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.

Edited Date: 2017-08-04 01:33 am (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)

From: [personal profile] asakiyume

I **hate** the tendency to blame parents and especially moms for things. I think about how they used to blame parents--and especially moms--for autism, for not being loving enough. It really does feel to me like a case of "is something inexplicably awful happening in your family? It must be because you're defective in some way/not doing it right."

One of the many, MANY problems with that line of attack is that if you take it, you can always find supporting evidence, since there are always impossibly high standards for how much attention/discipline/freedom--whatever the Thing Du Jour is--you should be giving.

That said, I know it's possible for a family situation (by which I mean, say, both parents under a whole lot of stress from work, or there's a sick grandparent or sibling, or whatever), the parents' and child's personalities, and the surrounding milieu to create an overall bad environment that could lead to mental problems--oh, and add in physical contributing factors, too. But that stuff doesn't equate to IT WAS MOM'S/PARENTS' FAULT.

I wonder if this country will become genuinely more fat-approving, and if it does, how that'll affect rates of anorexia.
naomikritzer: (Default)

From: [personal profile] naomikritzer

A friend of mine recently mentioned a friend of hers who struggled with anorexia for years ... and it vanished when this friend came out as trans. I sort of wonder just how many anorexics were dealing with unspoken dysphoria, and that was a piece of what was going on.

The thing that struck me after I read this book a few years ago: for decades, the belief about autism was that it was caused by "refrigerator mothers," and it was treated by trying to keep the mother out of the picture. And yet, I know so many parents of autistic kids where the mother is the kid's best advocate. Anorexia was similar: blamed on the mom, treated with "parent-ectomy," but in fact, family-based treatment works vastly better than inpatient programs.

I don't know. I mean, I definitely know friends with eating disorders who had parents who certainly set the stage for disordered eating in every possible way. But that's certainly not always it. I like the comparison to alcoholism; like, there are families that set the stage for it in various ways but there's also clearly a genetic predisposition factor and when a teen has a drinking problem, it's not treated in the context of, "obviously your Mom made you into an alcoholic, so let's try to fix what she screwed up."
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore

From her perspective, anorexia descended on her daughter like the demon in The Exorcist

My mother actually used to compare my adolescent years to both The Exorcist and The Incredible Hulk, heh. I would be very surprised if their family was "good enough" or even "basically okay" before the daughter became anorexic.

The model for anorexic family dynamics used to be that of a loved, absent father who knuckled under to a nagging, perfectionist, clingy mother (think Barbara Hershey in Black Swan) so my guess is she's at least partly reacting defensively to that, as well as "blame the victim/mother/woman" factor.
brainwane: My smiling face, including a small gold bindi (Default)

From: [personal profile] brainwane

there is nothing more infuriating to a big section of America than a woman who says, "It wasn't my fault."

I was wondering whether you'd compare this book in any way to We Need To Talk About Kevin (which I see some people commenting on your journal have mentioned but which I don't think you've reviewed).
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.

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