Clare B. Dunkle

Reader Questions about 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.

Clare and Elena at Elena's graduation

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.

Readers have written me to ask questions about this book. Here are some of those questions and their answers. These questions and answers are identical to the ones under my Hope and Other Luxuries section because the two memoirs cover the same material.

If you read these and think of further questions, please go to the Contact the Author page to send me an email.


I'm grateful that this is the question I receive most often, and I'm even more grateful to be able to report that Elena is doing very well. She's been out of treatment centers for six years now, and she's in a happy, fulfilling marriage. She just took on the role of foster mother to two amazing children, and she has us both laughing every day as she tells me the funny things they say and do.

Does that mean Elena is a recovered anorexic? No. She still calls herself a recovering anorexic, and she continues to be vigilant about her health. She takes a mild anti-anxiety medication daily, she journals to combat her critical voice, and she continues to work with doctors to improve her chronic health problems. And after suffering back-to-back flu-style illnesses, Elena complained just today that she's lost a little weight. Her husband echoed her frustration and confirmed that she's been eating a full daily calorie count.

This is one of the most surprising consequences of Elena's former anorexic behavior. Even in the treatment centers, she could gain weight only very slowly on massive daily calorie counts. (Five thousand calories a day was what she needed to put weight on then). Years later, she is still having to fight this battle with her metabolism. All bodies tend to find and want to stay with their set points. Just as obese dieters complain that their bodies want to regain that unhealthy weight they've lost, Elena is still having to eat a large amount of calories to keep her body at a healthy BMI, and a week of illness and poor appetite can very quickly undo months of hard work. Elena hopes that at some point, her set point will readjust, but after years of severe starvation, this is only one of the many ways her body still shows its damage.

"Sometimes I wish I could go back to the adolescent me and just slap myself silly," Elena once told me, "and say, Get your act together! You're messing up my life!" Not a day goes by that Elena doesn't have to deal with the consquences of that earlier destructive behavior. But when I see her laughing or cuddling with her children, or when I hear her excitedly listing all the things she's going to get done that day, I wish I could go back to the adolescent Elena too, and tell that miserable, sleep-deprived girl, You're going to be fine.


At this point, Elena and her husband have no children of their own, but they haven't given up hope. They also are acting as foster parents to two amazing children, so their lives are full of laughter, pouting, silliness, and wonder, and they don't feel they're missing a thing.


My editor told me that a passionate debate took place in the publishing house over which memoir should be read first. Invariably, the different readers there insisted that the book they read first was the book that should be read first. That made me smile, and I remembered it when I read this comment in a wonderful Goodreads review: "I read Elena Vanishing prior to reading Hope and Other Luxuries. This is definitely the order in which they are meant to be read."

The fact is that there is no order in which we intended the books to be read. They are true twin memoirs: they cover exactly the same events from completely different viewpoints. Neither viewpoint takes precedence over the other one. Also the two memoirs have completely different audiences. We wrote Elena Vanishing for teen and college-age readers, and I wrote Hope and Other Luxuries for parents and caregivers. We didn't expect the same readers to read both books.

Two parents of eating-disordered children have adopted the approach of reading both books simultaneously. They've read the same timeframe from one viewpoint and then immediately read about that timeframe in the other. Honestly, that may be the best way to tackle the project if you intend to read both memoirs. Otherwise, because they both tell a very painful story, it can be hard to come to the end of one and start back at the beginning with the other. One reader described that experience as "way too crushing."


Elena was emphatic from the very start that neither book should ever mention an actual weight.

Numbers are very triggering for an eating disorder patient. When Elena read other memoirs as a patient herself, a number would completely sidetrack her and pull her out of the story. She would begin to think about how that number compared to hers, whether she saw that person as a "real" anorexic or not, whether she herself had achieved that number before, whether she had failed to hold onto that number, etc.

At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about this approach. Yes, I could write about Elena's physical symptoms, such as her weak heart, her constant pain, her failure to get out of bed, or her inability to carry on a normal conversation. But the weight, I felt, would give me a shortcut, at least with healthy-minded readers. Those readers would read the weight and think, That's an illness, all right.

Then one day, a friend of mine told me that someone she knew was about to lose her daughter to anorexia. The daughter was still alive and walking around, but her mindset was so deadly and her weight loss had become so severe that doctors didn't think she had long to live.

A thousand ghastly memories swarmed my mind, and I said, "Oh, that poor woman! I know how she feels. It's the most horrible feeling in the world."

What my friend said next stunned me. She seemed offended by my remark. With a stern look on her face, she said, "Has your daughter ever weighed sixty-five pounds?"

The clear implication was that if my daughter hadn't met this number, then I must just be looking for attention.

The reason I tell this story is not to shame a dear friend, who has since apologized, educated herself on eating disorders, and done me the honor of reading the memoirs. It's to show that all of us—healthy eaters and disordered eaters alike—find numbers hard to resist. We can't help feeling competitive about them and making judgments based on them. We may know that not all patients reach an extreme number. (Elena once lost a friend to a heart attack even though that girl's weight was over 100 pounds.) But that knowledge can't change all the unconscious inferences we draw from a number like 65 or 87 or 101.

So Elena was right: numbers have no place in these memoirs. They can only encourage snap judgments, foster competition, and distract the reader. In fact, I would go so far as to say that numbers never have a place in eating disorder literature intended to be read by patients. And we healthy eaters should probably spend some time thinking about some of our own judgments about numbers, too.

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