It is hard to be honest about anorexia. The illness breeds deceit and distortion: ‘It thrives on looking-glass logic. It up-ends your thoughts, turns bone into flesh, makes life unlivable, death seem glorious.’ In her first book, the literary critic and art historian Laura Freeman is determined to tell the truth about her recovery from the illness that ravaged her adolescence and early adult life. The result is the reverse of a misery memoir. Freeman’s celebratory book is about getting better and learning to savour life again by doing what she most loves: reading.
Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia when she was 15 and had already been ill for two years. She was told she faced a five- to ten-year recovery and was invalided out of school for many months, at her weakest leaving her bed only on weekly visits to doctors, therapists and bookshops.‘If words had been calories, I would have been gorged. Reading was an escape when I was most desperate.’ Later, it was medicine of a different sort.
Anorexia, she admits, is a difficult word. She shied away from it for years, preferring the term ‘eating disorder’, which is vague and capacious, like the baggy clothes anorexics wear to disguise their loathed and self-starved bodies. Restored to health, Freeman pins the word to the page with a forensic sensitivity to language: ‘I do not like the length or unfamiliarity of the word, nor its harsh X, like a pair of crossed femur bones. You think of X-rays and skeletons.’ Worse, you think of death.
Nursed at home by her mother, Freeman eventually became a ‘functioning anorexic’, able to live independently at university, and even, occasionally, sharing meals — ‘chips!’— with friends. But proper enjoyment of food was postponed until, aged 24, she set herself the challenge of reading all of Dickens’s novels in a year. For Dickens, there is ‘no beauty, nothing brave in starvation’. Starvation is sadistic. His most revolting characters stuff themselves with the food they cruelly withhold from others, often children. Wackford Speers, Mr Pumblechook, these obese peddlers of hunger and deprivation, turned Freeman into a ‘questioning anorexic’.
After Dickens came Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Laurie Lee, Paddy Leigh Fermor, Richard Hughes, and finally some women. M.F.K. Fisher’s Love in a Dish enchanted Freeman: ‘I liked her bubbling, boiling-over, irrepressible way of writing.’ Elizabeth David, setting off on a boat with 400 books and a married lover in 1939 to research her first book, Mediterranean Food, was another companion on the long journey back to eating with ease.
Recovered anorexics remain strict rule-followers. Freeman keeps her commitment to honesty, describing clearly her setbacks as well as her victories. While working as a journalist she gave in to the ‘clean-eating creed and crusade’. The bullying voices of anorexia came back disguised as a new religion:
What had once existed only in my unhappy mind — disgust for food, an obsession with a clean, pure, empty stomach —was now bodied forth by siren-beauties and ‘wellness’ bloggers in books and newspapers, on restaurant menus and in shopping baskets.
This time it was Virginia Woolf who saved her. Was it sensible to read Woolf? Freeman knows her readers will ask this question. Even people who have never read a word of Woolf know she took her own life. And those who have read her diaries and letters know that she struggled for years with food. Freeman quotes a passage from Leonard Woolf’s diary, in which he tries to make sense of his wife’s madness:
Superficially I suppose it might have been said that she had a (quite unnecessary) fear of becoming fat; but there was something deeper than that, at the back of her mind, or in the pit of her stomach, a taboo against eating. Pervading her insanity generally there was always a sense of some guilt, the origin and exact nature of which I could never discover; but it was attached in some peculiar way to food and eating.
Freeman is too knowledgeable about life and art to be comfortable with a pat diagnosis of Woolf as an anorexic. Instead of applying the label — the uncomfortable skull-and-crossbones word — she finds a life lesson in Woolf, who was not a sybarite like Fisher and David, but she found a balance between not wanting to eat and knowing she must. ‘In her writing there is a spring-like pleasure, pinking and blossoming, cautious and gradual, in food and in her attempts, often haphazard, to cook.’ There is that same pleasure in Freeman’s writing.
Words on the page cannot be everyone’s weapon against illness. The Reading Cure is not a self-help manual; it won’t make you well, or tell you how to heal your sick child. But it will give you hope. Rupert Brooke once asked Woolf: ‘Virginia, what is the brightest thing you can think of?’ ‘A leaf with the light on it,’ she answered. Freeman’s joyful book reminded me of this.