 80s era made for TV film, The Best Little Girl in the World. I would have sworn they were sisters.

Wow…. looking at those two screenshots from IMDB, I can really see how much alike they look. I looked up Barbara first. She was born July 1, 1953 in Berkeley, California.

Then I looked up Lisa. Much to my amazement, Lisa was also born in Berkeley, California… a year later. Her birthday is July 12, 1954. I wonder if they’ve ever met. It’s crazy that they look so much alike and were born a year apart in the same city… and they are even in the same profession!

I’m sitting here watching The Best Little Girl in the World, a 1981 made for TV movie based on Steven Levenkron’s 1978 novel of the same name. It stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Lisa Pelikan, as well as Eva Marie Saint and Charles Durning. Lisa was about 27 or 28 when she did that movie, but she plays, Gail, the older teenaged sister to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Casey Powell. In the movie, Gail gets pregnant after having sex with some guy she doesn’t want to marry, which causes conflict with their dad.

In the novel, the characters’ names are different, and there’s also an older brother named Greg. Casey is Francesca Dietrich and Gail’s character is called Susanna. I think, anyway. It’s been years since I read that book. I was pretty fascinated by it when I was a teenager. I probably would have been fascinated by St. Elsewhere, too.

This film aired in 1981. I didn’t see it until many years later, when it was shown on a now long defunct cable TV station called Odyssey. I think they showed a lot of religious programming.

I just now got to the point in The Best Little Girl in the World at which Casey meets her therapist, Clay Orlovsky (Sandy Sherman in the book). He asks her what he can “do” for her. I remember my own therapist, also a middle aged man at the time, asked me a similar question when I came to him because I was tired of being depressed and anxious and felt like I was about to go off the deep end. I remember my situation seeming really serious at the time… and it probably was, since I regularly fantasized about offing myself. That was in 1998, which really seems like it wasn’t too long ago! Fortunately, I eventually got over that level of depression and no longer feel quite so desperate. My former therapist is now a friend. The guy who played Clay Orlovsky in The Best Little Girl in the World was also in The Exorcist. He’s been dead for years.

The film is set in California, while the book was set in New York City, which is where Steven Levenkron practices. He is the same therapist who famously treated Karen Carpenter, mainly due to the success of his book. I have read most of Levenkron’s books– he’s written a lot of them. He also wrote a sequel to The Best Little Girl in the World. The book was called Kessa, after the nickname Francesca gives herself. I was eager to read the sequel, but it was pretty poorly done, and I only read it once. If I recall correctly, there were continuity issues and he didn’t even spell Susanna the same way (Suzanna). I doubt it was edited properly.

I remember being so curious about the sequel, Kessa, that I bought a copy of it off of Amazon Marketplace for an obscene amount of money. Boy, talk about a sequel truly being worse than the original. I think it was reissued a few years later because Levenkron wrote another book called The Luckiest Girl in the World, which was about self-injury. A made for TV movie was made based on that novel, too. It was called Secret Cutting (alternative title was Painful Secrets), and it was pretty bad. Rhea Perlman played a therapist, and I remember Sean Young played the unappealing mother character to a driven figure skater named Dawn, who cuts herself on purpose.

Loosely based on the novel. I like Rhea Perlman better in comedies.

I know things have to progress, but I kind of miss movies of the week. I kind of miss the days when it was a thrill to have more than three or four TV stations to choose from, and you got your news once or twice a day instead of all day. I miss having face to face relationships with people and knowing them personally, rather than just virtually. It’s crazy how much life has evolved since the 80s. Even the hospital scenes in The Best Little Girl in the World are kind of quaint. A lot has changed since those days.

I miss not having to worry about having an orange idiot in the White House. I miss not knowing about COVID-19. I miss never having had exposure to an abusive narcissistic asshole like Bill’s ex wife. But, at least I can take heart in knowing that I have survived every challenge I’ve faced so far, right? On the other hand, what’s so scary about COVID-19 is that it’s wiping people out so quickly. I’ve read so many stories of people who are here today, gone tomorrow… or here today and healthy and very sick a week later. It makes a problem like anorexia nervosa as it’s presented in an 80s era movie of the week seem trivial, even though I know it’s not.

It’s kind of fun to watch this old movie from 1981. It’s so dramatic. And it seems so simple compared to now. This is not to downplay the seriousness of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa. That is a very serious problem. But the way the subject is presented in the film makes it seem so much more “weighty” than it is compared to other issues that are affecting everyone.

Don’t Lisa and Barbara look like sisters? Amazing. I would almost think they were the same person.