The personal, it’s said, is the political, so let me just get the personal stuff out of the way before I get into the review of this book: I probably know more than I’d like about eating disorders, and care a bit more than is probably healthy, and the notion that people are suffering from them upsets me greatly, all for reasons I can’t fully articulate, though experience (inevitably) is a part of this.
So I was genuinely interested to read this book, as the cover flap claims it’s a memoir “which speaks to all women”. Given that one of the things I find so upsetting about eating disorders is the (for me) sheer impenetrability of the thought processes underlying them, I was keen to see if this book shed any light on them. It did not, and quite frankly proved by turns alarming, depressing, and annoying. Let me explain why.
The book is a mix of chronological recollections about Crewe’s life, and details about her current preoccupations with food, weight and the like. As such, I was rather hoping that there might be some clues or even analysis as to the point in her life when she started to feel a certain way about food and her self-image, and to factors which had triggered it. But these don’t appear; instead the worries seem to come along almost fully-formed in her early teens, and much of the time there are generalisations to suggest that most, if not all, women feel as she does. I often find this kind of generalisation faintly irritating (I want to know why so many women feel this way, not just that they do), but even moreso when the generalisation is one which just doesn’t sit at all with personal experience – the best example of this is on page 51, when referring to school dinners, she says, “Like many resourceful children down the ages, confronted with similar fare, when the teacher wasn’t looking I shoved it up my skirt, down my knickers and afterwards into the jaws of an appreciative lavatory”. Now, perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but I attended school (several, in fact), and ate school lunches, and never not once ever did I see, or hear tell of, anyone who shoved food in their pants (and this doesn’t just seem to be me, as I’ve asked a few female friends about this in the past few days and they’ve all looked at me as if I’m insane. So I think Crewe is alone on this one, and that her generalisation is extremely spurious).
That sort of thing was alarming, but more depressing material came in the form of Crewe’s comments about how her preoccupations with food and body image affect her daily life; she tells us how she tries to avoid eating breakfast wherever possible (p15), how she can’t settle in a room until she’s assessed who’s the fattest person in there (p82) and how she loves walls because “they hid the whole of one side of me. I have made use of them ever since” (p85). As I say, I found this depressing because the thinking underlying it is something I find utterly alien, and simply cannot grasp, and I just want someone to explain it to me, so I can understand it, if not necessarily agree with it.
Jumping ahead to the present in her life, Crewe tries to analyse where this preoccupation came from, and thankfully doesn’t give much credence to the received wisdom that it’s all the fault of men, saying they find “this mild lunacy… tedious and unsexy” (p200), though I feel she skirts the issue of whether it’s because of the judgmental eyes of other women, trying to assess which women. I’d say it’s more likely to be strangers than the known-to-me individuals which Crewe examines (friends, family, etc), but I’m guessing here. At least this section of the book has the benefit of feeling as if it’s actually analysing things, as opposed to just stating that this is how things are and not explaining them.
Then, Crewe tells us, she showed her husband the first draft of the first half or so of the book, and that he was upset, because he hadn’t realised that she was so unhappy. To which she replies that she’s not unhappy, and so she re-reads what she’s written, and says: “Looking at the narrative again… I realised that I was not actually writing about the immediate here and now but my distant and recent past” and “…I think I exaggerated or, rather, played a little freely with my use of the present tense” (p221). And then “What I did was to make out that I am still living by [those various habits, practices and beliefs] every day… While I admit that they do not malignly exist today as they once did, they have not entirely disintegrated.” Just in case those extended quotes are a little hard to understand, don’t worry, I’ll translate them into a three-word summary for you, paraphrasing Austen: Reader, I lied.
And this was a profoundly annoying section of the book for me, both as a reader and as someone who takes the use of words fairly seriously (despite often using them for flippancy). As a reader, I felt cheated, because the stuff that I had found so alarming in the first section of the book – about how she thinks x and that all women think x – turned out not to be true, which of course brings pretty much the rest of the book into doubt. She lied about her current preoccupation with food, so how do I know she wasn’t lying about the bulimia in her 20s? How do I know the academics she quotes from exist, or that they said what she claims they said? After the beautifully-phrased admission quoted above that what she said wasn’t actually true, you can see why I’d doubt it.
That’s my reaction as a reader, but as user-of-words my annoyance is two-pronged: firstly, that a subject as serious and life-ruining as eating disorders is something that can be written about in a haphazard way, and secondly – tying in to that haphazardness – that the book wasn’t rewritten after that first draft elicited this reaction and Crewe realised that she hadn’t been telling the truth. If you’re a writer or editor with any integrity in that situation, you say ‘okay, well, now, that stuff wasn’t accurate, so I’ll take it out’ and then you do that. You don’t just stick in a bit at the end saying ‘the first draft contained lies which upset my test reader, but I’ve left them in and acknowledged them here, so that’s all right’, because it isn’t. It borders on contempt for your reader, their intelligence, and undermines the seriousness of any point you’re trying to make. In writing terms, it’s hackwork, an example of the ‘that’ll do, get it to print’ mentality, and it does nobody any favours.
As you can tell from this extended review, I feel strongly about this book (because I feel strongly about the subject). I have no objection whatsoever to books which mix personal feelings on a subject with cold hard facts and analysis, and on a subject as emotive as this I think it’s almost inevitable. But as a contribution to the examination of the rise of eating disorders and an analysis of the roots of it, this book is utterly worthless. As a personal memoir – and it’s more that than anything else – it’s very well-written, but since we later learn that the author hasn’t been telling the truth, it’s invalid on that count as well.
On the strength of my dislike for this book, you might feel a perverse inclination to check it out (it’s in hardback at the moment, so maybe your local library will have a copy). In no way do I suggest you do so, but if you do, consider yourself well and truly warned.
As far as I can see, there’s still an important book to be written on the issue of eating disorders, their social and cultural roots, their triggers and cures, and all the associated issues. It would need, to my mind, to be a mix of the anecdotal and the factual, possibly with autobiographical elements, possibly without. I haven’t come across such a book yet (though if you know of one, please let me know – usual e-mail address), and I sometimes wonder if I ought to write the damn thing myself. I’ll add it to the list of projects. With the working title of ‘WTF? I mean, W-T-F?’