“The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.”
- “Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich, 1973
I am interested in stories. It is a longstanding interest, one that has combined with other interests – psychology, medicine, nonfiction – to produce a professional trajectory that aims toward medicine, but which resists science as the only means to get there. When I began to conceptualize my senior thesis, I was certain only of two things: I wanted to work with memoir, and I wanted to combine my interest in mental health with my stake in English literature. From the beginning, my thesis was an interdisciplinary project. I wanted my thesis to be an experiment – an experiment in how literature represents illness, in how psychology explains prose, in how a text might resist linearity and other traditional devices to defy its given genre. I had lofty ideas about what I wanted to produce, but then I took a step back and realized I had no primary text.
So, ever the scientist, I randomly ordered memoirs off the Internet. And somehow, I ended up with Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. Though initially hesitant to work with a memoir I found so compelling – I did not want to ruin the narrative for myself with over-analysis –, the complexity in Hornbacher’s memoir begged to be unraveled, and since I knew precious little about eating disorders (and wanted to know more), I decided to take on Hornbacher’s most-famous chronicle of eating disorders.
As I began to unpack Hornbacher’s text, I became interested in her pronominal choices. She was “I”, “we,” “she.” At times, she was “you.” Questions surfaced. How does the prognosis of an eating disorder change when its bearer resists pronominal identity? What is a memoir without a concrete “I”? How do popular culture and diagnostic culture clash in the telling of such a narrative? But most importantly – what disciplines will be most helpful in untangling the mess of pronouns scattered throughout Wasted?
Through a drawn-out process of theory-reading (the particulars of which I will spare the reader), I settled on four areas among which I will situate myself in order to explain how Hornbacher represents eating disorders and how, by extension, her work can exemplify a way in which the humanities can help the medical field understand its patients and constructed diagnostic categories. Eating disorders are inherently complex, finding neurobiology, social surroundings, individual temperament, the family climate and more as their etiological roots, and thus, as can be expected, a comprehensive view of an eating-disorder is similarly complex, requiring seemingly contradictory theories to explain its layers. Because Hornbacher often implicates sociocultural expectations of the feminine body and personality in development of her eating disorder, it was natural that feminist theory would be one of key players in my explanation of Wasted’s pronouns. Further, since Hornbacher also focuses on the disabling aspects of culture, feminist studies seemed to logically combine with disability studies in an explanation of why “you” and “we” should be able to empathize with the singular experience of “I.”
Feminist and disability studies did not seem to encompass the complexity of Hornbacher’s writing, however. Standing in contrast to Hornbacher’s sociocultural explanations of her disease are her clinical explanations – an enmeshed family pattern, a history of mental illness, a personality that errs impulsive. I began looking at Rita Charon’s work at Columbia’s medical school. She focuses on narrative medicine – how patients tell their stories and how those stories can be used to contribute to more accurate diagnoses and treatments as well as greater empathy in physicians. From narrative medicine, I explored the field of medical humanities, which deals with both the stories of individual patients and the story of medicine itself, looking to offer the most comprehensive healthcare through reformed thought about diagnosis and treatment. Though medical humanities and disabilities studies stand in contrast to one another, with disabilities studies looking to question the validity of the framework of medical diagnosis and medical humanities seeking reform from within that same diagnostic framework, I found the contradiction between the two fields useful in discussing an essentially contradictory illness.
My final area of interest is one of genre – specifically, in women’s memoir and autobiography. In my analysis of Hornbacher’s work, I will take memoir as a subcategory of autobiography (as many theorists have done) so that I may examine how her shifting pronouns push on her self-proclaimed genre of “memoir.”
The following project seeks to follow Rich’s words – to use words as “maps” and “purposes” to uncover the “treasures that prevail.” By situating myself within the four walls of theory I have chosen, I will ultimately suggest that texts like Hornbacher’s are maps not only to an individual life, but to diagnosis and reformation of diagnosis, so that diagnostic categories might be more comprehensive – taking into account sociopolitical, familial, and like climates in addition to traditional symptoms – to offer a more accurate view of, in this case, eating disorders.