Monday, July 13, 2015

How to Disappear Completely (something I wish this book had done)

I have spurts of enthusiasm for non-fiction.  They only happen a few times a year, but when I get the urge (to herbal!  Na-tu-ral bo-tan-i-cals!  Five million points to whomever gets that), I end up checking out a bunch of nonfiction, burying myself in one, and skimming the rest.

Currently, I'm happily sloshing my way through Last Call, a book about Prohibition, but I also picked up some books on body image and self-acceptance.  I made it halfway through How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia by Kelsey Osgood before the intense bitterness of the author became too much.

Reading books on EDs when you yourself have one or are recovering from one is generally a no-no, but I've never used a book as a "guide" or a "Bible" for being sick.  I'm interested in the pathology of the various illnesses and in the experiences of other people with EDs.  It makes me feel less alone.  However, for all its holier-than-thou intentions, How to Disappear fails miserably at being both a chronicle of anorexia and a decently-written book.  In many places, it just gets downright nasty.

Osgood's premise is that she's going to write a book about anorexia without invoking numbers (triggering!) or diet plans (for me, not so much, but for others, yes!).  Okay, fine.  Sounds good.  She then proceeds to excoriate every single other book out there because they include numbers and are therefore transmitting anorexia to girls because anorexia is a communicable illness, "like herpes, mumps, AIDS, or the flu."


Hold on just a moment.  I do not deny that the media explosion of the last, say, seven decades has made it extremely possible for certain body types to be fetishized and disseminated en masse.  Technology has made it possible for celebrities and models to be Photoshopped into unattainable versions of themselves.  It is utterly and completely loathsome that the descriptors "thin" and "fat" have acquired a moral burden, thin equating to goodness and fat equating to laziness or badness.  However, claiming that anorexia is a communicable disease without taking into account other factors such as genetic predisposition, abusive environments, or overall mental health changes anorexia into a very strange sort of disease.

Let's follow this claim to its natural conclusion.  Let us assume that anorexia is communicable just like influenza.  Now, some people can be exposed to influenza and not get sick--their immune system repelled the invading virus.  However, other people who have been exposed will get sick.  You can't help the immune system you have, really.  You might be able to fortify it to a point by eating healthily and exercising and making sure you have proper vitamin levels, but what if you're like me and you have an autoimmune disease?  I seriously can't help it that my body attacks things that are pretty much harmless, and then goes off and takes a sabbatical when it's flu season.  Is that why I developed an ED?  Or are we talking about some sort of moral immune system: some people fall victim to the "allure" of anorexia while some do not?

Interestingly, the rest of Osgood's book treats anorexia as a choice.  So which one is it?  A communicable disease or the choice of privileged rich white girls (more on that in a moment)?  Osgood doesn't even know what her thesis is, so she just throws two very different opinions out there and pretends that they support each other.

So, fundamentally, this book is flawed.  Adding to the cracks in Osgood's argument, however, is her assertion that anorexia is a choice, but those who choose to be anorexic are actually fakers.  "Wannarexics"--a term I'd never heard before--share Osgood's hospital wards, are her friends at school, and even appear in books.

The one thing I kept thinking as I read about Osgood's anorexia is that the plural of "anecdote" is not "anecdata."  As a teenager (the year of her decision to become anorexic changes throughout the book--it's either 13, 14, or 8), she decides to pick up books on anorexia and use that to make herself special.  There was a line that resonated with me: "I didn't think of anorexia as a disease, really, but as the most logical progression of self-control."

I just want to sit her down and say, "If you weren't thinking of anorexia as a disease, your thinking was already disordered and diseased.  That's the scariest part of EDs.  You give it different names but always believe that you are better, stronger, prettier, and more cunning than everyone else because you have more control.  You have no control."

Throughout the book, Osgood keeps returning to this idea of being a "fake anorexic" because she made the choice, but then she always rounds that out by saying that all people with anorexia made the choice to be such.  So ... all people with anorexia are "fake anorexics"?  Wow, much logic, such wisdom.  To me, this just says that she is not as recovered as she claims she is.

While claiming to be a study of "modern anorexia," this account of Osgood's anorexia follows a specific trajectory because Osgood grew up with immense privilege.  She describes the place where she grew up as "beautiful," full of tennis-playing moms and gorgeous children and rich dads.  Sure, she can "choose" to become anorexic to get out of playing field hockey at her fabulously expensive private school and then go to inpatient and get oodles of therapy.  Do you know how many people are out there who can't afford therapy?  Who'd be financially destroyed by hospitalization?  Osgood is the one percent, and the other ninety-nine percent probably don't sit around and think, "Gee, I wanna get out of homework, so I'm gonna be anorexic and go live in a hospital."  The social ignorance of this woman is astounding.

In order to support her positions on what causes anorexia, what makes a "good" anorexic, and so forth, Osgood manages to rip into pretty much every work out there on anorexia.  Actually, she targets female authors and memoirists who dare write about anorexia.  Every single one of them did it wrong, she claims.  Osgood doesn't understand that you don't solve a problem by tossing everyone who made progress before you into the meat-grinder.  She's stomped on all the women who've been brave enough to bring a stigmatized disease into the light and created a hole filled with quicksand for herself.

She even claims that EDNOS doesn't exist any more because the DSM-V said it was too broad a diagnosis.  Now the acronym is OSFED, which can easily be learned by searching "EDNOS change DSM-V" on any search engine.  No writer is spared her disdain, not even a fellow student in her writing program. She labels Daphne Merkin of The New York Times "Depressive Daphne" because she dared write an article about the link between depression, ED, and recovery.  And, being the specialist on How People Get Eating Disorders, Osgood adds, "What Merkin doesn't mention is that maybe some of these girls had developed anorexia as a way to assuage and manifest their own depression."

Thin and the accompanying documentary by Lauren Greenfield are derided as "porn."  Aside from Marya Hornbacher, the author of Wasted, Greenfield receives the most vitriol from Osgood in a way that is neither constructive nor particularly pertinent to the muddy mess of a thesis in the book.  "One gets the impression that Greenfield fancies herself the Margaret Mead of contemporary American female culture, but this would be a stretch."  Greenfield's work is labeled "inexcusably selfish" and condemned as glorifying eating disorders.  Hornbacher is treated with even more disdain, although Osgood deigns to praise her writing and acknowledge that maybe she cribbed an itty-bitty bit (read: a metric tonne) of Hornbacher's style.

Many people praise How to Disappear for its writing, and while it's pretty, it's also bloated, pretentious, and showy.  It is screaming, "I GOT AN MFA, DANGIT!"  Here's a lolly for you.

This was a confused mess of a book that wasted a good deal of my time and presented the author's theories as incontrovertible fact.  Because, you know, an MFA is like being a psychiatrist.  Plus, I read in the back that she writes for Psychology Today, which is a medical laughingstock.  I'd rather sit and read the DSM-V in entirety than read one more word of this dreck.

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