The Beatrice Interview

Marya Horbacher

"The best advice I can give to people with eating disorders ... is: get a life."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

At 23, Marya Hornbacher is one of the youngest authors to appear in Beatrice; she's also one of the most compelling. Wasted is a brutally honest account of her life with bulimia and anorexia beginning at age nine, when she threw up her snack just to see what would happen and quickly found herself unable to stop. Eventually unable to continue fooling her family, she went in and out of hospitals until, at 18, she dropped to just 52 pounds. Forced to choose life, she continues to struggle against her disease with, as Wasted demonstrates, a remorseless lack of self-pity.

RH: Towards the end of Wasted, you say that writing the book wasn't a therapeutic experience.

MH: Writing the book was actually a nightmare in some ways. In other ways, it was instructive for me both as a person and as a writer. The process of writing your first book is fascinating and wonderful and very rewarding. So as a professional it was a rewarding experience. As a person it was really difficult.

I don't believe in literature as catharsis. I know that people's lives can be exploited and that I was walking a very fine line in writing about my life. I'm not a confessional person. I don't write autobiographical stories, I don't publish confessional poetry. It's not my thing. I keep a lot of secrets; that's common for people with eating disorders. Revealing about myself what I wrote in the book was a journalistic decision. I had originally planned to write a research book on my theories about the philosophical roots of eating disorders and the ways in which treatment needed to look at the cultural elements and change. But halfway through that book, I decided that I was being an irresponsible journalist by keeping out a huge component of the story? Why do I know all this? I know all this because this is my daily life. I live with the philosophy and the cultural impact. I was being such a liar by posing as a theoretical clinician when I was just a writer who had this book on my mind.

I decided that the responsible thing to do as a journalist was to write about the facts. The facts involved me. That bothered me. But this book is a microcosm of a much larger picture. When people come to readings, they often tell me, "You told my story." That's what I wanted to do: give a language to something that is very silent and secretive.

RH: You did manage to reincorporate a lot of your research, though.

MH: The writing of the book went through phases. I'd go through a week of getting down the facts, and then I'd step back for a while, look at the passage. I'd look at the thought patterns and behaviors that I was writing about, and see how they mirrored the theoretical writings, and then I would write about how what happened to me fit into the theory. Somehow I was able to weave in so many of the ideas that were important to me to weave in. I'd literally pull back to explain, "The point of this is..." I think in webs, and I can't write in one straight line. Things have too many interconnections. I couldn't have written a book that just went through one straight line.

RH: One technique that intrigued me was the use of "you" to refer to certain periods of your own life as if they were happening to another person.

MH: I didn't realize I was doing that until after I'd already written some of those passages, and I immediately realized that I would have to leave those passages like that because it was how I meant them. That's how the writer in my head, without thought and before language, was thinking.

I was disconnected from those periods of my life, and I remember thinking of myself at that time, especially between the ages of fifteen and eightteen, as "you," not as "me" or "I." "You're too fat. You need to go run another twenty miles. You need to stop eating."

Some of the passages I chose to use it in were the most graphic sections of the book. I wanted them to feel more realistic, and I wanted the immediacy of "you," as well as the transference of the experience to the reader. And, in fact, for many readers of the book, those ARE their experiences. But I also wanted to get the experience across to readers who don't have eating disorders. They may know about eating disorders, but few of them have any idea what an eating disorder is actually like.

RH: When you attempted to reconstruct your medical history, what sort of difficulties did you have getting access to your records?

MH: In several instances, they didn't believe I was me. I got that excuse a lot, even when I had photo identification and even though there aren't a lot of Marya Hornbachers running around the planet. For some of my earlier hospitalizations, they would try to charge me a dollar a page for a four thousand page file, or I would have to be observed while viewing the files, or I'd have to sign legal disclaimers promising not to sue the hospital or libel them. But my point wasn't to write about the hospitals and what they might have done wrong or what they might not have done. I needed the files just to get the facts about my life, and they were useful in reconstructing the history, because there's a lot of things I didn't remember, or of which I have very scattered memories. Just seeing the documents would bring the memories back and fit them into a coherent structure.

RH: Things are better now than they were then, but are you cured?

MH: Food and I have a daily fight that's been going on for most of my life. But I live a pretty normal life. I don't go around talking about eating disorders all the time. Good God, what a bore. It would be awful. My life instinct became stronger, and I got much too busy to die. I have another book due. I'm married, I have a lot of friends, I have cats, I have to water the took over. I have a life now. You can't have a life and an eating disorder at the same time. You can play the game and fool everybody for a really long time, but it's like the difference between life in a grainy black-and- white film and in Technicolor. Life is so muted when you have an eating disorder -- and that's the point. If you don't like life, you can turn it down and have your own little sadomasochistic affair with yourself.

People often misunderstand eating disorders as a wish to go back to childhood. They write eating disorders off as an adolescent problem, but eating disorders affect women at every age in every background, as well as men. We want to see it as a phase, because if we really look at an eating disorder, we're confronting some ugly facts about human nature. There are days when all of us want to just pull the covers over our heads and not deal with anything; some of us just do really elaborate versions of that, combined with a self-destructive disrespect for the body and a terror of failure. Avoiding life is paradoxical for people with eating disorders, because in many cases they're extremely caught up with succeeding. They're workaholics, perfectionists. They seem to be throwing themselves into life, but by getting caught up in work they're avoiding having to deal with people emotionally.

RH: Even though you're 'better,' it's too late to avoid the consequences.

MH: The damage to a lot of my systems is irreparable. I can't have kids. My heart is three-fourths the size of a normal heart because the muscle mass was eroded. My bone mass was eroded throughout. I have a heart murmur. I have ulcers up and down my esophagus which makes getting the flu potentially lethal. I'm drastically underweight for my height, although I hide it very well, as many adult women with eating disorders do. If people tell me that I look great, part of the reason is because culturally there's something wrong with their eyes. I look great because I don't look like I'm going to drop dead. But I'm not going to have a happy ending. I've been hospitalized twice in the last year. Think of an eating disorder as a life-change syndrome. When my life changes drastically, and I can't cope with the stress, my default mode is to not eat.

The best advice I can give to people with eating disorders who don't want to relapse is: get a life. When I was nineteen, and literally had to make a choice between life and death, instead of the boring choice between not eating and getting better, I started to learn what I could have if I didn't give in to my eating disorder. Now when I backslide, I know what I have to get back to.

RH: One of the hardest obstacles to recovery is that many people without eating disorders are still preoccupied with weight, making it difficult to find support.

MH: It's absolutely maddening. If you look hard enough, you can find people, but you have to make careful decisions about who you want to spend your time with. If this is a person who obsesses about their body or their weight, they're going to make you crazy. My friends are all mad as hatters, but they're so normal about food that it's like I've died and gone to heaven. We go out and everybody just orders whatever they want. It seems normal to people without eating disorders, but for me it's like being in Disneyland.

You have to decide that you want to stop obsessing. You have to stop assuming that part of being a woman is obsessing about your weight. Lots of women don't, and some of them write really good books. I'd put money on Toni Morrision not being concerned about her weight.

RH: Remember Oprah's public obsession with her fluctuating weight?

MH: What a nightmare. Given her ripple effect, I'd love it if she went on TV and said, "All of us have to stop obsessing about our weight." No more getting together with other women for tiny meals followed by comparisons of your arm fat. No more dieting. There's a $33 billion diet industry and I want it gone. I think of the thousands of dollars I've spent on diet pills and laxatives, half of which are now off the market because they were toxic. I ate that stuff. It was my lunch for years.

It terrifies me what women and men do to their bodies without concern. They'll say to themselves, "Oh, I won't have lunch today." That literally messes with your brain cells. It occurs to me on a daily basis now that if I give in to my eating disorder, I run the risk of brain damage. I have a conflicted relationship with my body, but it's a godsend for me to be able to think that I have to take care of my mind, and that I won't be able to do that without my body.

RH: What are you working on now?

MH: A novel, and it's wonderful to be working on it. I've been writing short fiction forever, and I thought this was a collection of stories, but when I realized that all the characters knew each other, I also realized that it was a novel. That took me a while to deal with, but once I got over the first novel anxiety, it's become such a beautiful process, like mental chess. I sit down to write at 8:00 and I get up at 6:00 and I love my life. Wasted was written very quickly, and I remember the whole time as being very relaxed, even though I was writing for sixteen, eightteen hours a day. People were always telling me, "Well, you had to write about your life first." Since when is that a writer's job? It's a ridiculous idea. Lots of people write memoirs about their hard lives, but that wasn't my intention. Anybody who knows me well knows that I spent months agonizing over whether I should even write it.

RH: So there's no sense of competition with the rest of the memoir pack?

MH: Not on my part, anyway. It's not even the memoir of a person; it's a memoir of my disease. Writing a memoir at 23 would be, I suppose, less absurd for me that for other people because I've lived a lot, but it would still be pretty absurd. What was important for me was to talk about the eating disorder itself. This is what it looks like. It's gruesome, it's gory, it's not romantic, it's not glamorous. Get a grip, get on with your life. That's what I wanted to say, so I said it, and now I'm writing a novel.

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All materials copyright © 1998 Ron Hogan