Readathon: Elena Vanishing, by Elena and Clare Dunkle

elenaElena Dunkle developed anorexia as a teenager. This memoir, written with the help of her mother, Clare Dunkle, discusses her struggles with the disorder and her attempts to recover from it.

Recovery is a path, not a destination.

I haven’t had a lot of personal experience with anorexia. The only time I’ve ever been faced with it head on was in early college. There was a girl in my psychology classes who was very thin, so thin that her veins stood out distinctly on her thighs. I didn’t automatically assume she was anorexic, though. I grew up with extremely thin siblings, and that kind of thin was fairly normal for me. Other people whispered about it, but I didn’t. Then I saw her again the next semester, maybe six months after I’d last seen her. I was walking behind her on the way to the food court area, and was shocked. Her thighs were no bigger than her knee bones. There was so little muscle on her arms that she literally looked like a walking skeleton, elbow bones being the largest part of her arms. Her cheeks were just as hollow. This is not an exaggeration. I was completely shocked, but had never even spoken to the girl, and even then, I was too afraid to interfere. I didn’t know her. What right did I have to say anything?

I don’t know what happened to her, in the long run. I do know things changed, because I saw her a year later, and she was slightly chubby. I remember being so happy for her, and hoping that whatever had caused her to gain weight (therapy? medication? I had no idea.) would continue to keep her healthy.

Despite my lack of personal experience with anorexia, however, I do have a lot of experience with eating disorders in general. Because of this, it would be difficult to review this book in full, so I’m just going to bullet-review it:

  • This was an extremely candid look at the psychology behind eating disorders, while stating up front that this psychology will obviously vary from patient to patient. It also states plainly that the treatment of eating disorders is a rapidly evolving field, and new things are learned all the time about recovery.
  • This was also a book that didn’t sugarcoat anything. Elena Dunkle states that the reason she wanted to write this book was that all the books she’d read on eating disorders either glorified them or put too rosy a slant on recovery. She wanted something wholly honest out there, and chose her own experiences to express this. Very little is kept hidden. So to be upfront, trigger warning: eating disorders, self-harm, sexual assault, miscarriage, trauma.
  • I appreciated that while Dunkle’s inner voice kept yelling that she was fat, stupid, lazy, weak, etc, the focus was not on body image. I’m no expert on eating disorders, but I do know that there’s often a deeper psychology than obsession over body image. It’s more complex than that. That was very clear in Dunkle’s experience.
  • It was a slightly strange experience reading this book, because a friend of mine used to work with Clare Dunkle, and knew Elena. Much of this takes place in San Antonio, so those two things made this hit very close to home.
  • Furthering on that, I could see aspects of my own eating disorder (not anorexia, but what’s generally called “eating disorder, not otherwise specified”). A lot of the psychology was similar to my own, even though our trauma roots and methodologies are very different.
  • The book was very well written, with a very story-like feel despite it being nonfiction. The Dunkles preface the book with an explanation of how they changed small details to get across the narrative without giving away identifying details, and to make the story flow well without sacrificing truth. That’s a delicate balance, and it was well done.

Lastly, I’d like to say that despite my lack of personal experience with anorexia, I found the book informative and helpful. Generally, along my own path to wellness, I try to find different pieces of wisdom from many sources, and one of those is in books. This was a difficult book to read at times, for many reasons, but I felt it was important to continue. The quote I listed above came almost at the end, and it struck me with a pang. So simple, and so obvious, but not obvious, really, for many of us mired in mental illness, hoping for escape, hoping for the end of the road, and terrified that it will never be there. Those words are the ones I will keep most from this book, and the read, difficult as it was, was worth it just for them.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2015, Adult, Prose and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Readathon: Elena Vanishing, by Elena and Clare Dunkle

  1. Shaina says:

    You’re so right that the psychology of eating disorders is about far more than body image and society’s expectations of what our bodies should look like, though that of course plays a huge role. I think it also has a lot to do with control. In addition to anxiety and depression, I’ve dealt with disordered eating for a long time, on and off over the years, and the biggest reason I fall back into it is because the rest of my life feels out of control. Too much going on? Well, at least I can decide what and whether I’m eating that day. I know now that eating isn’t optional for my physical health or sanity, but it’s just *so easy* to skip breakfast here, not eat when my tummy’s grumbling there. It’s something I will need to be aware of forever, if I’m going to be able to take care of myself properly.

    That really is an excellent quotation you picked. I think you’re absolutely right that we can get very caught up in wondering when we’re going to “be better,” instead of realizing that being our best selves is something we’re going to have to strive for over and over again throughout our whole lives.

    Thanks for sharing, and sorry for writing you a novel!


    • Amanda says:

      I honestly don’t mind novel comments one bit Shaina! I’m delighted to receive them, and to have long discussions. Though I’m sorry to hear that you also have to deal with disordered eating. It’s such a hopeless kind of feeling, knowing how many of us suffer, and all the different ways. Control is definitely a big factor, and that’s addressed a lot in this book. Control plays a HUGE role in my own eating disorder, though it tends to go to the opposite extreme (everything’s crazy? Then I’ll eat everything in sight and be sure of one thing: that I’ll gain weight).

      I get so discouraged at times, knowing this is a forever process. I *do* want to “be better,” and not be continually getting better. It sometimes makes things feel hopeless, pointless, like I shouldn’t even try. Except I know I need to, and I keep going. Sigh.


  2. Pingback: Wellness Wednesday #13: Six Years | The Zen Leaf

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