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Meet the WritersImage of Betsy Lerner
Betsy Lerner
In the summer of 2003, Betsy Lerner took some time to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Ariel by Sylvia Plath was the first book to profoundly affect me and make me comprehend the pure genius and power of language. An eleventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Fassler, walked around the room chanting "Daddy" and I felt as if I'd been hit by lightening.

What are your favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?

  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote -- Equal parts terror and pity. I couldn't believe how cinematic writing could be.

  • Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth -- It showed me humor in writing and opened the lid on family business. I still am a huge Roth fan.

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman -- I got a copy for my Bat Mitzvah and fell in love with the exuberance of the lines.

  • Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams I devoured in college, have always been drawn to psychology and the psychological underpinnings of relationships.

  • I read all of Thomas Hardy my junior year abroad, and fell in love with the depressed characters who peopled his novels, especially Jude the Obscure. I also fell in love with Philip Larkin and Gerard Manley Hopkins in England.

  • I love Margaret Atwood's novels -- except for the futuristic ones.

  • Most recently, I loved Wintering by Kate Moses, which is about the last months of Sylvia Plath's life, but she's also restored the proper order of Ariel and found a language that feels very true to me as she treads on this sacred ground.

    What are some of your favorite films?

  • The Sound of Music -- Because I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

  • Annie Hall -- I must have seen it 12 times as a Woody Allen freak and Diane Keaton wannabe.

  • I adored Angel at my Table, about the life of writer Janet Frame.

  • I was a Godfather freak -- love Scorsese, too.

  • Recently I was crazy about Capturing the Friedmans -- Family pathology to the nth degree. I'm crazy about movies, period, even ones that suck.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    The same as it ever was -- Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. I can't get out of 1978. I don't have much use for most new music. I like a few operas and Broadway musicals. I don't listen to music when I write.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    Wintering by Kate Moses -- I'm obsessed with it. Read it in conjunction with Ariel. Wow.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    My favorite books to give and get: Poetry. I love to give those little Modern Library editions. They are so beautiful and everyone loves them. I love to be introduced to new poets. Also big expensive art books.


    A Q&A with 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.

    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.

    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.

    *Back to Top

  • About the Writer
    *Betsy Lerner Home
    * Interview
    *Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers, 2000
    *Food and Loathing: A Lament, 2003
    Photo by Barry Marcus