How Honest Is Too Honest?

For the past few decades, U.S. literature has focused on artists who have been dedicating a lot of energy to writing what feels true to them. Memoirs are frequently best-sellers, particularly if the author is well-known or has a compelling, unusual story (and, let’s face it, there’s really no other reason to read or write a memoir if it does not fall into at least one of these categories).

While I do not know enough about celebrity memoirs to comment on those, I am interested in memoirs that tell of very terrifying tales. This is not necessarily “terrifying” in the sense of the foundation for horror books, but something of a deeper horror. There is a book called “Wasted” by Marya Hornbacher that chronicles a woman’s journey through anorexia and bulimia from early childhood (age nine) to her twenties (age 23, in fact, which was the age that got her book published). As expected, the book is dark and goes through many emotional turns. There are many unexpected things in the book both in terms of plots and of details that Hornbacher was willing to share. These are the things that are not really discussed. Over-exercise, binging, eating rituals and breaking such rituals—not always planned, laxative abuse, hair developing on the body, lack of concentration on anything besides food and weight, and being emotionally dead. There is a strictness in the language of the book that sounds passive. There is no life in the text, most likely because there is no life in her life. While this sounds like it could be very boring, it actually makes for a compelling narrative. Those who may not be familiar with eating disorders may be especially interested in reading this book if they want to learn more about the disease.

After my first reading, I read what other people had to say about it online. Something I was not thinking about was the potential for readers who are going through eating disorders to be “triggered” by this book. Essentially, though eating disorders are very personal matters, they can become competitive with those who are also engaging in disordered eating. Anorexia especially has competition in terms of extremes. Anorexics can get competitive about who eats the least, who is the last one to start eating, who can exercise the most, who can go the longest interval without eating, who can have the lowest BMI, and who can maintain this limiting life before they die. From the outside view, it sounds crazy that people would feel compelled to punish themselves further, but eating disorders is not a logical disease. It would be wrong to call an eating disorder a game, as that implies that someone is having fun, but anorexia is nothing without rules.

While I appreciated how much Hornbacher took the time to paint her experience, some of the reviewers said that she should not have included so many details in her work. Reviewers sometimes refer to books like “Live Without Ed“, “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me“, “The Best Little Girl in the World“, and “Gaining” as books that were able to communicate their message without having to go into explicit detail. However, I am of two minds on this one. I can see why it would be upsetting to read something that is triggering. Are these details going to further derail a person from recovering from an eating disorder? It very well could, which is why the reader must be responsible when selecting a book. However, I think the opposite could be true, in that some people could look for those details and remember all of the horrific things that they went through and use that as motivation to get healthy. It really depends on the individual. When in eating disorder mode, anything can be potentially triggering. An anorexic who is told that they are “thin” could use that as motivation to get even thinner, while the same would be true if they were called “chubby” or “fat” or “bloated”. A recovered anorexic who travels and talks about their experiences could, in the mind of the anorexic, be perceived as fat, which would make the anorexic never wish to recover and be as fat as the person they see on the stage. There is very little stability in this disease.

Yet, when people are given limits as to what they can write about, they diminish their story. Is it possible that the same emotional experience can be felt without going into graphic detail?  From the memoirs about eating disorders that I have read, none of them come close to what Hornbacher has done. To me, books that try to be soft around the edges end up accomplishing just that, which makes me feel like I am being prevented from knowing what actually went on. If you were writing about a war, for example, would you just write, “And then something really nasty happened with planes and soldiers, but let’s not get into that”? You could do that, but I can guarantee it is not going to have the same emotional pull. When talking about something as serious as eating disorders (which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness), the cuddly approach ends up diminishing the dangers of the disease and instead treats it like something someone just “got into”, the way some people “get into” a new artist.

Still, I do not claim to know the answer to this question, which is why I direct it back to you. Reader, do you think that a memoirist should be limited in terms of how much they can reveal?

Sincerely,

Jumbled Writer

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2 Responses to How Honest Is Too Honest?

  1. Wonderful insight into the world of anorexia. I related to your observation that anorexics might find a recovering anorexia fat/chubby. I understood that completely. It sounds like all people should read Hornbacher’s book just to understand.
    I do agree any disease shouldn’t be glossed over. It is much too dangerous to ignore I would think.
    When it comes to writing I don’t believe there should be limits on what a person can write or reveal even about themselves. To write realistic characters would mean a detailed observation is required.

    • Dear Mary,
      I think that it is just as essential that people not familiar with eating disorders read this book in order to get a better understanding. The more people can realize what this disease means, the more they can be aware of people who are going through it and need help.
      Sincerely,
      JW

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