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
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass

Americans are very apt to blame the victim.

Isn't the person with anorexia the victim? Without going into whether or not Harriet Brown is at fault for her daughter's illness, and while acknowledging that, as you say, a child with an eating disorder affects and is affected by the whole family, I'm still uncomfortable with framing a child's mental illness as something that "happened" to the child's parent, let alone something that that parent is the "victim" of.

While family memoirs of anorexia might be rare, there is a thriving genre of mother's memoirs of their (Touching! Inspirational!) struggle with their child's disability, not always with the consent of or to the benefit of the child, and sometimes when the child's too young or too disabled to give meaningful consent. (In the case of autism in particular there is a huge volume of material posted online posted by parents that's very much not in the child's interests and is highly invasive of their privacy and dignity and even safety, which the parents justify as necessary to "raise awareness" of the "scourge of autism".)

In this case the child did give consent, but if she's still a minor living with her parents and has been the focus of heavy family-based behavioural therapy, I do have to wonder if she had much of a chance to refuse.

Even without disability or mental illness in the picture, who owns the narrative of a child's life, her or her mother, is kind of a fraught subject... Do you remember when Michelle Obama "bravely owned up to her own struggle with her daughters' weight" in order to Raise Awareness of childhood obesity? I generally like Ms Obama, but I think that was fucked up, because it's her daughters' bodies, not hers, they are teenagers, and they had very little choice already about being public figures.

The ethics of memoir and autobiography are a vexed subject, I know (and you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story), and usually I come down on Anne Lamott's "if they wanted you to write warmly of you they should have treated you better," but I think parents of living children have a higher responsibility to those children than most memoirists do to the other people in their memoirs. Especially when they claim to be telling the child's story or speaking for their child or for the family as a whole.
naomikritzer: (Default)

From: [personal profile] naomikritzer

The daughter was no longer a minor when the book was written, and not living at home. She was either in college or post-college. (The final chapter of the book discusses a relapse she had while in college.)

I've read a pile of memoir, so I totally know the HEROIC PARENT STRUGGLES WITH THEIR CHILD'S TRAGIC DISABILITY school of narrative. This overlapped those books somewhat but was radically different in form and tone. It reminded me a bit of "Unstrange Minds" by Roy Richard Grinker, an anthopology professor with an autistic daughter who wrote a book exploring different cultural ideas about autism, which is radically unlike the "heroic mom brings attention to the tragic epidemic!" school of autism books. (Grinker thinks the "epidemic" is because we used to misdiagnose autistic children with intellectual disabilities.)
landofnowhere: (Default)

From: [personal profile] landofnowhere

(Jumping in to the middle of a conversation, if I may:)

Although I haven't really read them, my impression is that there's a (somewhat older?) subgenre of autism parent memoir which is "heroic mom stumbles upon the miracle intervention that cures kid's autism", I think the standard instance being /Let Me Hear Your Name/ by Catherine Maurice. (Where the "miracle intervention" may be a false positive because some autistic kids have symptoms that improve rapidly for reasons we don't really understand.)

That was the sort of thing that the description of this book reminded me of. And although I'm inclined to agree with the book that genetic/biological factors are important, the analogy to of "demon possession" does make me bit uncomfortable in the same way that likening autism to demon possession would -- though I'm glad to hear that this handles things in a thoughtful way.

That said, maybe having midly problematic attitudes about mental health is a normal thing, and does not make one into a *terrible parent who is at fault for all the children's problems*.
vass: Jon Stewart reading a dictionary (books)

From: [personal profile] vass

However, the daughter was an adult and not living at home at the time of writing.

That is good to know.

she's not claiming to be speaking for her child or the family as a whole, but explicitly states that she's speaking for herself.

As is this.

On the flip side we also can't assume her lack of agency or inability to refuse.


Most Popular Tags

Page Summary

Powered by Dreamwidth Studios

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags