The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

Books like "Wasted" and other first-person narratives in fiction and nonfiction are well-known to be "bibles" to patients while ill. I also find that parents and the public read these narratives and end up mistaking the internal experience of the illness for the truth about eating disorders. So when I heard about Wintergirls, and that the audience is to be adolescents, I worried.

I expressed my concerns to the publisher of Wintergirls and was told if I read the book I would be relieved. They sent it, and I read it. I was not relieved. Not because it is a bad book, but because it is such a good book. It is well-written and engaging and does seem to channel what it is like inside the illness. But that is what makes the book dangerous.

Well-meaning parents and librarians and teachers, quite naturally, start off believing that insight and understanding the illness will prevent or help with treatment. This is - demonstrably and tragically - not true. In fact, the opposite is true.

This book, meant to make young people feel heard and to "start conversation" will no doubt become another bible of the pro-ana community. But this one will be delivered by trusted adults who will mistakenly feel they've done a good thing. Those adults need to know that this kind of information can be harmful AND URGENTLY need to know what they should be doing if they suspect a young person is predisposed or beginning to have eating disorder symptoms.

I told the publisher this. I admire the writer's ability and with another illness would congratulate her. But since my work involves trying to save lives, and I know that lives are lost while families listen to the lies of an eating disorder and waste time seeking insight and understanding.

I'm not the only one with concerns, of course. And I resisted talking about this book for a while because I hoped the author would respond to these concerns and consider changing some of the comments about parents in her public statements and consider actively changing the conversation around eating disorders to let families and peers know this is a treatable illness that is biologically based and NOT A CHOICE. That the book's message of recovery through insight is a dangerous message, especially without the context of any messages in the book by anyone about evidence-based treatment or brain disorders.

I want to take this opportunity to caution parents about this book and to point to this piece in the Well blog at the Times:

The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books

And a follow up by Dr. Cynthia Bulik, one of F.E.A.S.T.'s Advisors.

Parents, I think we need to speak up. Not to attack, and not to censor, but if "conversation" is to be started we probably need to be part of it.


  1. Thanks Laura, for speaking up for families.

    It doesn't matter what some of the comments have said about those who have first hand experience with eating disoders, people still want to believe that this book is harmless.

    They have no idea the struggles these kids and families face.

    I find it odd that Tara brings up a good quetion. One that Laura Halse Anderson and her editors asked themselves already.

    So when they do get negative feedback from those who have first hand experience with the disease, not folks from a pro ANA site..what do they expect?

  2. Wintergirls is a novel, a work of fiction, based solely on the imagination of the author. It is not a scientifically valid study of what causes anorexia or what effectively treats it. In particular, the role of parents in the novel, as supposed causes of anorexia, is dangerously misleading. The American Psychiatric Association could not be more clear. It says: "No evidence exists to prove that families cause eating disorders." Any clinician who bases treatment of a life-threatening illness such as anorexia on the writings of a novelist, and ignores the leading scientists, including those who wrote the APA Guidelines, is committing malpractice. When was the last time doctors based treatment of cancer on works of fiction?

  3. I don't think clinicians are treating on the basis of novels, but they are often treating on the same ideas as this novel represents.

    The book doesn't actually blame parents. I think most adults reading the book see that the main character is misunderstanding the parents. Kids...probably not.

  4. I'm definitely going to pick up the book and read it. Sounds like it will be a good read.

  5. Ordered the book. Hopefully I'll get it soon.

  6. Laura it seems to be a very interesting piece of reading for me.Will pick it up when I can.


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