The 10 Most Annoying Questions I Was Asked About My Anorexia Memoir
The author of "How to Disappear Completely" has endured a bunch of off-the-mark interviews since its publication. We asked her to do a better job.
Kelsey Osgood’s How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia was reviewed by The New Yorker, New York and other magazines where addiction memoirs are rarely noticed. It was praised as an unusually intelligent and original contribution to the usually inane and rote genre. In fact, Osgood may have started a new genre—the anti-memoir—because her own version is written against the conventional anorexia memoir.
How to Disappear Completely makes the case that rather than serving as a cautionary tale about the disorder, anorexia survivors’ memoirs function as do-it-yourself manuals, bulging with details about how the disease develops—calories, menus, exercises—that the aspiring anorexic can employ to develop her own disease. Equally dangerous is the classic anorexic persona, which expresses a sense of pride and accomplishment in self-imposed discipline and suffering. Anorexics “choose” their disease, Osgood says, and the memoirs are models of behavior.
Since the publication of her book last fall, Osgood has been interviewed frequently. But the questions, geared to a more conventional memoir, have not always offered an opportunity to express her contrarian views. So we asked Osgood to share the 10 most annoying questions she was asked and to give us her real answers:
Q: The book must have been great therapy! Are you saying that you had to write it in order to move beyond anorexia?
A: That is one thing I am not saying. I think we place too much emphasis on public confession. It’s easy for me to say now, considering that I took the opportunity, but I worry that we’re creating arbitrary standards—in narrative and in practice—for what supposedly needs to happen in order for a person to “move beyond” their addiction or illness.
Because anorexia is a disease of aspiration, the anorexic becomes very fixated on reaching certain goals. Often two sets of standards develop. The first is the superficial: “I have to weigh x pounds, consume x number of calories, cut out x food groups.” The second—the standard of “sick enough”—is more of a competition over narrative: Anorexics argue over whose heart rate is more erratic or who’s been hospitalized more times. When there are so many competitors on the field, you can always find someone whose story is more harrowing than yours, which means, to the anorexic, “Well, I’m not as bad as he or she is, so I have to keep going.”
Almost every anorexic I’ve ever known has believed that something “bad enough” has to happen in order to justify self-care. Girls laid up in hospital beds cry about not being “sick enough,” but of course the big lie is that rock bottom exists at all.
Q: Let’s back up a bit: You write in your book that as a teenager, you wanted to become anorexic. How old were you?
A: I have always been obsessive and attracted to stringent, darker theologies, and when I was 13, I began to romanticize anorexia. I was reading a lot of memoirs about mental illness and suffering in general—“misery memoirs,” as they were dubbed in the ‘90s—perhaps as a way to try to categorize or understand my own unhappiness. That’s when I made the decision to devote myself to anorexia.
There were a lot of factors at play here. I felt that anorexia would both relieve my mental anguish and legitimize it. There was also something that struck me as almost wholesome, or at least age-appropriate, about the pursuit. I had been worried that I was out of sync with my peers because I didn’t like make-up and was terrified of romantic encounters, so becoming fixated on my weight felt like a way of joining in. Anorexia can be an effective social lubricant for the teenage girl, because it simultaneously makes you feel like all the other girls who are beginning to diet, and yet special, chosen or distinct.
Q: Didn’t choosing to devote yourself to anorexia strike you as a little strange at the time? What do you think about it now?
A: At the time, I thought it was shameful, and I thought I was at best a freak and at worst a horrible sadist for wishing so much pain on myself and on my loved ones. When I eventually went to treatment, I really avoided fully making this confession because I was so embarrassed by it, but also I felt like they would brush it aside as a lie I tortured myself with.
I actually find it far less bizarre now than I did at 13. This is because, thanks to the Internet (hooray?), we now know there is a large community of people out there who either strive to be anorexic or are actively anorexic and proud of it. I can only assume that there were others like me back in the ‘90s who had no forum in which to discuss their desires, or who did so in language a bit more abstruse so as to fit in.
Also, I’ve come to believe that anorexia is more palatable than most other addictions or mental illness. The crux of the illness—controlling your weight and intake through self-discipline—is something that we admire as a society, so it’s easy to forget the pathological part of it.
Q: There is an assumption that the use of a substance or behavior meets some psychological need, like medicating anxiety, even if the consequences are negative. So while you may think you “chose” anorexia, wasn’t it really your unconscious that chose it for you?
A: Well, saying that I “chose” to become anorexic is a bit controversial. This isn’t the normal anorexic experience, although it is becoming more common. And I agree that someone who is perfectly happy or well adjusted doesn’t usually decide to mess with their chemistry, so the 13-year-old me obviously felt like she had something she needed help coping with, namely hormonal changes, social pressures, an underlying depressive bent. But I don’t think it’s safe to assume that a person has an organic mental illness because they have developed an addiction. Life in and of itself offers enough stress for anyone to want to escape into something else, whatever it may be!
Certain innate parts of my personality made me a good candidate for anorexia—the aforementioned obsessiveness, for example—but I trained myself in the lifestyle, and I did a pretty good job of that. So good, in fact, that it was significantly harder to break the habits than it was to develop them.
I admit that I have a bit of a bias against the disease model of addiction. I find it disconcerting how willing people are to be labeled—and to hold on to those labels for decades, long after they’ve ostensibly recovered—based on such a scant amount of scientific evidence. Though I have forgiven myself for most of what I did that was callous or harmful as an anorexic, I can’t say that I believe I didn’t, ultimately, have control over the behavior.
Q: “Trained [yourself] in the lifestyle”—what is that supposed to mean?
A: Well, when I was a teenager, a number of memoirs about anorexia and bulimia came out, and I pored over them as if they were Talmudic. I basically gobbled up anything that was related to the subject: magazine articles, made-for-TV movies, talk shows, you name it. In other words: I studied.
A lot of these things focused on the anorexic’s behavior, so I took what I learned and mimicked it. Also, there was always a huge emphasis placed on the anorexic’s death-defying weight, because the people in charge (editors, talk show hosts, whoever) incorrectly assumed that the physical state of the anorexic was the scariest and most dissuasive thing you could present.
Not so, especially when you’re young enough to believe that you can ultimately bounce back from anything. What happens most often is that the young viewer sees a thin person, wants to be thin, and thinks: This is an efficient way to get there. Stuff like having a heart attack or becoming infertile or dying—file that under “it will never happen to me.”
Q: Were you the only eating disordered person you knew who did this?
A: Not by a long shot. This is where I originally got the idea to write the book: from recognizing that other people I met in hospitals or group therapies admitted to doing some of the same stuff. Not many copped to having fantasized about being strapped to a gurney, as I had, but the same impulse—to wallow in the details of the disease, to compare oneself to another sick person—was present.
So it got me wondering about why anorexia inspired such willingness in its acolytes. There is no equivalent for cocaine—no one agonizes over how to be the perfect cocaine addict, and potential cocaine addicts don’t group up on the Internet to hone their cocaine snorting skills.
So what is it about anorexia that makes it unique? The question stayed in my head for many years until I finally decided to explore the concept of how anorexia has developed, both within our culture and as its own culture, in a book.
Q: It’s a little ironic that your main learning tool was literature, and you decided to write a book on the subject. How can you justify that?
A: I admit that I do wonder if I, too, didn’t ultimately feed—pardon the pun—the problem. But I did my best to take out anything that would be overtly instructional, like explaining what I ate in a day or what my lowest weight was, because the memory of how such details affected me was still so raw.
What I wanted to do, too, in the book was explore the very pervasive idea that you need to suffer in order to become a better person. We’re in this weird spot in history, where the standard redemption narrative is being manipulated by for all sorts of reasons: to hasten emotional growth, to gain public sympathy, to excuse an unrelated wrongdoing, etc. We are so familiar with the concept that we play fast and loose with it, maybe even courting danger in order to get to that point where everything is supposedly clear and knowable.
I believed my struggle would initiate me into the big adult world, and I would arrive knowing deeper truths about life and death than my peers who never had struggled. But now I would never dream of connecting it with any sort of enlightenment, practical or spiritual. It stunted my growth in many ways, and I spent a lot of time playing catch-up.
Q: You mentioned before that scaring young people about the negative health consequences of anorexia is not an effective preventative measure. Can you propose something better?
A: I think certain age groups, like teens, find social ramifications more dismaying than physical ones. I’ve noticed that when I talk to school groups, they usually are able to hear me when I tell them how frightened I was, shortly after I graduated from college, not that I would die but that I would have to get used to the idea of living a very limited life.
I saw my friends feeling passionate about their jobs, developing romantic relationships—basically growing up—and I realized that I wouldn’t have any of that. I couldn’t even do run-of-the-mill things like go out to eat. I tried to get used to the idea that I would probably be very lonely and die in middle age (anorexia is a very protracted death). The concept of a lonely, insignificant life is often scarier to a young person than an overdose or a heart attack, and it carries none of the same glamor or sense of catastrophe.
Q: We’re out of time. But before you go, I have to ask—because our readers want to know—were you ever really strapped to a gurney?
A: Ha! Nope. But I am working on a public art installation that will be a portable padded room. For all your public nervous breakdown needs!
Kelsey Osgood published her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, last year. She has written for New York, The New Yorker’s Culture Desk blog, Time, the Huffington Post and Salon. She is a staff writer at The American Reader and a regular contributor to the digital version of Psychology Today. Her website is here.
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