This book club discussion guide for Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, includes an introduction, biographical information about the author, Lisa Knopp, reviews, an excerpt from the book, discussion questions, a Q & A with the author, and suggestions for further reading.
About the Book
When she was 54, Lisa Knopp’s weight dropped to a number on the scale that she hadn’t seen since seventh grade. The severe food restricting that left her thin and sick when she was 15 and 25 had returned. But this time she was determined to understand the causes of her “malady” and how she could heal from a condition that is caused by a tangle of genetic, biological, familial, psychological, cultural, and spiritual factors. This compelling memoir, at once a food and illness narrative, explores the various forces that cause eating disorders and disordered eating, including the link between those conditions in women, middle-aged and older, and the fear of aging and ageism.
About the Author
Lisa Knopp is the author of six books of creative nonfiction. Bread: A Memoir of Hunger, which addresses the little-discussed phenomenon of eating disorders and disordered eating among older women, was published by the University of Missouri Press in October 2016. What the River Carries: Encounters with the Mississippi, Missouri, and Platte (University of Missouri Press, 2012) was the winner of the 2013 Nebraska Book Award in the nonfiction/essay category and was tied for second place in the 2013 Environmental Creative Writing Book Award from the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. Currently, Knopp is completing a collection of autobiographical and spiritual essays, Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home.
Knopp’s essays have appeared in many of the best publications, including Shenandoah, Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Connecticut Review, Creative Nonfiction, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Northwest Review, Georgia Review, and Brevity. Seven of her essays have received notable essay citations in the Best American Essays series. She is the recipient of two literature fellowships from the Nebraska Arts Council.
Knopp was born and grew up in Burlington, Iowa, and was educated at Iowa Wesleyan College, Western Illinois University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Pre-publication Praise for the Bread
“Knopp delves into the connections that bind her objects of hunger – for bread, love, justice, safety, and words. Weaving personal stories, reflection, and a dazzling range of research, she turns her prodigious talents as an essayist to the question of food and its biological, social, cultural, and spiritual implications. This essaying memoir is a profound and important contribution.”—Sonya Huber, author of Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir
“BREAD= sustenance + substance + satisfaction.
Such a simple, positive equation, yet one that confounds people with eating disorders. Lisa Knopp has chosen just the right metaphor through which to tell her own confounding story of disordered eating and its recurrent role throughout her life.”—Aimee Liu, author of Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders
“At one point or another in our lives, each of us has been ‘famished for something hard to name.’ Knopp gives voice to that yearning, at the same time she refuses to shy away from asking difficult questions.”—Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air and Use Your Words: A Write Guide for Mothers
“Knopp addresses the little-discussed phenomenon of eating disorders/disordered eating among women as aging cloaks them in a kind of cultural invisibility. Retracing her own life through the lens of her “malady,” Knopp also broadens the conversation to examine American cultural values and the roles that motherhood, mother-blame, ageism and patriarchal systems have played in her own ongoing conflicts with food.”—Nancy McCabe, University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, author of Meeting Sophie: A Memoir of Adoption
“Bread is an insightful look into a little-discussed phenomenon: disordered eating in the middle-aged.”—Kelsey Osgood, author of How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia
“The hunger with which Knopp struggles against – and sometimes surrenders to – is physical, metaphorical, personal, cultural, spiritual, and existential. Knopp’s search for a healthy relationship with food is also a quest for meaning and balance that transcends the body. Written in vivid and compelling prose, this important book is both intellectually and emotionally authentic.”—Sue William Silverman, author, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew
Read an excerpt from chapter 9, “The Grieving Season”
In June of 2011, I drove from my home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to an environmental literature conference at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. It was an epic journey, made even longer because the record flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers required long detours that added several hours to the trip each way. On the way to and from the conference, I stopped in Carbondale to visit dear friends that I’d known since I was an assistant professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University during the mid-1990s. I was eager to see my old buddies and colleagues in Carbondale and at the conference and since I had just months earlier completed a book about rivers, I was also looking forward to seeing the rivers I’d written about, Nebraska’s Platte, the Missouri, and the Mississippi, and to meet some new rivers.
Packing for this trip was tricky. Because of a gastrointestinal condition and a food allergy, I brought with me almost all of the food that I would eat on the trip: organic apples, organic, gluten-free oatmeal with brown sugar, fresh pineapple, and rice cakes. During the four days that I was at the conference, I ate three restaurant meals — a small salad at a café; curried vegetables at an Indian restaurant; and a cup of good butternut squash soup from a little soup counter near the hotel. Most other meals came from my stash. When I ran out of pineapple, I’d stop in a grocery store and pay a deli worker to cut a whole one into peeled chunks. I drank two cups of green tea in the morning and one in the afternoon. The rest of the time, I drank herbal tea and once, juice. In Carbondale, I picked at evening meals at the homes of two of my friends, meals I couldn’t avoid without appearing rude. I felt odd and apologetic as I questioned my hosts about the food ingredients and preparations but then only nibbled little bits of it. How different I must have seemed to my friends and colleagues in whose company I’d once eaten with gusto and with no reservations at potlucks, picnics, in restaurants, and each others’ homes. I explained about my health condition and the regrettable limitations it imposed. So sorry that I can’t eat the pesto and cheesecake but boy is this salad delicious. Except for the dinners at my friends’ house, I went to bed with an empty stomach every night during this trip. For several months prior to my trip, I’d been eating less and less and would continue to eat less than I needed for many months after I returned. The restricting that I did on this trip was no different than what I’d been doing at home. But because of the eventfulness of this journey and the social aspect, I remember the details clearly.
One evening before I stepped into the shower at the conference hotel, I stood in front of the bathroom mirrors – a three-way over the sink and a full-length mirror on the door – and scrutinized my naked face and body. The lighting there was much better than in my bathroom at home, and the combination of mirrors allowed me to see myself from all angles. Of course, I felt the shock that most if not all older women feel when they behold a reflection of their bare body. The image in the mirror was so at odds with the image of myself that I carry in my head and with my “felt” age, which shifts according to circumstances, though usually I think of myself as being in my early forties. But I was in for another shock. At that point, I’d lost at least seventeen pounds, perhaps more, or so from my almost 5’2” frame – the first time I’d lost weight since my twenties. My face looked slacker and longer than it had before my weight loss. My clavicles were prominent; each shoulder was capped by a bony point. My ribs, visible from my armpits to my waist and from my clavicle to my sternum, reminded me of a washboard; jutting from either side of my lower abdomen, were pelvic bones that reminded me of a pair of blades on an antique plow. I looked over my shoulder and saw a string of knobs, my spine. Prominent veins stood out on my arms and abdomen. My breasts, always small, were even tinier and both the grape-sized lumps and the gritty little knots on the outer sides that I used to be able to find only with my fingertips, I could now see in the mirror. My thighs were separated by a narrow triangular space; my calves, always so fleshy that it was all but impossible for me to find boots that fit, now seemed normal sized, which made my knees look larger. I liked the way that I appeared in my clothes now that I was thinner, but when naked under bright lights, I looked older and more withered than I had just months earlier, when I was fleshier and my skin tighter and smoother. I was delighted by my thinness yet frightened by the exposure of my underlying structure. How easy to imagine myself as a fleshless, hairless skeleton.
I remember another motel bathroom. During my first bout with my malady during the summer of 1972 when I was fifteen and lost 22 percent of my body weight in just a few months, my family went on a road trip. Before I stepped into the shower one day, I looked at myself carefully in the motel bathroom mirror. My saddlebags were almost gone, which thrilled me, but what struck me was that I could see the branching blue veins on my torso that previously had been hidden beneath layers of fat. Seeing my underlying structure was fascinating and frightening. I didn’t realize how much my body had changed because of my weight loss until that moment.
My two road trips, 39 years apart, were similar in another way. On that earlier trip, when my family picnicked or stopped for fast food, I ate the fruit and puffed rice cereal that I’d brought from home instead of joining them for Kentucky Fried Chicken and the fixings or Big Macs and fries. When we went to sit-down restaurants, I ordered iceberg lettuce salads and “no-cal” dressing or side orders of a baked potato and cooked cabbage or green beans (hold the butter, please!). And I drank a lot of caffeinated diet pop. As I, a fifty-four-year-old-woman, gazed at my reflection in the hotel mirror, I couldn’t yet see that what had happened to me when I was fifteen was happening again.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
- What does “bread” represent to Lisa Knopp?
- In the introduction, Knopp writes, “Since most women, many men, and too many children in this time and place grapple with issues about eating, size, weight, self-image, and the deep hungers that fuel these concerns, the story I tell and the stories I hear in response are common and representative.” Do you feel a sense of connection with the author or do her experiences have little in common with yours?
- Why did Knopp feel the need to create a unique name (“my malady”) for her struggles with eating, weight, and self-image? Is it a good name?
- Knopp says that she now believes that “disordered eating and eating disorders are due to a complex mix of genetic and biological factors, family dynamics, and a wide range of cultural, political, economic, and spiritual influences.” Does she single out one factor as being more significant than the others? Why or why not? Which explanation do you find most significant?
- Does it diminish Knopp’s story that she’s “never sought nor received a clinical diagnosis” for her disordered eating”?
- What is Knopp searching for in the course of this memoir? What is she afraid of? What does she learn or come to understand?
- How effectively does Knopp draw the reader into her experiences and keep the reader engaged?
- Psychologist Judith Rodin and her co-authors call the widespread dissatisfaction that many people in economically-developed countries feel about their body size, shape, and weight, even when their weight is normal, “normative discontent.” In other words, that it’s now “normal” to be dissatisfied with one’s body. Similarly, the authors of a 2009 study claim that “maladaptive eating behaviors,” which they define as restricting, binging, purging, alternating between binging and fasting, crash dieting, and avoiding entire food groups like carbohydrates or fats, or the use of other compensatory behaviors, such as laxatives, diuretics, stimulants, or excessive exercise to counteract the calories one has consumed, have also have become “normative.” How have these attitudes affected you and/or people you know?
- What link does Knopp see between aging and eating disorders and disordered eating?
- Why are eating disorders and disordered eating harder to recognize in older women?
- Knopp writes that “According to the replacement theory, every minute in which I’m over-exercising or obsessing about food, calories, proportions, weight, and my failures and inadequacies, I’m not putting my precious time and energy toward something that will bear good fruit.” During her “gray years,” she realized that by feeding her hungers for God, art, and social action, and by creating a ceremony involving bread, she could experience fullness. During the “grieving years, Knopp discovered that to heal herself from restricting, she had to fill herself up by bringing more people into her life, by becoming part of a community, by volunteering to help others, by finding new and more meaningful subjects to write about, and through the mindful and ritualistic eating of homemade bread. What could you bring into your life that would make you feel more full?
- On the last page of the book, after eating her slice of homemade bread, Knopp asks: “How many of these simple, mindful meals will it take to erase the vestiges of all of those times when I denied my desire for bread or ate bread as filler? How many of these simple, mindful meals will it take to provide the fullness I crave?” Clearly, she is not yet “cured” of her malady. Are you satisfied with this ending? Why or why not?
- In Recovering Bodies: Illness, Disability, and Life Writing, G. Thomas Couser juxtaposes a full-life narrative, a “comprehensive account of one’s life into which one integrates the story of one’s illness,” with “autopathography,” which is limited to the story of an illness or disability. Because of the tight focus on one’s illness in the latter, the autopathographer emphasizes what author and book reviewer Joyce Carol Oates calls “the sensational underside of its subject’s life to the detriment of those more scattered, and less dramatic, periods of accomplishment and well being.” The effect of this is a portrayal of the self that falls short of presenting a sound or fully functioning person. Knopp says that one of the reasons she was reluctant to write Bread is that she didn’t want to author a book that would be classified as an “illness narrative.” To that end, she says that she has attempted to tell a story about her experience of her malady that includes more than just personal disorder and dysfunction by attending to the cultural, political, and spiritual context in which the illness and the healing occurs. Was she successful? Is Bread more than just the story of an illness?
- What are some of the reasons that Knopp chose to share her story with the public? What caused her to be reluctant to share it?
- Pick out passages in the book that strike you as significant either personally or in a larger, more universal sense. Read a passage to the group and explain why you found it meaningful.
- What did you like or dislike about the book that hasn’t been discussed already? Were you glad you read this book? Would you recommend it to a friend?
A Conversation with Lisa Knopp (questions by Thom Davis)
Thom Davis: What inspired you to start this most recent book project? How long did it take to finish your first draft?
Lisa Knopp: I never thought that I would write about my disordered eating. In fact, I’d all but forgotten about the first two episodes (at fifteen I probably had anorexia nervosa; in my mid-twenties I feared that my food might be poisoned and ate only under tightly controlled circumstances). Certainly, all of that was far behind me and had no effect on my present life – or so I believed. Yet in 2011, I again found myself sad and anxious. Once again, I was severely restricting what I ate and quickly losing weight. I was thrilled, embarrassed, and confounded by this.
In 2014 while I was working on Like Salt or Love, a collection of personal essays, I decided to write about my three episodes of restrictive eating and include that essay in my collection. My plan was to tell just a little bit about what had happened to me and a lot about the historical, cultural, economic, and spiritual context in which it had occurred. But as I went deeper and deeper into the three bouts of my malady and learned about eating disorders among older women, “Bread,” the essay, kept growing and growing – 15, 20, 30, 35 pages. What I hadn’t expected was how satisfying it would be to excavate those experiences and to construct a story of my life as seen through the lens or filter of my relationship with food.
One of the first readers of “Bread” suggested that I unpack the essay and make it into a book. I gasped at the very thought, because I knew that a book, a memoir, of sorts, would call for even more personal revelation. Also, many of the illness narratives with which I was familiar seemed self-indulgent and unimaginative. I didn’t want to write something that would be classified as “sick lit.”
But I was so energized by this project that I dove in. I broke the essay version of “Bread” into chapters, which meant that I already had a good start on each of them in terms of research and personal story. I researched and drafted the book length version of Bread, in about six months, though for the next year and a half, I kept revising.
TD: Your hometown is mentioned often in your new book, Bread, and seems integral to understanding who you are as a person. How does Burlington, Iowa, still affect your writing?
LK: In my earlier, more place-based writings, I explored the ways in which the presence of the Mississippi River, the tall bluffs, floods, floodplains, eagles, and catfish had shaped me. But in Bread, I was more interested in the influence of the culture and socio-economics of my growing up place. In trying to answer those most essential questions, “What was I so hungry for? Why did I tend to eat too much or too little? What is the significance of bread?” I kept coming back to Burlington for answers. I suspect that the conditions that caused me to ponder those questions would have been similar had I been born and raised in dozens of other small, blue-collar cities – Joliet, Illinois, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Racine, Wisconsin – in the middle of North America in the middle of the twentieth century.
As a child and young adult, I felt that the place and people that I came from were bland, unremarkable, typical. I wanted to be unique, distinctive, someone you’d pay attention to. But how could I be when I came from such a typical family and from such a typical place? As a child, I believed that identity was something that one was born into (oh, to have been born Italian or Jewish or rich!). Then, I didn’t know that identity was something one forged.
Now, I understand my disordered relationship with food, in part, as a rebellion against the circumstances I’d been born into. As a child, I knew on some level that what we in middle America were being fed – philosophical materialism, a destructive fear of others (my hometown manufactured nuclear weapons for the Cold War), a version of Christianity from which the mystery and passion had been drained – couldn’t nourish us. In response, I glutted myself with soft, batter-whipped, white bread, the only bread I knew as a child, believing that if I ate enough, I would get full. Later I rejected this food and what it represented, since I knew that industrial white bread could never nourish or satisfy me. It would be many years before I’d feed myself with grainy, substantial, homemade bread and all that it would come to represent to me.
For the past thirty years, I’ve kept returning to my growing up place physically and in my thoughts, my dreams, and my writing. Now, I’m grateful to have grown up among those people and along that bend in the Mississippi. Now I can see that my growing up place was distinctive; now I can see that there were people there who sought to restore the American Dream to its original vision (“not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely” but one in which every person is “able to grow to fullest development,” wrote James Truslow Adams, the historian who coined the term “the American Dream” in 1931). I may return to Burlington after I retire to live in a little house on a tall bluff where the river will be the first thing I see in the morning and the last thing before sundown and where I’ll spend my final years among people I’ve known for so long.
TD: As an academic writer, I am impressed by the amount of research presented in your book on everything from eating disorders to psychiatry to the history of sliced bread. Why does extensive research always play such a big role in your writing process and style?
LK: I use research in my essays for a variety of purposes: to find my subject; to trigger or stimulate memories; to create the “big picture” or context; to add richness and fullness, depth and breadth to passages; to discover and develop extended or controlling metaphors; to establish my authority and reliability; to include other voices, other intelligences so that instead of being a monologue (me talking about me), my essay is a dialogue or discussion. In Bread, I used research in all of these ways, plus a new one.
One problem that I faced was how to present my zesty, remarkable, fiercely loving, yet flawed mother. In my 20s and 30s, I bought into the theory that eating disorders were largely the mother’s fault. And so, I blamed my mother for my malady. But that’s as much a cop-out as blaming the fashion, entertainment, and diet industries for eating disorders and disordered eating, since it keeps us from asking uncomfortable questions about the philosophies we embrace and the interplay between nature and nurture. Now, I know that the type of parenting that I did and didn’t receive was but one of many contributing factors to my malady.
In chapter 5, “Nurture,” I wanted to explore the theories about conflicted mother-daughter relationships without writing about my own mother and without reconstructing that time in my life when I held her and her alone responsible for my illness. To that end, I told about the relationship between Karen Carpenter and her mother and summarized and reflected upon the research by Hilde Bruch, Salvador Minuchin, and others on family dynamics. This chapter would have been easier to write in terms of craft if I’d told stories about my family from that earlier, it’s-all-my-mother’s-fault perspective, but I simply couldn’t do that. Research provided a way for me to handle a sticky, ethical issue.
Another unique use of research in Bread involves one of the common symptoms of eating disorders and disordered eating: denial and self-deception. I suspected that I couldn’t see my malady clearly, so I relied on the research to reveal to me what I was missing. Several times, my response to something I’d read went through a predictable sequence. My first reaction was, “No, I don’t think that way.” With more research or introspection, I’d concede, “Well, maybe I do think that way.” Finally, I’d vow that even though I wanted to leave something out of the book because it made me ucomfortable, I had to include it if I was to write a true story.
Also, Bread is a defense. Not everyone believes that eating disorders and disordered eating are real. I, too, had doubts before I began this project. But after I read dozens of studies that presented evidence about the faulty neurobiology behind eating disorders and about the damage to the brain that results from extreme and prolonged restricting, I was convinced. Since it’s harder for people to deny an illness that has a physical as well as a psychological basis, I offered a representative and hopefully convincing summary of clinical studies on eating disorders.
TD: Prior to Bread most of your writing has focused on nature, spirituality, and place. How and why did you transition into an illness and food memoir?
LK: A few years ago, I was struck by the realization that I no longer wanted to write about nature, environment, and regionalism. Even more, the thought of writing another nature essay about Nebraska or the Great Plains literally nauseated me. I was puzzled by this strong, visceral response. Being a nature writer was, after all, a vital part of my identity. But after 26 years of writing nature essays and the publication of five books, I’d lost my appetite for my subject. In part I was finished with this subject because I’d said everything I had to say about nature. There were no diminished habitats that I wanted to eulogize, no despoilers of nature that I wanted to expose, no arguments that I wanted to advance about biocentrism over anthropocentrism, no further explorations about nature as a social construct that I wanted to undertake, no wildish places that I wanted to celebrate. But, too, nature writing, as I practiced it, was a largely solitary endeavor. The past several years, I’ve been far more interested in pursuing subjects that, at their heart, are about me in relation to others – individuals, communities, God. I didn’t experience that connection often enough writing about the natural world.
TD: At the beginning of your book you narrate how your disordered eating began when you were young. If you could have a conversation with your younger self about her eating habits, what would you say?
LK: You can never be perfect. But you’re already good enough, lovely, in fact, just the way you are. Starving or stuffing won’t fix a thing; neither will taking up less space than you need or deserve. Love conquers all, so love people and let them love you. Fill yourself up with good things.
TD: Throughout your book you explain causes for disordered eating and eating disorders, and state they are “the result of a complicated stew of genetics, brain chemistry, and familial and cultural influences.” In your opinion, does society judge eating disorders without taking all these factors into account? Also, you describe Karen Carpenter’s anorexia, and reveal how eating disorders are oftentimes attributed to the “mother-as-perpetrator theory.” Being a mother yourself, how do you disrupt the cycle, and do you fear that if your children develop this malady you will be blamed for its onset?
LK: When I talk with people about Bread, which I describe as a book about eating disorders, disordered eating, especially among older woman, and my conflicted relationship with food, I usually hear responses such as: “All those messages that we get from the media about being thin.” Or “We have those problems because people give their daughters Barbie [or Monster High] dolls to play with.” Or “We have those problems because parents say negative things about their daughter’s size, weight, and diet.”
I acknowledge that messages about size, weight, and eating contribute to the development of eating disorders and disordered eating. Then, I try to nudge people a bit in their thinking. If we no longer received messages from the fashion, entertainment, or weight loss industry and each other that women and girls should be whisper thin with thighs that don’t touch, would eating disorders go away? Might eating disorders and disordered eating be a type of social protest against a consumerist culture in which our worth is determined by what we possess or how much we spend? I don’t think so. Might an eating disorder or disordered eating be the manifestation of a spiritual hunger? Since 85 to 95 percent of those with eating disorders are female, could issues about women’s place and power be a cause? Since studies on brain circuits and regions like the right insula or the orbitofrontal cortex, and the genetics of those with eating disorders and disordered eating provide evidence that people with these conditions are receiving wrong or skewed signals from their brains about what, when, and how much to eat, and how to perceive themselves, might these conditions be largely biological? Often, people are surprised by my questions.
I also hear people say things about those with eating disorders or disordered eating that not only reveal ignorance but a lack of compassion. I suspect that their judgmentalness comes from the fact that they see eating too much or too little as due not to an illness but to a lack of character and will. This is complicated by the fact that there are “wannarexics,” people who would like to have an eating disorder (or what they think an eating disorder is), so they can lose weight and get attention.
It’s frustrating that eating disorders are dismissed or trivialized, especially when you consider that anorexia is the most lethal psychiatric disorder, with twice the death risk of schizophrenia and three times the death risk of bipolar disease. Death rates are also higher than normal for people with bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder). But because the overwhelming majority of those with eating disorders are female, it’s a “female problem” and so, it isn’t treated with the seriousness and sensitivity it should be. If you don’t believe me, flip the numbers. If 85 to 95 percent of those with eating disorders were male, we’d see different attitudes towards the disease which would result in more funding for research and better insurance coverage for treatment.
Both of my children have had conflicted relationships with food. Of course, I blame myself for this. But too, I blame our culture, which not only tolerates but encourages and celebrates overconsumption in various forms and denies or ignores or tries to explain away our real hungers. Starving for human contact? Social media is the answer! Feeling kind of shaken by domestic terrorism? Go shopping and show the terrorists that you’re not afraid! The only way I know to disrupt the cycle for myself and others is to ask and fearlessly answer the question: What is it you’re hungry for? What do you “feed” yourself, or what could you feed yourself with, so that you’ll be truly satisfied?
TD: I relate to your chapter “Hardwired” because you’re telling the story of being a perfectionist and overachiever, and how these personality traits contributed to your disordered eating. As you say, “my personality traits have caused me anguish, but they’ve also borne good fruit, giant clusters of giant grapes.” What advice would you give to fellow perfectionist overachievers that might enable us to be fruitful in our own lives?
LK: I’ve found that a change of perspective can weaken the hold my perfectionism has on me. I love that verse in the 61st Psalm, “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” because it reminds me to seek a high ledge from which I can see more clearly what’s in front of me. I’ve also found it helpful to ask: “Why are you doing this?”; “So what happens if this doesn’t go perfectly?”; “Will this matter to me next week or next year or in those final moments of my life?” The great challenge for me when I’m agonizing over my long to-do list, obsessing over details, strategizing how I’m going to get out of doing something that I might not be good at, and ruminating over my many failures is to remember to seek the high ledge or to ask myself those vision-correcting questions when I’m in the thick of it, utterly convinced that if I don’t meet my own absurdly high standards that some catastrophe or devastating rejection is imminent.
One of the particularly welcome aspects of aging is that I don’t care as much as I used to about what people think of me. Blessedly, this has sapped some of the vigor out of my perfectionism and has mellowed me a bit.
TD: You reveal that one of the reasons you identify with your malady is due to your love of metaphor and contradictions, and you ask, “What am I hungry for that food cannot fill?” This seems like an epiphany to me. How has your writing served as a method of self-therapy?
LK: Reading the research on eating disorders and disordered eating, which I’d never done prior to this project, had a profound effect on me. For one thing, it revealed just how common my experience was. For one who as a child yearned to be unique, you’d think that discovery would be disappointing. But it wasn’t. It was more comforting and normalizing than disturbing.
I learned through my research that those with anorexia, bulimia, or OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder) may come into the world too sensitive and anxious. While one can recover from an eating disorder, one doesn’t recover from the glitchy hardwiring that contributed to it or the effects on the brain of severe and prolonged restricting. This knowledge raises conflicting feelings within me. To believe that a malady that has taken me by surprise at three points in my life is self-inflicted, which is what many people wrongly believe about eating disorders and disordered eating, is also to nourish the hope that someday, I’ll find the clarity, strength, and self-acceptance to dismantle it, release it, and be rid of it, once and for all. On the other hand, to believe that there’s a genetic and biological component to my malady is to be freed from some of the responsibility for it and the puzzlement and guilt I’ve felt for having “caused” or “created” it. Yet if it’s inborn, I doubt that I’ll never be free of it. What I concluded after reading and contemplating the research is that my malady is due to a combination of factors, both those that are within and those that are beyond my control.
My understanding of my malady changed significantly because of the responses of my first readers. One of them, a psychiatrist, an expert on eating disorders, insisted that my second restrictive episode which occurred in my mid-twenties (I call this the “gray years” in Bread) in which I believed that “food was poison,” as she worded it, wasn’t an eating disorder. Since it involved restricting what I ate, I’d long considered it to be a variation on my first episode that occurred when I was a teenager. My research into the causes of what had happened to me during the “gray years” revealed little. I concluded that the psychiatrist was probably right: my second bout of restricting wasn’t an eating disorder, as narrowly defined. I saw two solutions: I could either cut that episode from the book or reconceive of my experience. Since my three episodes of restrictive eating felt linked to me, I wasn’t going to omit the “gray years.” So, I coined the term “my malady” to refer collectively to three episodes of restricting that I saw as of a piece. This felt right and true to me.
I also questioned whether I should consider myself eating disordered, since I’d never been diagnosed as such. After I read popular titles and clinical research on disordered eating, I chose not to identify myself as one with an eating disorder, even though I was probably anorexic in high school and the metaphors that I see in the symptomology of that condition really resonate with me, but as one with “disordered eating.” This means that I could reach a larger audience – the huge number of people who don’t have an “official” eating disorder (a psychological illness and a medical diagnosis) but who suffer because of disordered eating (an abnormal or maladaptive relationship with food and body image and low self-esteem). I rewrote parts of the book accordingly. This was a wise move, both in terms of the book and how I think and speak of my experience.
TD: During your time of transition moving from sickness to wellness you say you still craved bread, but you also recognized that you also craved more from God. Can you discuss how spirituality and your religion has been instrumental on your path to achieving wellness and fullness?
LK: I’ve learned through long experience that when I face challenges, whether great or small, open palms and surrender to God work better for me than clenched fists and acts of will. Though my weight has been stable for the past several years, I’m not free of the rigid, limited thinking about food and self that led to the most recent bout of my malady. I have faith in the healing power of God. What I lack is patience.
TD: Now that you’ve completed this manuscript, what is your next writing project?
LK: I want to finish Like Salt or Love: Essays on Leaving Home, my collection of autobiographical essays that Bread interrupted. I’d also like to research and write a collection of profiles about people over sixty who are really tearing it up – as artists, activists, travelers, entrepreneurs, spiritual aspirants, do-gooders, visionaries, healers. But, too, there might be another surprise, like Bread, awaiting me.
TD: Do you have advice for aspiring writers working on creating their own food memoirs?
LK: In a food memoir, which is what Bread is (it’s also an illness narrative), one tells one’s life story through food. Holly Hughes, the editor of the Best American Food Writing series, calls this genre “My Awakening and What I Ate” and says that it’s “the modern coming-of-age story.” Americans have a seemingly insatiable appetite for stories such as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly or Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, to name but a few.
The task of any memoirist is to figure out how to fit the story of his/her life into a mere 250 pages. Even if you’re only twenty years old, you have a lot of stories about the joys and conflicts related to food to select from. Writing about one’s life through the lens of food is liberating, since it relieves you of quite a bit of material. But it’s also limiting, since some events or themes that aren’t food-related may not fit into the food memoir . . . without some finiggling.
Thom Davis has a Master of Arts in Theatre from the University of Missouri at Kansas City, and is currently working on a Master of Arts in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He plans to teach English and writing after graduation, focusing especially on Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) and Creative Nonfiction.
Beyond the Book
For further reading:
Arnold, Carrie. Decoding Anorexia: How Breakthroughs in Science Offer Hope for Eating Disorders. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Bulik, Cynthia M. Midlife Eating Disorders: Your Journey to Recover. New York: Walker and Company, 2013.
Bruch, Hilde. The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia Nervosa. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Hornbacher Marya. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. New York: Harper Perennial 2006.
Knapp, Caroline. Appetites: Why Women Want. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004.
Liu, Aimee. Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders. New York: Hachette Book Group, 2008.
Maine, Margo and Joe Kelly. Pursing Perfection: Eating Disorders, Body Myths, and Women at Midlife and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 2016
Osgood, Kelsey. How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia. New York: The Overlook Press, 2013.
Thomas, Jennifer J. and Jenni Schaefer. Almost Anorexia: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Relationship with Food a Problem. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2013.
Woolf, Emma. An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2013.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991.
Visit Lisa Knopp’s website: www.lisaknopp.com