Brave Girl Eating by Harriet Brown

August 24, 2011 at 12:10 am 5 comments

“I don’t want to die, Mommy, but I feel so guilty…I ate a whole Popsicle and I wasn’t even hungry. I ate a piece of fish. I’m a pig, Mommy.”

“‘I’m supposed to be smarter than this,’ she says. ‘I’m supposed to be able to figure things out without screwing up.’
“‘So you think you’re supposed to be better than everyone else in the world?’ I ask, smiling so she knows I’m making a joke. Clearly I am no comedian, because she hears my words as criticism and stalks off.
“The answer is yes, she really does believe she’s supposed to be perfect in a superhuman way.”

“‘If I choose to eat something I don’t have to, then I’m bad,’ she explains. If I choose to eat something I don’t have to. Anorexia is a prison sentence for a crime you didn’t commit, a crime that fills you nevertheless with guilt and dread.”

This book should be mandatory reading for everyone who 1) has an eating disorder, 2) knows someone with an eating disorder or 3) thinks they know something about eating disorders.

Brave Girl Eating is a partial memoir written by a journalist who watched her daughter struggle against anorexia (and a very severe case of it) for over five years. Over the course of six months, she watched her daughter turn from a bright, cheerful 14-year-old girl into an emaciated wreck possessed by guilt, fear and desperation.

Brown writes for a living, and it shows. Her story opens with a parable of sorts; a vivid vignette in which she asks the reader to imagine him or herself in a bakery, starting at french pastries, chocolates and even simple things like sourdough bread through glass cases.

Hunger is a tornado inside of you, she says, a gnawing, constant demon always lurking in a corner of your mind. Your body is shaking, desperate for even a bite of the roll the woman next to you is eating so happily. But your mind, and maybe even something separate from your mind, tells you that if you eat, you’re bad, you’re fat, you’re disgusting, barely worthy of the privilege of living. You don’t deserve to eat, because if you were a better, stronger person, you wouldn’t need to.

With that, Harriet Brown manages to take even the most well-adjusted eater into a nightmare of starvation. She writes with amazing candor and clarity, aided in part by how open her daughter was with her and how clearly she was able to articulate how anorexia feels. Kitty, the daughter, wants to eat, is dying to eat — but she knows that if she eats, she’ll hate herself for being a fat, disgusting pig. In that case, who wouldn’t restrict their food intake?

Brown sheds light on a topic that is difficult to understand for anyone who hasn’t struggled with an eating disorder, or watched others struggle. She also places her daughter’s disease in incredible context, examining various schools of thought about anorexia’s causes and the best way to treat it.

Brown and her family choose family-based therapy rather than putting Kitty in a residential facility, giving her a front-row seat for Kitty’s recovery. The most harrowing scenes involve the process of refeeding, which is re-introducing an anorexic person to the process of eating and attempting to bring them up to a healthy weight.

This is incredibly difficult, as most anorexics have made themselves hypermetabolic and therefore burn through calories much more quickly than a normal person. For Kitty to gain weight, she must choke down 4,000 calories a day — far more than she had been limiting herself to before, roughly 500 calories a day. Over and over again, Brown must fight to get Kitty to suck down a daily milkshake, two high-calorie protein bars and countless slices of toast with butter and cinnamon sugar.

Throughout it all, Brown shows an incredible sensitivity to the disease. She never confuses her daughter with the anorexia, and she always makes it clear that Kitty is not doing the typical teenage “oh, I’m so fat” schtick. Kitty truly believes she is disgusting, that eating fish will make her gain ten pounds overnight. When she looks in the mirror, she sees rolls of fat. Anorexia is actually causing her to be delusional. She is not making these feelings up.

I won’t lie to you, this book is grim. It’s scary even for me, and I’ve seen anorexia up close and personal. Kitty’s body and even her mental health are being absolutely ravaged by her disease, and Brown never minces words in order to make the reader more comfortable. Her honesty and her ability to stare anorexia unflinchingly in the face make this book required reading for anyone who is forced to do the same.


Entry filed under: Memoir/Autobiography, Non-fiction. Tags: , , .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  August 24, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Excellent, thanks for the recommendation! NYPL has this at a number of branches, so I’ll definitely be reading it when I get back to the States.

  • 2. Eva  |  September 11, 2011 at 12:46 am

    This sounds so sad but important. I’ll have to add it to my wishlist! Have you read Wintergirls? I thought it was a wonderful fictional portrait of eating disorders.

    • 3. Kate  |  September 12, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      I haven’t read Wintergirls, but I’ll look for it at the library today! Thanks for the recommendation —

    • 4. Kate  |  September 17, 2011 at 12:10 am

      Eva — I just finished Wintergirls on your recommendation! I thought it was incredibly well-written, certainly more metaphorical and poetic than Brave Gril Eating, though as a first-person novel clearly the author had more freedom in that respect than Harriet Brown did. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone wanting to understand more about anorexia, though!

      • 5. Eva  |  September 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

        Oh yay Kate, I’m glad you found it a satisfying read! Definitely fiction, and I’ll have to get ahold of the Brown to get a nonfiction viewpoint. I also just came across the book Gaining on my library’s website (was browsing ebooks): it’s a kind of ‘follow-up’ memoir combined with ground roots research written by the first author of an ED memoir back in the 70s. Reminded me of this post! (And Hunger by Sharman Apt Russell is an excellent nonfiction book on the more general topic.)


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