Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Finding Hope

Overview

With captivating blue eyes and dark hair, Jenny Lauren looked as though she'd stepped out of one of the ads for which her uncle, Ralph Lauren, is famous. It was not long, however, before she found herself in a world where it was easy to see herself as less than perfect. She was ten years old when she first starved herself. After many years of bingeing, purging, and compulsively exercising, her body fell apart. Her colon herniated and she was forced to undergo surgery. At twenty-four, living in chronic pain, she ...

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Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Finding Hope

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Overview

With captivating blue eyes and dark hair, Jenny Lauren looked as though she'd stepped out of one of the ads for which her uncle, Ralph Lauren, is famous. It was not long, however, before she found herself in a world where it was easy to see herself as less than perfect. She was ten years old when she first starved herself. After many years of bingeing, purging, and compulsively exercising, her body fell apart. Her colon herniated and she was forced to undergo surgery. At twenty-four, living in chronic pain, she wrote Homesick as a cautionary tale that she hoped would touch many.
This unflinching account details her struggle with anorexia and bulimia, yet is also a much larger story that focuses on universal issues: the intricacies of family ties, the pressures of society, the search for selfhood, and ultimately the power of hope. With flashes of wit and a knowing beyond its young writer's years, Homesick is a riveting and emotionally complex story of pain and hard-won recovery that no reader will forget.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jenny Lauren's memoir should be required reading for every teenage girl in America. Like the author, this book is honest, hilarious, brave, tenacious, and shameless, in all the right ways."
— Pam Houston, author of Sight Hound

"[A] story about learning to accept one's body as one's home."
Teen Vogue

"Lauren is intelligent, creative, and a skilled writer, and she evokes empathy."
Publishers Weekly

"[O]ne of the most harrowing personal accounts of living with an eating disorder ever published."
The Daily Telegraph (London)

"Homesick should be required reading for all pre- and adolescent girls...and any parent who wants to know what's really going on with their daughters."

- Tama Janowitz, author of Peyton Amberg and Slaves of New York

"As urgent and intimate as a best friend's phone call, Homesick chronicles Jenny Lauren's descent into an Alice in Wonderland medical nightmare. But Homesick is not about sickness. It's about persistence, strength, and the awesome power of one woman's will to fight for herself and get better."

- Jillian Medoff, author of Hunger Point and Good Girls Gone Bad

"Almost every girl wakes up one morning wondering whether she's too fat — but if you're Jenny Lauren, that's a particularly loaded question. The niece of fashion icon, Ralph Lauren, Homesick is a home run for the issue of eating disorders in America. Jenny Lauren courageously chronicles her own battle with bulimia in this raw account, which finally lead me to understand the intricacies of this illness. Her story will certainly help others like herself and their families and actually help save lives."

- Andy Behrman, author of Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania

"Never have I read a more honest account of a life in turmoil and the powerful desire to reshape it. In Homesick Jenny Lauren confronts her 'fashion world' family, her doctors, therapists, and — most of all — herself, and her ruling passion to starve. This memoir is bare-bones beautiful."

- Barbara Robinette Moss, author of Change Me into Zeus's Daughter

Publishers Weekly
This memoir about bulimia and its effects by Ralph Lauren's niece alternates between the gruesomely fascinating and tediously sad. Thirty-one-year-old Lauren, whose father (Ralph's brother) heads Ralph Lauren Men's Design, depicts in excruciating detail her odyssey through bingeing, purging, the debilitating sickness that ensues and her struggle to heal. Her story spans her life from the age of nine, when she's rejected by the prestigious School of American Ballet and subsequently embarks on her first attempt to starve herself into the perfect dancer's physique, to her torments as an adult running the gamut of traditional doctors and New Age healers as she tries to recover from a painful and depressing illness presumably brought on by her compulsive fasting, bingeing, purging and exercising. The pressure from her family to be beautiful and her alienation from her own body emerge as Lauren minutely describes her agonies over what she'll eat at each next meal, the clothing choices of everyone she meets and the intimate details of her bowel movements. This book raises the question of whether contemporary fashion standards pressure young women into the destructive behaviors of anorexia and bulimia. Lauren is intelligent, creative and a skilled writer, and she evokes empathy. She has a few encouraging epiphanies, as when, at age 30, she attends a Ralph Lauren fashion show and realizes, "The clothing is incredible as always, but who needs it?" The book's abrupt ending and dearth of conclusions, however, disturbingly portend that the reader may come away with more insights than the author. (Apr.) Forecast: Women suffering with eating disorders and their families as well as fashion fans interested in life in a fashion family will be drawn to this memoir. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743456999
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Jenny Lauren grew up in New York City and earned her B.A. from Barnard College. A writer and painter, she currently lives in Manhattan. Visit her website at www.jennylauren.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Twitch

This twitch is driving me crazy. It's 1997, I am twenty-four years old, and for a year I have been in physical discomfort. That is 365 days with my butt twitching and an inability to contract my gluteus maximus muscles. Three hundred and sixty-five days with bugs up my ass, 365 days of wanting to jump out the window, 365 days watching the entire lower half of my body turn into jelly and atrophy. This is a sick joke.

Now, understand, it is with these muscles that women often feel sexy. The tight squeeze, the swaying of hip to hip, the alignment of the pelvis and the flattened stomach are what gives a woman so much strength to conquer the day. Losing this sensation is basically losing my connection to any kind of sensuality. So it doesn't surprise me that the depression I've often suffered from has become stronger and more unbearable this past year. Of course, this darkness, my old and dear friend, has led to the recurrence of my bulimic symptoms and to the deterioration of my emotional self.

You might say, especially if you are a psychiatrist, that it's my emotional fears, depression, feelings about my sexuality, past disappointments, and all that crap that have caused my building to collapse. I will not deny this. My coping skills are far worse than they were, but after a year (and, yes, I am as bored with this as my world-famous neurologist suggested I ought to be), I am at my wit's end. I'm trying so hard not to lose my mind, but I'm very aware that my power to intellectualize and make any sense of this is descending rapidly.

I've tried to become as spiritual as possible; I've always believed in the mystical and magical journey through life, but after such pain, I need a tangible answer. I used to be able to heal myself from my depression. I learned how to use my body to ward it off, with vigorous runs, enlightened yoga, and techno-electric-charged race walks. Only, now I can't do any of that. And without that, my mind is not getting enough juice, and my creative soul, the one that carries the nervous depression and adrenaline out of me, is utterly blocked.

It was the same when I painted. I want to paint again, but that, too, is locked within my ailing body. I need to dance while I move the paintbrush, or simply feel the energy flowing throughout my body onto the canvas. I studied ballet for thirteen years. The mirrors, the leotards, all of it had an impact on my self-esteem. I had to stop in my last year of high school. I thought I'd never find anything as fulfilling. When I began to paint I was relieved. I was able to merge these two passions. Music or silence set the backdrop as I moved my body to the rhythm of my strokes, to the colors I saw and heard, and to the composition I was creating. I was using a freestyle improvisation. My gestures, my actions, and my inspiration came most deeply from my pelvis, deeply from my core. But now thinking about painting depresses me because I no longer have the energy to get downtown to my studio, let alone paint. Some osteopath actually said that I had no chi.

It's these painful twitches, though...they're absolutely maddening — and in the most demoralizing place. Of course the twitches are not in my eye, not in my shoulder, but in my asshole. And they just keep on pulsing and breathing constantly. It's quite the symphony, with a wonderful crescendo. Great large and climactic twitches fizzle into small fluttering twitches that keep me gripping my thighs for hours. It's like there is a huge monster grabbing me between my legs. I've been telling the doctors that I think this actually all began in my stomach, that it's gotta be a digestive problem. After I eat, even the tiniest of meals, a sucking candy or a rice cake, for God's sake, my stomach begins to fill up with air. I begin to choke and the food just doesn't want to go down. It stays lodged in my chest and flows back up into my throat. Then, every sensation, especially an overwhelming sense of muscle weakness, becomes pronounced.

Ugh, and taking a shit (vulgar no matter how you put it) is like giving birth, with the baby's head getting stuck for hours. I even have to stand and massage my stomach as I go, just to make things move. But then the sensation is always there, singing its lullaby or rock music all freakin' day long. Me and my twitch.

I can't exercise at all, can't even walk comfortably. The other day I taped myself up to see if it would help me run. I thought it might make my buttocks feel stronger and help me forget the twitch a little if my cheeks were pushed tighter together. I wrapped a large piece of masking tape around my cheeks as if it were a belt that kept them squeezed together, and I ran. God, how I need to sweat and pant. But I had to keep stopping to redo the tape because it wouldn't stay stuck to my sweats. Then I just gave up because it also made my hamstrings burn and ache. I had to limp from the reservoir in Central Park to Fifth Avenue to hail a cab. I was afraid I was going to have to ask my doorman to carry me upstairs to my apartment.

All year I've begged my internist, Dr. W (for Dr. Worthless), to make this stop, to find the cause. It has taken him months to take me seriously. When I first went to see him last summer, he reasoned that I was too young to be put through a series of medical tests, and he attributed my discomfort to stress. So I carried on with my life, trying to move through the days like a machine. I painted at my studio, worked at a nonprofit art organization, and scouted for beautiful/eccentric homes for a well-known design magazine. Okay, maybe it'll go away, maybe it's nerves, I thought.

The problem, though, was that I was depressed and tired all the time, and then the physical symptoms became worse. It was getting harder and harder to leave the house. I would wake up, attempt to go to the bathroom, and then the twitch would just take over. Forget the studio. Forget work. Forget seeing friends. Forget everything.

I would panic most mornings and rush up to 87th Street and Park and sit and wait in Dr. W's office, sometimes for hours, to see him. As I sat there holding my breath and clenching my legs together to stop the twitch, I'd rummage through the pile of magazines, flipping through all the fashion ads. Oh, there's Uncle Ralph with his two dogs in a Purple Label ad. Whadda ya know, there he is again. Not his face but a Ralph Lauren fragrance ad with a young beautiful couple wrapped in velvet and in love. The good life, huh?...things to aspire to. Reminding me of everything I hated, everything I loved, everything I wished I could be...but that was then. Look at me now. By the time Dr. W called me into his office, I had finished skimming the magazines from the late eighties, with Paulina and Christie Brinkley splashed all over them, and gotten through the nineties, with enough of Crawford, Turlington, and the fashion world up my nose.

Dr. W aggravates the living shit out of me. He listens, takes notes, and then speaks to me in his calm, methodical, and patronizing style. He has been my parents' internist forever, and they have great confidence in him. Six years earlier, when my father suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage and was lying in bed in severe pain during recovery, it was Dr. W who found the phlebitis in his lung and leg that could have killed him. My dad was rushed into surgery on Thanksgiving Day as I shoved hospital cafeteria turkey and cranberry sauce into my mouth. I know I owe him a lot for saving my dad's life, but my confidence in him helping me is fading. He has never been able to provide relief. Everything is always fine; he says my blood is good and I don't have hemorrhoids. He suggested I watch my diet, give up acidic and gassy sugar-free foods, and come back if I didn't feel better. How come he can't make it stop? He's a doctor for goodness' sake!

After six months of this, Dr. W starts to shift his position ever so slightly. He gives me a sigmoidoscopy, a test where they shove a scope up the lower part of the colon to take a picture of what's going on inside and they look for tumors or obstructions. It shows nothing, so he sends me to other gastroenterologists. Dr. D is a specialist who is known for a unique device he uses. It can measure the fluttering and spasms of my rectum. I've now visited him and his device five times. I have a ritual: I wait on the corner of Central Park West drinking coffee and watching the gorgeous guys go Rollerblading into the park. When the spasms get really intense, I rush to his office so he can stick this thing in my butt and see what I'm talking about. Each time he has said, "Well, they certainly exist, but I'm not sure why."

Dr. W finally gives me an esophagoscopy, which shows that I have an irritated esophagus and stomach lining (they call it a hiatal hernia), a symptom common to bulimics. But that only explains some of my discomfort, like the choking sensation and the acid reflux, and not the twitch or the overall muscle malaise. W's diagnosis doesn't stop me from continuing to vomit a few times a week even now. Sometimes I convince myself that purging will stop the twitching. As if I could only just vomit up the alien between my legs everything would be fine. Then, two months ago, he gave me two colonoscopies (these evaluate the entire colon) as well as a barium series (X-rays taken after digesting radioactive dye). Took him long enough. The barium series showed that I have a dilated small intestine, which is evidence that something else must be going on. But Dr. W can't figure out what it's from. All year he prescribed various medications...Propulsid, Levbid, Prilosec...so many meds I can't keep track, but they've warped my body even more. Now I have glycerin suppositories to stick up my ass to calm the spasms, and I use them frequently, praying they'll do something, but they don't. Even with these medications, I can feel the limpness in the lower half of my body, my tummy drooping, my thighs turning to mush. I can barely stand up. How can this not be some major disease?

I have questioned everything. Is this PMS, hormonal? I went to see an endocrinologist, who said that some of my fatigue and symptoms might be because I have low estrogen levels. She suggested I go on hormone-replacement pills. No way. I didn't believe this was the problem. Anybody with a continuous twitch in the ass would get exhausted. That in itself probably caused these severely depressed hormones. Then my kinesiologist said my adrenal glands were definitely shot from all the pain. So last year I tried to address the hormone issue and took progesterone to bring on my period, but I got even more whacked. I just sat in the studio for hours staring at my blank canvases.

Two months ago I went to an acupuncturist, who also suggested that my sensations might be because I never get my period. Needles were placed all over my body. I tried to do what he suggested, to focus my energy on my pelvis "smiling." I was so tense that I couldn't even enjoy this narcissistic candlelit ritual. It didn't work. I loved him, though. I mean, at least he heard me. He thought it was my spleen or liver and had me taking about twenty-four herbs a day for a month. Trust me, any bit of Jenny that was left has been washed away with those strange, crazy herbs. Since then, my eyes and the lower part of my cranium have been twitching too, and I feel spacey all the time.

My other daily ritual is hauling myself up to Barnes & Noble to read up on my symptoms. I've read about cancer, connective tissue disease, the candida yeast syndrome. I've checked for parasites and have had five tests for Lyme disease. At one point I even believed the mercury of my fillings could have been the cause. As I sit in the bookstore I wonder who else has come in that day to solve their own puzzle, who else is forced to diagnose themselves, who else is as desperate as I am for relief.

Eastern, western medicine...who the hell knows anymore. I've been to chiropractors, kinesiologists, massage therapists, along with doctors with Harvard MDs on the wall...those arrogant fucks who just take notes and stare at me like I'm nuts. Meanwhile, I keep bingeing on chocolate. I'm like the person with lung cancer who keeps on smoking.

Copyright © 2004 by Jenny Lauren

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Reading Group Guide

QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION

1) Jenny Lauren cleverly entitles her memoir Homesick. How is this title significant? Does it reflect the themes she focuses on in her book?

2) It is very important to Jenny (for understandable reasons) that her doctors take her physical ailments seriously and not treat her as though she is insane. Finally, in Dr. P, it seems that Jenny gets the kind of treatment she is looking for. But why do so many other medical professionals incorrectly assume her problems are mostly mental? Is this medical hubris — do the doctors simply dismiss what they cannot understand in order to protect their own egos? — or is there something larger going on in terms of how doctors (many of them male) relate to their female patients? In the not so distant past, the medical community at large dismissed a whole host of female problems as "hysteria" — a phenomenon that the Greeks believed was caused by a wandering uterus. Is this the modern equivalent?

3) At one point, Jenny explains to Dr. P, who is somewhat skeptical about alternative healing: "Alternative medicine understands that everything in a person's constitution is connected, and that one internal function depends on another" (194). Unlike Western medicine, where you see a different doctor for every area of your body (as Jenny mentions), alternative medicine seeks to treat the person as a whole, treating the patient, not the disease or disorder. What lies at the heart of Western medicine's desire to compartmentalize the body? Do you think there are things to be learned from a non-Western approach? Are the two mutually exclusive?

4) At the healing seminar, Jenny encounters many alternative points of view; one that seems to resonate with her is the idea that: "illness is a metaphor for unhappiness" (196). In your opinion, does this seem likely to you — that disease is simply a state of mind? In what ways might a point of view like this be dangerous, in essence, blaming the victim for that which he or she cannot control? It is natural to want to assign blame for an illness — but is it constructive to do so?

5) For Jenny, this idea prompts her to do some soul searching and ultimately supports her already pervasive suspicion that she has brought this illness on herself. Jenny struggles with this guilt throughout her memoir. Why do you think she feels responsible? It is clear that Jenny does not wish to be sick — that her eating disorder was a compulsion over which she had little control. Why then does she blame herself? Does blaming herself complete the cycle of guilt and self hatred that she is trapped in?

6) While trying to figure out why she has feelings for Doctor P, and why she often feels compelled to challenge the boundaries between herself and older men, Jenny writes: "I think it's because I find them strong, wise, and passionate about what they do. They're lustful for life...but I think it's also because many older men have already dealt with their own demons" (199). Do you think this is true, or does Jenny place the older men in her life on pedestals? Does the kind of wisdom she describes generally characterize men of a certain age? What about women?

7) Throughout her memoir, Jenny contends with the fear of losing her parents. During a psychiatric session with both of them she even admits: "Sometime I'm so scared of my parents dying, that sometimes I think if they died, I'd start living." (163) It's normal for people to be anxious about the idea of losing their parents, but why does this idea consume Jenny to the point where it becomes debilitating?

8) Discuss Jenny's time in Brazil and the various meditation exercises that she took part in there. Although she does not appear to receive a miracle cure, Jenny returns to New York rejuvenated. In fact, upon coming back to her family, it almost seems that she has finally reached the end of her long, arduous journey. What do you think John of God and the people at his healing center did for Jenny that the entire medical community of New York City could not?

9) "I am a kept woman suffocating on guilt, lacking a sense of identity, wondering if that is why I'm sick" (81). In what ways does this quote, which comes early on in the book, get to the heart of much of Jenny's mental suffering? Talk about Jenny's sense of identity and how it fluctuates as her story progresses. Although Jenny wholeheartedly embraces her family and, to some extent, embraces the public image that the Lauren Empire has created, she also feels extremely stifled by it, so much so that she spends most of her youth coming to terms with these feelings. What ultimately brings Jenny to a place where she can separate the world of Lauren and her own sense of self?

10) According to the National Center for Health Statistics an estimated 65 percent of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese; yet, if you turn on the television or open a magazine thin figures are everywhere. What accounts for this growing discrepancy between the ideal and the reality? Is one fueling the other?

11) The topic of eating disorders has received significant media and popular culture attention over the past few years. But although this problem receives a fair degree of lip service, mass media still encourage women to idolize unrealistically thin body types. Do you think this trend will ever go away? Why do women, more than men, face this pressure to be thin?

12) In her early teens, Jenny is very anxious about getting her period. "I was afraid they would make me fat...and, yeah, obviously maybe I didn't want to grow up. (161) Does her epiphany shed light on a larger problem? Many young girls develop eating disorders while they are going through puberty and their bodies begin to change. Do you think they fear becoming women? Is our cultural fear of fat actually a fear of the female? 13) Jenny says at one point, "I've always wanted to believe I was smart and capable. But of course it was more important to be thin and beautiful." (175) Is this an extreme attitude, or do you think many women feel this way in our culture? Do you think people in higher socioeconomic groups are more or less susceptible to this kind of narcissism?

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