I’ve been re-reading Jim Kohl’s Skeletal Marriage from which the title quote is taken this week due to some editing work I’m doing on one of my analytical chapters. And Eating Disorders Awareness Week seems like a good time to reflect on a man’s experiences. In the interpretive work that I have completed it’s also particularly important to look at stories that anyone in the public domain can access so that they can challenmge or further your interpretations, and Jim’s book is available to whomsoever wants to buy it.
Each story that I have read has significant unique elements. As Jim says, and eating disorder “…is as individual as a fingerprint.” (p. ix). However, it has also been true over the last four years that every account has had a specific overall substance that I have been able to explore.
What Jim’s account of his anorexia captures so thoroughly is the insidious nature of the voice that takes oveer – from being barely present to being dominant. Jim’s descent into anorexia has a notable difference from that reported in much of the causality literature about women. He wasn’t responding to an overwhelming message about his lack of compliance with a media-peddled body image ideal. Nor, was this a coping mechanism-gone-wrong in the face of external trauma he had endured. The trauma that triggered his behaviour changes was real enough, but it was from within him – his physical health gave him a warning sign that sent him to his GP. At first his anorexia’s voice is merely an adjunct to his everyday thinking about trying to get off the medication he is taking following a “near-stroke experience”, it is encouraging him and trying to will him to make useful decisions about his bodily health.
It soothes… it pushes… it chides…, it becomes pejorative of others… and finally it becomes utterly critical, pointed and pedantic of his every decision around exercise and food consumption. Had this voice remained challengeable, Jim’s trajectory may have been different but a little over a quarter of the way through his account there is a noticeable tipping point (Gladwell, 2002), something which I have been covering in my thesis. This tipping point in his voice’s dominion could be easily missed but his written text captures it as a clear moment in the story. Earlier, the voice had latched onto (and twisted) a throwaway comment from a friend about the sugars in fruit turning into fat when stored in the body; this had stayed with Jim. Much later, having been offered an orange by a colleague, the voice spirals.
So far, Jim’s general internal narrative has been presented in regular font, with his anorexic voice rendered in italics. Being proffered the fruit resurrects the anorexic voice’s memory about how bad fruit is, this sets off an internal conversation about other choices facing Jim that day – such as his afternoon protein bar – which he has taken to having in lieu of greasy snacks. Suddenly, the ED voice within Jim, telling him how much fat is protein bars, never mind a piece of fruit, hits its mark. Instead of Jim’s narrative running alongside the anorexic Jim, anorexic Jim spills over into the main narrative: Jim declares “That afternoon [protein] bar is keeping me fat.” All at once, after pages of the two lightly sparring or batting back and forth their respective take on food and exercise, Jim’s self talk becomes one with his anorexic voice. His narrative accepts the irrational proposition that having a protein bar is what is preventing his further weight-loss.
I’m not suggesting that this is the turn that Jim himself would identify had he been sitting talking to me; actually, scrutiny reveals that his story shows a gradual, carefully told descent into eating disorder. However, on balance, these collected events stand in stark comparison to this internal dialogue because of the way he has crafted his text in the act of storytelling. It marks the pivot, whereby the story-teller no longer leaves his anorexic self unchallenged or ‘running parallel’ to his own musings – the main narrative reflects the anorexic exhortations completely. And disordered eating has taken over.
Practitioners should read this book because the careful writing exposes the intricate relationship between the eating disorder and the man, rather than setting them apart. As Jim says, this is the story of him, not a story about anorexia. Researchers should read it because we are obsessed with interviewing people – and this is inordinately hard to do when men do not want to talk to a stranger about their experiences; these are vulnerable issues, after all. Stories like Jim’s are bursting with detail about what a man with an eating disorder endures and how he returns from the brink – we can learn from them, and yet we seem to treat them as if they are ‘not real’ and cannot be studied.