Ruth Scurr

The only word that hurts

Dickens, Laurie Lee and Siegfried Sassoon all provided comfort. So, too, did Virginia Woolf, despite having an eating disorder herself

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.

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