Forgive the silence. I’ve been in India for most of the past month, living it up in the land of sacred cows, working elephants, and week-long weddings, a land where hunger is all too common and eating disorders are relatively rare. Yet they followed me there via email with the news that one of my high school classmates had succumbed to her 40-year struggle with anorexia. Like everyone in our class of ’71, I’ve been shadowed by this incomprehensible loss ever since.
You see, Jennie was, in all our eyes, the most beautiful girl in the school – an “iconic beauty,” as one classmate put it. Her thick straight blond hair had a darkness to its depths, and those heavy eyebrows made her eyes seem impossibly large, and winsome. She was always petite, but her husky voice gave her a tone of strength and independence that, perhaps, was never quite real. In middle school, she became the darling of the jocks and cheerleaders, and she played the part of the party girl. Everyone thought she was as perfectly happy as she was perfectly beautiful. But in retrospect, no one really knew her, even then.
Something happened to Jennie in 1970 – our junior year. The last time I saw her, some five years ago, she told me that her father, a heavy drinker and New York executive, had become violently abusive when we were in high school. Others speculate that something even more traumatic may have happened at one of the rowdy football parties she frequented at sixteen. Whatever the trigger, she wanted to transform herself, and she turned to me for advice about losing weight.
I was then the class expert, having lost about a third of my natural body weight in middle school. No one knew the term “anorexic” in those days. I claimed my motive was modeling. The truth, I realize now, was that my weight loss signaled a profound sense of loss, confusion, and frustration over problems in my family that no one else would acknowledge and that I was not equipped to confront in any more direct or productive way. Being innately conflict-averse, I fantasized that if I just kept losing weight, all my problems would disappear.
Of course, I said nothing like this to Jennie. Instead, I told her my weight loss methods, gathered from scores of teen magazines and personal trial and error. I could hardly believe that the most beautiful girl in the school was even speaking to me. I certainly didn’t understand why she, of all people, wanted to lose weight. But three months later, when we met again at the start of senior year, she’d become a walking cadaver.
Her parents apparently never noticed. And strangely, this transformation did nothing to change Jennie’s status as the most beautiful girl. Only her circle changed. Instead of attracting football players, she now became the muse of poets and artists. But not until Christmas, when her older sister saw her for the first time in a year, did anyone call for help.
Unfortunately, in 1971, most psychiatrists had never heard of eating disorders, and they certainly didn’t have effective treatments. Jennie saw a psychologist for a few months and vented about her family. Then she began the long tortured dance of half-life with anorexia that would continue until her death. Her eating disorder served as her solace and her distress signal when her ambition to become a doctor disintegrated; when her marriage fell apart; and finally, when her private practice as a licensed social worker failed. By the time a colleague finally persuaded her to assemble a team – a psychologist, nutritionist, and MD who had some experience with eating disorders – her mental illness was her oldest and strongest relationship. Like an abusive marriage, it lured Jennie back and held her in isolation, captive.
She died beside her treadmill, her 57-year-old body as wasted as if she were in her 90s -- this was the coroner's assessment. Her life at the end consisted of exercise, ritualistic eating, and purging. Nothing else. She had no income. She hadn’t spoken to her family in years. I was one of her many friends whose phone calls went unanswered. The most beautiful – and elusive – girl in our class had become another casualty of anorexia nervosa.
It did not have to happen. Denial and isolation allowed Jennie’s mental illness to kill her. Effective, early treatment could have given her the productive and peaceful life she yearned for. Specifically, it could have given her the tools and the skills to yank off the superficial label of Beauty that everyone who saw her stuck on her; to face down her demons and shape her own sense of true purpose, meaning, and identity. I came to these discoveries late myself, but they have given me the fullness of recovered life that it seems Jennie never knew.
My hope is that Jennie’s story will sound an alarm to those who think that they or their loved ones can “grow out of” eating disorders on their own. My hope is that Jennie’s fate might send a wakeup call to insurers who refuse to cover treatment for eating disorders, to MDs who – still, to this day – view eating disorders as some sort of “normal” adolescent rite of passage, and to teachers and school administrators who hesitate to “get involved” when they see clear evidence of students bingeing, purging, and wasting away in their classrooms and campuses.
Just last week the New York Times published an immensely useful article, " Treating Eating Disorders and Paying for It ,” about the fight to win insurance coverage and adequate treatment for these serious biologically-based mental illnesses. As Jennie’s death so tragically demonstrates, the most important message in this article is: “Whatever the cause, early intervention is critical.”