Emily Laskin

Reading Wasted


I’ve owned two copies of Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, like a relapse. Actually, I’ve not exactly owned any copies, but I’ve had two in my possession. The first I was given and the second I took. I’ve read my two copies of Wasted dozens of times, maybe a hundred times. Generally straight through, but I don’t always start at the beginning. I open the book at random and fall into it and read to the end and start over. It might be the most compelling book I’ve ever read.

I’m dependent on this book now. When I’m writing, or supposed to be doing something else that I don’t exactly want to, I open it at random. Maybe you’re hoping I’ll say like an inspiration, but it’s certainly not. I open it at random and fall in for days, until it’s over again and my own writing resurfaces, lackluster and now, inevitably, late. How can I write about this book? On the other hand, maybe you’re hoping I’d say I open it at random like a bible, or an AA handbook. Hornbacher is in fact sober now and she’s written a self help book about it. Or maybe you’re waiting for my confession: this book taught me how to acquire an eating disorder, it was the ultimate trigger, my bible in self-destruction. But no, that’s not my story.

This is already getting a little overwrought. What can I say about Wasted? It’s a memoir of Hornbacher’s life with eating disorders. She wrote it when she was 22. She’s annoyingly good. I can’t stop reading it.

“And it is so very seductive. It is so reassuring, so all-consuming, so entertaining.” (64)

The truth is that I admire Hornbacher tremendously but in a way which makes me feel vaguely ashamed. First of all, I admire her as a writer and as a human, because she’s a woman whose voice is so sure, who is so stubborn in her stances. “Obstreperousness, which as a character trait is extremely exploitable in the energetic annihilation of one’s own body and individual self, is also very useful in other pursuits. For example, life.” (277) I’d like to say that I don’t admire that first sentence about self-annihilation. But I do. Why? Keep in mind that I first got this book when I was 14 as I was just learning how to self-loathe and also how to properly perform self-loathing. My attempts at song-writing, or whatever, seemed so half-assed compared to eating 150 calories a day, compared to almost dying (Marya would probably make a little joke about “half-assed”).

And I can’t help but see it that way, that I’m just neither determined nor organized enough to really make things happen for myself. I’m a rational enough person, and now I’m no longer 14. I recognize it as a very good thing (for me) that Hornbacher’s struggle is not mine. But I’m aware that this book is a potential trigger and I might understand this. It’s hard not to be competitive with someone so successful. It’s hard to foreground how twisted and deadly her success is, hard to keep in mind and condemn the end, rather than admire the means.

The second thing is I’m ashamed of compulsive consumption and that this is the book I consume compulsively. If I’d read it once, I wouldn’t need to be writing a confessional of my own about it. Because, okay, Hornbacher is obviously a brilliant human, but it’s not the kind of book one really wants to admit to feeling passionately about. At least not a snob like me. Shouldn’t I instead know the lesser works of Willa Cather, or someone, by heart? Or at least Anna Karenina? And then there’s the fact of the time I’ve spent on this book. If I read always as I read Wasted, and if I applied my passion for verbal consumption to new literature, I’d surely be a very different person. Or at least I’d have read a hell of a lot more than I have. Maybe you were still hoping I’d say this book is an inspiration. It’s still not. I think it’s possible that I leave it feeling worse every time.

I bet Marya Hornbacher doesn’t waste time rereading a book she’s been reading for 15 years.

Part, maybe most, of my attraction to this book is an attraction to Hornbacher, and part of what I hide, and why I don’t like to admit the depth and duration of my relationship with the book, is that admiration, though she might encourage it, is probably not an appropriate response. How to admire the person who spends eight hours bingeing and purging while her dogs are locked in the basement because she hasn’t done anything between coming home and being bulimic?

Let’s consider her academic career: “I have never technically graduated from high school. I acquired enough credits at Interlochen to graduate but was waylaid from my lifelong plan to start college at fifteen by fleeing the hospital for one year and spending the next locked up. I started college at seventeen and was granted a number of credits for the compulsive reading mentioned above. I got into the university by enrolling in a Post-Secondary Enrollment Option, a program for high school stduents who have run out of high school classes to take, and somehow just proceeded with college.” (211) She works, at age 18, full time as a reporter and also majors in philosophy in college. Her mother comes to visit her and brings her, complicitly, two of the only foods she’ll still eat, muffins and yogurt. “I left it all sitting on the table, sat in a big soft chair with my laptop on my lap, and tapped out a virulent argument against Kierkegaard. When I was finished, I sat in the windowsill with my knees pulled up against my chest, smoking and willing my mother to come back….” (256) When you were finished? Tapping it out? Who writes a paper like that? Not me.

I know, or imagine, that Hornbacher has said she feels awful that anyone uses her book to trigger themselves, but the topic is self-evident, not to mention well-known. If anyone chooses to trigger themselves, she’s not culpable. I should put the book down and get to work.

“I began, of course, to lose weight. Not fast. Just enough to stop getting my period again, just enough to feel a little cold. And a little more obsessed with my weight.” (215). I’m supposed to be writing this article and I’m also supposed to be grading papers. 50 pages or so of undergraduate essays, of which I’ve read zero. Here’s Wasted, though. Now I’m on page 215, Marya, and you were going to get well but now you’re getting sick again. I’m almost giddy with anticipation. I hope that nothing interrupts my reading before you almost die this time. Down we go again.

Spoiler alert: this is the time that she almost does it. These are the book’s last two chapters, its final episode. In these pages, Marya’s weight drops from 70 lbs to 52 and the numbers tick off like a weird unsteady rhythm. “Wait not this. And then it sucks you under and your drown. Sixty-five.” (267) “Fifty-two. Then everything goes white.” (271) She’s given a week to live. I’m not proud to admit that this latest reading is the very first time that fact has moved me to pity. It’s the first time that fact has struck me at all.

There is one thing that Marya Hornbacher and I have in common: we’re the same height, which is short. I can imagine weighing 80 lbs, though I certainly never have in my adult life. I cannot imagine weighing 52 lbs. But I shouldn’t go there, and I won’t, except to say I’m not immune to the body-image bullshit that this book quiet effectively rails against. That’s not my Wasted, but maybe it should be. Wouldn’t it be a truer experience of the book? Wouldn’t it help me avoid the insane, catty competition that envies Marya’s disembodiment, that valorizes her brilliant mind even as it’s at work killing off her body? I don’t know.

A woman, or really an adolescent female, lent me her copy of Wasted when we were in our first year of high school. I kept it until she, polite and shy and already in our first year of college, asked for it back. It was in my childhood room and I returned it over winter break, the pages falling out of the spine and green highlighter on every page. The middle third or so was smudged orange—I had eaten an entire bag of cheetos during my first reading.

I survived most of college without Wasted, but it came back to me right after graduation. I was working a terrible job marketing textbooks for the corporation that publishes Hornbacher. My main consolation was acquiring free books from the junk shelves in the basement. I took books, yes, compulsively, but didn’t read with the same acquisitive gusto and anyway most of the books were bad. Was I looking for Wasted? I knew it was a HarperCollins book. I’d seen the proofs of the “P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…” for the new edition. It was never on the junk shelves. But it was in my superior’s office. I worked there while she was on vacation one week, organizing the files on her computer and snooping through receipts of her online clothing purchases. She was probably 5’8” and bought beautiful shirts that would have looked like full-body tube socks on me. I felt small and troll-like. I took Wasted off her shelf and read it in my lap that week. Then it went into a drawer under my cube. When my boss came back she asked if I’d taken her book and I denied it. I took it 120 blocks uptown to my apartment. It’s sitting next to me now.

That paragraph was the best part of writing this. I feel amused and a little wild reliving that Wasted relapse. I felt the same way when I decided a few months ago to write about the book. I was in a bar with a friend when Hornbacher came up and we grinned at each other almost conspiratorially, with a shared spark of recognition. What did we recognize in each other then? A love of voyeurism? An appreciation for melodrama? Quite possibly. But I think we talked about not having the book in college, about how we didn’t want it to mark us as the kind of women who had it. So we shared the shame, too, though I can’t name the basis of my friend’s shame. I can guess, though. I consume this book as American women, the way American women consume, or at least the way Hornbacher describes the consumption of an eating disorder—it’s compulsive, competitive, with at least a partial drive toward self-effacement, even self-erasure. That’s my last bastion of superiority over Hornbacher—to whom I need to feel superior because I envy her talent—and it evaporates by the end of the book, every time.

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