an interview with marya hornbacher      

photo of marya hornbacher

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What made you decide to write Wasted?

I wrote Wasted for several reasons. First of all, when I was beginning the process of my own ongoing recovery, I needed a book like this. I needed the perspective of someone who had lived through an eating disorder, who would cut through the jargon and give me a kick in the pants, and who would ultimately attest to the fact that it was, indeed, possible to get something of a grip on my illness.

Second, Wasted addresses a lot of facets of eating disorders that aren't usually discussed in the mainstream media. Because these diseases are not very well understood, and because there is still a sort of lingering taboo about them, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and a lot of people who want to really understand what causes them and why they exist in the first place. I took the model of microcosm/macrocosm, using one eating disorder--mine--as a means of explaining how eating disorders work on the body and the mind.

Lastly, I wanted to directly address the role of culture in creating and exacerbating eating disorders, which, as I discuss in the book, is an issue that we don't tend to look at very closely. It's discussed mostly in psychiatric and therapeutic circles, but in the mainstream media it's usually discussed in pretty surface-level terms--fashion models, etc. I wanted to take it deeper than that, and look at the influence of an era and a quickly-changing culture on the people living in that culture. Social chaos contributes to a sense of personal chaos, and can be translated by some people into a need for control so severe that they control their bodies to death. Most of all, I wanted to address the fact that eating disorders and our cultural obsession with weight, body size, food, and control are not really separate issues.

You say that your eating disorder began when you were nine. Isn't that unusually young? Why do you think you developed it so early?

When I developed the first signs of my eating disorder, in 1983, a nine-year-old with bulimia was very unusual. Unfortunately, it's not as unusual now as it was then, though anorexic behavior in children is still more common than bulimic. Studies are showing a marked increase in grade-school children who fast or purge specifically to lose weight, which is a really disturbing trend. But I also need to point out that we generally think of eating disorders as the sole property of white, middle-class, teenage girls, which is by no means the case. Anorexia and bulimia seem to be getting much more common in boys, men, and women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds; they are also becoming more common in racial groups previously thought to be impervious to the problem.

But in my case, I would say I developed it for many of the same reasons anyone else develops an eating disorder, just younger than most. My family was fairly chaotic at the time, we'd just made a major move, and I believe I had childhood anxiety disorder, all of which are known to be common contributing factors to eating disorders. I hit puberty very early, which is obviously not a "cause" of eating disorders, but can trigger the behaviors in some people. Wasted addresses my childhood years for precisely this reason, to show how an eating disorder begins to take root many years before it's even visible. Children take in more information than we'd like to believe. They are not immune to the pretty dangerous messages we send--that thinness is not only worthwhile as a goal but is the utmost goal, which is absurd, or that respect can be achieved first and foremost through appearance. I believe I clung to the socially pervasive goal of "thinness" as a way to lessen my anxiety and make myself believe what every child wants to believe--that I was good at something, that everything was going to be all right.

You had an eating disorder for seven years before you got professional help. How could your parents not notice?

To be blunt, eating disordered people become exceptionally proficient at lying. As is the case with any addiction, the worse it gets, the harder you have to work to hide it. One of the things Wasted does is lift the curtain that eating disordered people pull over themselves and shows the actual behaviors, which are in fact pretty hard to see if you aren't looking for them, and sometimes even if you are. The lying and deception and manipulation that an eating disorder requires are really unsettling, you have to live a double life in order to maintain your illness. But the illness itself, and your dependence on it, become so powerful that you don't even question your own lies. So you develop a repertoire of behaviors that will hide it from your family and friends, and often enough from your doctors and therapists as well. An adult with an eating disorder can simply avoid prying eyes by isolating themselves, as I did in later years. But when you're talking about an underage person living at home, there's something else going on. Bulimia is especially easy to hide, because it often doesn't visibly alter your body, though it trashes your body internally. When I was still living at home, I was bulimic. I didn't develop anorexia until I left home, so that's part of it. The other part of it is that parents often just don't want to see what's going on. Eating disorders are a thorny, difficult, and painful problem, a lot of parents want to believe that they're just a phase, or that they don't exist at all. My parents weren't the first parents of an eating-disordered person to be completely shocked when it fell out of the closet.

How is your relationship with your parents now, and how do they feel about Wasted?

My relationships with both my mother and father are good. We spent several difficult years hashing over the problems and the past, and worked out a fairly solid middle ground. I wouldn't say my relationship with either of them--they're no longer together--is exactly typical, but that would be difficult after all we went through. As for the book, I think that while it would be hard for any parents to see themselves portrayed in such a painful context, they were prepared for it, and both of them have said I gave them fair representation. I was in constant contact with them while I was writing it, checking facts and comparing my perceptions to theirs, so there isn't anything about them in the book that they were unaware of. Both of them had a very hard time reading it, which they did before it went to press, but mostly because of information about me and my life that was new to them, rather than information about them.

What kind of responses have you gotten from people who have read Wasted?

Strong ones--people have talked to me about picking it up and not being able to put it down, finding the story terrifying and sad, feeling that they really did come to some understanding of how eating disorders happen and how awful they are. Many people have mentioned their own identification with what's going on, even those who don't have eating disorders per se. A lot of people have talked about the style of the book--it's written like a novel, so you get fairly involved in the main character's life, which happens to be mine--so people have talked to me about how furious they were with me, how frightened and baffled by my behavior, how they kept thinking, "This has got to be as bad as it gets," and then found that it keeps getting worse. People talk about the prose, their surprise that it's in fact a very funny book in a lot of places, that the writing is not didactic but reflective, that it encompasses more than just the fact of my eating disorder but also an era, places, people. The responses have surprised me, because to me the book is just what happened, it's just my life, and I'm glad it hits people so hard. I'm glad it makes them think and feel strongly. It's not meant to make everybody feel better, it's meant to make people look seriously and straightforwardly at a rather gruesome disease that we tend to take way too lightly. It's also meant to make people think about how it can be changed, and I hear it does that.

What made you decide to get well?

First of all, the word "well" has to be qualified. I'm not. I'm working on it, and I still struggle constantly with my eating disorder. But I am definitely in a different place than I was a few years ago, a better place. A few years ago, I bottomed out. When you have to choose between eating or dying, it's not an easy choice, strange as that sounds, but you do have to make a choice. I had to look at where I was--nearly dead in a hospital with no job, no friends, a family who didn't believe I'd make it, and no sense at all of who I was besides a "patient"--and how far that was from where I'd once wanted to be. I had to think hard about my priorities. Did I want to die, or for that matter spend my life going in and out of hospitals as if I had nothing better to do, just because I couldn't get up the guts to put food in my mouth and deal with a regular-sized body? Or did I want to actually do something with my life? It was incredibly painful, but I decided that I had to give the eating disorder up, simply because to die would be taking the easy way out. And I decided I would rather be a writer than a corpse.

Was writing Wasted therapeutic for you?

Not in the least. As I mention in the book, to lay open something that you have kept secret for so many years, to honestly tell the story of an obsession so all-consuming that it can be fairly called insanity, and to detail your own dependence on something so ultimately worthless, is difficult. Writing this also meant opening a door I wanted very much to keep shut, looking back at an aspect of my life that I wasn't particularly proud of, and a time of my life I had worked very hard to get away from. I wrote the book because I hoped it would help other people and because I wanted to add my take on eating disorders to the discussion, not because I wanted to get this off my chest. I also wrote the book because I'm a writer, and this happened to be the book that kept nagging at my brain. While I did learn a great deal about eating disorders in writing this, my own and the diseases in themselves, I rankle at the idea of books-as-therapy. There is more to this book than my own personal need for catharsis. Writing Wasted was actually pretty hard for me, but I believe it was worth it.

What advice would you give someone with an eating disorder?

Take an honest look at what you're doing to yourself. Think about what you really want to do with your life, and whether you're willing to sacrifice your body and brain to "thinness." Think about whether you want to live with this for the rest of your life. Take responsibility for your own actions, and get help. Letting go of an eating disorder will be the strongest thing you've ever done.
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    Photo of Marya Hornbacher copyright © Mark Trockman