What is it that causes a person to turn against food? For all we know on the subject of anorexia and other eating disorders, there’s still so much we’re trying to figure out. British writer Laura Freeman can’t quite define what happened in her own mind at age 13 that started her on the path to starving herself. All she can remember, she writes in The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite*, is “an internal tremor” after a miserable couple of years at school that shook her self-image and made her determine to become “smaller” and “less conspicuous.”
She’s quite clear, though, that “it is not disordered eating which defines this illness. It is the disordered mind.” Freeman’s doctors and her parents battled for years to get her to the point where she was eating at least enough to sustain herself, but they could not help her to be happy about it. Eating was nothing but a “grudging duty”—until she picked up the works of Charles Dickens.
Through all the years of denying her appetite for food, Freeman was ravenous for books. And something in this particular set of books caught her attention. The way that Dickens wrote about food—and about the lack of food—struck a chord.God, the giver of all good gifts, didn’t just give us food—he also gave us other people to enjoy it with us and to help us learn to enjoy it again if need be.
“I began to want to want food,” she writes of the days when she feasted on his descriptions of bounteous meals. “To share it, savour it, to have it without guilt.” But she was even more deeply affected by the novelist’s descriptions of starvation—by the cruel tyrants who deprive little children of food. It disturbed her to realize that what evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers did to his unfortunate students in Nicholas Nickleby was the same thing she was doing to herself.
From there, Freeman went on to the World War I poets, and then to actual food writers, and children’s literature, and much more, always paying attention to how the authors and characters relished their food. And not just the food itself, but the buying of it, the cooking of it, and most of all the companionship that came with it. Recalling tea at Mr. Wemmick’s house in Great Expectations, she writes, “The idea that food could be companionable, delightful, warming . . . was new and tantalising.”
As Freeman allowed her books to lure her back into taking pleasure in food, she still had many setbacks. There were still times when she had to force herself to eat. She still can’t make herself eat chocolate. And the much-publicized advent of the “clean eating” movement—a movement pushing foods that Freeman describes as “food from a Scrabble board: kale and quinoa, chia and avocado, agave and baobab, goji and amaranth”—sent her into a tailspin. The voices in the media calling for “restrictive, choked eating” revived the old voices in her mind that had shamed her for feeling any interest or delight in food. She recovered from only with difficulty (and with some help from Virginia Woolf).
But she had learned an unforgettable lesson, one that still keeps leading her back to the right path whenever she’s in danger of straying. “Try not to turn eating into a solitary pursuit, a private communion with an irritable bowel and neurotic digestion. . . . Don’t trap yourself in lonely habits,” she tells herself and us. That, to her, is the key:
What makes anorexia such a dangerous illness, so difficult to treat, is that it isolates you. It makes you believe that no one minds if you starve and waste yourself, no one would miss you if there were an empty place at the table. If I am well enough to have written this book it is because people did care, did mind, did convince me that I would be missed if I was not there for the opening of the bottle, the lighting of the candles, the cutting of the cake. I owe much to Dickens and Woolf and Laurie [Lee] and Paddy [Fermor]. But I owe more still to family and to friends who have shared meals with me and coaxed and chivvied and distracted me from my nerves with jokes and gossip and plans and games.
I love the idea of learning to eat again from books, and not just because I love literature too (not even because Charles Dickens is my own favorite novelist). I love it because, to me, it’s a reminder that God, the giver of all good gifts, didn’t just give us food—he also gave us other people to enjoy it with us and to help us learn to enjoy it again if need be. The One who said that it is not good for man to be alone certainly didn’t intend for us to eat every meal alone, either. We need only look at the biblical emphasis on people breaking bread together to realize that. That simple act, in God’s Word and in our churches today, stands for so much more than itself; it reminds us of the love that literally lays down one’s life for one’s friends. Perhaps there’s a goodness inherent in the act of sharing a meal that led Jesus to choose it for this special purpose—a goodness available to every group of friends or family members who eat together.
So Freeman’s rediscovery of food in books was just as much a discovery that she wasn’t alone. Authors through the ages—a community of people no longer with us and yet still very much with us—were reaching out to her, beckoning her back to health and wholeness. Their love of life and all the good things it had to offer was so real, so irrepressible, that it spilled over into her life. And that in turn prompted a new appreciation of the people who were all around her—her family, her friends, all the people who cared for her and encouraged her to care for herself again. The invisible community of writers had guided her back to the visible community of loved ones.
Freeman’s book, with its pleas to throw culinary caution to the winds and learn to embrace whatever is available and delicious, might not be the ideal read for anyone dealing with food allergies or other sorts of restricted diets. Still, its message ultimately transcends the joys of eating and appeals to everyone who has ever had a need for companionship—that is, to everyone who’s ever lived. Even if you can’t eat the cake, Freeman makes it sound like it’s worth being there for the cutting of it, simply for fellowship’s sake. For many, her message is just what we need to open our eyes, not just to the glories of a good meal (or a good book!), but also to the glorious opportunity to share it with someone.
*The Reading Cure has not yet been published in the United States, aside from e-book form, but the hardback edition is available through Amazon.co.uk. As a British book, it’s full of British spellings (which I have reproduced here) and British ideas, like Freeman’s worries about her mother’s courgettes “ballooning into marrows if they are not pulled from their plants every morning.” If you don’t have the faintest idea what that means, you’re not alone, because I don’t either. But the book is delightful enough, and important enough, to persevere through descriptions of unfamiliar plants and dishes.