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The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

Posted May 12 2009 3:21pm
Books like "Wasted" and other first-person narratives in fiction and nonfiction are well-known to be "bibles" to patients while ill. I also find that parents and the public read these narratives and end up mistaking the internal experience of the illness for the truth about eating disorders. So when I heard about Wintergirls, and that the audience is to be adolescents, I worried.

I expressed my concerns to the publisher of Wintergirls and was told if I read the book I would be relieved. They sent it, and I read it. I was not relieved. Not because it is a bad book, but because it is such a good book. It is well-written and engaging and does seem to channel what it is like inside the illness. But that is what makes the book dangerous.

Well-meaning parents and librarians and teachers, quite naturally, start off believing that insight and understanding the illness will prevent or help with treatment. This is - demonstrably and tragically - not true. In fact, the opposite is true.

This book, meant to make young people feel heard and to "start conversation" will no doubt become another bible of the pro- ana community. But this one will be delivered by trusted adults who will mistakenly feel they've done a good thing. Those adults need to know that this kind of information can be harmful AND URGENTLY need to know what they should be doing if they suspect a young person is predisposed or beginning to have eating disorder symptoms.

I told the publisher this. I admire the writer's ability and with another illness would congratulate her. But since my work involves trying to save lives, and I know that lives are lost while families listen to the lies of an eating disorder and waste time seeking insight and understanding.

I'm not the only one with concerns, of course. And I resisted talking about this book for a while because I hoped the author would respond to these concerns and consider changing some of the comments about parents in her public statements and consider actively changing the conversation around eating disorders to let families and peers know this is a treatable illness that is biologically based and NOT A CHOICE. That the book's message of recovery through insight is a dangerous message, especially without the context of any messages in the book by anyone about evidence-based treatment or brain disorders.

I want to take this opportunity to caution parents about this book and to point to this piece in the Well blog at the Times:

The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

And a follow up by Dr. Cynthia Bulik, one of F.E.A.S.T.'s Advisors.

Parents, I think we need to speak up. Not to attack, and not to censor, but if "conversation" is to be started we probably need to be part of it.
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