Clare B. Dunkle

Background notes for Hope and Other Luxuries

By Clare B. Dunkle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.
Edited by Ginee Seo.
Companion memoir to Elena Vanishing.
A mother's life with a daughter's anorexia.

Valerie's hand

Shortly after The Hollow Kingdom came out, my younger daughter, Elena, was raped. She was thirteen years old at the time.

In the aftermath of this violent crime, Elena's personality changed. Determined to keep anyone from knowing what had happened, she set up emotional barricades. She turned against her older sister, Valerie, who had always been her closest companion, and savagely pushed Valerie away. Valerie, unaware of the reason behind her sister's cruelty, fell into deep depression. She took refuge from her own painful thoughts in a cycle of self-harm.

Terrified, I watched two happy, bubbly girls turn into angry, bitter, deeply ill young women. Valerie's hand you can see in the photo above. She wore her pain for the world to see. Elena buried hers under a quest for perfection. She developed an eating disorder so severe that it almost ended her life.

For years, I fought to help my family find a way back to health and happiness. Our path led through intensive care wards, medevac planes, psychiatric hospitals, consultations with experts, any number of ambulances, a child abuse hearing, and hundreds of hours of therapy at treatment centers around the country.

This book is the story of that fight.

Elena is the one who wanted to write a memoir. I never did. I had used my writing to keep the real world at a distance, not to bring it into the room with me. But when I agreed to help Elena write her memoir, Elena Vanishing, I had an ulterior motive. At the time, Elena seemed nothing like the person I had known. I had no point of connection with her anymore. The project was a last-ditch effort on my part to find a way to understand the pain-racked, tormented young woman she had become.

Then, as we worked together, Elena's honesty and courage impressed me so much that I did my very best to bring her story to the world. But my story? No…

And yet, it was always there. Even on that very first day of work on her memoir, as I struggled to put my daughter's anorexic mindset into words, I found myself writing down my own nightmare fears too, the fears of a mother who is forced to watch helplessly as her children let go of life. My terror had to have an outlet back then, although I thought at the time that it would stay a deep dark secret between my laptop and me.

Now it's a deep dark secret I'm sharing with you.

There are two sides to my story. There is the real world, the world where I meet with doctors and call insurance companies, and there is the other real world, the world where my characters come together to help me work out my fears and dilemmas. Both worlds are in this book. This story doesn't just tell where my ideas come from, it shows them coming and wrapping themselves around me. It doesn't just tell what writer's block is, it shows writer's block happening from the inside out. I could no more write the story of that time and leave Marak out of it than I could leave out Valerie or Elena.

If I were to write novels about anorexia nervosa, these memoirs wouldn't be the stories I would write. The truth is much more complicated than a properly told story should be. In these two books, some doctors and therapists are amazing, and some are so horrible that it's a wonder they've been allowed near patients. Some experts perform their roles with astounding humanity, and others make me wonder if they even understand what the word "humanity" means.

But I've never protected readers from the complexity of life. I've never spoon-fed them the answers. And now, faced with the story of my own life, I haven't tried to pick through it and sort out which parts will "help" and which will "hurt" readers. All I've tried to do is tell the truth. It's up to you to decide what you think about it.

Photograph copyright 2005 by Elena Dunkle. Used with permission.

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