Can Madness write a book? That was the question that led me to Wasted, a memoir about a young woman’s eating disorder.
The question arose from a presentation at the recent Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative conference I attended in Oxford. Katarzyna Smigiero spoke on “How to describe what resists being put into words? Story-telling strategies in madness narratives.” Now, the presentations at this conference ranged from abstract to concrete, from over-my-head academic to “I could use that tomorrow.” Smigiero’s presentation fell at the concrete, useful end of that continuum.
I’ll get to the useful writing-craft advice in a moment. First, how Wasted came into it: Smigiero was discussing the collateral damage on family members and caretakers that madness wreaks. She brought up Wasted, A Memoir of Anorexia by Marya Hornbacher. She said, “the title suggests the disease wrote it. Illness overcame the person experiencing the illness.” I needed something to read on the long flight back to the USA. Intrigued, I hopped on iBooks and bought a copy.
I couldn’t put it down—and I couldn’t stand how reading it made me feel. You know, like porn. I was glad no one could see what I was reading. The compulsion to keep reading felt very much like the author’s description of her eating disordered thinking. The book, frankly, is not that good. (Why would I expect Madness to be able to write a great book?) It featured way to much “I”, not enough “eye”—little of the scene, dialogue, character, that good creative nonfiction is built on.
Goodreads reviews will tell you everything you need to know—
- … “a genuine, gripping story of a youth literally thrown away in favor of madness”
- … “i think this book should be pulled from the shelves of most bookstores, or at least not giving to anyone under the age of 25”
- … “the key to tricks and tips for anorexia”
- … “I’m not sure if in fact she’s not yet over her illness”
Yeah, I’m glad I read it. But the fact that I got distracted by her craft (or is it Madness’s craft?) does not speak well of the reading experience. That said, people who want to write should read good books, but we should also read bad books, so we can learn what makes the difference. Hornbacher’s (or Madness’s) use of pronouns is what first leaped out at me. Goodreads commenter Twxitbetwixt wrote,
… Only a very small portion of the book is her actually owning up to her own personal issues & experiences. … Instead we have a book full of her being totally dissociated from the entire ED. Instead of “I” it’s all “You”…. “You will do this, you will say that, you will go here…” I don’t know who this “You” person is, it’s definitely not ME, the reader.”
Hornbacher leaps from first to second to third person at intervals throughout the narrative, which covers about fifteen years of her life, and the effect builds to show you just how sick this woman really is. (Or maybe Madness just can’t keep her tenses straight?) (Or maybe her editor encouraged this tic, thinking it was cool crafty writing?) Whatever, Feeling like a writing coach critiquing this book helped me get over feeling squicky about reading it.
So what was conference presenter Katarzyna Smigiero’s helpful observations on writing the chaotic experience that is madness? The paradox here, she points out, is all the features of a good narrative—a story line, cause/effect, a sense of character development—go missing when Madness takes center stage. Figurative language fills madness narratives—metaphor, simile, paradox. We get emblematic names for the disease—a beast, Churchill’s black dog of depression. We get imagery of glasses and mirrors—surfaces that separate and distort as much as they reflect. Finally, she said, “Madness narratives try to find a form to express a mess. But is madness the best way to depict the experience? Maybe visual art or music would be better suited.”
Take that, Madness-as-author. Go play with your paints or your Pan flute. As for Marya Hornbacher, good luck. Goodreads informs me you wrote a second memoir, Madness: A Bipolar Life. Guess your mad muse wasn’t done with you yet.
In the end, reading Wasted made me nostalgic for the really well-done madness literature I used to love—I’m talking about books read in high school like Joanna Greenburg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. You’ll find it all there—the figurative language that makes hallucinations real, the compassion for not just the sufferer but the doctors and family who must deal with her—and no chaos in the pronouns.
I went on my library website and requested a real-book copy. I’m now spending time with an old friend I’m not embarrassed to be seen with.