Imagine taking your deepest darkest secret that is tangled and seeping with fear and embarrassment and criticism and compassion and misunderstanding and writing a book about it. Then put your name and your picture on the cover for all the world to see.
That is what Harriet Brown did in Brave Girl Eating. Her daughter “Kitty” is a smart, talented, successful young lady and a competitive gymnast who falls deep into the chasm of anorexia around the age of 14. Harriet chronicles their journey and sprinkles in a lot of scientific data (that can get a little thick if you are thankfully not looking for answers – but the statistics are absolutely gut-wrenching).
It’s a memoir but it also serves as a reminder to keep a watchful eye on our children and to not ignore the warning signs that are very easily shrugged off – not just for anorexia, but for everything.
Harriet’s approach to tackling the demon that is anorexia took her off the traditional treatment map where families are generally blamed in large part for the disease. Harriet understood that by the time families seek therapy, they are a mess, they are struggling, and they are scared. They also often feel like the are out of options and are quickly running out of time. It is at this point that most girls are removed from their families and sent away to residential treatment centers.
However, Harriet researched and then embraced Family Based Therapy (FBT) which kept her daughter at home with her and her husband. She fought with her daughter over nearly every morsel she ate, she lost her patience, she feared (probably fears) for her daughter’s life, she counted every single calorie, she cried, and she kept going. She didn’t always know what to do but she always did something.
All the while, Harriet has her own battles – as every parent in America does – she suffered panic attacks and was herself 30 pounds overweight. She struggled that Kitty struggled with not becoming her. That’s tough.
Her story dabbles in how Kitty’s anorexia affects the rest of the family but it does not focus on it. Kitty’s story consumes them all in different ways but does not afford them much opportunity to focus on anything else. The story reflects that.
Harriet talks about how anorexia immediately changes what you find acceptable – how it shatters your confidence in what you believe you know. Every fight with Kitty was about deciding what to give in on and what to stand firm on. She details realizing that there was the Kitty that she knew and loved and the Not Kitty who was a fighter and manipulative and scary in many ways – but also desperate and strong and not willing to go away easily.
Harriet explains the devastating impact of malnutrition not only on the body but also on the brain’s ability to reason. She chronicles how hard it was to feed Kitty enough so that she could gain weight – toward the end of the book, Kitty was eating nearly 4,000 calories a day and still not gaining weight. Because not only did Kitty not want to eat, she was growing taller – which constantly changed her target weight. And anorexia completely changed Kitty’s metabolism so that she needed so many more calories than the average teenaged girl – yet she remained under her target weight. As Harriet says, they were chasing a moving target and never really got close enough to touch it.
There were two things that stuck with me the most throughout the story. One was when Harriet tells of Kitty smelling sour because her body was digesting itself. That brought me to my knees. It was devastating to comprehend all of the realizations of just how deep in trouble Kitty really was that must of come with that.
The other was when Harriet ran into another mother at the grocery store who asked her how Kitty was doing. She had heard Kitty was sick. She hoped she was doing well. Oh, and by the way, she could have told Harriet that Kitty was sick. Harriet was furious – she really wanted to know why this friend hadn’t said anything.
That’s easy, right? We all know the answer to that. We all hold back our concerns when the stakes are the highest. Because we don’t want to overstep our bounds or pry. We are afraid to meddle. What if we are wrong? But I guess we need to start asking, what if we are right? We probably all know of a child who is in trouble or on the verge of trouble and we step back. We assume the parents know. And of course there is a danger in upsetting the parents. But there are dangers that are far graver than that.
This entire story was fascinating to me. I know with two daughters and a son, there will be a point when we are exposed in some way to eating disorders – whether it be through friends or girlfriends or (hopefully not) our own children. Even with my adult friends and family – the potential exists. I pray that we never see anorexia’s ugly face up close in personal in our children’s lives but there is a good chance we will. This book gave me a chance to learn about it in a non-urgent way.
The book is not a “why me” story. It is filled with action and reaction but it is never a sob story in the sense of asking for pitying. It seems to really scream – you don’t want this to happen to you, but it if does, maybe this will help.
Harriet was careful not to share real numbers from Kitty’s experience because she feared that young women would use the book as a model, a how to guide. That was also one of Harriet’s biggest reasons for resisting entering Kitty into a residential program. She was afraid of Kitty learning too much from the experts – not the therapists – the patients.
All in all, it was well worth reading. If you have a child or a mother or a sister or even a friend, consider investing some time in this story.