Small Acts of Disappearance
Anorexia Nervosa presents as a visual drama that exceeds the boundaries of language. It fascinates and repulses, hence the Current Affairs exposés and sensationalist memoirs—Marya Hornbacher’s manic Wasted and Portia DeRossi’s Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain, said to be something of an eating disorder manual. Google “anorexia recovery” and you’ll find thousands of links to tales describing the pain of walking away from this most deadly of diseases: anorexia nervosa has a mortality rate of 20%, higher than any other mental illness.
As there are a range of texts that catalogue the “spectacle” of anorexia, so, too, the subject attracts a variety of readers, from the gawping public, to the concerned friend, carer or partner, to the individual sufferer, hoping for comfort and a cure. Indeed, the anorexic devours books on their condition, a possible textual substitute for food, in their efforts to comprehend and outwit its tenacious hold. The force and persistence of anorexia eludes not only the slack-jawed public and the eating-disordered person’s frantic personal networks, but the sufferer herself.
In the collection, Small Acts of Disappearance, Fiona Wright uses the essay form to explore her decade-long experience of living with and confronting anorexia nervosa. The vehicle of the personal essay has been recently enriched by a slew of female writers’ discussions of embodiment and suffering—Rebecca Solnit, Leslie Jamison and Lidia Yuknavitch—to name just three. Wright’s essays on hunger are an addition to this fearlessly insightful group of women writers. In Leslie Jamison’s Empathy Exams—the narrator, not so much investigative journalist as metaphysician of suffering—strives to articulate the empathy she feels for her subjects, while castigating herself for overcoming more minor experiences of [dis]ease. She frets that her project is voyeuristic, that she narcissistically exaggerates her own discomforts in an attempt to identify with the men and women whom she interviews, and the narratives that she weaves from their painful confessions.
This is not the case with Wright, who, in ten essays—set in hospital, Colombo, group therapy, Berlin, and in the land of reading—trains her fierce intellect on reflecting upon her eating disorder, divulging from the first paragraph her residency on the planet of the dangerously unwell. This may seem like a flippant observation, but, as a fellow inhabitant, I interrogated every one of Wright’s sentences for evidence that I might identify with her experiences. Did she possess the street cred of a serious mental illness? As her kin, the text’s psychological environment was an important gauge in determining the commitment of my reading, informing not only my intellectual engagement, but my emotional investment in Wright’s story.
Deciding that Wright’s voice passed the test of credible suffering, my next round of sceptical enquiry provoked the question, is she well? Has she recovered? Has she found a cure? The narrator’s position on the spectrum of health and sickness meant a lot to me. I needed to know if I could trust the intimacy of her writing, the unflinching honesty of her descriptions of sickness, the insights she served up with respect to her beguiling and confusing beliefs and behaviours. For, as Wright discovers, anorexia, and mental illness in general, is a slippery sort of being, endlessly inventive in its narratives and plots, its devices and strategies, to secure the sufferer’s unwavering attention. The network of suspicions, beliefs and fears that eating disorders create multiply inside the self like a virus. Its promises and rewards wriggle their way in, silently reproducing at the level of moment-to-moment thinking, such that one’s former self, by incremental changes in conviction, cognition and action, is gradually replaced by an alien not-self.
An example of anorexic-thinking is provided by Wright, in a statement she repeats several times in Small Acts’ opening essays. Admitting there is a problem in her relationship with food, in the weight she has lost, Wright seeks therapy, firm in the belief that she isn’t a real anorexic: “I spent years determined to stay on the outside. Because I wasn’t, I was sure, one of those women” (20). In the essay “In Hospital,” in which Wight joins an outpatient programme for anorexics, she is placed in close contact with, “One woman (who) hadn’t had a bath in seven years…another would spend 800 dollars on groceries and seven hours vomiting each night … one would eat under-cooked chicken … in the hope she’d get salmonella” (22-23). In the narrator’s belief system, she is a special case, not really anorexic, her problems stemming from the involuntary vomiting eating causes her. She has myriad allergies, causing her to lose weight from narrowing her diet to a restricted range of foods. In the essay, “In Increments”, Wright reflects: “Sometimes I think that my physical illness, together with my personality, the length of time it took for the doctor to find a diagnosis while my body and brain adapted to malnutrition, were all together a perfect storm that broke, at some point in time that I’ll never quite pinpoint, and left this devastation in its wake” (74).
As a reader, my bulldust antennae flickered. That’s a lie! I shouted in judgemental silence. You’re still sick. I trotted out my experiences of somatic illness. In the past year I’d suffered panic attacks, several of which were, to use the nineteenth-century terminology, undeniably "hysterical". One presented as an epileptic fit, which sent me to hospital, after a "reaction" to psychiatric medication I didn’t want to take. Another manifested as a somatic heart-attack, which came on after being given a piece of devastating news. The pain was felt in my body, my thoughts and emotions weirdly detached. I know intimately, the mystery of how one’s convictions—delusions?—can cause havoc in the limbs, digestive and endocrine systems. Wright’s refusal to recognise her eating disordered behaviour in the rituals and obsessions of the women in her outpatient programme reminded me of the protests of another anorexic, whose story I read online, a classics scholar at Cambridge who fervently believed she was not one of those women either. The scholar regarded eating disorder sufferers who were hospitalised with scorn and revulsion. As far as she was concerned, so long as she could sit exams (despite an increasing inability to eat), she’d not taken out a mortgage in the suburbs of the unwell.
In the same essay, “In Hospital”, the narrator further reflects, somewhat paradoxically, that she also “bore [the anorexic] women a strange kind of witness; a split kind of witness … where I didn’t want to be involved, didn’t think myself included, but couldn’t help but recognise myself reflected in the stories they told” (23). As a first step, Wright becomes a researcher in the discipline of eating disorders, collapsing the subject/object divide, surrendering her attachment to her anorexia to become a kind of double observer, recording and cataloguing the obsessions she’s developed around food and eating; her ritualistic behaviours before eating; the torturous feelings that arise following a meal. Like a diligent student, she reads up on the literature, uncovering studies on the effects of hunger on the body and analysing recovery statistics. She bravely admits her loneliness, isolation and confusion. Yet, several years after admitting she has an eating disorder, she has been repeatedly hospitalised. Despite therapy, programmes and the overturning of denial, despite months of hard work, most frustratingly she has not recovered. Intellectualising her behaviours and beliefs, thinking her way through her eating disorder by way of rationalisation, by measuring, recording and noting, appears to be an impoverished means of attack. “The horrible irony”, observes Wright, “is that eating disorders only happen to people who like definition and delineation, who like clarity and knowing where they stand, part of the process of moving past the illness is to learn that recovering can only be undefined, slow and without schedule, and riddled with mistakes and mess and temporary measures” (77).
A therapist advises her to get out of her head and “into [her] body” (144). She learns that her confusion and frustration are “important, generative”, and that she must stop “trying to understand, … stop narrating” (144). Strange advice for a writer who uses research and reason, analysis and synthesis, to arrive at clarity. About two-thirds into Small Acts, a noticeable shift in the narrator’s preoccupations becomes evident. Having taken her counsellor’s advice, Wright begins to explore her external environments, the worlds beyond her meticulously examined interiority. She writes of flatting and drinking, of enjoying lunches with her mother. In the essays “Books I” and “Books II”, she unravels the protagonists'—in Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Carmel Bird’s Bluebird Café—experiences of eating disorders, discussing the socio-cultural and familial networks that contribute to the characters’ unremitting sense of being a misfit in their communities, not to mention their very skins.
“The average time for recovery from an eating disorder is said to be seven years—the same length of time it takes for all of the cells in a human body to be replaced” (130). Without pinpointing, as Wright claims early in the book, the moment when her eating disorder began to take pathological hold, there is also no specific jolt of revelation, of epiphany, which picks her up and flies her towards wellness. Letting go of the stranglehold of anorexia is an incremental series of small acts, thoughts, and choices towards other people and activities, away from her alienated, isolated self. Wright realises that her belief that her illness was a case of her body letting her down—the unforced vomiting, the myriad allergies—might not be the whole story; her powerful intellect may also be implicated. As a reader, I finally breathed out, my vigilant search for lies and side-stepping come to a close. I began to marvel at Wright’s achievements, in both her text and her recovery. Small Acts inhabits the unstable territory of sickness with such verisimilitude, parts of the collection read as if she still lingers in these deserts. The narrator bears witness to the many stages in reconstructing the set of oneself, both within and without, the frame of serious mental illness. Wright’s remarkable narrative empathy, self-reflection and control, in turns lucid and cringingly vulnerable, gives hope to the afflicted sufferer and to the warily desperate friend, partner, carer and medico.
Small Acts navigates the island of mental illness, its most arresting topography the force with which it denies its victims self-acceptance, ease and a safe place in the world. But, as Wright notes, anorexia serves a purpose. The disease shores up vulnerability and uncertainty, it delivers a sense of agency and control. Hunger puts an individual on high alert, intensifying her sensory experiences and attenuating her consciousness—for reasons of survival, prolonged hunger is a crisis, which must be dealt with prior to every other need—and yet, paradoxically, the anorexic’s resistance to this biological demand rewards her with a sense of mastery and superiority, over her own (and others’) weakness and lack of will.
In concluding, Wright observes the fragility of her humanity: “I’m terribly afraid of living like this, sub-clinically, long-term. I know that I still have to fight hard for my own health, but also that sometimes I still don’t want to. I miss the simplicity of illness sometimes. Because the more acute pain is in trying to get better—and it’s a pain that’s chronic too—and in stripping away the protection, the insulation, the certainty that my hunger gave me” (173). Small Acts charts a metamorphosis in tiny increments, the damaged self undertaking the task of sloughing the disguise of mental illness, an unfathomably powerful rival to imperfect authenticity. Like Psyche’s ants’ job of winnowing enormous piles of grains to undo Venus’ bewitchment, the tentative steps taken in Small Acts produce a rare elegance and determined gait. Wright is a superb writer with an uncommon courage and will; her essays on hunger are an extraordinary gift.
Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Artamon, NSW: Giramondo, 2015. ISBN 9781922146939