Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ana Girl Cult: A Theology of Anorexia

I first recognized the tendency to reify this disorder in the life (and death) of Simone Weil. I have long been disturbed by the simple minded treatment of anorexia by the media and in popular lore: as though it were something young girls caught by looking at photos of skinny fashion models. There's clearly much more to this--a far more complicated disorder, and painfully difficult to treat. This tendency to imagine it as kind of spiritual exercise, a religion of death--something I thought about when I wrote my short story, A Theology of Anorexia, imaging the sensibility of a Weil in the life of a young American woman.

Nancy Maya Sloan's story, Ana Girl, published by Driftwood Press is a long, first person account of a recent internet cult of anorexics--a disturbing "support network," that makes a virtual religion of self-starvation. I wasn't aware of this until last night at a reading of Maya's story.

There's also a book, Holy Anorexia, on ascetic practices in the middle ages. I came across this after I'd written my story, working in a bank of radiographic transcriptionists. The woman next to me: a 40 something anorexic, who at one point weighed less than 70 pounds. People would get off the elevator when she entered... thinking she had AIDS or some other contagious disease.


  1. Robert Detman, an interesting Bay Area writer, has a piece in that same issue. His blog is here:


  2. The more I read about this the more fascinating the whole phenomenon. The personification of the clinical terms: Ana and Mia and Ed, it's like a scan of the brain creating religion/fiction.

    So perversely complex. These girls seek to establish anorexia as a "lifestyle," refusing to accept that it's a disease, but in the process, the personified disease become a goddess, a goddess that only exists because of the clinical diagnosis.

    There are deep historical roots to this tendency to spiritualize madness. Think of Sabbatai Zvi--the 17th C. false messiah whose movement swept over most of Europe and into the Middle East, crossing political and religious borders. Gershon Shalom, in his great book on Zvi, demonstrates how he interpreted his swings from incapacitating depressions to manic imaginative frenzy as evidence of divine favor.

    I've little doubt that some of the prophets in the books of Samuel and Kings were bipolar.

    Where asceticism was given religious validation, self-starvation found it rational in mystical efforts to merge with the divine.

    In a time when asceticism is out of favor, it re-emerges as a quasi-spiritual movement in defiance of our overwhelmingly self-indulgent and materialist culture, cropping up out something accentuated by the brain disorder, but at the same time, must represent some primal aspect of the human species.

    There, above Adom ha rishon, "soaring as an eagle--Lillith shall laugh and laugh, light as air, watching over him, always over him--embracing to her emaciated breast the immaculate, every merciful castrati of immortal life."

  3. It's interesting to think about "pre-diagnostic" anorexia - I mean before the medical diagnosis existed. I've heard of various writers said to have been possible anorectics - Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte (why the Emilies?) . . .

    But it's also interesting the way your discussion of anorexia here is partaking in your subway reading!

  4. Manic depression is probably the oldest "emotional/mental" disorders described on record. Anorexia is one of the most recent. And like manic depression (except at the extremes of the pendular swings)--the anorexic retains most of his/her intellectual capacity, although significantly distorted in a very limited and peculiar way...

    Emily Bronte indeed fits the pattern, though she remained silent and without recourse to any defense that would have been comprehensible to her family or her readers.

    The best book I've read, balancing the aesthetic mining of altered states on literary works with a clear understanding of, and resistance to reductionist nonsense or romantic crap, is Thomas Caramagno's The Flight of the Mind: a study of Virginia Woolf's art and Manic-Depressive Illness.

    There's an afterword by Kay Redfield Jamison, if you need any further confirmation that this is a solid study.

    I go back and forth between in-your-face I AM BIPOLAR... to cringing in the shadows at the latest newspaper story of some supposedly bipolar killer.

    All I can muster is the meek defense... that almost all, I mean, overwhelmingly... most crimes are committed by "Normies"... we are not the enemy...

  5. "Touched With Fire," by Jamison is an interesting book and I think she has contributed a lot to the understanding of bipolar disorder and its spectrums. Despite the suffering of individuals who live with this they have given us an enormous body of great art; music, dance, poetry, etc. I fear for the day when science plucks those DNA sequences from the unborn. Just think of it no more Schumann, Nijinski or Picasso. Sad thought.

  6. Don't worry, Jacob :) it will be a while. You are safely with us.

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