9 Books That’ll Help You Recover From An Eating Disorder, Because Sometimes Literature Is Great Therapy
Ever since I left in-patient treatment for an anorexia, the way I've read about eating disorders has changed. Before I went to treatment, books were one more avenue by which I could learn — or be inspired to keep practicing — harmful behaviors. (I wasn't the only person like this; my therapist had an entire shelf filled with copies of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia she'd confiscated from patients — the book had that much potential to be inimical.)
What I didn't realize, though, was that constant purging and overexercising was destroying my concentration: I could barely focus on a sentence, let alone a paragraph. So, when I left the hospital, I started devouring novels. I avoided reading about eating disorders, which freed my mind — it was clarity I needed.
But in the past five years, I've actually returned to books about eating disorders — this time, though, they've stopped being dangerous. I read these books to remind myself why recovery matters. I read these books because when a character thinks a negative thought about her body, I wince. I need to remember that wince, and reading helps me to do that — to remember what hurts about an eating disorder, and to remain committed to recovery.
If that resonates with you and you think you're ready to take on that kind of reading, too, I have a list of nine books you might want to consider picking up. They've helped me see EDs as the dangerous illnesses they really are — a totally new type of clarity I'm so excited to finally have.
The Glimmering Room by Cynthia Cruz
I've been a fan of Cynthia Cruz’s ever since reading her poem “Diagnosis.” (It’s still so good: “The shame of being/Seen consumes me.”) Cruz’s second collection, The Glimmering Room, is by far my favorite. Eating disorders, drugs, incest, and abuse are her subjects, but Cruz’s language machetes through sentimentality. Her clear-eyed attitude keeps me from romanticizing my own narrative. See, for instance, “Chronic”:
How I love the hospital Gift Shop—pocketing the penny Candy and ghosting the dusty aisles The other dead have. Remembering when I was locked in the Starver’s Ward With the other almost girls. How I miss that summer When there was no world.
Sure, Cruz’s speaker depicts the hospital as hazy, almost sweet place (“pocketing the penny” sounds so innocent), but reality (“there was no world”) bludgeons that impression. This collection reminds me how isolating eating disorders are.
Green Girl by Kate Zambreno
Zambreno’s 2011 novel, recently reissued by Harper Perennial, is a modern classic about the disjunction between identity and appearance, the pleasures and perils of voyeurism as embodied by Ruth, a young American working the perfume counters of a renowned London department store (“Horrid’s”). Although eating disorders don’t play an explicit role in the story, watching as Ruth constantly scrutinizes and evaluates her appearance shows me how just consuming image-obsession can be. In this passage, Zambreno captures Ruth’s thought-process while walking down a street:
Look at me. (don’t look at me) Look at me. (don’t look at me) Look at me don’t look at me look at me look at me don’t look at me don’t look (Look) (Don’t look) I can’t stand it if you don’t look Look Look Please Stop
Green Girl helps me remember the world is bigger than the self-focused thoughts that loop in my head.
A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido
Marilyn Monroe, Baby Jessica, Anne Boleyn, Henry VI, Sudanese basketball star Manute Bol: in her 1988 debut collection of poems, Lucie Brock-Broido mines events of the past, the present, and the future to “[write] it all down so you would know/ Exactly what it is to trick oblivion.” While Brock-Broido’s own biography (and anorexia) is sometimes alluded to, these poems flaunt the riches of the world and its great variety of inhabitants. Reading about other people makes me interested in all kinds of lives — not just those diagnosed with an ED.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
The more contemporary entries in Mantel’s oeuvre (and especially her novel, An Experiment in Love) capture the oppressiveness of eating disorders, but in Mantel’s acclaimed short story collection, she unblinkingly depicts anorexia’s devastation on a family. Morna, plummeting through the hells of her disease, cannot be helped, even by her sister Lola. Read this story to remember how an eating disorder impacts those closest to us, namely our siblings. This paragraph, especially, portrays those small actions of concern and care:
[Lola] had made Morna change places and sleep on the bottom bunk since new year. She was afraid Morna would roll out and smash herself on the floor.
I don't want to hurt or worry my family members anymore — Mantel's story reminds me that relationships with real people take precedence over an eating disorder.
Mouthing the Words by Camilla Gibb
“Clench clench these strong teeth in this strong mouth. My mouth. Of my body. In my house. My mouth? Chapped lips swollen and bloody? Dream dreaming wide and thunder? My mouth! My God! This is me speaking.” Thelma, Gibb’s narrator in her Toronto Book Award-winning debut, survives a bumpier-than-average journey from childhood to adulthood. Marked by sexual abuse, anorexia, and other dire circumstances, Gibb’s novel is astonishingly buoyant because of Thelma’s witty and wild imagination. This book helps me keep a degree of levity when I think about my own struggle with an eating disorder: I remember that recovery is a journey, not a destination.
All Souls by Christine Schutt
In her New York Times review of Schutt’s second novel, Maud Casey called All Souls “refreshingly strange,” and I doubt I can do better. All Souls is the story of a private school in New York. Centered on the mysterious cancer of Astra Dell, this ensemble tale is like an ethereal Gossip Girl. While Dell’s best friend Carlotta has anorexia, the bodies of the school’s senior teenage girls are all on display. I read Schutt (and especially All Souls) for her attention to the appetites of girls and women, which she renders with verve and nuance. “She had no ambition but to dizzy herself into absence,” Schutt writes about a squalid girl named Marlene, and this engagement with the finest threads of self-perception make this a book that many with eating disorders will relate to. This book aids in recovery by showing just how great an impact your behaviors have on a small community: in this case, the private school.
In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990 by Frank Bidart
Bidart’s collected is worthwhile for many poets, but those of especially sympathetic to eating disorders will turn to “Ellen West,” Bidart’s persona poem about the eponymous German anorexia patient born in 1888. West, who committed suicide by ingesting poison at the age of 33, displayed a host of symptoms — laxative abuse and starvation — that made her case notable at the time. In his long poem, Bidart intersperses an imagining of West’s interiority with case notes from the patient’s psychoanalyst, Dr. Ludwig Binswager. Bidart follows West as she dreams of heaven (“ice cream”) and views an attractive couple and listens to an opera. This poem can help you beyond eating disordered thoughts when Bidart describes West looking in the mirror:
When I open my eyes in the morning, my great
stands before me ...
—I know that I am intelligent; therefore
the inability not to fear food
day-and-night; this unending hunger
ten minutes after I have eaten ...
dread of eating; hunger which can have no cause,—
half my mind says that all this
is demeaning ...
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard
Gerard’s novel is a quick, heady read about a couple in a toxic relationship caroming toward disaster, written in spare, poetic language. Yes, the narrator is anorexic, and some readers may find the book triggering — Gerard writes about emptiness beautifully, and there are times she makes all-consuming starvation, at times, strangely appealing. Still, the book empower readers to see the potential in recovering. She writes, “I am becoming in coming undone. I unbind. I rise like the morning: revolution.” Recovery forces those of us with eating disorders to undo many of our beliefs and practices.
Fat Chance by Lesléa Newman
Even though this is a ‘90s YA novel in the form of a diary, Newman’s story of charming, Judi, a down-to-earth 8th grader who is convinced she’s overweight, stands the test of time. Though Judi — and her peer role model, Nancy — aren’t obsessed with thigh gaps and Tumblrs of thinspiration, their interest in waify models shares commonalities with the landscape of adolescent eating disorders today. I recommend this book for a depiction of what life is like before an eating disorder. Judi’s pre-bulimia hopefulness (“I’m going to write in my diary every day and see what happens. Maybe this is what Mom means when she says my life is an open book!”) is a heartening boost, a reminder that my pre-ED self was someone worth fighting to reclaim.
Image: still thinking/flickr