Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Giramondo Publishing; 188 pages; 2015.
It seemed slightly uncanny that in the week I finished reading Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger that anorexia was suddenly splashed all over the media here in the UK. That’s because Dame Joan Bakewell, a respected veteran broadcaster and this year’s judge of the Wellcome Book Prize, was reported as saying that eating disorders are due to narcissism.
She was rightly called out about this and then she issued an apology. It was clear that her views were outdated and I wanted to hand her a copy of this book to bring her up to speed. Wright’s collection of 10 essays, about her own struggle with an eating disorder, explodes a lot of the myths surrounding the disease. But this isn’t a dry text-book examination of anorexia; it’s an enlightening, easy-to-read memoir, filled with beautiful language and turns of phrase (as well as being a journalist, Wright is a celebrated poet), which puts the disease into a social, cultural, historical and medical context.
I admit to being rather reluctant to pick this one up when it was shortlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize. I expected a maudlin, introspective, self-indulgent set of essays. What I got was something entirely different. It’s totally free of self-pity. It’s informative, without being academic, and it’s unflinching in its honesty. There’s a raw power at its heart, which belies the eloquence and beauty of the prose. Indeed, I was so enamoured of the text that my Kindle indicates I highlighted more than 2,100 words of it.
Frank and brutally honest account
Perhaps the greatest strength of Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is Wright’s ability to talk about the disease in frank, brutally honest terms. That’s because, for so many years, she did not feel she was the same as other anorexic patients, for her condition developed not from a set of psychological issues but physical ones. Like Dame Joan Bakewell, this initially made her look down on other people with eating disorders — she thought it only happened to “women who are vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”. But over time (the essays span a decade of Wright’s battle with the disease) she comes to realise she is no different:
I was nineteen years old, and suddenly I was vomiting without any volition after most of my meals. It took almost eighteen months for my specialists to find a diagnosis, the weight dropping off a body that rapidly came to alarm me. I was advised to cut out of my diet the foods that I thought triggered the vomiting, and I did, by ever-increasing increments, until the ground shifted somewhere, and hunger became my safest state. Because my illness started with a physical condition, because I recognised, and didn’t want and didn’t like my too-thin body, because I didn’t purge by conscious choice, because I was still eating, however limitedly, I thought that I was different. I realise now that this was partly because of my own misconceptions about the nature of anorexia, and the people who fall victim to it, but this is also the way the illness operates, by deception, by a long series of constraints that tighten so slowly that they’re barely noticeable at all. I thought, for so long, that I didn’t have anything in common with these women, and I sometimes think that’s the biggest tragedy of all. Because if I’d only recognised this earlier, before eight entire years of illness had gone by, I may have found the help I needed sooner. I may have been able to stave off my hunger before it managed to establish itself so fully and firmly in my life. I might, by now, be well.
As well as examining the physical impact of the disease on her body — and the psychological pursuit of “perfection” in which “anorexia is driven, at least in part, by a desire for control or predictability”— Wright also examines how hunger is politicised when it is abnormal, unusual and strange, and how it marked her out as “wasteful” and “distasteful”.
My hunger, singular and self-circling, was a crisis in my hometown. It marked me out. […] A car with wound-down windows once shot past me on the street, someone shouting from the backseat: ‘Eat a hamburger, you bitch!’
In Colombo, where she lived for a short stint as a fledgling newspaper reporter, her hunger was “obscene”.
It was not predicated on need, on poverty or parentlessness or war, corruption or greed. It was something feeding on and off itself, something always leading back into itself – the starving brain turned inwards to survive. My hunger was not, and could not, be equated with the hunger that I saw around me. Amongst so much need, my own denial was something as incomprehensible to my local friends as the hunger they lived alongside was to me. Something irreconcilable here made my world grow bigger and more disparate, and all the while, I shrank. And I shrank away as well.
Studies in starvation
Perhaps my favourite essay in the collection is In Berlin, in which Wright writes about her love affair with Germany (she was an exchange student there and speaks the language). But, interestingly, the country has an indirect connection with what we know medically about hunger. That’s because “the two most notorious – and most thorough – studies of hunger came about because of the Second World War”.
The first was the study of the starving population living in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Nazi occupation of Poland:
In the two years that the studies ran, before the final liquidation of the Ghetto, almost thirty malnourished Jewish doctors living within its limits studied growth rate, weight, organ size, dermatology, immunology, circulation, fluid retention, bone density, body temperature, vitamin retention, the functioning of the senses, of hormones, of digestion. In two years, they conducted 3658 autopsies. Only seven of the doctors survived the war. One, a pathologist, Theodosia Goliborska, emigrated to Australia in 1946, and continued to practise at least until the 1980s, in this country that has never had to understand such desperate, widespread hunger.
The second was the Minnesota Experiment, in which healthy volunteers were deliberately starved so that scientists could determine the best way to rehabilitate them, the idea being that they could use what was learned to help civilians who had endured famine-like conditions during the war (this was before the Nazi concentration camps were known about). As it turns out:
The Minnesota Experiment was less successful around the question of rehabilitation – it wasn’t until the sweeping crises across Africa in the 1980s and 90s that scientists finally got a handle on the delicate processes of refeeding the starving body without causing it to shut down completely in shock.
The language of anorexia
Another couple of essays I particularly liked was In Books I and In Books II, both of which look at the language of anorexia and the way the disease is depicted in certain novels. Wright once studied Australian literature, so her insights are based on Australian novels. The first essay largely looks at Christina Stead’s For Love Alone in which the heroine, Teresa, starves herself to save money so that she can travel abroad; the second analyses Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, in which 16-yer-old Rose Pickles starts vomiting after meals, and Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Cafe, which features a character who is a recovered anorexic.
In reading about these literary characters, Wright comes to realise that hunger can have many faces: it can be wielded like a weapon; it can perversely provide comfort and succour; it can only thrive in secret; and that it is possible to recover.
It also shows her that writing about hunger can be healing in itself:
I know that writing has always been the only thing, besides my hunger, that helps me make sense of the world, to find patterns and connections and with them, some kind of solidity or definition; it is also a kind of striving, a reaching for something more. Writing has always been the thing that allows me to voice what is too difficult to speak. But even so, I resisted, for a very long time, ever writing about my illness – although my doctors had been encouraging me to do so, even from the outset of my treatment. I didn’t want to write about myself, least of all about my vulnerabilities, I didn’t want to be exposed or to expose the thing I thought was ugliest within me, I didn’t want to show it to myself. Even the poems I wrote while I was ill are sometimes strangely disembodied – my writing group often pointed out that there was no self within them, but I didn’t know how to do things otherwise, didn’t want to show too much. What there was, instead, was detail, and other peoples’ voices, a focus on the world around me, but never my place within it.
Profound and intriguing read
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger is not a collection of essays simply thrown together: there’s a subtle story being played out as the reader works through them in chronological order. And that makes it such a profound and intriguing read. In treading a fine balance between the analysis of an illness and its emotional impact on its victim, Wright has crafted a vital, gently nuanced read on the nature of a disease so often dismissed as narcissistic or psychosomatic.
For another take on this book, please see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums.
Please note that in the UK, US and Canada, Small Acts of Disappearance is only available to download in Kindle format.