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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Anorexia and Bulimia: Marya Hornbacher's "Wasted"

Podcasts / audio file

Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher, is a memoir written by a young woman who chronicles her teenage years, her hidden life and self-destructive tendencies, which are masked by perfectionism and an edgy relationship with her mother. Marya Hornbacher, alternatively anorexic and bulimic, described how she was hospitalized several times, her weight sinking to a low of less than 80 pounds. Theoretically a part of the dominant culture's privileged class, Hornbacher is an enigma to those who judge people by the stereotype. Far from feeling privilege or self-confidence, Hornbacher exhibits the sort of self-loathing that one comes to expect from individuals who perceive themselves as society's pariahs.

Hornbacher's eating disorder causes her to lead a double life. The binging, purging, and recovery cycles are hidden or masked, as are the obsessive exercise and ritualistic activities. ( She becomes an outsider to herself. The more she tries to achieve balance between the perfectionist and the chronic "shlemiel," the more frantic and self-destructive she becomes. She is angry with herself, and with her parents. The etiology of Marya's ailment remains a mystery, even to herself, despite years and years of struggle and therapy. The early chapters explore some of the factors that cause Marya to try anorexia, "my Big Idea, my bid for independence, identity, freedom, savior, etc."

Marya is the primary player in this selection, and the narrative takes place at home - her parents' home - while she is a teenager. The action takes place against a backdrop of middle-class prosperity, affluence, access, opportunities. The American Dream hovers over the stage. Yet, in this theater of the perfect family, something has gone terribly wrong to create such masochistic habits. The conditions are perfect for the development of an eating disorder. Perhaps in a different setting, Marya's rage would have manifested itself as an addiction to heroin, paint sniffing, or criminal behavior. It is hard to say.

As an anorexic/bulimic teenager, Marya's mindset is that of a person who perpetually defines herself as a part of the outgroup, who refuses to join the mainstream. Further, a part of her refuses to thrive.

As she struggles with her need for control and her mounting sense of self-loathing, she finds solace in writing. Her writing is an act of rebellion against the rigid rules she has set for herself. Writing allows her to escape her self-created bonds and what seems to be an incorrigible masochism.

The first part of Wasted provides a glimpse inside the mind of a person who has recovered from a strange, inexplicable, and painfully slow way to die. Instead of slow suicide, one begins to see that Marya's eating disorders are a kind of soi-disant physical therapy. She is attempting to rehabilitate herself, and trying to come back from the wounds cause by anxiety.

The primary life lesson from this selection is to see how each person runs the risk of becoming an outsider to herself or himself. After self-isolating, the individual will think, act, and plan in ways that out-group her even to herself. There is no real community or ethnicity here - if anything, meeting people with the same issues would be anathema - after all, they could reveal or expose too much. Perhaps a narcissistic culture is to blame here - after all, isn't the core problem the rage against limits?

Perhaps narcissism is not the correct term. Perhaps it is simply individualism taken to extremes. The American Dream is not only the possession of creature comforts.

The American Dream also involves the attainment of lofty goals -- to be special and "different" and thus achieve success. What happens when a young woman realizes that her dreams are not truly attainable, even though she has been programmed to believe that they are? Do we see a ghastly inversion of a "dream deferred" and a "raisin in the sun"? What would Hornbacher be if not a "raisin in the sun"? In this case, the "wasted" fruit might be an "apple on the grass." Think of the images.

No one believes in Eden, but they certainly do believe in sin. Dreams deferred? Dreams despoiled. Think of vastly diverse images. Envision diversity. It might work as a strategy against a rigid, narrow, over-determined sense of what is "right" or "wrong" with body image.

Marya Hornbacher.

Guiding Questions

1. Explain how Marya could be classified as a member of an outgroup. Which outgroup did she belong to?

2. Explain why the author thought that her eating disorder could not get out of control.

3. Did the author experience discrimination or stereotyping as a result of her problem? Explain.

4. What kind of stereotypes are associated with the author's disorder, and what are the effects of that stereotyping on her?

5. Explain how the author's home environment contributed to her addiction.

6. Eating disorders are more common among white, adolescent females from middle or upper-middle class families. In addition, most females who develop eating disorders are also over achievers. Explain why you think that this group is most at risk for this type of addiction.

7. How is an eating disorder often seen as a solution to a lack of autonomy?

8. Eating disorders can also be seen as a way of revenge. Please explain.

9. Why do you think that males are less susceptible to eating disorders?

10. Explain how labels and stereotypes became self fulfilling prophecies in the author's life.

11. Did Marya really have control? Explain.

Guide to James Baldwin's "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American"

James Baldwin's autobiographical account is the narrative of a black man coming of age in the first quarter of the 20th century, a time suffused with huge changes in society. Although there were more opportunities for education and economic access, black men also faced worsening racism, violence, and extreme prejudice.

Downloadable audio file (mp3 file) // podcast

In this selection, Baldwin discovers that once he has moved to Paris, he is able to establish friendships and relationships with Americans that were not possible in America. Musing this fact, Baldwin explains that in America, race issues still block people. Ironically, in France, Baldwin is able to communicate with Americans of all races, origins, and class because their common background as expatriates attenuates all other differences.

The selection is from Nobody Knows My Name and the chapter is entitled "The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American."

The selection focuses on Baldwin and his experiences in Paris with fellow expatriates. After 1948, Baldwin made his home in the south of France, where he followed a tradition of many American artists and writers, who found France to be a more hospitable place for artists and writers than America. This was particularly the case in the post World War II era, when anti-Communist fears of the Cold War made innovative writing and socialist ideas dangerous. Returning to the U.S. for lecturing or teaching engagements, Baldwin's writing addressed themes of racism and homosexuality, which made him the subject of a great deal of controversy, even within the black community.

Baldwin, who was both black and homosexual, found himself cut off from the dominant culture for being both black and openly gay.

In the selection included here, what characterizes Baldwin's narrative is a sense of "thrownness." "Thrownness" was first developed as a concept by the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger. It is "the condition of being taken more or less by surprise, hurled into an unexpected and unpredictable situation. In one sense, all human beings are thrown: they all have to find their way through the world without much in the way of practice." In Baldwin's world, there is an awareness of being thrown into a world of which one has no knowledge - of what came before birth, or what will happen after death. The thrownness contains a feeling of randomness, and thus other individuals are perceived as part of that great outgrouped mass - a condition which makes one focus on the here and now; one's existential condition.

Baldwin writes to correct the prevailing view that people are rigid and cannot transcend their teleological view of the world, and that order, once established, cannot or should not, be re-ordered.

By moving to France, Baldwin places himself in a state of productive chaos, from which he can emerge, reinvented as the person he wants to be, and unconstrained by the ideas of his native society. However, Europe is no utopia, and it is not an Eden, freshly created and without a history. Baldwin observes, with some irony, that the place that allows him freedom is also the place from which the slave ships and slave-trading enterprises originated. In Europe, Baldwin's history comes full circle and he is hyper-aware of this.

James Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1952), is a largely autobiographical account of Baldwin's life. Baldwin's writings include essays, novels, plays, and the best-selling collection from which the selection is drawn, Nobody Knows My Name (1961).

Essay by Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.
Please click here for a useful text: Excellence in College Teaching and Learning: website.

Guiding Questions (by Elaine Bontempi).

1. According to the author, he wanted to leave American in order to find himself and similar others. Why was it necessary to leave America to do this, when America is supposed to be "land of the free" and a "melting pot?"

2. What were some of the themes of James Baldwin's writings? How did this exacerbate the prejudice he experienced?

3. What is the irony of the author's situation?

4. Why is the author able to experience friendships with Americans in Paris that he could not establish while still living in the United States?

5. Several characteristics placed the author into an outgroup. Name at least three and explain how each trait has potentially devastating stereotypes attached to it.

6. An irony that arises in being thrust into an outgroup, is that in so doing, you also "belong" to a group -whether this group is based upon SES, race, medical diagnosis, etc. Explain the potential effects of these memberships in outgroups.

7. For James Baldwin, it took going to Paris to discover what it meant to be American. Explain this.

8. James Baldwin suggested that one of the reasons it is difficult for American writers is because we, as Americans, have a deep distrust for intellectual effort. Discuss your reaction to this suggestion.

9. Why is it supposedly easier to cut across social and occupational lives in America than Europe? Do the previous readings that you have read in the previous sections support this suggestion?

10. The author writes of his experiences in Europe as an African American. How might these experiences have been different or similar if he had been writing based upon a white man's experiences? Explain.

Useful Web Resources:

James Baldwin: Teacher Resource File.

PBS: American Masters - James Baldwin.

James Baldwin. Kirjasto series.

American Writers: James Baldwin.

James Baldwin from the archives of the New York Times.

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