Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia amounts to what she claims “cultural heresy” (5). It is through her analysis of both her eating disorder and what it takes to recover from an eating disorder that she violates long-standing ideas about femininity and wellness and embraces a clinical picture of her disorder that encourages her to say, “I will eat what I want and look as I please and laugh as loud as I like and use the wrong fork and lick my knife” (5). Much of what Hornbacher accomplishes in the memoir (or attempts to accomplish) – most notably, a clinical caricature of the eating-disordered patient and a rejection of cultural standards in favor of biological health – stems from her interchangeable usage of first-, second-, and third-person voices, all of which aim to shed light on the texture of eating disorders as both mental illness and cultural phenomenon. The memoir never settles on a distinct pronominal “I.” Rather, the text speaks to “you”, the reader(s); to “us” or “we,” the eating-disordered collective or community; “her” or “them,” the eating-disordered individual(s); or about “I,” the ostensible bearer of the narrative who only seems to surface when particular details of the life in question are too specific to be attributed to “you” or “us” or “her.”
Because the pronominal switching occurs regularly throughout the memoir with a fairly consistent pattern, it is impractical to take the entirety of the work into close analysis. Thus, I will examine a few passages in which this pronominal switching is particularly important and apparent, and I will ask my readers to take these selected passages as evidence as to the structure of the rest of the memoir.
My first passage of concentration occurs early in the memoir, in the introduction, to evidence just how quickly Hornbacher delves into the inherent structure of her memoir. In her first description of the cognitions and cultural influences behind eating disorders, Hornbacher writes,
[An eating disorder] is . . . an attempt to find an identity, but ultimately strips you of any sense of yourself, save the sorry identity of “sick.” It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that wind up mocking no one more than you. It is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women. It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained . . . An eating disorder is in many ways a rather logical elaboration on a cultural idea. While the personality of an eating-disordered person plays a huge role – we are often extreme people, highly competitive, incredibly self-critical, driven, perfectionistic, tending toward excess - . . . I do believe that the cultural environment is an equal . . . culprit in the sheer popularity of eating disorders. . . I chose an eating disorder. I cannot help but think that, had I lived in a culture where “thinness” was not regarded as a strange state of grace, I might have sought out another means of attaining that grace, perhaps one that would not have so seriously damaged my body, and so radically distorted my sense of who I am (6-7).
By page six, Hornbacher has already assigned herself, an eating-disordered individual, or even “you” an unsteady narrative identity. Her claim that the consequences of her eating disorder “radically distorted my sense of who I am” (7) create the space for her to oscillate between narrative identities, allowing her to become, by turns, the patient, the feminist, or the pedestrian onlooker all contained within one memoric self.
Traditionally speaking, autobiography, and by extension, the memoir, contain the life narratives of one singular person. By using multiple pronouns to tell her narrative, Hornbacher challenges this traditional sense of memoir, embracing instead what Jelinek describes as “a multiplicity of selves” within a feminine autobiographical text. In the passage above, Hornbacher extends her experience to the reader by asking “you” to emotionally empathize with the consequences of distorted eating-disordered cognitions. Hornbacher does not write, “I felt safe in my eating disorder;” she instead couples “you” with the words, “safe,” “alive,” and “contained” (6), assuming that her audience will emotionally identify with her experience, thus supporting and extending Butler’s idea of precarity – that personal identity hinges upon the identities of others. By creating emotionality as a shared experience and emphasizing emotional identification between individuals (here, between “I” and “you,” the supposed reader), Hornbacher allows emotionality itself to become a shared narrative, thus inviting multiple identities – her identities and those of her readers – into her work in an act defiant of the tradition of her genre.
Hornbacher’s “you” serves not only to further multiplicity in her work, however. Here, the “you” also extends the “disabling” cognitions of having an eating disorder to the “non-disabled” majority. In the above passage, “you” is used empathetically. The pronoun is meant to allow readers to step into the shoes of an eating-disordered individual, to explore the cognitions and the unarticulated emotions that come with those cognitions. Here, it is not Hornbacher or a woman in inpatient treatment who seems the “most weakest” (6) – it is “you.” The reader is asked to become an anoretic, to adopt the “sorry identity of ‘sick’ ” (6). Further, by paralleling this implicit request of the reader to become eating-disordered (or to at least empathize with an eating-disordered individual) with a brief mention of the “cultural standards of beauty” (6) that reinforce eating-disordered behavior, Hornbacher implies what McDermott and Varenne argue in “Culture as Disability” – that culture, in its constructed-ness, creates room for the social construction of disability to exist. Because Hornbacher invites her audience to identify with disability by using “you,” she indicates that because her readers are ostensibly of the same society with similar disabling features of that society in their lives, they thus have the ability to experience disability in the same way.
Though Hornbacher invites her readers into disability with “you,” she simultaneously turns and pushes them away with her use of “we.” Throughout her memoir, she draws the picture of an eating-disordered community – in her words, a group of “extreme people” (6) whose intensity feeds not only into their athletic, creative, occupational, and academic lives, but into “perfecting” their eating disorder. Professor Amy Neeren of Haverford College says that in her clinical practice, she sees a tendency of eating-disordered individuals to compete with each other. They want to be the “best” at having the eating disorders. They want to be the thinnest, eat the least, and, most notably, they want to exclude others from their community. As Hornbacher implies, outsiders (those without eating disorders) cannot understand “us.” Outsiders do not combine self-criticism and perfectionism with self-starvation or purgation. Outsiders do not “[attain] grace” (7) in the self-destructive and difficult-to-maintain way that “true” eating-disordered individuals can. In using “we,” Hornbacher pushes against her own idea of empathy with her readers, excluding outsiders from her elite community, and clearly drawing a line between those with her disability and those without. Eating disorders, by use of “we,” are then treated as an abnormal response to the collective culture in which “you all” live. “You” might be affected by the disabling cultural ideals that catalyze disordered eating, but “you” do not have something – the personality, the family climate, the sheer drive – that maintains eating disorders. Thus, “you” are excluded from “we.”
As the passage continues, Hornbacher narrows the experiential component of her narrative even more, finally settling momentarily on “I” to describe her own particular experience. Though the “I” of this passage stands in contrast to the “I” in the majority of the memoir, it is worth analyzing the agency that the “I” gives her here, at the start of the memoir. Here, the “I” denotes the kind of agency that, clinically, is not supposed to be present in the development of an eating disorder. By stating, “I chose an eating disorder” (6), Hornbacher implicitly indicates an active choice, as if she had surveyed the field of vices from which she could choose and found an eating disorder to be the most suitable. (It is worth noting that Hornbacher reports experimenting with a plethora of negative behaviors in her adolescent years, including but not limited to promiscuity, illicit drug use, and self-mutilating behaviors.) Though it is indeed possible that Hornbacher actively rejected other vices in favor of an eating disorder, it is unlikely given clinical evidence that individuals slowly fall into patterns conducive to eating disorders. Thus, Hornbacher’s “I” here may represent the irrational sense of control associated with eating disorders. By using an irrational “I” and following the declaration of that flawed “I” with stating that her eating disorder “radically distorted my sense of who I am” (7), Hornbacher constructs the effects of her “rather logical elaboration on a cultural idea” (6) as pathological and disabling. A causal relationship between culture (in which “you” live) and a delusional, disabled “I” is established, thus linking the “you” to “I” and connecting her pronouns circularly.
We see a shift in the nature of Hornbacher’s “I” as the memoir continues, though. No longer is the “I” decisive and forceful. Instead, it is momentary and visceral, cataloguing what are usually the more mundane moments of the life the memoir is supposedly chronicling. In the passage that follows, Hornbacher again uses pronouns interchangeably yet skillfully, but does so with slightly different effects than in the previously-analyzed passage:
You go insane about now. You understand, it just happens. Crazy isn’t always what they say it is. It’s not always the old woman wearing sneakers and a skirt and a scarf, wandering around with a shopping cart, hollering at no one, nothing, tumbling through years in her head . . . No. Sometimes it is a girl wearing boots and jeans and a sweater, arms crossed in front of her, shivering, wandering through the streets at night, all night, murmuring to no one, nothing, tumbling through the strange unreal dimensions in her head. . . Bedtime, and the house falls darker still. I sit at the window, waiting for the mutterings and shufflings to stop. . . I hold the back of the chair with one hand, do exercises endlessly, waiting for one o’clock. Only four hours till morning, I think. (171-172).