"I did not yet understand that the gasp and wheeze of my heart was death. The wild skittish flitting of my eyes and my hands working themselves together, trying to get warm was death. The absence of any understanding that my body was falling away from me like a pair of old pants was death. I did not understand. It did not occur to me that I'd gone crazy. It did not occur to me that I would either be dead or locked up for good in the near future. I know that while I was in the hospital, I got a pair of scissors and cut my waist-length hair to my chin. [Someone] said I looked like a model. I was of course thrilled."
Wasted is exactly what a book about eating disorders should be: frightening. With Hornbachers gripping prose, Wasted has the potential to do for eating disorders what Go Ask Alice did for drug abuse: scare young readers away from killing themselves.
Based on research and her own battle with anorexia and bulimia, which left her with permanent physical ailments and nearly killed her, Hornbacher's book explores the mysterious and ruthless realm of self-starvation, which has its grip firmly around the minds and bodies of adolescents all across this country. Hornbacher became bulimic at the age of 9, anorexic at 15, and went back and forth between the two until she was 20. In 1993, when she weighed 52 pounds, doctors predicted she had a week to live.
Hornbacher's story is of a journey to self-destruction and back again, raw enough to make even the most jaded readers flinch and honest enough to make the most cynical pause forthought. But while recounting her own pain, flaws, and failures, Hornbacher successfully avoids the traps of self-pity and reachiness.
"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 myself. I can offer little more than my perspective, my experience of having an eating disorder. It is not an unusual experience. I was sicker than some, not as sick as others. My eating disorder has neither exotic origins nor a religious-conversion conclusion. I am not a curiosity, nor is my life particularly curious. That's what bothers methat my life is so common."
Hornbacher was born in California, the only child of a former theater director and an actress turned school administrator, struggling with their unrealized dreams and troubled marriage. While she was in elementary school, Hornbacher's family moved to Minnesota. With witty insight, she offers cutting social commentary about growing up on the less desirable side of a town that "operated on money" during the value-skewed '80s. She recalls the social caste system at her school, in which "lanky children were clad in Ralph Lauren and Laura Ashley" and posed a disturbing contrast to her own perceived physical awkwardness. Children notice differences, and Hornbacher was perhaps acutely aware of the implications of these differences. She could not control where she lived, the early onset of her puberty, or the disharmony between her parents. She could, however, control her eating, which was inseparably enmeshed with every other aspect of her world. By the time she entered junior high school, Hornbacher had been vomiting daily for three years.
But Hornbacher's story transcends the physical. It is a book as much about the intellect and the spirit as it is about the body. She describes vividly the acute life of her mind, her almost overwhelming drive to succeed even as a young teenager, and her passionate interest in the world around her. She escapes stifling suburbia by being accepted at the prestigious arts school Interlochen, only to become hospitalized before she could graduate. By her late teens, Hornbacher's promising intelligence and intense personality were turned exclusively inward, fueling her careening trip toward death via self-starvation, bingeing, sexual promiscuity, and drug use. Hers was a downward spiral so dark and extreme, it's difficult to believe that the person depicted in the pages lived, let alone lived to create for the world a brilliant account of her descent and survival.
As Hornbacher readily admits, her book does not offer any answers. However, the revelations about adolescent self-destruction and all of the questions therein are vital: As she observes, "There are reasons why this is happening, and they do not lie in the mind alone."
Wasted is more than a cautionary tale, and it is more than an account of the power of the human spirit: It is an astonishing work of literature that serves as a mirror that reflects the crueler aspects of our culture, which all too often penetrate and imperil the minds and lives of our vulnerable youth.