The hunger artist

Caroline Knapp's final book is both the smartest anorexia memoir ever written and a fascinating journey along the tortuous pathways of female desire.

Published May 22, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

The late Caroline Knapp was not Everywoman, but there were enough women -- and men -- who felt that her writing spoke directly to them to put her first book, the memoir "Drinking: A Love Story," on the bestseller list. Her second book, about the relationship between people and dogs, did nearly as well. Her third, "Appetites," published now, a year after she died at 42 from complications arising from lung cancer, may seem like the culmination of her writings just because it is the last one we'll have from her. But the scope of the book, its effort to root out all the ways that women's desires get twisted, thwarted, redirected and obliterated, using her own youthful bout with anorexia as a case in point, suggests that "Appetites" was a keystone work for her.

It's also a heart-rending one, because despite the manifest intelligence and sensitivity of Knapp's writing -- this is quite possibly the smartest and deepest anorexia memoir ever written, and it's also more than just a memoir -- she only occasionally manages to grasp the source of the agonies she details so well. It's as if she's trying to describe a yard behind a tall fence, a scene she can only catch glimpses of by jumping as high as she can. There's a flash of the other side here, and again there, but often she's just telling us about the fence. Yet you can't help but think that Knapp almost made it over that barrier, and that if she had been given a few more years she would have arrived in full.

In "Appetites," Knapp sees eating disorders as one in an array of screwed-up responses to the fears stirred up by women's cravings: for food, yes, but also for sex, love, recognition and power. She touches on everything from compulsive shopping to obsessive love affairs to self-cutting, but self-starvation remains for her the most eloquent acting out of that fear. In her early 20s, during a period of flux in her life, Knapp subsisted on a daily diet of one plain sesame bagel, a carton of coffee-flavored yogurt, an apple and a one-inch cube of cheese. At the lowest point in her illness, she weighed 83 pounds, about 40 pounds less than her normal weight.

After years of therapy, Knapp did recover, though she confesses that she never entirely shook the tendency toward "weighing, measuring, calculating, monitoring" her eating and exercise habits. (She also wrestled with alcoholism later on, as she recounted in "Drinking: A Love Story.") And as the author well knows, she has plenty of company in that self-scrutiny, even among women who have never suffered from full-blown eating disorders. "It's hard to think of a woman who hasn't grappled to one degree or another with precisely the same fears, feelings and pressures that drove me to starve."

There are several theories about what causes anorexia, but they tend to break down into one of two categories: Either the illness is triggered by a culture that demands slenderness in women while remaining profoundly ambivalent about womanhood itself, or it's a reaction to a particular kind of family dynamic -- overprotective, rigid, suffocating. Knapp doesn't subscribe to either theory; she believes that more than cultural factors are at work, and her own family doesn't match the classic profile. She does, however, feel that both elements contribute to anorexia, which, "like all disorders of the appetite, is a solution to a wide variety of conflicts and fears." Or rather, "it starts out resembling a solution: something feels perversely good, or right, or gratifying about it, some key seems to slide into place, some distress is assuaged, and the benefits of this are strong enough to outweigh whatever negative or painful feelings are aroused."

Knapp's ability to articulate the haze of neurotic thinking helps lift "Appetites" above the run-of-the-mill anorexia memoir. She writes of "the strange solace of starving -- the cocoon of safety it seemed to offer: in my own blind terror, anorexia beckoned, the memory of those early sensations of mastery and control seemed to promise exquisite relief." And also of the anorexic's "proud sensation that I was somehow beyond ordinary need" and "coolly superior" to other women. She describes the less pathological, commonplace version of feminine body-loathing as "slithering, poisonous, laced with self-contempt ... it can hit like a slap, a reflexive, often wholly irrational jolt of self-disgust that rises up from a place so deep it feels like instinct."

Knapp isn't, however, perfectly immune to cliché. She begins the book with a favorite device of writers protesting contemporary body image woes, a paean to Renoir's "Bathers," a painting in which "there is love for women in each detail of the canvas, and love for self, and there is joy, and there is a degree of sensual integration that makes you want to weep, so beautiful it seems, and so elusive." If Renoir's women could speak, perhaps they'd elaborate on the elusiveness in their time (1918) of effective birth control, meaningful and remunerative nondomestic work, and the vote, among other things. It's been damnably hard to get both forms of liberation at the same time.

Knapp knows this. She describes herself as belonging to a generation of Americans who were "heiresses of the women's movement, of the sexual revolution, of relaxed gender roles, of access to everything from abortion to education, and to a large extent, that legacy blasted open female desire." An unabashed, if somewhat baffled feminist, Knapp observes that "we had more opportunities and freedoms at our disposal than any other group of women at any other time in modern history; we could do anything, be anything, define our lives any way we saw fit. And yet by the age of 21, I'd find myself whittled down to a skeletal form." All of the energy and attention she might have spent on doing or being "anything," she instead devoted to getting through the day on 800 calories or less.

I think Knapp hits the bulls-eye when she attributes her anorexia and the other distracting and soul-sapping disorders and addictions that sidetrack her generation (and mine) to "the anxiety that crops up alongside new, untested freedoms, and the guilt that's aroused when a woman tests old and deeply entrenched rules about gender and femininity." She's less convincing when she's railing against media imagery and "seeds of self-denial" that "are still planted and encouraged" in girls during childhood.

It's not that these forces aren't noxious -- the imagery is manipulative and phony, the subtle cues to put others first are real. But the world is rife with sabotage, conflict and temptation no matter who you are, and that's not likely to change, ever. Society may eventually overcome its "ambivalence about female power," but power, whenever it's exercised, tends to push aside someone else's ideas or plans, and that's seldom wholeheartedly welcomed. It's hard to do anything significant in the world without making yourself unliked in some quarter (even if it's only among the ranks of the ineffective). Accepting that is part of the art of exerting authority, and it will never be easy. The real question is less "Why doesn't society encourage women to exert their will?" than "Why are women so easily discouraged?"

Is the lack of "entitlement" Knapp detects everywhere among her cohort imposed from without or assumed from within? The author herself seems unsure. She can readily see that her own anorexia provided an overarching and all-consuming structure for her life at a time when she literally did not know what to make of herself: "I did not think, during those years, about how scared I was of the world, or how lost and shapeless I felt." The lifting of many of the traditional rules and regulations of femininity led to this sensation (surely unknown to Renoir's bathers, or any previous population of women) of being "untethered."

For a feeling of "power and competence" to really take hold at the "visceral level," Knapp insists, "entitlement must exist beyond the self; it must be known and acknowledged on a wider plane." When it's not, as was the case with her generation, the result is a freedom that is "both incomplete and highly qualified, full of risks." But how can freedom ever not be risky? And whose freedom is ever "complete"? The dilemma facing the youthful Knapp and millions of other Western women is universal to the human condition: Freedom is not safe.

Sometimes Knapp seems to get this. "The freedom to choose," she writes, "means the freedom to make mistakes, to falter and fail, to come face-to-face with our own flaws and limitations and fears and secrets, to live with the terrible uncertainty that necessarily attends the construction of the self." On the other hand, she keeps slipping back into victimology, blaming the media for beating down women with "images of femininity that infantilize them, render them passive and frail and nonthreatening." Yet passive and frail and nonthreatening is often exactly how Knapp describes herself and the afflicted women who populate her book, so crippled by anxiety and the addictions and disorders that arise from it that they can barely keep themselves alive and functioning.

Furthermore, though Knapp complains that when "women get psychically larger ... they're told to grow physically smaller" by "a culture that was (and still is) both male-dominated and deeply committed to its traditional power structures," every instance she lists of the monitoring and dunning of women is perpetrated by other women. From the gang of friends she hung out with in high school who occupied themselves with detailing other girls' best features and worst flaws to mothers who chip away at their daughters' self-esteem to the semi-deification of model Elle MacPherson on the cover of Shape magazine, it's always a female hand that's holding the lash. The photograph of the preternaturally gorgeous MacPherson is, Knapp maintains, "as inviting to men as it is shaming to women," but let's face it: Men don't buy or read Shape magazine.

If the image of MacPherson feels like a "visual slap" to the women who see it -- and, by all accounts, for many it does -- then why do they keep coming back for more? (Memo to the disgruntled women's magazine readers of America: Stop buying this stuff, and they'll stop putting it out there.) If it's true that "ads tell us who we are supposed to be," is it also true that we have to obey them? Even the very personal factors that contribute to anorexia, what Knapp sees as a widespread inability of mothers to sufficiently love their daughters and "model" a life of fulfillment and confidence, are not ironclad determinants of women's lives. It's possible to come to terms with a difficult childhood and still attain a good measure of happiness, after all.

Or maybe we're just unlucky, born at the wrong time. Knapp laments that she "missed the feminist boat" and writes that she has "always believed, perhaps naively, that if I'd reached my college years in 1968 instead of 1978, I might have turned out quite differently, developed a more radicalized view of myself and other women." Is this -- wishing that a movement had come along to direct her life in a good way -- so very different from wishing that women's magazines would stop trying to direct it in a bad way? Either way, she would still be what she jokingly calls a "zeitgeist sheep," clay to be molded by someone else's hands.

Here's another way Knapp might have looked at it: The previous generation of feminists had the task of fighting with an entrenched power structure to secure for women the freedom of first-class citizens. It was (mostly) a public, external battle, and they triumphed on many, if not all, fronts. Knapp's generation is the first of many charged with figuring out how to live the life that's been won for them, to expand its perimeter a bit further here and there, but mostly to inhabit a liberty that is scary, confusing, perilous and demanding -- as all liberties are.

The dilemma is textbook existentialism. Some preferred the predictability and anonymity of the old prison and found a way to return to it, or, failing that, forged a new set of chains, this time imposed from within. Knapp started out wearing just such a set of self-created bonds, but eventually managed to work her way free -- almost.

Knapp is such a thoughtful and big-hearted writer I wanted her to end "Appetites" on a note of sharper clarity about women's responsibility for their own misery in this area, an inkling that she can do more than just fret about it, if only by resolving to stay away from women's magazines and abstain from participating in critiques of other women's bodies (two simple ways of counteracting the negative forces she decries). Instead, she ends on a tremulous note of hope: Maybe "feminism" will someday explore the "least-touched frontier" of female appetite, maybe her newborn niece will get to participate in "a new tide of agitation." In turn, I found myself hoping that sometime after she finished writing those words, Knapp realized that she was gazing out over a well-tended stake on that frontier, and gave herself credit for just how far she'd come.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Caroline Knapp Eating Disorders