Thursday, June 10, 2010

in the skin

I just finished a book which came to Michael for review, for the now defunct Danforth Review. It is called The Hungry Mirror - by Lisa de Nikolits.

It is a raw book. It is painful to read, but also riveting and consuming. Ironic, given the topic. Eating disorders. Bulimia, specifically. People who compulsively eat, feel guilty, then barf it up.

de Nikolits pulls no punches- she outlines in stark colours the wrenching damage done, the wreaking havoc on human flesh - eating itself, in hunger. Feeding the need for skinny.

de Nikolits reminds me of Augusten Burroughs in this regard; the ability to tell a tale of awful woe, the shit-stained reality of a bulimic, somehow digging deeply into a vein of humour. Sometimes the humour is the voice of the self-deprecatingly witty and unwitting narrator, sometimes the voice of the author. It is awful, and awfully funny. You love her and want her to eat a hot bowl of soup without barfing it up.

Me, I was a starver not a barfer.

I chose skinny over healthy, addicted to the idea, the adulation, the starlit forms around me in my late teens and early twenties. I ate miniscule portions, but scoffed at fad dieters. Hunger gnawed at me in class, at parties, throughout caf visits. Being pretty and slim was more important than being smart. Hence the cult of Diana, Princess of Wales (who became the poster child for bulimia), Jane Fonda ( a self confessed bulimic who now repents her role in stereotyping women), these were the icons of my adult genesis.Surely with some discipline I could do it too? Ironically, in second year university, my excessive drinking was problematic for the parents, but not that I was down to 112 lbs, soaking wet. There is no blame here, merely observation. Who the hell would think an intelligent woman working through university and doing well and all that, would do something so stupid? Fair point.

But still....on page 245 - Dear Jesus, why doesn't anybody notice that I don't eat? Mea culpa I understand. Nihilistic alcoholism is expected of youngsters, but not erasing yourself.

My first boyfriend told me to "sit there and be nice". I stayed with him too long.

"I wonder how I can extricate myself without hurting her feelings" was the lightening bolt phrase - knowing this was, uh, not good for me, but uh, not knowing how to "politely" undertake the task at hand. Like say for instance - Sayonara loser, I am fine as I am...

My second boyfriend was gorgeous - and fed me Dom Perignon and chocolates. But he was an emotional time bomb. But being fed was better than being told to sit there and be nice.

Deja vu all over again. I wonder how I can extricate myself....

But by 23 I had discovered the path to feminism, and I bubbled and gurgled with anger, resentment. My wardrobe was replete with Doc Marten shoes, a lot of loose black clothing - because smart had trumped pretty. The Women's Centre was my centre. I met a LOT of lesbians. I began my own personal jihad against the patriarchy. The cause of the woes of all the hungry women in the world. I still believe that, you know. Here, there, everywhere.

By 25, I had found people with whom I could frankly discuss all those things, and hypothesize. But I could also have a super good time with (Krissy, Scott, and Sandra), learn how to cook (deliciously from Chris and Sher), wear make up, dress in stupid costumes at Halloween (ALL), sport push up bras (Sher), and still read Women's Oppression Today - and get smacked in the ass with it in humour (Mark). Wow, imagine, friends who appreciate the grey- the nuances of the complicated life we live. And friends who respected me for my staunch opinions, bawdy laugh, and overt leftiness. These souls had lost things irretrievable. Loved ones to cancer, or hit and runs; they came from depressed northern communities, single parent families, alcoholics. We endured suicide watches. We left behind staunch religious backgrounds. You name it, the crew had been down the path.

And, I also had a boyfriend, Phil, whose humour opened that part of me up again. Helping me leave the anger at the oppression I obsessed about, and embrace life as fun. Allowed me to see the humour in almost everything, irreverent. He did not give a shit about my waist size, or my opinions, so long as I was respectful in my opining....but by now, the inner voice was screaming! you need more! you are more than this! You can do it!? we were victims of our own success.

So, marriage, divorce, two husband, born, apprently fully formed emotionally. Or maybe that we were both in our late 30s and had a lot of therapy.

So, to me, this begs...why at 42, do I still give a shit about my waist size and cringe at photos from a certain angle?

Because I was thin - once. Victory was mine. I was lauded, and it was noted, by someone, pretty much daily.

But I know as does the main character - " I can look at myself now and understand. And I am almost free."


So, enough about me. This book is thoughfully written, detailed in the extreme, and while sometimes repetitive, you don't think OK, I am done with it. The character has moments of clarity about her "problem", and then melts back into it, as if on a greased downward slide. There is nothing to hold onto for her. She has the most horrible parents, and a seriously messed up sister - the only person she loves. But she is perceptive enough to know she is stuck in the vortex. She is also perceptive enough to know she won't help herself. Saving her, of course, is her sister, the only person who really truly loves her too. The description of Ondine and the self help workshop, is in a word, lovely. We all need an Ondine, frankly. Calm, a bit whacky, but she believes in you.

Sadly, I know too many men like Mathew. Even more sadly, I know too many like our main character, who is a nameless person throughout the book. Her husband has a nickname - little girl. Sad.

I liked the ending. I really like it. Won't give it up, but there is light, and hope. And an epiphany. Enlightenment, of a sort. As my friend Gabrielle likes to insist upon in good fiction - redemption.

Eat this book whole. No small bites. It is worth it.


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