Never before "Food and Loathing" has the intimate relationship between mood swings and food swings been so honestly chronicled. As a bright but chubby girl, Betsy Lerner believed that thinness was the key to success with friends and boys. By junior high, she had precisely divided the world of food into two camps: the dietetic and the forbidden. Becoming a member of the then-fledgling Overeaters Anonymous, she formed a cult-like devotion to the program and lost fifty pounds in a matter of months, only to gain it all back and more. "I am powerless over Hostess cakes," she writes, "and my life has become unmanageable."
Her twenties are marked by yo-yo dieting, depressive episodes, and a sadistic shrink who dubs her "the boy who cried wolf." Then, just as Lerner begins to realize her dream of becoming a writer, entering Columbia's prestigious MFA program, she spirals into a suicidal depression and lands at New York State Psychiatric Institute. There, a young doctor helps her take her first steps toward selfhood and unraveling the dual legacy of compulsion and depression.
A powerfully rendered story for anyone who has every wielded a fork in despair or calculated her worth on the morning scale.
As post-modern recovery memoirs go, Betsy Lernerís account of compulsive overeating and decades' worth of yo-yo dieting may strike the casual reader as considerably less compelling than, say, Elizabeth Wurtzelís similarly toned though far more solipsistic and seemingly endless diary of her affair with Ritalin, Now, More, Again.(The editor of Wurtzelís breakthrough Gen X memoir, Prozac Nation, Lerner figured prominently as a character in the sequel.) Lernerís admission that, "I am powerless over Hostess cakes, and my life has become unmanageable," may not seem to equate with the far more harrowing revelations recounted in so many gripping first-person dependency confessionals. But there are potentially hundreds of thousands of readers (both men and women, though there is a bit of a Bridget Jones-like assumption here that Lerner is writing primarily for the former) with whom the author will strike many a poignant chord as she charts a lifelong battle with her weight. She takes us from those all-too-familiar and universally mortifying school days (the book opens in 1972, when Lerner was a 12-year-old being weighed in front of her sixth-grade class in the gymnasium), through twentysomething years filled with sadness, unrequited love, and a pioneering membership in Overeaters Anonymous, to a bout with suicidal depression that resulted in a six-month stay at New York State Psychiatric Institute. Like Wurtzel, Lerner is at her best when she is turning her sarcastic and unsparing sense of humor on herself. ("In college, when I first encountered Descartes, it took me no time to translate his famous dictum into something I could relate to: I weigh x, therefore I am shit," she writes.) But she also shares with her celebrated protégé a recurring confusion between trying to relate with her readers via unflinching honesty and simply sharing too much uninteresting or irrelevant information. --Jim DeRogatis