Found Wanting: Burning With Anger, The Hidden Truth of Eating Disorders

At my childhood best friend Ashley’s house, the pantry was big enough to sit in, and when we were bored, we did just that, eating whatever was around us. The pantry was long and narrow, cool and dark, with hardwood floors obscured by tins of flour and multi-flavored popcorn. It was a tight squeeze, and different body parts fell asleep as I tried to fold my gangly eleven-year-old legs to take up as little space as possible. It was uncomfortable, but it didn’t matter: in Ashley’s pantry, there was Halloween candy every month of the year. We could eat it mindlessly until there was something on TV we wanted to watch—Singled Out, maybe or Animaniacs. Then we brought more food—whole loaves of bread, and chocolate melted down with peanut butter and marshmallows—to the basement, where we could also watch movies her parents disapproved of.

Heathers? Aren’t you two a little young for this?” asked her brother, Joel. He was in high school. In retrospect, it’s so bizarre that the 1989 movie ever got made, let alone that it was on basic cable almost every weekend in the early to mid-nineties for us to watch at sleepovers. JD (Christian Slater) and Veronica (Winona Ryder) fall in love, and JD gives shape to Veronica’s anger: at high school’s banality, her parents’ obliviousness, her friends’ cruelty. Together they murdered three classmates, staging their deaths to look like suicides.

More than twenty-five years ago, it didn’t seem weird; the film was clearly satire. It didn’t seem weird for Ashley and me to stuff our faces while JD and Veronica killed their classmates. We found JD so hot in his trench coat, even as he brought a gun into the cafeteria and walked through the school hiding explosives. A boy I loved in 1998 wore a black trench coat. It was one of the reasons that I loved him.

From Ashley, I learned that food could fill a hole, bury any emotion or desire I was too scared to feel, let alone express. The next twenty years were made up of mornings when I fainted in the shower from eating only Tic Tacs to nights when I lay on the couch clutching my stomach, so full and painful that I couldn’t get up. I try to remember the worst binge or an interesting binge, but I can only remember the times I tried to hide it, ice cream containers stuffed into my backpack rather than the trashcan so no one would see them. I had to hide the evidence of my wanting.

Sometimes I dream about bingeing, more and more now that the behavior itself has become less common. These dreams wake me up, sweating and terrified that they are real, and I cannot calm down until I realize that they are not.

In one, I was in the kitchen in my childhood home, getting ready to eat a block of cheese and a chocolate cake. Through the window I watched my father outside, making sure he wasn’t going to come inside and catch me. Suddenly he began walking toward the house, and I panicked, looking for a hiding place. I settled on my dollhouse, shoving the food into one of its rooms rather than my mouth. I’m a bit annoyed at my unconscious for the obvious gender symbolism as if it’s been reading Ibsen without my knowledge. More importantly: anyone could see it through the empty window frames if they looked. Anyone could see the evidence of my wanting.

Recently I dreamed that I was in a dorm room surrounded by pastries. I shoved them into my mouth, chewed, and then spit them out. There was a rumor that Elton John used to do this, remember? In 1992 the British tabloid Sunday Mirror ran a story claiming that fellow guests saw John do so at a party. The article even included a supposed quote from the singer: “I love food. I love to eat. But what is the point of swallowing? You can’t taste it when it goes down your throat.” The following year, John, a recovering bulimic, successfully sued the paper for libel.

This strategy sounded like a great idea when a college friend told me about it. “Um, that’s like, an eating disorder,” she pointed out. I tried it a few times, but it was never that satisfying. After all, transgression is the whole point, isn’t it? Daring to satisfy your hunger and more? Daring to take everything you wanted?

Ellen West (1888–1921), an American-born, Jewish émigré living in Switzerland, also dreamed about bingeing, imagining that her death would finally allow her to eat without guilt. “I dreamt something wonderful,” she wrote: “War had broken out, I was to go into the field. I say good-bye to everyone with the joyous expectation that I shall soon die. I am glad that before the end I can eat everything, have eaten a large piece of mocha cake.”

West struggled with food and depression from childhood. After two unsuccessful stints in psychoanalysis and several suicide attempts, she entered psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger’s Bellevue Sanitorium early in 1921. She committed suicide just days after her April release. This dream was one of several she recorded while under Binswanger’s care. He later wrote about her case, calling her Ellen West. Her real name remains unknown.

Part of it was that she never wanted to be a girl, or that she realized, as feminist Susan Bordo has also noted of West, how restrictive this role was in the early twentieth century. She was an intellectual, but as a young woman her depression interfered with her ability to pursue this path, and doctors warned her that too much study would make it impossible to conceive.

Some medical professionals at the time believed that intellectual pursuits diverted blood from the ovaries, which required all of the women’s energy to function properly. Here too West’s body betrayed her. She hated it, often “beating it with her fists” when she looked in the mirror.

For a time in high school, every time I binged, I wrote “die, fat pig” in bright pink lipstick on my stomach. I often used this same lipstick, along with various eyeshadows and Vaseline, to create realistic-looking wounds on my body, making the excuse that being able to do my own stage makeup would help my theater career. I assumed any role I played, I would be injured in some way.

To West as to me, food was a threat: it kept her trapped in the muck, far from her ideal of being “delicate,” “ethereal,” “bodiless.” Food was the enemy, and so she avoided it whenever she could, losing so much weight from dieting, thyroid pills, and laxative-induced vomiting and diarrhea that she stopped menstruating. She dreamt she was a criminal, a murderer, but she could only direct her anger at herself.

But food, was also the only comfort she had, and so she longed for it; she could not stay away from it. She bought food for her family and ate it on the way home. She sat at her desk and longed for the loaf of bread sitting in the pantry, eventually running out into the street to avoid its call. Often she ate with abandon, “devoured like a wild animal,” but always in private, only in private.

Giving in to her obsession brought her no solace; if anything, she felt worse. “I attempt to satisfy two things while eating,” she wrote in her diary, “hunger and love. Hunger gets satisfied—love does not! There remains the great, unfilled hole. . . . Perhaps I would find liberation if I could solve this puzzle: The connection between eating and longing.”

She didn’t, of course. How could she have? There was no way for a woman to be well in this time; there were no real cures on offer. Only to eat until numb, eat until the feelings went away.

On this side of the Atlantic, neurologist S. Weir Mitchell thought he knew how to make women well. It was best for women not to talk too much about the pain they felt; they tended, he felt, to exhibit a “wild extravagance of noisy talk.”

Talking about it could lead to accusations of hysteria or neurasthenia, that broad late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century diagnosis that comprised a staggering range of symptoms and performed an even more staggering amount of cultural work. Mitchell preferred women lying on their backs, not moving, where he could overfeed them into a “childlike acquiescence.”

Because they weren’t really sick, of course, Mitchell insisted. Rather, he believed they had adopted a “mimicry of disease,” often consciously.

One teenage girl confessed to him that she developed a habit of vomiting because it gave her attention. Another patient concurred, writing to him that her “first vomiting created a sensation in the household, which, I think, as I recall it, I enjoyed as making me important. Very soon I got to vomiting every day . . . ” Later, when this strategy stopped working, she found “that if I took little food, I excited alarm, [and] I began to yield to the tendency to excite distress and anxiety by taking little or no food at times.”

None of this, Mitchell cautioned his fellow physicians, was any cause for alarm: it was merely “pretense.” He was content to note that “when it is merely anorexia, you may disregard it.”

Treatment began with milk, several quarts a day. Then mutton chop, several servings of bread and butter, malt extract, and a full pound of beef. He even cut up patients’ food and then fed it to them, so they didn’t have to sit up. It seems that he wanted them to eat until they were so full that they couldn’t feel the pain until there was no room for pain, or until the sensation of their distended stomachs was the only pain they could feel, and they couldn’t get out of bed even if they wanted to. Maybe it only sounds this way because I know the feeling, but others have come to similar conclusions.

His dietary prescriptions “were not unlike fattening a calf,” wrote historian Mary Lynn Bryan in her introduction to the papers of the reformer Jane Addams. Addams started seeing Mitchell in late 1881 or early 1882 when she was attending the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia and suffering from depression.

Ten years later, Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote her most famous story, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). In it, the unnamed narrator’s husband, John, threatens to send her to Mitchell if her condition does not improve. He thinks her illness is all in her head and that it will never go away if she keeps talking about it. She keeps a diary instead, insisting that she “MUST say what I feel and think in some way.”

The pain and the anger are going to come out, one way or another—against others, against oneself, or both. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “all instincts which do not find a vent, turn inwards.” It’s feminized, this internalization. He talks about it as a pregnancy.

Decades later, MGM head Louis B. Mayer forbade studio cafeteria workers from serving Judy Garland anything other than chicken soup. In response, she hid candy bars and snuck offset to eat caramel sundaes in secret. There used to be an ice cream shop in the basement of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. Visitors could go downstairs after seeing the ruby slippers and eat hot fudge sundaes in full view of everyone, not like Judy, forever trapped under the glass of American iconography, a gaze even more restrictive than Mayer’s.

Tell women to eat or tell them not to eat. It’s the same thing, isn’t it? Be good, they both say.

I know better.

Over a century after Mitchell wrote, we still haven’t figured out how to let women express anger. Popular culture regularly misses the ways they end up doing so.

Anger directed at the self is less dramatic: Where’s the story there, and what does it look like on screen? Instead, it tells us stories of young men and women alike lashing out, as if their feelings and the ways they act upon them are equivalent. Veronica wouldn’t have killed without JD, but she still did it.

Robin Wasserman’s recent novel Girls on Fire (2016) borrows much from Heathers. In a small Pennsylvania town in the Nirvana-fueled early nineties, two teenage girls fall in love, setting off a string of murders—all committed by girls—disguised as Satanic cult–inspired suicides. Maybe dark forces really are influencing the town’s teenagers. It’s never entirely clear what’s real and what’s imagined.

Even if unintentional, the connections are clear. There’s also a nod to Heathers’s cow-tipping scene, which in Girls on Fire becomes a frenzied cow stabbing. S. Weir Mitchell would like the cows, fattened up and silent as they fall, too sated to resist.

To both examples of murderous girls, though, I say: Really?

At the end of junior year, in the spring of 1999, my high school started locking all of the side doors, as NYU did with classroom doors two and a half years later. I didn’t even hear about Columbine until the next afternoon when my friend James told me. He was a goth who probably would have been targeted in the ensuing hysteria had he not been friends with all of the teachers. He had asked me out several times that spring.

“You haven’t heard?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders, he dropped the day’s newspaper in front of me. The font was big and bold.

Nobody told us during the day; possibly the teachers didn’t know what was going on, either. It was late when I got home from rehearsal that night. The house was quiet, my mom asleep on the couch with the cat, my dad long in bed. They must have spent the evening thinking about the fact that I was the same age as the boys involved.

The new atmosphere at school made it harder to sneak back in after leaving in the middle of the day to smoke cigarettes with Katie in the Wendy’s parking lot (or to watch her smoke cigarettes, if I’m really being honest) but easier to get out of class to talk to Sister Redempta, and sometimes, when there were bomb threats, we got to leave school early, which meant we could go back to my house and have hot tub parties.

By the time I stopped teaching sixteen years later, college classrooms posted instructions for lockdown procedures, and it wasn’t unusual to receive tips on how to tell if a student was reaching for a gun. Walking across campus, I grew nervous every time I saw a young white man standing alone.

About a year ago, I grew curious about how we talked about Columbine before 9/11; the two had become so linked in my mind. I thought I might write an essay about it. I didn’t, but what I found in the media coverage surprised me: how immediately writers applied the term “terrorist” to the perpetrators, as well as actual acknowledgment of the overwhelming white maleness of individuals who commit these kinds of atrocities. I don’t remember feeling this way, but a year later I wrote that, though I knew James “was gentle and harmless, . . . in the wake of that April his trench coat scared me.” I don’t think I was wrong to be scared of boys, all boys, even if this particular boy did not pose a threat. How was I to know the difference?

Because here’s the thing: Girls don’t really do this sort of thing.

Truly, how often has it been a girl? How often has it been someone other than an angry white (boy/) man? Actor Michael Ian Black wrote about this phenomenon recently, first in a series of tweets and then in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “Girls aren’t pulling the triggers,” he wrote after the Parkland shooting in February. “It’s boys. It’s almost always boys.”

The Internet likes to cite a supposed Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Her actual words are a bit different, though the effect is the same.

The grown-ups at school called girls’ parents not when they thought we were going to hurt others, but when they thought we were going to hurt ourselves, like when a group of boys started tormenting me at the end of eighth grade. Eventually, the ringleader apologized to me after school one day. I smiled and said it was OK, but really I meant “fuck you.”

On some level, I realized these differences. A year after Columbine, I wrote a short play. Because he wears makeup, a goth boy’s mother thinks he is going to kill her. The guidance counselor tells her not to worry: he does not wear a trench coat. In another scene, a group of jock boys mock-apologizes to a girl for intentionally making her cry in gym class. Whatever, she tells them. Even my imagination could not envision an alternative.

Sometimes, right before a binge, I grew so angry that words failed me, and all I could do was stab through the notebook pages as hard as I could with my pen.

In Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, critic Carol Clover argues that stories of girls taking justice or revenge into their own hands lay bare the failures of such established authorities as teachers or the police. Because what can they do? An apology isn’t worth much once a girl is already broken. That’s why fantasies like Heathers and Girls on Fire exist.

“We have to talk,” the clueless hippie guidance counselor says to Veronica in Heathers, “whether or not to kill yourself is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.”

In real life, when girls and women burn with anger, when they destroy, it’s often themselves.

In a Manhattan townhouse in 1970, Weatherman members accidentally set off the bomb they were building, the anger meant for society turned back in on themselves. My anger is like this: I am the only target.

What better place to act out this anger than the body, that place that is most fundamentally us. That place that, according to Susan Bordo, Western culture treats as “clumsy, gross, disgusting, a lumbering fool.” Women are “weighed down” by their bodies, wrote Simone De Beauvoir in The Second Sex. If only we could escape from this thing, this interloper, this blob with which we are most identified. If I can destroy my body, I can destroy myself.

But also, I mustn’t forget: our bodies aren’t really ours at all.

Some years ago, Georgia representative Terry August explained his opposition to abortion in the context of his experiences seeing female pigs and cows deliver dead babies. It always comes back to the pigs and the cows, doesn’t it?

More recently, Oklahoma lawmaker Justin Humphrey called pregnant women “hosts,” sadly delusional if they think their bodies belong to them.

We’ve all read The Handmaid’s Tale, and seen it now, too. We are our bodies, but our bodies aren’t ours.

Hollywood made Winona Ryder’s parents nervous, the actress recently told New York magazine. They feared it would turn their daughter into Judy Garland, another pale-skinned, dark-haired gamine addicted to pills and ultimately destroyed. These fears came to partial fruition in 2001, when Ryder was arrested for shoplifting $5,560 worth of merchandise from a Saks Fifth Avenue in California. She was rich, so no one understood why. “Why would a Hollywood star, accustomed to having her every move watched, her every wardrobe change scrutinized, risk stealing thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing for which she could have easily paid?” queried Nadya Labi in Time magazine. “I cannot get inside her head,” replied Ann Rundle, the prosecutor in the case. “She may have been stealing for the thrill of it or to see if she could get away with it.”

In college, in my first women’s studies class, I read an article about the items girls steal: clothes, makeup, hair accessories—what Ryder took. They proved they weren’t good girls by stealing the very items that would make them look like good girls. At thirteen I walked out of the drugstore with my backpack full of makeup. The store alarm beeped when I walked out, but the employees let me go. I’m sure it would have been different for Ryder and for me had we not been white.

A therapist once told me that a high percentage of young women with bulimia also engage in shoplifting. She had been to court many times to help patients in these situations. I was never bulimic, but I understood that wanting, that overwhelming desire to take all that I could and shove it in my bag or my mouth or wherever it could fill up the emptiness, wherever it could hide the anger.

That feeling that the world denied me so much and owed me—an ugly, untrue feeling that I nonetheless admit—and that pain that made me want to cut a swath of destruction across the earth that would put William T. Sherman to shame.

But I only had myself to destroy.

There’s nothing noble about this anger, oblivious white girl anger. After all, I had not nothing, but everything. Perhaps, in the end, this anger is just as toxic, just as society-destroying as the white boy anger that’s killing us all.

Photo Credit: Julián D Gaitán Flickr via Compfight cc

About Christina Larocco

Christina Larocco is a writer and historian based in Philadelphia, where she is the editor-in-chief of a scholarly journal and a prose editor for Cleaver Magazine. Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hotel Amerika, Avidly, Footnote, and Weird Sister. She is writing a biography-in-essays of nineteenth-century abolitionist and feminist Martha Schofield.

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