How to Disappear Completely
“And this, Osgood warns, is the problem with the standard treatment of this disorder: placing a vulnerable needy anorexic smack down in the middle of other vulnerable needy anorexics is a recipe for disaster that only leads to the hungry feeding on the hungry.”
It’s interesting that much of Ms. Kelsey Osgood’s memoir How to Disappear Completely is filled with warnings and criticisms regarding the plethora of memoirs pertaining to anorexia that are already out there.
Osgood argues eloquently and convincingly that anorexia is a learned behavior and that most memoirs are nothing more than how-to text books for the young and vulnerable.
Yet the very words How to are part of her title. And that, right there, is the rub.
“It’s what makes me special is a sentence that can be found in almost any firsthand testimonial about an eating disorder.”
This is really a tale of how Osgood became special and what that insatiable craving cost her. She begins her tale at the age of 14 describing her love of the written word and her deep desire to write. What better thing to write than a memoir—being “the fastest growing genre of literature.”
“The more horrifying one’s tale, the better the book sells.”
So what’s a young wannabe writer from a well-off, perfectly functional family to do? Especially when she believes that: “Death always seemed more romantic than well-decorated living rooms.” She decided to become anorexic. So she went to the library and started to read.
“It took about a year and a half to become anorexic after I made the decision, in the winter of my eighth-grade year, to try.”
Osborne does an excellent job sketching the culture of anorexia. The world of anorexia is small, superficial, extremely competitive, and special. One of the ways anorexia is made desirable is “by making it something that enhances a person’s aura, making them more glamorous.”
It’s also a world not easily entered. One must be fully vetted by its fellow anorexics, and the initiation rituals are fraught with judgment—always the concern: Is she a better anorexic? Is she the best anorexic? Is she faking it?
And this, Osgood warns, is the problem with the standard treatment of this disorder: placing a vulnerable needy anorexic smack down in the middle of other vulnerable needy anorexics is a recipe for disaster that only leads to the hungry feeding on the hungry.
In the world of mental illness and “in the world of general psych ward, the anorexics are the Gifted Program, or Special Ed.” They get extra attention. There is so much less stigma attached to anorexia than, say . . . schizophrenia, anorexia being so much more romantic. While many disconcerting teen behaviors incite scorn, “anorexia tends to evoke sympathy. ‘Poor little perfectionist . . . so hard on herself.’”
And there are subcultures in the world of anorexia: wannarexics, and “real” anorexics, and the pro-ana members who believe they have a right to this life style. Wannarexics are poorly tolerated, especially by the pro-ana movement. Every member seems to strive to be the best, the thinnest, the sickest, the one who eats the least, the one with the most hospitalizations. Osgood talks of one young girl who wore her various hospital bracelets like “badges of honor.”
Once initiated into the world of anorexia, you can never leave—at least not intact. Even the struggle to recover is part of the romantic, poetic lure of anorexia—what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
As with any well-rounded memoir, Ms. Osgood does recover. Part of Ms. Osgood’s recovery was “no longer wanting to play the role of sad, sad teenager,” so she “moved from the smaller world of anorexia to the larger world of society.”
“. . . the terror of the real world was not that your sadness seemed to matter so much less there, but that it actually did.”
Osgood does a fairly good job of not creating what she so vehemently criticizes. Sparked with irony and dark humor, her writing is smart and effective. If her goal was to make herself worthy and substantial, and honest, then she has succeeded with aplomb.
How to Disappear Completely is an excellent read for anyone who wants to better understand the complicated conundrum of vulnerability associated with anorexia and the ease in which a young person might fall haplessly into that tightening web of self actualization.