Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Initial Close Reading of "Wasted" (09/12/11)

Throughout Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, there are several “present-day” “Interludes” dated sporadically during the time in which she was constructing her memoir. In her September 22, 1996 Interlude, Hornbacher is reviewing her charts at TAMS, the hospital at which she received both inpatient and outpatient treatment for her eating disorder during her teenage years. Though she states that she is at TAMS “reading my charts” (143, italics mine), she immediately turns from this apparent ownership of the charts to disconnecting the charts with herself by “othering” the teenage girl described in the files before her. She states that the charts “[regard] a person (sixteen, female, white) named Marya (chronic, total denial) who is clearly very sick” (143). By separating her current identity from her past self, Hornbacher effectively creates two identities – that of the eating-disordered teenager and that of the successful journalist – to which she has both an historical, factual allegiance and an emotional allegiance, but which (as becomes apparent over the next few paragraphs) have never become integrated into one cohesive identity by which Hornbacher (the one cohesive woman) can live.
            Janice Gasker’s work, Incorporating Sexual Trauma into the Functional Life Narrative, defines the term “cognitive dissonance” as “a series of thoughts about the self which are inharmonious or incongruent” (27). Cognitive dissonance, she writes, can be manifested when “one’s perception of one’s role in an event does not seem to match one’s identity” (27). In Hornbacher’s Interlude, cognitive dissonance is apparent in the author’s simultaneous identification with and rejection of her own medical files.  Hornbacher writes that she “is a regular person . . . [and that] this never happened to [her]” (143), exemplifying an attempt to deny the factual existence of her eating disorder, thus allowing her to avoid having to incorporate her past as an eating-disordered young woman into the “post-disordered” desired identity she has carved for herself.
 Hornbacher’s desired identity, at the time this Interlude was written, is summed through projection onto one of her former doctors at TAMS. She describes the doctor smiling at her, and then moves into a series of short sentences in which she imagines how the doctor views her. From her tone, the reader may gather that these sentences represent how Hornbacher herself wants to be viewed, and that by implicitly telling her audience that this is how the doctor sees her, she is actually projecting her own wishes for her identity onto the doctor. Through the imagined eyes of the doctor, Hornbacher writes, “I am a grown woman. I am married. I am employed. I am Recovered. . . . They are proud of me. It was a Long Haul, but I Made It” (143).  There is no room in Hornbacher’s desired identity for her eating disorder. There is no room for the difficulties of the past to creep into her present. She writes that she is “Recovered” with the “R” capitalized as if to say, “Everything is well now, and everything is supposed to be well; I am secure in my identity.”
Although Hornbacher’s desired identity suggests security, the structure and vocabulary of the Interlude suggest that her true present identity is anything but secure. The first sentence begins, “I suppose you’d call it amnesia” (143), first indicating uncertainty in the brief narrative that she is about to present by “supposing” and then furthering that uncertainty by stating that the short Interlude that follows – in which she actively tries to deny her past narrative by refusing to incorporate it into her desired narrative – is possibly the result of “amnesia”. The narrative that follows oscillates between disbelieving identification with and “dis-integraton” (Gasker 50) of Hornbacher’s teenage self. Hornbacher writes that the charts “make [her] sad” and “make [her] shake [her] head in disbelief . . . that [the girl] could be so blind to the ramifications of her behavior” (143), again highlighting the girl in the charts as an “other.” But a moment later, the next paragraph of the Interlude opens, “I am that girl, still” (143) and then goes on to talk about all of the physical ramifications of Hornbacher’s eating disorder that make her denial of ever having had the disorder implausible. She writes, “The ramifications occupy space in every cell of my body, every damaged organ and nerve, every memory tainted and skewed by the obsession that was and is my life” (143). What is interesting about Hornbacher’s reluctant identification with the teenager in the charts, though, is first that her identification with the subject of the charts comes at the close of the interlude and is then rescinded by the final paragraph of the short section, in which she returns to referring to the subject of the charts as “the girl” (not even as “Marya”, as she did when she first distanced herself from the subject). Then, in addition to returning to calling the subject “the girl,” Hornbacher further evidences her position as an outsider in the narrative by invalidating the girl’s voice, describing turning the pages of the charts as “listen[ing] to the pleading, wheedling, delusional, lying voice of this girl” (144), refusing to come down from her “Recovered” position on high to take a moment to consider why “this girl” was “pleading, wheedling, delusional [and] lying.” The brief identification with the subject of the charts is, then, a purely physical one. Hornbacher undeniably resides in the wounded body characterized by the results of an eating disorder. She cannot deny the presence of her arrhythmic heart or the physicalities of the mental ramifications of an eating disorder (named specifically in her obsessions), yet she never connects her notable physical ramifications with her emotions, and never connects her emotions with her present self.
At the end of Hornbacher’s September 22, 1996 Interlude, the writer remains emotionally disconnected with her teenage narrative experiences, even if the physical evidence of those experiences are undeniably written across her damaged body. She attempts to separate herself from the denial that once plagued her youth (seen in her charts as, “(chronic, total denial)” (143)), yet ironically is still encased in denial as she pines for an identity that emotionally refuses to integrate her past experiences, even if those experiences are somewhat factually integrated. The result of this emotional denial is the dis-integration of her eating disorder into her identity, causing Hornbacher herself to be hanging between two apparent identities – that of the successful and Recovered woman and that of the damaged teenager. Hornbacher’s struggles with denial and identification, projection and personal distancing continue throughout Wasted, and, as seen in this short excerpt, do not find resolution. It seems as though Hornbacher is attempting to tell two narratives simultaneously – a “present day” narrative and a narrative about an eating disorder –, and that she intellectually recognizes that these two narratives cannot be separated, as their main character is on and the same, but cannot figure out how to tie the narratives together without disrupting the precarious emotional balance on which her present desired identity hinges.
In contrast to the Interlude discussed above is a section entitled “Spring 2007” in Hornbacher’s subsequent memoir, Madness. In the section, Hornbacher describes an outing with a close friend to a local restaurant after a sleepless night of writing that she can barely recall. Using short sentences to create a humorous dialogue between herelf and her friend, Hornbacher completely upends the sense of dis-integration associated with her mental illnesses as described in Wasted and writes with acceptance of the quirky behaviors her bipolar disorder causes. Instead of fighting the ramifications that come with mental illness, Hornbacher integrates them into her personality and does not need to keep defending herself as a “normal person” (as she did in the Interlude) because she knows that, to some extent, she is both normal and abnormal. In one section of the “Spring 2007” text, Hornbacher switches her seat in the restaurant where she is eating with her friend, stating that the other seat “made [her] anxious” (253). Similarly, she describes how she separates her bread into three equal parts and then butters the three parts with equal amounts of butter because “[i]t makes [her] calm to do this” (253). Hornbacher does not probe deeper into her explanations for why she performs these peculiar behaviors. As evidenced by earlier parts of the book, she knows the clinical reasons behind these quirky actions, yet unlike in Wasted, she does not delve deep into clinical reasoning to invalidate the presence of evidence of mental illness in her life. She is not searching for external self-definition by projecting herself onto others and onto clinical literature (as seen in Wasted, specifically in the aforementioned scene with the doctor). Instead, in her “Spring 2007” section of Madness, Hornbacher finds balance between herself as a successful writer (at the same time she is performing these strange behaviors, she is also publishing articles and working on a book) and herself as a person afflicted with mental illness. She is no longer consumed by her obsessive thoughts; she instead lets her “ill” thoughts run parallel to her “normal” ones with the understanding that there will be times that either the “ill” or the “normal” side of her will temporarily take control. In this section of Madness, what Gasker refers to as “integration” is seen in that Hornbacher has successfully married her desired self with her factual and emotional past, resulting in an identity by which she may functionally live – an identity that simply was not present in her account of September 22, 1996. 

Incorporating Sexual Trauma into the Functional Life Narrative.
     Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2002. Print.
Hornbacher, Marya. Madness: a Bipolar Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008. Print.
Hornbacher, Marya. Wasted: a Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York, NY:
     HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998. Print.

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