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The second girl in a family that had lost a daughter at the age of two, Lerner (The Forest for the Trees, not reviewed) found consolation in eating for the fact that she was a good student but not popular. Her mother, in deep denial, never mentioned the dead sister and didn’t pressure the adolescent Lerner to lose weight; instead, she pointed out heavy women who dressed well. But Lerner, already convinced she would never have a boyfriend, was desperate to look good and get slim. She attended Overeaters Anonymous, rigorously followed all the recommended steps, and the summer she was 16 went to Israel as a svelte size 6, for the first time in her life "the girl whom the other girls hated." Boys swarmed around, and she had her first sexual experience, but back at home she started binge-eating, and the weight returned. A psychiatrist diagnosed her as manic-depressive and prescribed medications she soon stopped taking. She went to college and then worked in New York, afflicted by extreme moods and troubling relationships with men. Soon after beginning her MFA at Columbia, a suicidal Lerner was admitted to the New York Psychiatric Institute for six months, an experience she considers pivotal to her future mental health. On her release, she went back to Columbia; another bout of depression led to the prescription of lithium, which has helped to stabilize her moods. Lerner now understands, she writes, that addiction to food is a coping mechanism she developed to deal with life and self-loathing.
Moving recollections of acourageous battle against weight gain and mental illness.
Two My Lonely Country
Three The Watery Floor
Four Crying Wolf
Five The Most of It
Six Shooting the Moon
Seven Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
Eight Watch Out Birds!
Nine Food and Loathing
Epilogue Starting Tomorrow
Chapter One: You Should Feel Lucky
It is 1972. I am twelve years old. It is the first day of sixth grade, and I am standing in the girls' gymnasium waiting to be weighed. My last name begins with L, so I am exactly in the middle of the line. The thinnest girl in class stands directly in front of me. At the front of the line, our gym teacher, Miss Match, with her butch haircut, slim boy hips, and two-pack-a-day gravelly voice, barks out our names. Looming beside her is that gray piece of metal: the scale. Miss Match weighs each girl and calls out the number for her assistant coach to record on her clipboard. Her assistant jots the numbers with her ballpoint pen: 100, 105, 88, 120. The line moves forward and I begin to sweat. The girl ahead of me has arms and legs like twigs. Her thighs swim inside her gym shorts. She is blond and has huge, soulful eyes. In seventh grade she will become my best friend, but for now she is this skinny thing and I hate her. Three girls behind is my current best friend, Anna Mankowicz, who has shot up over the last year to a sinewy five foot six. She towers over us and has bona fide breasts. I also know that she has hair down there. I love her, but I am also afraid of her, of her recent developments. Boys like her.
A few girls behind Anna is Wanda Mueller. She is not my friend or anyone else's. The reason is obvious: she's the fattest girl in the class. She's really, really big. Tall and fat. She usually wears skirts, and her legs look like telephone poles that dead-end at her sensible brown shoes. Her cheeks flush quickly and are often either firing up or fading out. For me, she is the safety net. She's the one everyone picks on, the one who gets ostracized. She protects me from the same fate.
Even at age twelve, I have developed an elaborate set of coping mechanisms to keep people from teasing me. They include being funny and being nice and behaving in such a fashion that everyone in the world will like me. Maintaining this facade takes a great deal of energy, since I am filled with self-loathing and a good dollop of misanthropy. Still, I am able to hide my outsized feelings because the desire to be liked and not ridiculed is stronger than all the hatred I can conjure. I have always been able to befriend my deepest enemy and thus keep him -- or her -- from hurting me. In the sixth grade, hurting people took the form of name-calling: fag, fairy, wimp, fat. When I read a purloined copy of The Godfather that was making the rounds through our sixth-grade class, mostly for the sex scenes, I found instead Vito Corleone's famous line, "Keep your friends close but your enemies closer." I kept his counsel, for I knew exactly what he meant. By the time I reached the sixth grade, I couldn't stand most of my closest friends.
The line moves up. I hate the way my gym shorts cling to my skin. It's a one-piece rayon suit, and its goal in life is to cling and ride up my ass. The line continues. I start to panic. I tell myself, I'm not Wanda Mueller. At least I'm not Wanda. Then I feel guilty. I think about lunch and how my mother always packs the same thing: an egg salad or tuna fish sandwich and a piece of fruit. Never a cookie or a sweet. No little bags of potato chips or Fritos. Too fattening. I hate Miss Match. She's been known to make remarks about weight, and though she's never directed one at me, I live in terror that she might. The skinny flower in front of me steps up to the scale. Match slides the balance to the left, lower and lower. Finally, she calls out, "seventy-eight." That's what I weighed in the third grade, for Chrissake.
My face is grim as I step up. I watch Miss Match's knuckly fingers work the balance toward the upper end of the scale in five-pound increments. It takes forever. This slow torture, I am certain, is deliberate. On that day of my twelfth year, I weighed 134. I was five feet tall. It was too much. What I would give to see that number again.
After school, and much cajoling, Anna Mankowicz's mother agrees to take us to Dunkin' Donuts as a back-to-school treat. We live in a suburb of New Haven and have to drive the fifteen or so minutes into town, down Whalley Avenue, a main thoroughfare that is home to most of my favorite fast-food chains. I sit in the back seat with Anna while her two younger brothers maul each other in the way-back of the station wagon. Anna's brothers are big guys, destined to play all manner of contact sports. Anna's mother is petite. She secures her frosted hair beneath a velvet navy blue hair band. She wears culottes and a polo shirt and always looks as if she is coming off the golf course triumphant after sinking a difficult putt. I am afraid of her, though I have no reason to be. I sense that she can be mean.
At the doughnut counter, Anna and I ask for our usual: glazed. The boys scarf down crullers. Mrs. Mankowicz sips at her black coffee. We are happily eating our doughnuts when the youngest, a strapping boy nearly six feet tall, announces he wants another. His brother chimes in that he does, too, and Anna follows suit. I keep silent, not because I don't want another -- those glazed things are like air -- but because I am afraid the request might appear rude. After all, I am not a member of the family. I know Mrs. Mankowicz is going to treat me, but I am anxious about presuming the lengths of her generosity. Too, my silence shelters a deeper fear: I am afraid of looking like a pig. I already feel self-conscious next to my svelte friend, my thighs sticking to the pink vinyl stool.
"Boys, you may choose another doughnut," Mrs. Mankowicz begins, "but Anna, I don't want you eating another. You've got a figure to watch."
I sit there frozen. I can't believe my ears. For all the hinting and prompting and gesturing and glancing my mother does to convey her disapproval of my eating too much, she has never once come out and said "You can't eat that." She has never denied me a bite. I know that she wishes I would lose weight, disapproves when I take seconds or order something fattening at a restaurant, but she never uses her authority as my mother to limit my food intake.
"Betsy, would you like another?" Mrs. Mankowicz smiles at me, her hot pink lipstick now faded, imprinted instead on the lip of the mug before her.
I know she is being polite. But her words cut through me. If I take the doughnut, then I am admitting defeat. After all, doesn't her offer imply that my figure is beyond watching? Already too chubby, I might as well pile it on. Or I could decline the doughnut and act as if I am full. (Full? There aren't enough doughnuts in the state of Connecticut!) Mrs. Mankowicz's dark eyes are on me, waiting for my response, seeming to know that I want to eat everything in sight. I look into her eyes, trying not to cry and trying to understand if she is being cruel or if I am being too sensitive, as I am usually charged.
I am also trying to maintain a shred of dignity in front of my best friend and her two brothers, who seem oblivious to my dilemma. Mrs. Mankowicz is waiting. It is a simple question: Do I or do I not want another doughnut? Reinterpreted, however, through the web of self-loathing known as my inner life, it sounds more like: Do you want to die by lethal injection or the electric chair?
By now the boys have nearly finished their seconds. I want to kill Anna's mother. I want to rip every pink thing from this shit-box of a doughnut shop and smear it with chocolate custard. I want to scream in her tight little face: You know I want another doughnut, you fucking bitch. But more than anything, I want to race home to my mother and lambaste her for letting me feed my face. I want her to control me the way Mrs. Mankowicz controls Anna, so I can be beautiful and slim. I want to throttle my mother for letting this happen to me. But then I pull myself together. I tell myself that I am happy I have my mother and not this controlling bitch. I am happy that my mother doesn't tell me what to eat. I am happy because I am my own person and I will deal with my weight in my own way. Who would want a mother like that, anyway?
"No, thank you," I say. "I'm not hungry."
The following year, Anna went to private school and I attended public school in our suburb. We continued to see each other at our temple for the final year of Hebrew school classes, which would culminate in our being bas mitzvahed. Our circle hated Hebrew school and felt that the required two afternoons a week were a waste of time. In our religious ennui, we regularly gathered in the woods behind the school to play truth or dare and smoke cigarettes.
The game required players to either make good on a dare or answer any question truthfully. The questions we asked were aimed to humiliate and were usually about sex, attempting to determine how much experience each of us had had. Since we were all completely inexperienced, the game became one of bluffing. Once Reva, the skinny girl from gym class, was asked if she swallowed or spit it out. After searching our faces for a clue, she blurted: "Spit what out?" The boys broke up in guffaws. And when my friend looked at me, I made a superior, sorry face as if I knew the answer.
It all sounds innocent enough, but as we pushed each other further and further, waiting to see who would crack, it became an unrelenting game of chicken. Uptight about my body and convinced that my inexperience with boys was related, I found the game agonizing. But beyond the social politics of our little game, something else was becoming clear: all the boys were in love with Anna. And the alpha male of our group, Petey Marks, was clearly ready to claim her for his own.
I watched all this happen with the silent eye of the documentarian. Anna's marvelous neck tilting backward as she laughed too hard at his jokes. Petey lighting two cigarettes in his mouth and handing one off to her. How I longed for him to lift a cigarette from his mouth and hand it to me. Instead, when I asked him for a light, he'd whip his lighter in my direction with a dismissive flick. Light it yourself. I marveled at the sinew behind Anna's knees and the long, olive-colored thighs that disappeared into her cotton shorts. How easily she could pop up from sitting cross-legged, all in one motion, while I struggled to haul myself up. In class I coveted the way she double-crossed her legs beneath her desk, while I could barely cross one chubby thigh over the other.
In the woods, I watched Anna and Petey go from teasing to wrestling to making out. I watched how a girl would captivate a guy and he would circle his wagons around her. To me, she denied even liking him, afraid she would hurt me. But her protection was too close to condescension, or worse, pity. I swore from that time forward I would never let a girlfriend think I cared for a moment when she canceled plans with me and waltzed off with her new beau. As for Anna, deny it as she might, I knew her tongue and mouth had already found his, and I knew that it was only a matter of time till they went further.
Had it been only a year earlier when Anna played make-out with me? When she would pounce on me as we watched our favorite soap opera, General Hospital, pretending to be Luke and Laura, and kiss me wildly with her hand sealed over my mouth, her spacious hips grinding into mine. Though we were always fully dressed, I didn't play these make-out games with anyone else, and I felt an illicit thrill of collusion. But now, behind B'nai Jacob, I watched my best friend disappear deeper into the woods, and I knew I had lost her forever. By thirteen I considered myself something of an expert on human behavior, and I understood that in the poker game of life, boyfriend trumps best friend.
In junior high I encountered a new paradigm for thinking about myself, in the form of a laminated chart that our science teacher pulled out -- a diagram outlining the three body types: ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph. Here it comes, I thought. We're going to have to identify ourselves by body type, and I am going to be standing alone with Wanda Mueller and the one fat boy in our class. I glanced at Wanda a few rows behind and was sickened to see her clotted cheeks.
Hitting the chart with her rubber-tipped pointer, the science teacher recited a little trick to remember the types: the ectomorph eats to live, the mesomorph eats and lives, and the endomorph lives to eat. This information hit me with a number of terrifying simultaneous thoughts: Did I live to eat? Was the act of stuffing my face my raison d'être? I had already developed some sneak-eating habits, and I was highly aware of how much everyone else was eating. By now the world of food had been precisely divided into two camps: the dietetic and the forbidden. Was it possible that the act of filling my mouth was the only thing that brought me real pleasure? What was I feeling when I watched Petey and Anna's lips seal? Of all those beautiful best friends, first Anna, then Reva, would I love any as well as my most reliable and trusted friend, food?
When puberty kicked in and the rest of the known world at Amity Junior High paired off, I protected myself by befriending all the boys who weren't interested in dating me. If I had a slight crush on a fellow, I'd immediately fix him up with a prettier, thinner girl, then privately bemoan my outcast state. I prided myself on being the only girl allowed in the boy's poker game in study hall. Being friends with the coolest guys offered some protection, some consolation, though I would much rather have held hands than dealt them.
To all outward appearances, I was a bright girl who got excellent grades. I made people laugh. I was good at lots of creative things, like making pottery, and I was starting to write poems. I had lots of friends. I was funny, I was generous, I was reliable. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was becoming your standard-issue fat friend.
I didn't really know how I looked. In part, I kept my body hidden even from myself, adopting the standard garb of adolescent angst: fatigues, flannel shirts, sneakers without socks. I'd wear batik or Indian-print wraparound skirts and clogs when I had to get dressed up. I kept my hair long, past my shoulders, and never pulled it back, as my mother would have liked. But I relied on more than loose clothes and hair to camouflage my weight. I used every fiber of my personality to keep a person from thinking I was fat. When I looked in the mirror I saw that my face was pudgy, no cheekbones in evidence. I had hazel eyes, a small nose from my father's side, and thick, wavy, brown hair. I wasn't happy with my reflection, yet I suspected that if I ever lost weight, boys might actually consider me pretty.
Only one thing was holding me back. As my mother would occasionally croon, "If you were thin, you'd be perfect." She meant it as a compliment; the sad truth is, I believed it. I really thought the only thing between me and perfection was thirty pounds.
My mother was neither heavy nor thin, and like most women, she constantly monitored her waistline. She dressed to hide problem areas rather than show off, preferring tailored clothes to frills, flannel pajamas to silky nightgowns, sensible, well-fitting pumps to anything strappy and sexy. My mom didn't have great gams or a fabulous bottom, and if she had she probably wouldn't have emphasized them, as many women do. It simply wasn't her style to call attention to herself.
I would scrutinize her as she performed her rituals of hair and makeup, the routine of creams and powders, liners and lipsticks. But my mother never seemed to take any pleasure in getting dressed up. She put on makeup as if following a recipe. She was always too rough, rubbing in foundation as if she wanted to erase her own cheek, nearly smacking herself with the powder puff. Her hair took the worst beating. She would whack the brush at the side of her head to shape her short, tight curls into a reasonable helmet.
My mother believed she was plain, but she considered herself an expert at "maximizing her looks." It was she who tutored me in the art of camouflage. She knew which styles were slenderizing and lengthening. She knew exactly how long a hem or sleeve should be, what should be tucked in, what tucked out. She knew about belts and bags and matching accessories. My mother insisted that certain types of clothes -- turtlenecks, double-breasted jackets, pleats -- were disastrous for me. She liked a short jacket on me; I preferred long. And she liked bright, strong colors, which became a sore point later, when I left home for college in New York City, a town that basically required only one thing of you: that you wear black.
My mother tried desperately to get me to wear "good" clothes, sporty combinations. I can still see the frightened faces of the saleswomen, whose initially hopeful and helpful demeanor shrank in the face of my obstinacy. My mother was always extremely solicitous of these women, whose pancake makeup came to an abrupt end in a masklike line at their jaw, whose pill-y cardigans smelled of mothballs, whose bifocals hung from a strand of shiny beads like a necklace, resting on their bosom shelves.
"Excuse me," she'd say to one of these women. "Can you show us the latest styles?"
I would rush away, horrified that my own mother thought a geriatric saleswoman with more lipstick on her teeth than on her lips could know what would look good on me. I couldn't stand it when they ran their eyes over my body, dressing me like some plus-size cutout doll. When I'd return with a handful of dark things, the dressing room would be filled with mix-and-match separates, my mother unzipping skirts and pants, eager for me to try them on.
"I can't believe you think I'd wear that," I'd spit.
"Betsy, just try it. It's the cut that matters. You don't know if it's a flattering cut until you try."
My mother believed in the right cuts and good lines and well-made clothes as an antidote to bodies that were less well cut. I should have been grateful for her generosity and tenacity, but as each article of clothing failed to zip up my backside, I'd attack her choice.
"That's disgusting," I'd sneer, as if she, too, were disgusting. "You're ruining my life."
My mother would finally retreat, realizing that I wasn't going to come around. She never yelled -- on the contrary, she avoided making a scene at all costs. Sometimes the saleslady would peek in to see if we needed a different size. My mother would shrug a defeated thank- you, her face trying to offer the catch-all explanation: teenager. And as the saleswoman retreated, I'd feel victorious, but only for a moment. Watching my mother sadly zip and fold the clothes I'd rejected, her eyes avoiding mine, I understood that everything about the scene was wrong. I hadn't been honest with myself at Dunkin' Donuts. I did want my mother to stop me.
As if to make me feel better, my mother often pointed out people with infirmities -- a girl pulling her polio-ridden body along with crutches, a man with a club foot -- always making the same point: thank god you have something you can change. Pooh-pooh-pooh, she would rush to say following one of these sightings, god forbid, you shouldn't know from it. Fate would surely throw a cold eye on us for thinking such thoughts, for comparing ourselves to those less fortunate.
Each year at Yom Kippur services we waited in shul to see which of the latest fashions Mrs. Slotkin would show up in. A woman with unspeakably beaked features (her nose and fingernails curled in a way that frightened me as a child), she nonetheless paraded "like a beauty queen," to use my mother's words, up and down the aisle in quilted suits and perfectly matching accessories. Her liquid eyeliner made her look like Snow White's stepmother, and even in adult memory, Mrs. Slotkin appears to me as the evil queen herself.
My mother and I endlessly debated what this revealed about Mrs. Slotkin's inner life. Did she doll herself up because she thought she was the living end? Or was it because she suffered, as we did, from low self-esteem? Did she even have an inner life? What would the rabbis say? Yom Kippur services were nothing if not a day at the schadenfreude races. We clicked and clucked among ourselves about this one's divorce and that one's cancer, who had lost weight and who was bigger than ever. I often wondered what it said about our own inner lives as we sat there silently condemning half the congregation on the very day we were meant to atone. As the T-shirt slogan goes, thank god we were atheists.
One afternoon after Hebrew school, my mother told me she didn't believe in god. My head was in the fridge when I asked her. She was facing the wall as she ironed a stack of my father's shirts. I didn't have to watch to know that she was methodically applying the iron first to each sleeve, then the back, then the front panels. When I closed the door of the refrigerator, she was snaking the tip of the iron around the buttons. She stopped for a moment, looked up at the ceiling as if to check one last time, then shook her head, no.
"Why not?" I asked, surprised by her answer.
"Because of Barbara," she said. I knew I had a sister who had died. I was four at the time and she was two. I knew it was a terrible thing, but since my parents banished all pictures of her and never, not once, mentioned her, I thought they had forgotten about her, as I had. My older sister and I didn't go to the funeral. And my younger sister, who was born six years after the tragedy, didn't even know about her. In a way, for me, she didn't die so much as cease to exist.
"You still think about her?" I asked. The minute I asked I knew it was a stupid question.
"All the time," she said, and slipped the freshly pressed shirt onto a hanger.
I took my cheese and apple and plopped down in front of the TV. The familiar Brady Bunch theme music came on. I had seen every episode at least three times, but I sat there in my usual after-school stupor, watching the repeat. How was it possible that she thought of my sister all the time? The only time I really thought about Barbara was when I encountered the plaque commemorating her death in a long, dark corridor of our temple.
I was in the third grade, and my girlfriends and I weren't supposed to be in that hall where the plaques were hung, outside the sanctuary. But the highly polished linoleum floors beckoned, and we found ourselves surfing the halls in our socks after Hebrew school. The wall of plaques, with its tiny orange lights glowing across the surface, looked like a giant switchboard. Reading the names on some of the plaques, we giggled at how old-fashioned they sounded: Izzy, Doris, Ida. And then I saw her name: Barbara B. Lerner November 20, 1964. Of course I knew who she was, but, faced with the plaque, I saw the potential for drama. I pointed it out to my friends. Their faces registered bewilderment at first. They continued to scrutinize the plaque until it dawned on them that Barbara must have been my little sister. I looked at them and back at the wall as if to say: All that's left of a two-year-old girl is in that cold brass plaque.
None of us had ever dared touch the Wall of the Dead. But now I moved my hand to that little bulb next to my sister's name, closed my eyes, and twisted it on. I stood there with my hand clasped around the bulb, my hand turning a devilish orange from the light within, staring at my friends with an expression somewhere between defiance and possession. They started crying like the possessed girls in The Crucible, each infecting the other with hysteria. The more they reacted, the more stoic I became. I didn't feel any sorrow for the loss of my sister; instead I basked in the gravity of their attention, as if having a sister who died made me more important. I knew even then that my bid for attention was craven. Even if I was too young to understand the enormity of the tragedy, I knew better than to use her death to call attention to myself.
I've told this story to various shrinks over the years. It seemed highly symbolic -- one of those key stories in the pantheon that you drag out in hopes of some enlightenment. I hoped to have an Ordinary People moment, like the one between Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton, in which Hutton recalls the tragic sailing accident when he let go of his brother's hand. He is guilt-ridden over letting his brother die, and his guilt leads to a suicide attempt. But reliving the scene in therapy with Hirsch, Hutton understands that he didn't let go so much as hold on. He dissolves in tears, finally able to mourn the loss of his brother and forgive himself for living. His therapist embraces him, and we are meant to understand the moment as cathartic.
As much as I attacked the movie for being pat and simplistic, I could not stop thinking about it. After all, wasn't Mary Tyler Moore a WASP version of my own mother, coolly holding herself together through her exquisite grief? And, though I considered the casting of Judd Hirsch as the shrink the worst kind of stereotyping, didn't I long for a bear of a therapist who would help me understand what I could never quite put together? For years, I railed against Ordinary People and its phony portrayal of therapy, never admitting how I desperately longed for that hug. But life never offers up such Hollywood endings, epiphanies that change everything for once and for all. I never had a catharsis in twenty-odd years of therapy. I never had a shrink who hugged me.
Eventually I would forgive myself for living. Losing thirty pounds was another story.
My mother never stopped trying to convert me, pointing out heavy women who made themselves up beautifully and wore stunning outfits. Why not wear a little make-up, maximize my looks? My mother had no idea how desperate I was to look good, to lose the weight. I had already counted myself out as a person who would ever find love or happiness in this world. I knew which girls the boys liked. I could see where I was headed -- the land of no boyfriends, no prom dates, no dreamy first kisses.
"You don't have a figure," my mother would sometimes say. "You have a shape." And then, to make me feel better, she'd remind me how lucky I was. "You know, some girls are pear-shaped, with those enormous hips, and some are huge on top. You're evenly distributed. You're a little chubby all over. You should feel lucky."
I knew my mother was right. I should consider myself fortunate: I could lose weight. But as each Monday failed to become the first day of the rest of my life, I came to believe that my failure of will was a measure of my entire character. I chalked up every indignity to this one great weakness. And I was hypersensitive to any situation that called attention to it. When the elderly salesman at our local shoestore measured my foot, never failing to expound on my extra-wide width, I wanted to strangle him with the cord that hung around his neck, dangling his shoehorn. Once I went with my father to a trade show at the New Haven Coliseum, which was set up with hundreds of mock display rooms. I ran up to one that had a piano bench and slid onto it. Without warning, the bench collapsed under my weight. We later discovered that the legs had not been screwed in, but the shame I felt as the bench gave way beneath me could have filled the Coliseum.
Then there was the afternoon when a four-year-old visiting our house pointed to me and exclaimed, "She's fat." Her mother tried to hush her, which only made the child more determined to sing it from the ramparts. "She's fat, she's fat, she's fat." When I saw her as a young woman twenty years later at the Stop & Shop, where I was picking up some groceries for my mother, I ran with my cart into another aisle, my heart pounding, the shame as fresh as the day she branded me.
But the final catalyst occurred during an ordinary car ride with one of my friends. From the backseat I overheard her dad complain about his weight. "I'm up to 170," he said to his wife. "I gotta cut back." I don't remember anything else about that day, where we were going, or what else might have happened. All I knew was that at fifteen I weighed as much as a grown man. So when my mother mentioned a new kind of group for weight loss that was starting in our area, I immediately agreed to go. This was the first time she had ever brought up the subject, and under most circumstances I would have flat-out rejected any offer of help. But I was desperate. My mother told me that the group met once a week at St. Raphael's Hospital. We would be going together, my parents and I, because we all needed to lose weight. I was actually eager to start.
That first Thursday night, we had no idea what Overeaters Anonymous was. It was 1975 and the nation had not yet embraced the recovery movement. We didn't use terms like eating disorders, anorexia, bulimia. No attractive young feminist author had yet construed beauty as myth. Betty Friedan might have been the heart and soul of the movement, but every woman wanted to be Gloria Steinem, the hair and hips. These were the days of the grapefruit diet, the Scarsdale diet, Dexatrim, and mother's little helpers. When Lucy Ricardo had to slim down for a big performance at the Copa, she installed herself in some kind of heating box that magically melted the pounds away. The health and fitness craze hadn't hit the suburbs. Nike was still the name of a Greek goddess. Those were the days when a balanced meal included steak, when pasta was called noodles, when the only diet beverage was Tab, which came in a pink can and real men didn't drink it. When I was growing up, the only people watching their figures were us gals. Fat was not yet a feminist issue.
A dozen or so middle-aged women assembled for the meeting. Not surprisingly, my father was the only man, though he didn't seem to mind. I was the only teen and was grateful no one recognized me. The meeting was held in a cordoned-off section of the cafeteria at St. Raphael's Hospital. The stale smell of cafeteria food hung in the air, and from behind the kitchen doors a great dishwasher hissed through its cycles. We all introduced ourselves in turn, using the same words and first names only. When it was my turn, I didn't know if I would be able to say it: Hello, I'm Betsy. I'm a compulsive overeater.
I have no idea how I was able to recite those words in front of my parents -- and, more amazingly, to myself. Somehow I managed to swallow all the shame and pain I associated with being fat, all the chicanery I employed to conceal my food addiction, to make that simple admission. But before I could assess how it felt to admit my real identity, the room answered with a resounding: Hello, Betsy! Welcome.
I actually felt relief. I went home that night armed with a stack of brochures. One listed twelve questions that would help me determine if I was really a compulsive overeater; I got a perfect score. Other brochures talked about god and a Higher Power. Later for those. Two diets were offered, a "gray sheet" and an "orange sheet." The gray sheet was the more stringent program, and I opted for it. This was all or nothing: three meals a day with nothing in between. The portions were generally four ounces of protein and a half-cup of a starch. Two cups of vegetables. One fruit a day. One tablespoon of oil or one pat of butter. Just as the recovering alcoholic had to kiss all his booze goodbye and embrace sobriety, so we were expected to practice abstinence, eating only our three planned meals a day.
In just a few short months, I became not only an active member of OA, but an avid believer in the program. I followed that gray sheet to slavish perfection, started to read the Big Book from Alcoholics Anonymous, and came to believe, as the program preached, that I suffered from a disease that was cunning and baffling. My belief in and adoption of the program's tenets were absolute. Had the Hare Krishna come along instead, I'd have been dancing in saffron robes through Penn Station. So what if I didn't really get the Higher Power part? The scale was my god, and it was very happy with me. I lost eighteen pounds in the first month alone. I was on the road to perfection.
Copyright © 2003 by Betsy Lerner
Central to Lerner's story is her lifelong obsession with food. In her over ten years of mixed devotion to Overeaters Anonymous, her weight fluctuated from a size 14 dress down to a 6, only to spiral out of control again and again. But what this book shows is that for her, as for many, overeating was only one painful part of a much bigger issue: battling depression, Lerner eventually became suicidal and spent months recovering in a psychiatric hospital. Throughout her experiences, Lerner discovered the importance of being honest with herself about her condition and confronted the challenge of asking for help; in recounting this, she discusses a question at the heart of any kind of treatment: Does healing mean change, or accepting who we are?
Ultimately, Lerner's diagnosis is manic depression, and her resistance to the diagnosis -- and misgivings about the prescribed drug, lithium -- speaks volumes about how we personalize our problems, sometimes refusing to accept a cause from outside ourselves. Her story also explores the impact the loss of a child can have on a family; the connections Lerner felt between loss, shame, and guilt were difficult to recognize and even more difficult to admit. Though Lerner's negative ideas of self found expression in her body weight, this book is suitable for discussion of many other kinds of dependency, for as the author says, "The deeper addiction is to self-loathing."
While the subject matter of Food and Loathing is not lighthearted, book groups need not feel intimidated by Lerner's unsparing approach. In laying out the lines of her battle with body image, mental health, and recovery, Betsy Lerner has a wonderful sense of humor, and her honesty about her experiences will open the door to an important and memorable discussion. (Elise Vogel)
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
1. In Food and Loathing, Betsy Lerner copes with her fear of rejection by compromising her integrity with hopes that others will befriend her, like her, or not subject her to verbal abuse. "I was funny, I was generous, I was reliable… I was becoming your standard-issue fat friend." How does that coping mechanism prevent her from learning how to define her boundaries? Recall moments when she finds herself mute or succumbs to peer pressure out of fear of rejection. How does that coping mechanism undermine her ability to gain control over her eating disorder?
2. When visiting Dr. Mizner, Betsy felt as though Bob the Doorman should remember her. Betsy says, "It irritated me beyond reason that he refused to recognize me." What was Dr. Mizner's interpretation of why Betsy was so frustrated by Bob's lack of recognition? Why do you think Betsy felt so strongly about her interactions with Bob the Doorman?
3. Betsy found it difficult to hide her depression from her mother. She says, "She knew from the first syllable I muttered over the phone whether I was up or down." What is it about Betsy's relationship with her mother that makes it difficult for her to be of help to Betsy? What kind of mother does Betsy seem to desire?"
4. Throughout the book she continuously creates metaphors that compare her body to food. "I imagined myself a piece of meat at the butcher's, ready to be weighed and wrapped up." How has her figurative detachment from her body allowed her to be treated like a piece of meat? Compare the situations that trigger Betsy's binging. How has food consumed her?
5. Throughout her therapy with Dr. Mizner, he accuses her of being "the boy who cried wolf." Give examples of how Betsy internalizes that view of herself. How does it affect her ability to heal? Is there any way Dr. Mizner could be right in his interpretation?
6. When Betsy was into making pottery she began to smash every pot that she deemed imperfect, justifying her actions by telling herself that she cared only about the process and saving pieces were of no interest to her. How does her obsessive-compulsive behavior interfere with her ability to produce, whether it is pottery or schoolwork? What is she afraid of?
7. "It [binging] became a highly clandestine and shame-filled act, including destroying the "evidence." Betsy's binging spells alternated with short periods of abstinence; describe the concept of abstinence within Judeo-Christian beliefs. How does this paradigm of self-control and notion of purity help or harm Betsy as she copes with her disorder? Is it unrealistic to abstain from food? How are the situations that trigger her "fall from grace" similar?
8. Why was Betsy's admittance into New York State Psychiatric a mark of her independence? Why was this moment monumental in her ability to gain control over her own life?
9. Betsy felt sorry for Dr. Benedict because of his apparent inability to demand respect from his patients. How was this observation a sign of progress? Compare and contrast her sessions with Dr. Benedict and Dr. Mizner. What was it about Dr. Benedict's methods that allowed her to make progress in therapy?
10. Why do you think Betsy's escape from the hospital to go to the movies with Mona Lisa was rewarded with more freedom? What does that say about Betsy's progress and her place in the group dynamic of the institution?
11. Why was Betsy afraid of being "clinically depressed"? Why do you think she stopped treatment after such a long period of success? At the time of her last relapse, she couldn't understand it saying, "I had what I wanted most." How did this relapse compare with the others? What factors ensured that this relapse would be her last?
12. Eating disorders are often overlooked as being less serious or are dismissed as an issue of the privileged. Give examples from the book on how members of AA viewed Betsy and how that contributed to her interpretation of her own illness. How has Food and Loathing contributed to your understanding of eating disorders and how depression manifests itself in a variety of illnesses? How has Food and Loathing contributed to your self-awareness?
A Q & A with Author Betsy Lerner
What made you choose to write a memoir? Why was it important for you to tell your story through this medium?
I didn't want to write a memoir. I tried to write my story as a novel over the years, but all attempts failed. When I finally started to write in my own voice, or the voice of the narrator, the story flowed. It was far more mortifying than important for me to tell my story through this medium.
How long did it take to write this book? Was it emotionally draining? If so, how did you recuperate?
It took ten months to write a first draft and eight months to revise it. It was more liberating than debilitating, but I am still in recuperation.
What were your family's reactions to the memoir? Everyone has been very supportive. My mother went through a number of emotional responses as she processed the story, but she did come out on the side of being proud of me. Who knows what people really think -- probably that I'm still that girl who needs a lot of attention.
How did the death of your youngest sister affect you? What is the connection between this tragedy and your depression? How did you find resolve?
I think the death of a child profoundly affects everyone in a family. I was so young that my understanding of what happened was almost as mythological as it was real. There was this unspoken loss and tragedy that I sensed but didn't fully grasp. It has haunted me my whole life, but I think my depression is more chemically based than connected to my sister's death. My family didn't fall apart and we were always provided for. I think, however, that writing the book was an attempt to come to terms with that loss and examine the ways in which it affected my life and moods.
What was the most frustrating aspect of OA? Why didn't it work for you?
OA, at the time I went in the mid-'70s, was too closely modeled on AA, and the eating regimen was all or nothing. Abstinence (or sobriety) required total adherence to the food program. When I had my first slip I binged in an out-of-control way because I was convinced that I would have to start from Day 1 the next day. It set up a feast-or-famine dynamic that has been detrimental.
Do you feel that Dr. Mizner played a large part in the development of your illness? Do you resent him?
Dr. Mizner certainly didn't help! To tell a patient who is seeing you for psychiatric problems that she is like the boy who cries wolf is more than a little ironic. I think if he had treated my depression (or taken in seriously) with medication, I might have avoided hospitalization. Do I resent him? I don't live that way, but if I had the chance to shove him in front of a bus….
When you spoke up for the heavy man in Gordon Lish's fiction class, did you feel fierce? Recall another memorable way you exercised this newfound source of power?
I didn't feel fierce, but I felt as if my life depended on it. I knew following my hospitalization that my well being depended on speaking up for myself, and no longer hiding behind others. I still have a hard time telling someone who cuts in front of me that I was there first, so I'm not exactly a warrior, but I do make my feelings known -- especially in my professional life where showing passionate for the work you believe in is critical to success.
Throughout your life, you pushed away those who loved you; you say, "I could only trust someone who distinguished between people, who was discriminating, who could be cruel." What was it about your relationship with John that allowed you to love him?
Taking the fifth.
How did the process of writing help you along the way? Why did you choose not to include the referenced poems within the book? Are you planning to publish another book of poetry?
The poems, which I love, are truly juvenilia at this point. Best for my eyes only. No plans to publish those old things, and no longer writing poetry, sadly.
Are you currently working on your next book? What is its focus?
Taking the fifth.
What do you tell others who are struggling with eating disorders?
Get good help. Don't go through this alone. Forgive yourself every day and try to have a better day.
What three most important morsels do you hope that readers will take from Food and Loathing?
I mostly wanted to write a book that was entertaining, but also honest about therapy, breakdowns, depression and bingeing. If readers have any experience of these things, I hope that my rendering seems truthful and there is relief in sharing the experience. My highest wish is that some overweight fifteen year old girl finds it and doesn't feel as alone, or that some parent has a better idea of how to help his or her child by better comprehending what she is going through.