I can think of no more famous and ongoing a misunderstanding of anorexia than the Wallmeyer coverage. They are known internationally for their public story of pain. A circus freak show atmosphere has covered their erratic behavior for ages. Their death, together in a fire, provides yet another story for people to gawk and tsk and misunderstand.
But it is not the story the public believes it is. I don't know the family and yet I know the story the media is telling and the narrative is not only flawed but outright dangerous.
The Wallmeyers' reported behaviors and thoughts are completely normal for people with their disorder. They seemed to want to lose weight, reported having no purpose or identity outside of their anorexia, and had infamously poor relationships with others - and one another. None of that is surprising and all of it could have been predicted at 14 when they became ill. If their death turns out to be suicide that, too, will be normal and expected. Half of those who die of anorexia do so through suicide.
What isn't being said is that this is the script of the disorder, not Clare and Rachel Wallmeyer. We don't know who they were. We do know that they did not choose to think or act this way. They did not have a choice at all. Anorexia hijacks its victims and, if the world around them colludes in the plan, destroys them.
It takes intervention from outside, early and firm intervention. It takes savvy family and clinical care and a legal and health system that understands the disorder. It takes feeding and staying fed, a safe environment, and a knowledge that the disorder is not the person. It takes an inventory of co-morbid issues, family resources, and professional resources and applying that knowledge with a view to full and lasting recovery.
Rachel and Clare might be mothers now, have careers and close friends. Their daughters might well be teenagers at risk for eating disorders, and they could be advocates for them.They might have gone on to help others with the disorder. They might be reading of the death of another anorexia patient with deep empathy and sorrow. But the world failed them. Anorexia is treatable. Society's stubborn belief that weight loss is a virtue, that mental illness is a choice, and that people's self-report of their symptoms is their free will is the world's problem and WE need to change.
There is a pair of twins being born today, somewhere, at risk for anorexia. In 14 years they will begin to exhibit symptoms of avoiding food, over-exercising, or obsessive fear of body changes. By then will their parents know the risk and how to intervene? By then will their pediatrician know not to call it a phase? Will the twins have teachers and coaches and friends alert to the signs and matter of fact about informing the family? Will the parents be able to find emotional and practical support for the very difficult job of getting those girls back on track? THAT is up to us.
Anorexia wrote the script for the Wallmeyer story. I suggest that all of us contact every single writer who has reported that story and inform them they got the wrong narrative, and inform them why. Think of Rachel and Clare. Think of the newborn twins.