Eat yourself fitter

Hungry Hell

Kate Chisholm <em>Short Books, 152pp, £5.99</em>

ISBN 1904095232

My boyfriend at high school, a wrestler who struggled to keep his weight down, was anorexic, which means that I am intimately familiar with the bizarre rituals of starvation. I have watched the dissection of green salad. I have been plied and stuffed with creamed potatoes and sugar cookies in a strange gastro-erotic dance of desire and fulfilment. I have learned to use fasting as a weapon, and feasting as an expression of love. Today, I cannot separate my memory of that failed relationship from food, and I am anything but glib about the lived experience of an eating disorder.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about most popular literature on the subject, which tends to be either professional, written chiefly by doctors with more experience than expertise, or testimonial, inevitably couched in the tiresome language of "recovery" and "self-help" and with astonishingly superficial attempts at introspection. To quote, for example, from an article in a recent issue of Vogue, in which the model Karen Elson speaks "candidly" of "winning the battle with anorexia": "I couldn't express what I was feeling, so I acted it out through food. I realised I was going back to this dark place where you can numb the pain - if you're really good at numbing your own hunger, you can numb your emotional pain as well."

Elson then reveals her new and improved attitude towards body image. "I'm a model. I have to care about the way I look. But if I'm too big for a designer's clothes, I'm not going to starve myself."

In this tradition, Kate Chisholm's Hungry Hell is far from revelatory; it dangles somewhere between a brief history of anorexia, a memoir and an undergraduate essay. The text is clumsy with "imaginary" conversations between the anorexic - presumably Kate - and her family, a collection of verbal volleying between "Honey, please eat something" and "No, I just can't eat. I'll get fat". Insights into the mindset of girls suffering from anorexia (males with anorexia merit only the occasional, parenthetical reference) are few and far between, outnumbered by various attempts to describe and define "the awful deceiving paradox of anorexia" that is, alternately, or all at once, a religion, a passion, an addiction, a disease, a dis-ease, an intoxication and a philosophical "way of negation" in response to the cultural pressures that modern society imposes on young women.

And yet this little book is admirably honest. "Even now when reading books about anorexia, I notice that I feel superior if I discover that the sufferer has not gone down to such a low weight as I did," Chisholm writes. Behind the often awkward style, Chisholm reveals more about the nature of the anorexic mind, in such sentences, than in pages and pages of muddled and unconvincing psychobabble. And the account of her own treatment in hospital in the late 1970s, which consisted of little more than drugging and force-feeding, exposes a shockingly barbaric attitude towards eating disorders and mental illness in Britain.

Perhaps Chisholm should have spent more time exploring this subject, on which her writing is provocative, harsh and bitter, yet informed by the trauma of personal experience. As it is, the personal narrative that she set out to tell is lost amid a chaotic medley of quotes from poems, novels, memoirs, medical texts and contemporary psychiatric DIY treatment manuals.

Stephanie Smith is an American writer living in London