It would be a rare person these days, from Western cultures anyhow, who didn’t have some brush with an eating disorder, whether through a friend, a family member, or personal experience. And yet it is one of our most misunderstood afflictions, which is where Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance: Essays on hunger comes in. Wright, born in 1983, is a published poet. However, in her mid twenties, in her first hospital day program for her seriously low weight, she had to admit to herself that she was, indeed, one of “those women”, one of those women, that is, whom she’d always thought were “vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”.
Now, many of you know that I am interested in form. Well, Small acts of disappearance is interesting in this regard. On the surface, it is what it says it is, a collection of essays, but it is also, in effect, a memoir of Wright’s experience of one of medicine’s most mystifying conditions, anorexia nervosa. There are ten essays, the title of each commencing with “in” as “In Colombo”, “In Hospital” and “In Hindsight”. This word “in” has a literal meaning, but its repetition also accentuates that she really is “in” something that she cannot, must not, distance herself from. While there is a loose sort of chronological drive to the essays, the first one, “In Colombo”, does not start at the beginning, not that there is, in these things, a clear beginning. She goes to Colombo as a newly graduated journalist in her early twenties, around three years after what she defines as the formal onset of her condition, but years before she commences any dedicated sort of treatment. It is in Colombo, however, when she thinks “things changed” and her “illness grew more complicated”, and so it is from here that she launches her set of essays exploring this “illness”.
There is, then, an idiosyncratic sort of chronology or narrative arc, which provides a structure for what is essentially a set of thematic essays. Linking them are some recurring threads, in addition to the condition itself of course. One of these relates to the paradoxical and perverse nature of the condition, and another to language. I’m going to be perverse and start with the second of these, language. Wright, being a writer, loves language, so as well as writing the book in her own gloriously clear and evocative language, she also shares the “new” language she learns. There’s the language of treatment (“In Increments”), for example, which she describes as “a jargon, that language that speaks only to the initiated, that carries with it its own definition of inclusion”, and the language of group therapy and recovery (“In Group”). She considers the implications of the language, of how it normalises the way the initiates communicate. Group language and behaviours, she explains, mean sufferers can identify each other, like it or not, outside treatment.
In my opening paragraph I suggested that anorexia nervosa is a misunderstood condition. Wright herself had believed that “those women” were vain and stupid. However, through years of treatment she comes to realise that the very opposite is true, that anorectics (her label) tend to be people (men and women) “who think too much and feel too keenly, who give too much to other people”. She says of the women she met in treatment that they were “some of the bravest but also most vulnerable that I had ever met”. The awful thing, the challenge for treatment, is the condition’s perverse and paradoxical nature. No matter which way you look at it, there’s likely to be a contradiction. Sufferers “fear death” and yet let their bodies destroy themselves; their desire for control often triggers the illness, but the illness, the hunger, wrests control from them and takes over; they want anonymity while their emaciated bodies draw attention to themselves; the pain of hunger numbs other pain; and, so on. Hunger, she writes, is addictive, heightening the senses, creating a feeling of “hyper-alertness”. It “feels so good” that “even now” on the road to recovery, she can miss it. Wright’s analysis of the psychology and pathology of eating disorders is clear and authentic.
While much of the book chronicles her personal experiences, Wright supports her impressions/findings with knowledge gleaned from reading and research. This gives the book a gravitas not usually found in the “sick-lit” (sub-)genre, to which this book may or may not belong, depending on the breadth of your definition. She describes the Minnesota Hunger Experiment, which was conducted during World War 2 on conscientious objectors to ascertain the physiological and psychological impacts of extended periods of starvation or malnutrition. She analyses fictional characters who exhibit disordered eating in novels by Christina Stead (For love alone), Tim Winton (Cloudstreet) and Carmel Bird (The Bluebird Cafe).
She also devotes an essay (“In miniature”) to miniatures, which themselves have a contradictory nature. They unsettle our perception, she writes, while also attracting us. So, she interrogates her love of miniatures from childhood, teasing out of this a pathology that desires to be small and that likes clear boundaries. She writes:
To be miniature, then, is to occupy space differently, and especially, pointedly, to have a different occupation of public space. We disturb it with our discrepancy, even as our smallness means that we occupy less of it. I think sometimes that the drive to hunger, the drive towards smallness, is about precisely this: we feel so uncertain, so anxious about our rightful place in the world, that we try to take up as little of it as possible. It is a drive to disappear that can only ever succeed in making us more prominent, more visible, because it makes us as different and offensive on the outside as we so often feel we are at heart.
And then, scarily, she describes how the crafting of miniatures takes “real skill, exceptional care, and time”. Oh dear. Hunger, she says, “narrows the world so minutely and completely” that it brings the world “back under our command”. But, “it is a false and contradictory kind of command … We possess the world, perhaps, but in the process we are dispossessed of our own selves.” It is a long way back, and as she makes clear in her book, she hasn’t yet quite worked out how to live “a full-sized life”.
I’ll close, logically, with her last essay “In Hindsight” which, in another structure, could have been the opening essay because in it she looks back, back, back to origins. In hindsight, she sees aspects of her childhood and adolescence that contained hints of what was to come. All along she’s told us that her disorder had a particular physical trigger when she was 19 years old, but here, in the last essay, she writes:
I’ve resisted telling this other story, I think, because I don’t want to hear it myself.
And then she exposes all those early signs, with such heart-breaking, self-exposing honesty. I’m not surprised Small acts of disappearance has made it to the Stella Prize shortlist. Wright offers us a clear-eyed, analytical but moving insider’s view of a devastating and still mystifying condition. It’s a gift of a book.