Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, a memoir of the author’s struggles with bulimia and anorexia, was March’s choice for the Mad Woman’s Book Club which I run on Goodreads. I was quite interested to see firsthand what coping with an eating disorder is like, particularly over such a prolonged period, having never read a book which deals with the issue.
Hornbacher begins with some startling admissions: ‘I became bulimic at the age of nine, anorexic at the age of fifteen’. Her introduction is insightful; she states that she chose to write the book because, fundamentally, she disagreed with the majority of what had been written about eating disorders prior to 1998. Hornbacher writes: ‘It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength… It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that winds up mocking no one more than you. It is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women. It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained – and in the end, of course, you find it’s doing quite the opposite.’ She makes clear throughout that Wasted tells of a singular experience, but does hint at its terrifying commonality: ‘So I get to be the stereotype: female, white, young, middle-class. I can’t tell the story for all of us.’
Hornbacher is incredibly frank, and much of her writing about eating disorders is highly psychological. She writes: ‘Body and mind fall apart from each other, and it is in this fissure that an eating disorder may flourish, in the silence that surrounds this confusion that an eating disorder may fester and think.’ This, however, is not a memoir written as a coping mechanism from a position retrospect; Hornbacher makes this as clear, as she also does with the way in which she hopes the publication of the book will help others in a similar position to the one she was in.
Hornbacher discusses the rigidity of the classification of eating disorders; simply because her father was not ‘absent and emotionally inaccessible’ and her mother ‘overbearing, invasive, [and] needy’, she was not deemed to come from the right family type to develop bulimia and, later, anorexia. Whilst she says that her home life was relatively ordinary for the most part, as she grows, she realises that, as an only child, she is used as a focus for her parents’ own relationship issues: ‘The child becomes a pawn, a bartering piece, as each parent competes to be the best, most nurturing parent, as determined by whom the child loves more. It was my job to act like I loved them both best – when the other one wasn’t around.’ She does detail her mother’s own neuroses with eating, determined as she was to stay thin, and never eating more than half of the food on her plate.
One of the most remarkable things about Wasted is that Hornbacher was only twenty-three when it was written; it is one of the most eloquent memoirs which I have ever read. She is incredibly humble too, despite her own experiences: ‘I do not have all the answers. In fact, I have precious few. I will pose more questions in this book than I can respond to. I can offer little more than my perspective, my experience of having an eating disorder.’
Wasted is a compelling memoir, and a fierce honesty has been stamped onto every single page. When describing herself as she falls into substance abuse, she says: ‘I was vivacious, rebellious, obnoxious, often sick, sometimes cruel, and sometimes falling apart on the locker room floor, usually seething at something, running away from my house in the night.’ This no-holds-barred approach works wonderfully within Hornbacher’s book; we are simultaneously frightened and repulsed by her graphic descriptions of purging and her body, and want to read on. There is a fantastic balance between the personal and psychological. Wasted is intense and important, and a real eye-opener for those who have never experienced the disease.