Clare B. Dunkle

Background notes for Elena Vanishing

By Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015.
Edited by Ginee Seo.
Companion memoir to Hope and Other Luxuries.
A memoir about adolescent anorexia nervosa.

Elena during the medivac flight

My daughter Elena makes her debut as an author. Our book, Elena Vanishing, tells the story of her struggles with adolescent anorexia nervosa, which almost killed her. You can read more about the story behind this memoir, as well as see more photos, on her website here.

What follows is an article Elena and I wrote for VOYA, the Voice of Youth Advocates. It appeared in their August, 2015 print edition. Elena wrote half, and I wrote half, explaining what it was like to write Elena Vanishing and why we wrote it together.

by Elena Dunkle

A few days ago, I held the first copy of Elena Vanishing in my hands, the memoir that chronicles my life-or-death struggle with adolescent anorexia nervosa. After all the hard work and worry, Elena Vanishing is finally a real book. My book. My battle. But mine isn't the only name on the cover. My mother's name is there too.

You may be wondering why I would ask my mother to help me tell such a personal story. Here's what happened when I got asked to write the article you're reading now. First, I procrastinated for a few weeks. Then I obsessively cleaned the apartment while "thinking about what to write." Finally, I got into a fight with my husband. Not a single word made it onto the screen.

If I'm talking to you face to face about all this, no question is out of bounds. I don't mind standing in front of a crowd and talking about my eating disorder and the sexual abuse I suffered at thirteen. But when it's just the keyboard and a quiet room, then it's just me and my inner critic, the voice inside my head.

You made a mess of your life! it gloats. And how do you know things have gotten better? How different is your life these days—really?

No audience could ever be as cruel as the voice inside my head.

I wanted Elena Vanishing to happen very badly, but nothing could bring me to face that barrage of abuse day after day. So, for years, I asked my mother to help me. She wrote her first four books for me and my sister. Those books were how we communicated back then, and we communicated by writing this book, too.

The reason I wanted to write my memoir was to correct something that bothers me about the eating disorder books I've read, especially those available for teens. Most of them make recovery seem very simple, as if it's just a question of making a decision to get well. That's not fair to YA anorexics. It only adds to the shame, self-hatred, and isolation they feel when they find themselves failing to meet this unrealistic expectation. The vast majority of anorexics will relapse and require multiple hospitalizations over the course of years. One study followed up with hospitalized anorexics ten years later, and only 23% of them had made a full recovery. The rest had relapsed, and 6% of them were dead. (Eckert et al.) I myself work hard every day to stay on the path toward healing, and I wanted to represent this very difficult but more realistic process in a book for teens.

Since I couldn't face the writing, my mother interviewed me and wrote the text. We lived together during the years we worked on this book, so she was able to ask me questions as events occurred. I answered thousands of questions. Maybe even more than that. We joke that this book was our family therapy, but it really was. We were both committed to telling the complete truth, and that helped me to break down the walls of lies I had built around my disorder to protect myself from shame. It was hard and hurtful to have to revisit past events and be honest about them, but in the end, it was very liberating. Only once the walls come down can an anorexic begin to heal.

The hardest part of this collaboration was sharing painful events and seeing my mother react to that pain. That was why I had hidden those events in the first place. When I had to tell my parents about the rape for the first time, it was almost like being raped again. Things like that came up daily during the writing process and had to be explored again and again.

Revising the manuscript was even harder than writing it. That really surprised me. Each time I had to go back and reread it, I had to get myself pumped up first to face the torrent of horrible memories. But I thought of another young person like me finding this book and gaining strength from it, and that pushed me through. And now, everywhere I go, other survivors come up to share their stories and their strength with me. They've never left me to be the only one in the room to stand up and say I suffered sexual abuse and anorexia. That warmth, and I'll say it, that love, have made this journey worthwhile.

by Clare B. Dunkle

"Ask me anything." That's what Elena said when I offered to help her write her memoir. The fearlessness of those words, after all she had been through, still brings tears to my eyes.

At the time, I was living with Elena in a furnished room so she could go to full-day treatment for her anorexia. She had been in fulltime or full-day treatment for months, but she wasn't getting better, and our relationship had never been worse. I felt that I didn't know my daughter anymore, and I realized that my lack of understanding was just one more burden weighing her down. So I decided to help Elena write her memoir as a way to try to understand her.

At the time, I was already a veteran YA novelist. Another novelist once described me as an organic writer because I don't deliberately determine before writing a story what my characters are going to be like. Instead, I watch them in a process similar to a guided waking dream. I observe a character very attentively, asking myself why that character would do this trivial action or exhibit that habit of speech. As I watch, I'm constantly comparing what I'm seeing to the other actions or conversations I've seen, and I check those against what I know of that character's background and upbringing. What I'm looking for are patterns: clues to that character's hidden motivations.

It was this process that I brought to my interactions with Elena as soon as I agreed to work on her memoir. I interviewed her incessantly over months and then years as we worked on Elena Vanishing, and while I interviewed her, I studied her for the same sorts of clues my characters give that reveal their inner motivations. I would listen to how she said something, not just what she said. I'd watch what she was doing with her hands and how her posture changed. Then these things would tell me what I still didn't understand about her and guide where I would take the interview next.

The thing that fascinated and frustrated me as a writer was that it was the little things—often tiny things—that revealed Elena's illness most clearly. That's why I decided to compress the memoir timeline and organize each stage of her illness into one or two sample days: this allowed me to pull together those seemingly trivial moments in a way that didn't bog down the pacing of the book. I had them all written out on notecards, and I sat on the floor and shuffled those cards and organized them into piles, then outlined each chapter. But lots of events in the book really did happen exactly as described, all in one day or in one evening, such as the Halloween party evening when Elena almost got raped again.

It was hard for Elena to face reading these chapters, so sometimes, I would read them to her, and this would start up new conversations as she interrupted me to comment on or expand upon what I'd written. On days like that, the questions flew both ways as we talked, and it was during one of those two-way interviews that Elena asked me, "What is it like for you as a mother to hear your daughter talking about her rapist?" That's a question I've thought about many times since. I still don't know how to answer it. But it's one of the reasons I agreed to write a second memoir of Elena's anorexia from my point of view, Hope and Other Luxuries, when Chronicle Books asked for it. I felt I owed Elena that openness about my own hidden feelings after all the openness and frankness she had shown me.

As a writer, I don't judge my characters or want them to be anyone other than exactly who they are. I even feel sympathy for the evil characters in my stories. But as a mother, I was desperate for Elena to be someone other than who she was, which was a desperately ill and unrecovered victim of mental illness. This caused a split in my reactions as I did my interviews with her: half of me would be appalled and deeply distressed by what I was learning while the other half went about methodically looking for patterns and clues. This is a process I describe in Hope and Other Luxuries, where I record the process of writing her memoir, including some of our interviews, almost word for word.

During the first year, as I worked on Elena Vanishing, Elena grew sicker and sicker, until her life was again in real danger. The hardest thing about the writing then was setting aside my own anger and frustration to let Elena's character speak. Finally, I even had to face planning what I would do with the memoir if Elena died. I decided that it was the best thing we two had to offer the world and that I would still try to finish it.

Elena's work to reveal her inner motivations to me and my work to turn Elena into a character ended up giving both of us a safe place to work out the issues that had pulled us apart. Elena could talk freely because she didn't have to worry about hurting my feelings, and I could respond not as a terrified mother but as an interested spectator. As we wrote Elena Vanishing, we both worked together toward a higher goal than our own self-interest: we wanted to find and write the truth.

Eckert, et al, "Ten-year follow-up of anorexia nervosa: clinical course and outcome," Psychological Medicine, 25 Jan 1995, (accessed 29 Apr. 2015).

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