Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, one of the most well known eating disorder memoirs out there, has been praised as a very honest account of one woman’s decade-long struggle with the devastating effects of anorexia and bulimia. It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that its honesty is what makes it a difficult and very gruesome read.
The memoir begins with Marya’s childhood, which is not a particularly unusual one: her mother’s and grandmother’s preoccupation with food and weight; her own mood swings; their strange family dynamics, in which Marya serves as something of a lynchpin in her parents’ troubled marriage. Self-conscious about her (normal) weight, she begins throwing up at age nine and continues to do so throughout adolescence. Of course, what begins as an occasional thing becomes an obsession: she can’t eat anything at all without thinking about where and when she will throw it up.
Fast forward a few years, and Marya is fourteen and extremely troubled, having unsafe sex with random boys, drinking, using drugs, and honing her bulimic behaviors. She goes off to Interlochen, a boarding school for the arts in Michigan, where she decides that bulimia is disgusting and becomes, instead, an anoretic, paring down her diet until she is subsisting on rice and mustard. (Although she uses the term “bulimic” in reference to herself, she insists on describing herself as “an anoretic” as opposed to “anorexic.”)
Marya is hospitalized for her eating disorders no less than four times, one such hospitalization even leading to a long-term stint in a children’s psychiatric ward. In addition to her severe EDs, I was struck by how incredibly manic she was. (She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder.) She writes about how she would stay up all night at Interlochen to write, fueled by an intense drive to make something of herself. Later, as a young adult, she works as many as sixty hours a week, eating next to nothing and dropping pounds left and right, until she finally checks herself into a hospital with a weight of fifty-two pounds and begins her long and arduous recovery.
Marya describes her eating disorder as an illness, a conscious choice and an addiction and vacillates between wanting to blame herself, her parents and her circumstances. When she finally decides to commit to recovery, to give up her behaviors completely, she realizes she has no idea how to live healthfully; she has, after all, been sick since age nine. She hates herself, and she both loves and hates her eating disorder. As a reader, it’s frustrating: I wanted her to get help, of course, but I was disgusted by her continuous lack of commitment to recovery. (Although, to be fair, she isn’t wholeheartedly encouraged by her parents—upon leaving the hospital the first time, her mother informs her that she “wouldn’t call [Marya] ‘thin'”.) Marya is so smug in her thinness, so proud to report the extreme lengths to which she goes to achieve it. Although she professes to have written her memoir in order to help others with EDs, which is undoubtedly true, it also seems like a way for her to hold onto or brag about her illness. Even the use of the noun “anoretic” as opposed to the adjective “anorexic” feels like a boast.
Wasted was originally published in 1998. I read the newest edition, which includes a new afterword by Marya. The afterword serves as an update on her health, and it also implores readers who may be struggling with an ED to commit to recovery. The memoir as a whole, though, is not a satisfying illness-to-rock-bottom-to-recovery story. At the end, Marya is uncertain in her health, believes she’ll die young, and remains tormented by her nearly constant desire to purge and/or starve herself.
I wonder how Wasted would read if Marya had waited ten years (or more) to write it, instead of writing it fresh out of treatment in her early twenties. One of the strengths of Wasted is its immediateness, but on the other hand, the lack of perspective is a little bit unfortunate. Marya writes like a troubled twenty-something who is still processing the whole ordeal. The memoir reads like a journal entry or counseling session; Marya circles around and around in her writing, babbling about the vaguest possible “reasons” for everything, overanalyzing the tiniest details of her life, repeating points over and over. One entire section is inexplicably written in second-person. The book is peppered with quotes from random works of literature. Wasted would have benefited from a serious editor and a few years’ perspective.
If you’re newly in recovery, or if you’re easily triggered, I would suggest that you not read this book. But if you’re interested in learning more about what it’s like to have an eating disorder, then Wasted might be a good place to start. Just keep in mind that Marya is, sadly, not entirely likeable, and does not write from the perspective of recovery.