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An editor at This American Life reveals the searing story of the secret binge-eating that dominated her adolescence and shapes her still.
“A smart, brave gift to the world. Bravo!”—Mary Karr, author of The Art of Memoir and The Liar’s Club
For almost thirty years, Susan Burton hid her obsession with food and the secret life of compulsive eating and starving that dominated her adolescence. This is the relentlessly honest, fiercely intelligent story of living with both anorexia and binge-eating disorder, moving past her shame, and learning to tell her secret.
When Burton was thirteen, her stable life in suburban Michigan was turned upside down by her parents’ abrupt divorce, and she moved to Colorado with her mother and sister. She seized on this move west as an adventure and an opportunity to reinvent herself from middle-school nerd to popular teenage girl. But in the fallout from her parents’ breakup, an inherited fixation on thinness went from “peculiarity to pathology.”
Susan entered into a painful cycle of anorexia and binge eating that formed a subterranean layer to her sunny life. She went from success to success—she went to Yale, scored a dream job at a magazine right out of college, and married her college boyfriend. But in college the compulsive eating got worse—she’d binge, swear it would be the last time, and then, hours later, do it again—and after she graduated she descended into anorexia, her attempt to “quit food.”
Binge eating is more prevalent than anorexia or bulimia, but there is less research and little storytelling to help us understand it. In tart, soulful prose Susan Burton strikes a blow for the importance of this kind of narrative and tells an exhilarating story of longing, compulsion and hard-earned self-revelation.
This American Life producer Burton debuts with an unfiltered discussion of how binge eating and anorexia plagued her throughout her adolescence and into her 20s and turned her into a "desperate wreck." Around the time she entered puberty, Burton began worrying about getting fat; she started controlling her portions and took "perverse pleasure in smallness." Burton ably recreates her anxiety-filled youth, when she struggled with her parents' divorce, her mother's alcoholism, and with eating disorders. She offers raw descriptions of binging late at night in her kitchen as a teen, eating ice cream, muffins, and power bars to fill a void ("This was tearing things, a frenzy"), then, later in life, starving herself to the point that she developed osteoporosis, all in an effort to feel "light" and "empty." Burton traces her issues with food back to her grandmother, who obsessed about weight, but offers no easy answers about what ultimately drove her own behavior. Physically healthy now, she writes that she remains "inflexible, paranoid, and self-loathing about food," and is still on the road to recovery, aided by therapy, writing, and family support. Burton convincingly conveys the desperation and darkness of eating disorders.