A Feast of Famine

Twenty-three-year-old Marya Hornbacher starved herself into the hospital and lived to tell. But does the new cult-of-pain memoir add up to a steady diet of nothing?

It's no secret that the larger publishing houses are channeling more resources into marketing, PR, and big-bucks deals while squeezing budgets in their editorial departments. Marya Hornbacher's first book, for which HarperCollins paid a six-figure sum, is an unfortunate example of the trend. The cover of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia features the blue-jeaned, poker-faced, 23-year-old author in a photo strikingly similar to that of Elizabeth Wurtzel, another attractive twentysomething memoirist of misery, on the cover of her Prozac Nation a couple years ago. One presumes that marketing execs at HarperCollins are targeting Hornbacher's book to the same Gen X cult-of-pain readership that took to Prozac Nation, as well as a broader audience, given that other publishing trend: self-excoriation and self-scrutiny via the memoir, the more sensational the better.

Part of the draw with Wasted, of course, is the author's tender age. It reminds me of a publishing-biz conversation with a book editor a few months back, summed up by his rueful quote, "Youth will be served." Hornbacher seems to acknowledge this--and responds to anticipated critiques of her writing--with a quote from James Agee that concludes her book's introduction: "If I bore you, that is that. If I am clumsy, that may indicate partly the difficulty of my subject, and the seriousness with which I am trying to take what hold I can of it; more certainly, it will indicate my youth, my lack of mastery of my so-called art or craft, my lack perhaps of talent... A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point."

That last, graphic line is an apt hint of the horrors to come in Wasted, but one questions if they're simply wasted on a culture that sees eating disorders as passé. If so, a well-packaged and -publicized memoir can go a long way toward reviving interest in what even Hornbacher says is "totally '80s." Moreover, in a culture that simultaneously worships and reviles bad girls, anorexics and bulimics may be more timeless than we think. They give themselves over to diseases that are simultaneously beyond and within their control--and often feature such lurid side effects as promiscuity and drug abuse, as Hornbacher's book details. And with all the 7-year-olds chronically dieting just like their mommies, a first-person account of one child's absurd and all-too-deadly obsessions with weight is bound to have some resonance.

Indeed, Hornbacher set off on the road to ruin at an early age. She was already a four-year veteran bulimic by the age of 13, when she visited a psychiatrist and admitted her disease to her parents--to little, if any, effect. That may explain why she promptly "dove into sluthood with vigor." Yet Hornbacher hadn't seen the worst of it. Over the next seven years, she would alternate binge-and-purge cycles with periods when her daily diet consisted of, say, a cup of yogurt and a bagel, indulging all the while in limitless coffee and cigarettes. She goes in and out of hospitals, high schools, and universities, and goes through a plethora of one-night stands, several boyfriends, various quantities and types of drugs, and two pregnancies, both of which end in miscarriage.

The first comes during a family dinner, and she runs to the bathroom. Afterward, she writes, "I remember thinking, very clearly, Well. That was easy. I remember standing up on the toilet when it was over, lifting my skirt up, and looking at the blood coating the inside of my thighs. And then I remember getting distracted. I turned to one side and scrutinized my butt. Fat ass, I thought. Pig." Later, at 15, she attends an exclusive arts boarding school--a veritable hothouse for the eating disordered--and falls in with the more competitive anorectic set. Her success among them lands her in the hospital, after which she goes to live with relatives in California. She loves it there, but after spending Christmas with other relatives, whose plumbing she literally bursts with all her undigested food (she'd gone back to bulimia), Hornbacher is yanked back to the hospital in Minneapolis.

The most harrowing part of the saga, perhaps because it occurred in the not-too-distant past, comes when the author moves to D.C. to attend American University and achieves her all-time low of 52 pounds. Such a lack of distance is what gives Wasted its raw edge: Hornbacher pulls no punches in describing the stomach-turning aspects of eating disorders, but more importantly, admits up front that she's not cured of them. They no longer rule her life, but they're a part of it; in fact, she now has heart problems that may well cut it short.

Yet this same proximity to her ordeal also makes Wasted frequently seem less than fully formed. Hornbacher writes with remarkable energy--though doctors have diagnosed her with depression, she says she's manic, and readers will likely side with her--but her bristling, boundless style could have used more fences to contain it, give it shape. Think of Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, which seems to have become the contemporary standard-bearer for "quality" memoirs: Her 320 pages on just a few key years make the book more like a novel than a flat chronicle. Wasted, on the other hand, is a comparatively direct pouring-out of nearly all Hornbacher's 23 years--as uncontained (and unresolved), in a way, as her desire for and denial of food.

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