Once upon a time, before I’d ever been published, I read a column in Vogue magazine that galvanized me as a writer. I was then 22, newly emerged from an adolescence that this article nailed. It even gave a name to the relationship with food and weight that had held me captive for seven years. And it set me on the path of a behavioral and psychological mystery that would inspire many of my books and essays over the next forty years.
Until I read this article, I’d never heard of anorexia nervosa. Nor had my parents. Nor, apparently, had any of the doctors we consulted when I was radically underweight. But as soon as I read the symptoms of this insidious condition, I felt strangely comforted and motivated not only to learn more but also to tell my story. If Vogue had a column about anorexia, then I wasn’t the only one, and if I wasn’t the only one, then maybe I could help others.
Suddenly I had the makings of a memoir on a topic that no one had ever written a memoir about before. But I’d also never written a memoir before. Where to turn for literary guidance?
I stumbled on Francine du Plessix Gray’s fictional memoir in her recently published novel Lovers and Tyrants. This passage ignited me:
I never ran or sang or mothered dolls, or wrestled with other children or preened before a mirror. I spoke in a hushed stuttering voice. I cried, I confessed, I communed, I read voraciously. I loved secretly and outrageously.
This confiding voice, reflecting on family dysfunction and a child’s journey to understanding her parents and herself, became my guide. I loved the way this voice articulated a child’s perspective through an adult lens. Although Gray’s memoir was a work of fiction, I was struck by the candor and courage of the narrator’s declarations. She wasn’t confessing or masquerading but struggling to get to the truth of her own experience. Her prose connected the dots of behavior and context in the way that I aimed to do through memory.
My goal was not to explain anorexia – why I developed it or how I recovered. At that point no one had full insight into these processes, least of all me. But what I could do was take readers inside the experience of becoming possessed by this compulsive obsession, inside the snatched body and mind.
When my completed memoir Solitaire was published, it caused a mild sensation. At the time – 1979 – support groups were just starting to form and the numbers of people with eating disorders were starting to register. I appeared on national television and radio talk shows. For the next three decades I would meet strangers who told me my book had awakened them and comforted them with the news that they were not alone or shameful or selfish or stupid – but ill.
I couldn’t offer answers, but I could offer insight and empathy. I could help others see that we shared not just outward physical symptoms but also strikingly similar distortions of thought and behavior. Our struggles and suffering were part of a shared humanity, not signals that we were freaks, as so many of us had felt or been made to feel. We were sick, not morally wrong or deviant. Not simply “impossible.”
Through Solitaire I discovered the incredible power of telling the hidden stories of individual lived experience – of bringing sources of shame and isolation out into the light and of sharing our deepest mysteries. When we tell these stories, we launch the collective process of understanding and mutual support. Solitaire was instrumental in motivating some readers to seek help for their eating disorders. It helped inspire others to start support groups or to specialize their clinical practices or research efforts in this fledgling treatment field.
Since 1979, many dozens of other memoirs about eating disorders have been published, adding new layers of insight and information to our collective understanding. I’ve since written my own follow-up – Gaining – to explore all that we know now that we didn’t when Solitaire was published, and this new book again prompted hundreds of readers to share their epiphanies about their own lives with me.
Nothing connects like narrative. We tell our stories to prove that we’re not alone – that we’re not aberrations – that we all share the human condition even when that condition is painful or terrifying or bewildering, or all of the above. We tell our stories to help others understand that however flawed or lost we may be, we’re not existentially wrong. We’re simply human. And this declaration of shared humanity inevitably unlocks the stories of others.
In the case of eating disorders, all these shared stories have led to major scientific advances in treatment as well as changes in the culture around food, weight, fashion, advertising, and body image. A parallel case can be made for memoirs about abuse, addiction, and many other aspects of mental health.
The bottom line is that the more honestly we share our true stories, the more empathy and compassion we engender, and the more we break down the stigma surrounding our deepest secrets. This is an essential first step in making progress toward true understanding.
So, what’s the story that you most need to share?