Wasted by Marya Hornbacher
Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia
by Marya Hornbacher
HarperCollins. 298 pp. $23.00
Marya Hornbacher is just twenty-three. She does not have a college degree, and “technically” she never graduated from high school, but in 1993 she wrote an essay about herself for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine that led to an award and eventually to this book. Written in jaunty, direct prose, it tells a story that is heartbreaking.
For most of her life, Marya Hornbacher has suffered from various eating disorders that have caused her weight to fluctuate between a normal 135 and a decidedly abnormal 52 pounds. From her account here, it is easy enough to appreciate why. An only child, Marya was born in California to middle-class, baby-boomer parents whose attention was mostly elsewhere. Her father, a theater director, seems to have had moderately affectionate feelings for his daughter but to have been at a loss as to how to act on them. Her mother, who also worked in the theater, was another matter. According to Marya, she would not breast-feed “because it made her feel as if she were being devoured.”
Emotional abandonment seems to have been the keynote of Marya’s existence from earliest childhood, when, she recalls, her mother would look at her with what “I would later come to think of as the bug-zapper face, as if by looking at me, she could zap me into disappearance.” Mother and child spent their quality time together at a gym with others not so different from them:
Women bopping around, butt busting and doggie leg-lifting, sweating, wearing that pinched, panicky expression that conveyed the sentiment best captured by [the poet] Galway Kinnell: “as if there is a hell and they will find it.” The club also had something called the Kiddie Koral. The Kiddie Koral was a cage. It had bars all the way up to the ceiling, and the sticky-fingered little varmints clung to the bars sobbing for Mommy.
At home, where her mother expected Marya to be “a miniature adult,” her parents engaged in persistent “screaming fights in the kitchen about who would go to the grocery store, who was a bigger martyr”; the topic of divorce was frequently in the air. By age five Marya was already convinced that, if she could only “contain [her] body,” she might also contain that “crashing tide of self” which seemed to be causing her parents so much irritation. By age nine she had developed the habit of throwing up her meals in the bathroom, “making up a world where my needs would not exist at all.”
With the onset of puberty, things got even worse. The family had transplanted itself to the Minneapolis area, living “on the side of town by the public pool, where the mothers worked and the kids were latch-keyed.” Marya, disturbed by the pictures of girls in teen magazines—the “shapeless, androgynous models,” the “boyish bodies” so unlike her burgeoning own—left a note “formally request[ing] some data on the female body and what, theoretically, might be happening to mine.” Her father’s response was to avoid her. She waited a long time to hear from her mother:
I finally accosted her in the living room and demanded that she take me to buy a bra. . . . Why? she asked. I burst into tears because she couldn’t see that I was wiggling and jiggling every which way and what I really wanted was a good butcher knife to chop ’em right off, which I actually threatened to do once.
What came next was years of starving herself until her period stopped (amenorrhea), her eyes turned red from the breaking of blood-vessels while vomiting, and her weight dropped so low that fur started to grow on her face and stomach (the body’s natural response when there is no longer any internal heat to burn off). Somehow, through all this, she also entered into sexual activities as disordered as her eating habits. First intercourse came at thirteen: “Why not, since everyone seems to think you’re a slut anyway, just prove them right?” She had sex with married men in the backs of buses because she “endlessly found [herself] in identical situations where it was easier to just f—them than to say no.”
Revealingly, though casual sex was effortless for Marya, hugging was “difficult”: “the idea of being cared for in a nonsexual way was not something I could understand.” The conflict between what she was doing and what she needed left her “perpetually nauseated” and even more self-conscious. Later, in boarding school and then in college, she learned she was not alone. The girls she met—many of them from homes more or less like here—would “brag of the careless use of our bodies, our common disdain for the boys or men. ‘I didn’t feel a thing,’ we’d say with pride.” Yet at the same time the “dorm bathrooms rarely worked because the pipes were perpetually clogged with vomit.”
Today, though her health is better, Marya can never have children; if you are 52 pounds as an adult woman and manage to stay alive, it is only because your body has fed on its own organs. Since her immune system is shot, she contracts infections weekly. But she has developed a remarkable understanding not only of her own horrific experience but of a phenomenon to which others have also recently called attention: the legions of girls like her who have turned, as she puts it, “against their own bodies.”
Most of these girls, in her judgment, come “from less-than-grounded families”—families where, even if circumstances are not quite so extreme as in her own, the parents are absent or wholly self-absorbed and the children are expected to be adults. In her case, she writes, “this created, quite simply, a hunger for certainty,” a hunger that, stymied at every point, finally turned in on itself:
If you grow up trying constantly to be an adult, a successful adult, you will be sick of being grown up by the time you’re old enough to drink.
But the destroyed or perverted relations between parents and children form, one suspects, only one element in the equation. Another is surely symbolized by those “shapeless, androgynous” models that bewildered and disturbed Marya as a pre-teen. Implicitly canonizing a “boyish” ideal of casual sex, they are emblematic of an erotic culture that has “liberated” young girls by leaving them to fend entirely for themselves, bereft of the supports that once confirmed and upheld their separate feminine natures.
The problem, for Marya, is not the “patriarchy”; far from it. “My anorexic body,” she writes, “was a confused statement directed more at the world than at my father . . . an apology for being a woman” (emphasis added). If anything, the patriarchy, in the form of a stable structure of traditional values, and the protective authority to enforce it, is precisely what she and those she speaks for are missing, and desperately want restored. “At school,” she laments, “we were hungry and lost and scared and young and we needed religion, salvation, something to fill the anxious hollow in our chests.”
On account of sentences like this one, Wasted is the testimony not only of a survivor but of a real counterrevolutionary. Not a moment too soon.