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Food and Loathing

Betsy Lerner

A Lament

(Simon & Schuster)

Food and Loathing: Think Again

“Blah blah blah. I am sick of despair. It is so magazine-model-looking-apathetic-and-underfed-and-stoned-and-exactly-the-same-as-all-the-other-wan-and-sickly-models. Forgive me for being chipper, but despair is desperately dull
— Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia”

In Food and Loathing: A Lament , book editor turned literary agent, Betsy Lerner recalls the scars of her youth—namely her obsession with food, her interminable struggle with weight, and the blow to the self-esteem such battles incurred.

Yes, what we have here is yet another memoir—excuse me, Lament—on disordered eating suitable for a made-for-TV movie.

Lerner’s chronicle opens with the sixth grade: she is the overweight twelve year-old, fearful of gym weigh-ins and cruel fat jokes; a girl constantly reminded by her mother that if she were thin, she’d be perfect. “Hitting the chart with her rubber-tipped pointer, the science teacher recited a little trick to remember the body types: the ectomorph eats to live, the mesomorph eats and lives, and the endomorph lives to eat,” Lerner writes. “Did I live to eat? Was the act of stuffing my face my raison d’etre?”

Though no real reason is given for why Betsy is heretofore overweight, puberty only makes it worse. She befriends the boys who aren’t interested in dating her to stave off potential rejection and humiliation; she learns that one of the rules of adolescent life, especially among young girls, is that boyfriends trump girl friends. “I had lots of friends. I was funny, I was generous, I was reliable. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was becoming your standard-issue fat friend.”

And thus the saga begins. Lerner takes the reader through her years mired in Overeaters Anonymous meetings, bad shrinks, and suicidal depressions. Of course Overeaters Anonymous is only a band-aid cure and Lerner’s binge eating habits and dwindling self-esteem issues persist over the years. By the age of 15, again over-weight and severely depressed, she finds herself sitting in a psychiatrist’s office with a prescription for lithium in one hand and a manic-depressive diagnosis in the other.

Betsy maintains her “fighting weight,”—a range a person considers an acceptable or ideal, during college through the cyclical methods of binging and “abstinence.” Yet, still depressed, Betsy begins seeing a bastard of a psychiatrist who torments her with parables and refers to her as “the boy who cried wolf.”

One evening she finds herself walking the ledge of a window. Psychological intervention leads her to an elongated stay in a psychiatric hospital, where her food and self-esteem issues are divulged, where she finally is able to mourn for a younger sister who died many years prior.

If you’re starting to think you’ve been here before, you have. Lerner’s book takes a drastic turn toward the trite, coming off as a cross between Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, and Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation. This in fact, might be a winning combination, but Lerner’s writing is prosaic. She has neither the humorous poignancy nor eloquent writing style of Hornbacher, neither the acerbic wit nor uncanny bitchiness of Wurtzel. Worse are the constant references to Sylvia Plath. She even, at one point, uses the term “bell-jarred.” Come on, Ms. Lerner, you were an editor. Let your work speak for itself.

The rest of the story is cathartic. Betsy comes to accept her fluctuations with “mood and food,” she marries her best friend, and has a baby girl.

And then something rather disturbing happens, something that seems to rescind all the life lessons Betsy has learned along the way. The last few pages of the book discuss her concern for her four year-old daughter, concern that she too might have a weight issue.

The doctor says it is something they both will watch. But have we not learned anything? Learner has, supposedly, in these 290 pages come to understand her personal obsession with food as more often than not contingent upon emotional turmoil; she has come to deal with her disordered eating; she has come to see it as behavioral not genetic. Yet she is already worried, perhaps a bit hyper-sensitive, to potential weight problems in her four year-old. This is, unfortunately, how eating disorders begin. We seem to have come full circle in the worst way.

Eating disorders are a major problem in our society; the terms anorexia and bulimia have become but jargon to our lexicon. Memoirs on or books about eating disorders are indeed crucial in convincing those who suffer to seek help and to dissuade those who are contemplating the trammeled path into hell to turn around.

Lerner’s book seems to offer no real help to those individuals. It is just one woman’s story of weight obsession that we have seen time and again. There is no punch to the writing. There is no real poignancy. It is a Lifetime Movie of the Week that proves, while every person has a story to tell, some just aren’t meant for print.

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