A memoir by the mother of a teenage girl with anorexia, written with her daughter's consent. (Her daughter is given the pseudonym "Kitty.")

There are a number of memoirs by people with anorexia (by far the best-written is Wasted by Marya Hornbacher, which is worth reading for the prose quality alone), but fewer by their loved ones. But a child with an eating disorder affects and is affected by the whole family.

This book attracted some really angry negative reviews, many of which took very vehement exception to Brown's refusal to take the blame for her daughter's illness, and for her saying that her family became temporarily dysfunctional due to the stress of it, but was doing basically okay before and after. I have no idea whether that's true or not, since all I can go by is the book itself. But I was struck by how pissed off a subsection of readers were at a mother saying, "This wasn't my fault" and "I think my family has good relationships," and how sure they were that this couldn't possibly be the case--that if a child has a mental illness, the mother and her family must be to blame.

Brown thinks the culprit is a combination of genetic predisposition and social pressure. She leans more heavily on the former as a factor in anorexia in general than I personally would, and if her account is correct, it does sound like that played more of a part in her daughter's case than it usually does. From her perspective, anorexia descended on her daughter like the demon in The Exorcist; while Brown herself had some mild issues with eating and weight that could have also affected her daughter, they're the sort of issues that probably 90% of white American moms have, and 90% of all daughters aren't anorexic. She might be in total denial about terrible problems within the family... but she might not be. Being a "good enough" family isn't a magic shield against mental illness.

As a memoir, it's gripping and well-written, and makes a convincing case for the family-based (Maudsley) approach to treating anorexia. (That approach also has very convincing evidence behind it.) But it's the response to it that fascinates me. Like I said, maybe the reviewers are right that she's lying or in denial. Brown does sound a little defensive. But who wouldn't sound defensive if she's constantly getting blamed for the illness that nearly killed her daughter? Could any mother have told her story without being blamed?

Americans are very apt to blame the victim. In every respect. And that goes one million if they're female. Were you raped? It's your fault for going on a date/wearing that dress/trusting your uncle/not buying a state of the art home security system. Do you have anorexia? You're vain/weak-willed/selfish/not really sick. Does your child have anorexia? You're a bad mother.

Brown's unknowable truthfulness or accuracy aside, there is nothing more infuriating to a big section of America than a woman who says, "It wasn't my fault."

Brave Girl Eating: A Family's Struggle with Anorexia
recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


This is one of those things where I'd have to go hunting for citations and I'm too tired, but: while obviously any individual case is individual, I would personally side-eye hard a family with an anorexic daughter insisting that it Happened Out Of Thin Air and has Nothing To Do With Them.

I would side-eye it even more if the family-based approach worked.

I mean, there's a lot to what you say, for sure. And there's also a lot to be said for cases where parenting would have been Good Enough . . . with a different child, one who was less vulnerable or in a less risky position because of other things, or whatever. It doesn't mean that The Parents Were Hideous Miserable Abusive People.

But to be honest like. I'm not going to get into huge specifics, but: the family my family is closest to that struggled hardcore with one daughter's anorexia? Would absolutely at their best frame it like "sudden demon that ate her" (at their worst they might decide to blame the behavioural problems of another child in the family for "causing the family stress").

And would absolutely say they had good relationships before and that it's the anorexia that made them dysfunctional and fall under that "good enough" parenting, etc?

And yet. It's a family where as part of her own attempt to work through her rehab the daughter does a really quite amazing landscaping project on the front lawn, and I go over to look at it, and she's showing it off, and on their way into the house one of the parents points at a tiny weed amongst the gravel and says "you really need to get on keeping that free of weeds."

And I WATCHED her go from shy pride showing it off to me to crumpled down defensive "I know I was going to weed after supper."

And that's a NORMAL interaction for this family. Like no: they weren't the kind of Toxic Horrible that you'd make a good movie out of for Lifetime but this is still what this girl was surrounded by - hypercritical, perfectionist, totally lacking in validation or celebration by her family - not "never good enough" in the sense of being endlessly berated, but definitely never good enough in the sense that the driving underly of the family was "well you could do better" . . . etc etc and you could see every bit of it reflected in how her anorexia worked.

So.
Edited Date: 2017-08-04 01:33 am (UTC)
recessional: a small blue-paisley teapot with a blue mug (Default)

From: [personal profile] recessional


Oh for sure. And I mean in the case of the family I'm talking about I locate the cause of family dynamic in the father, hands down, SO THERE'S ALSO THAT. (And actually while not universal in the case of other anorexics I know where I KNOW their families contributed or at least exacerbated like crazy, it's relatively FREQUENT that the root of the crappy family dynamic was pretty clearly in the dad: HE set the family Tone, and the worst the moms did was get swept along by it.)

I just sort of suspect that part of the dynamic in this specific case is that in addition to the Blame The Woman/Victim thing that totally goes on, that's running into and combining with the part where like, okay, no, more likely than not, family dynamic has a huge contribution in these cases and I myself have a knee-jerk scepticism, because I know that the family in question (in my case) would say exactly the same thing.

(And it's not because they're bad people: they're not, they're quite the opposite, it's just . . . welp.)
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


'But I was interested by the fact that if a hypothetical mother really didn't cause their child's mental illness, she would still get blamed for it.'

Well no mother "causes" a child's mental illness. There are lots of different factors ranging from genetic predisposition to environment to outside influences to plain bad luck. But every parent is a contributing factor to some extent just because they're the parents to a child who became mentally ill. That does not necessarily mean they are to blame. I think you and the author are kind of mixing up responsibility and blame. Parents can have the best intentions in the world and think they are "good enough" parents and be held up as models of parenting, and if it isn't what their kid needs, it doesn't mean they are actual good parents for that child, or their contributions should be dismissed if the child becomes mentally ill. I think a lot of mothers have been blamed by bad psychiatric theories and society for illnesses. That is different, and more a manifestation of sexism in society.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


BAnd that's a NORMAL interaction for this family. Like no: they weren't the kind of Toxic Horrible that you'd make a good movie out of for Lifetime but this is still what this girl was surrounded by - hypercritical, perfectionist, totally lacking in validation or celebration by her family - not "never good enough" in the sense of being endlessly berated, but definitely never good enough in the sense that the driving underly of the family was "well you could do better" . . . etc etc and you could see every bit of it reflected in how her anorexia worked.

Yeah, I think there's an unfortunate pendulum swing from "let's blame everything about this kid on their parents and home environment" to "well clearly this illness was caused by GENES ~handwave and the parents get an A+ for Good Parenting and don't have to feel guilty or change their behaviour." There are good parents who do a great job and their kid effectively gets struck by lightning, there are abusive parents who basically torture their kids, there are regular parents who struggle to do a "good enough" job but for whatever reason wind up making choices that are disastrous but not that conscious -- it's not like they were hiding a vowel from the kid's building block set.

Based just on personal observation there is a huge unwillingness to accept the role that luck, good or bad, plays -- which is just human, we like to think we have control over the things that happen to us, but this is multiplied exponentially when it comes to mental illness. It must be the parents! No, it must be the kid! No, it must be the genes or the Alar in the apple juice! There's a certain kind of insanity in trying to find The Absolute Root Cause of something so that not only can we assign the proper blame to various actors, but also fantasize about ending it once and for all. Anorexia is caused by 10% shit parenting and 20% adolescent rebelliousness and 30% genes and 40% lack of this vitamin, hallelujah. I think this is caused in large part by the mechanistic thinking resulting from the so-called Decade of the Brain, but people really are terrified by the idea that you can do all the "right things" and life can still fuck you over.
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