Taking the “Objective” Approach

Prison cell on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California
My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt begins on page 434. It highlights the danger of taking on my daughter’s story. Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss.

Two weeks later, Elena was the one with the cold. Even though she had gained weight again during this stay at Clove House, each day seemed to suck away a little more of her strength. The only thing that brought her to life anymore was the memoir we were writing together.

But if the memoir had become Elena’s lifeline, it had become my little slice of hell.

I had to understand things, and that meant I had to ask about things. That meant I was learning things that I would never have wanted to know—such as the truth about what had been going on during the Summer from Hell.

It began simply enough—but then, I was starting to learn already that I never knew how easy or how painful an interview with Elena would be. Elena was lying on her bed, with an arm up to block the light from the windows. I was sitting beside her with my laptop, taking notes.

“So, I mentioned in an email to a librarian that I’m writing your anorexia memoir,” I told her, “and the librarian says she’s afraid it’ll reveal tricks. She says we don’t need any more anorexics out there teaching today’s teens new tricks.”

Elena smiled—a grim, sad smile. “She doesn’t have any idea what anorexia is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s a prison. It’s twenty-four-hour-a-day life in a jail cell. We never get out, not even for one second. All we can do, all day long, is look for ways to survive. Nobody needs to teach us tricks. We brainstorm our own tricks all day long. When real anorexics compare notes, we’ve already figured out all the same tricks—and each one of us did it on our own.”

Okay, prison, I thought. That’s very interesting. I had already known about the walls that kept others away from my character. So those walls kept her in, as well.

And what about the blackouts? Were those walls, too?

“In the Summer from Hell, what about the dissociation blackouts you had? Were they an escape, or were they more prison?”

Elena thought about this while she blew her nose. “Not really either one,” she said.

“I’ve read that a lot of eating disorder patients start dissociating in childhood,” I continued. “Child abuse is one of the biggest factors. But you never had any blackouts before the Summer from Hell, when you were already seventeen.”

And in my mind, I was adding . . . Right?

“A lot of anorexics dissociate,” Elena said with her eyes closed. “It happened all the time at Drew Center. It can happen to anybody if you’re freaked out enough. I was freaking out.”

“I guess so,” I said a little doubtfully. Anybody? And I tried without success to imagine myself freaking out that much.

“We had a guy brought to the ER once,” she continued. “He was dissociating just like I did, the thrashing around, the works. He was kind of a big guy, and he hadn’t been able to pass his fitness test. That morning was his last try—if he failed, they were going to kick him out of the Air Force. His commander came in with him, and he wanted to know, ‘Is this guy faking it?’ ‘No,’ we told him. ‘It’s real.’ It was the stress.”

“The stress,” I echoed, and then I couldn’t help myself. “That bullying psychiatrist!”

“That psychiatrist probably saved my life.”

Elena’s voice was as calm as if she had mastered inner peace. I felt anything but calm. The writer in me slipped away, and the mother took over again. When I thought about what that man had made her suffer . . .

I set down my laptop and jumped up to walk the floor.

“I can’t believe that,” I said. “He did nothing but make you lose more weight.”

“That’s true, at the start,” she admitted. “It happened when Dr. Petras weighed me. He weighed me himself that second time, when I came in for that second appointment. I had been hardcore deep in my disorder at boarding school, and the stress with Valerie hadn’t helped either. But, early that summer, I was really busy. I had started to concentrate on other things. When I went in for that counseling session with him, and he read my weight out loud, I completely freaked. I had never weighed anywhere near that much in my life!

“So I started restricting again. I really did lose those eight pounds that month. And if he hadn’t stopped me, I would have kept right on going, and I’m pretty sure I would have died. It’s true that at first in the hospital, I lost even more weight, but I was where they were running daily EKGs, so they caught the heart damage early.

“After that, in senior year, even though I kept restricting, I worried about ending up at somewhere like Drew Center again, so I made sure my weight didn’t go too low. He probably saved my life,” she said again.

Dr. Petras, the hero. No! I couldn’t live with that. I could handle the truth, I could look at this world without blinking—but I could not deal with that!

There had been that golden month of June, when the stress had gotten better and Elena had gained weight on her own. As she said, she had concentrated on other things. Maybe she was growing out of it naturally. She was enjoying life. She was even enjoying food. I saw her enjoying food again!

After the Summer from Hell, she never did that again.

Not ever.

“He triggered you himself, reading your weight out loud like that!” I said. “He yelled at you. That man bullied you!”

“I was making a fool out of him,” Elena said. “Nobody believed his anorexia diagnosis. I had told Dr. Petras about my restricting, but to everybody else, I acted like, What? The pediatrician actually told me he thought Dr. Petras was a crackpot. Nobody likes to be made to look like an idiot.”

“Thanks to him, you started dissociating,” I said. “His bullying knocked you right out of reality.”

“It wasn’t just dissociation,” Elena pointed out. “There was the starvation, you have to remember that. A lot of the time, I was so weak, I really did faint.”

I stopped to stare out the window. It was dusk already. We could see the sunrise once it cleared the trees in the neighborhood behind us, but it bothered me that we couldn’t watch the sun go down.

My careful lists of questions that summer! I thought sadly. I had opposed that bullying moron so completely, with all my logic and reason. Was he right? I asked myself. Can I live in a world in which that man was right? And I felt myself give a shiver all over, as if flies had landed on me.

No! I would never believe that.

I could believe that Elena had had an eating disorder then, even a serious one. I could believe that she had needed professional help. But I would never believe that she should have been treated so cruelly. A rape victim, bullied and yelled at—no! That treatment had no place in a trauma victim’s recovery.

That man was still a bully, and he was still a moron. He had still caused more harm than good. That’s what I could live with! Yes, I could live with that.

Shadows gathered over the grassy playground. The birds were singing quietly. I turned my mind to my old lists of questions—to the other mysteries from that summer.

“But what about the weight loss in the children’s hospital?” I challenged. “They were watching every bite, and you had the feeding tube and everything, and you still kept losing weight.”

“Anorexia doesn’t turn around in a day,” Elena said. “Just like me in January, when I got here to Clove House: even on three thousand calories a day, I wasn’t putting on weight. And besides, at the children’s hospital, I only ate about half the food they gave me, and very little of the feeding pump stuff went in.”

I turned in amazement to look at Elena. Was my daughter—my character—joking?

No, she didn’t look as if she was joking. She had a frown on her face. She had her eyes shut, and she gave a sniffle to clear her nose.

“But what about the anorexia protocol?” I asked.

“The techs who watched me eat? They were just nice girls. They weren’t mental health nurses. They thought I was just like they were.”

But . . . weren’t you? I thought.

I needed to calm down. I was getting too involved again.

“So you did what?—with those nice girls there?” I asked.

“I hid food. I hid it anywhere I could. Plastic wrap. Pajama sleeves. I’d get up to come to the table, but I’d keep my fuzzy blanket wrapped around me. I could stick all kinds of food in there. That’s why the real treatment centers never let their patients have loose clothes or a hoodie.”

My mind boggled. I could feel it boggling. My imagination was pulling up images of Elena squirreling away a slice of tomato here, a piece of cheese there, a chunk of sandwich . . . right in the clothes she was wearing. In the blanket she slept under at night!

A grimace of disgust hardened on my face as I watched the imaginary film clips. I had to swallow my saliva.

That’s nasty! It’s all so unsanitary! I thought. It’s unsavory—that’s what it is. Unsavory!

But that was only the mother doing the thinking.

Look at the caution my character is showing! thought the writer. Look at the attention to detail. There it is again, that careful attention to detail. That’s a constant with this character. And think of the confidence it takes to engage in that misdirection, to distract someone right in front of you. The willingness to play with societal norms and rules like a magician: Nothing up my sleeve but a pickle spear!

Elena was right: this was a real anorexic’s trick. It wasn’t anything someone had needed to teach her. It was an act brought on by sheer desperation. It wouldn’t even occur to a normal person!

My imagination continued to bring me sample bits of film. It showed me Elena, cagey, casual, carrying on a conversation while she stuffed tomato slices and pieces of ham into her clothes.


But—now, wait a minute, this was interesting—it looked very much like a prisoner slipping a spoon or some other implement into his pants.

Is that why Elena watches prison shows all the time? asked the writer. Because she sees herself as one of them? And I made a mental note to find out more about that. It was a whole interview, all by itself.

“Okay, but the feeding pump,” I continued, sufficiently calmed down that I could sit on the bed again and pick up my laptop to take notes. “That room at the children’s hospital was pretty small. I slept within eight feet of you, and a nursing tech sat up by the door all night to make sure you didn’t mess with the pump. So, what do you mean, not much of it went in?”

Elena’s voice was stoic. “What can I say? If you want it enough, you’ll be the last person awake.”

What?! They fell asleep? The techs who were watching over my daughter—they fell asleep?!

I forced myself to take notes, just as if this were something I might forget later. As if it were something I would ever forget.

I needed to stay calm. I needed to stay objective.

“Yeah, but you must have had to wait for quite a while,” I said aloud. “That means the pump had already been going for some time.”

“I suctioned it out.”

I fell silent.

Elena interpreted this as encouragement to continue her explanation.

It wasn’t encouragement.

“I suctioned it out,” she elaborated, “with the syringe the nurse used to clear the line. She left it right next to the pump every night. No way would a mental health nurse make that mistake. I used it to pull a suction and let the feeding tube drain into the sink.”

“You suctioned out the contents of your stomach,” I said flatly.

I could feel my own stomach twisting, rising. I was going to be sick. This was . . . so horrible. So foreign! So utterly alien to health!

But look at the tenacity! said the writer. Look at the willpower. Yes, it’s foreign—now get over it! What’s her reason?


That was the most I could manage. I couldn’t trust myself to say more.

“It’s always been a phobia of mine,” Elena said, “the thought that I’ll be in a coma or something, and while I’m lying there helpless, they’ll pump me full of calories till I’m huge. And I’ll wake up, and I’ll be three hundred pounds and not be able to do anything about it.”

My imagination played out that image: lying there helpless, pumped full, huge.

And my writer mind pounced: The rape!

I remembered the fourteen-year-old Elena, home from the boarding school—that intense, miserable, thin little fourteen-year-old whom Dr. Eichbaum had pronounced completely normal. That “normal” eighth grader was dragging me to the library . . . to check out books on babies.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

At the time, Elena had told me she wanted to learn about childcare for babysitting, and I had supported her desire to learn whatever she wanted to learn, to pick up any book the library had to offer. I did ask a few gentle questions of course. They didn’t get anywhere. But then, what had my character said about Dr. Eichbaum’s questions?

I lied my ass off.

That fourteen-year-old was carrying a horrible secret. She was terrified that she might be pregnant.

Helpless. Raped. Terrified. And maybe pregnant.

What does a mind do with a rape? What can it possibly do with such terror and disgust and shame? It buries the secrets, and like termites, those secrets eat their way out somewhere else . . .

Helpless—a coma. Assaulted—a feeding tube. Pregnant—pumped up into obesity . . .

And four years later, there was Elena at the children’s hospital, lying helpless as the sitter and I nodded off. Pumped full of calories, absolutely petrified with terror and disgust and shame . . .

I couldn’t think about this anymore. I couldn’t talk about it anymore. I groped around in my mind for a distraction, something, anything—

“What about the puddings?” I asked.

Elena didn’t move. She still had her hand over her eyes. Every now and then, she cleared the gunk out of her throat.

“What about them?” she muttered.

“Every day at the children’s hospital, I brought you a pudding, and every day, you ate it. You acted like you couldn’t wait. But at the same time, you were so obsessed with calories that you were passing out from the stress of having to eat. You were stuffing potato chips into your pillow case. You were staying up half the night to pump your own stomach.”

And, in the back of my mind, I was waiting for Elena to protest these incredible statements, to sit up and laugh: No, I wasn’t!

But instead, she just coughed and blew her nose again. “And?”

“And you anorexics can’t bear to eat!” I said. “Five pieces of popcorn is enough to send you into a tailspin. It keeps you up all night, it sends you exercising, it brings your Critical Voice in to scream at you . . .”

As I said this, I knew what I wanted. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted Elena to say, That’s crazy, Mom! I don’t think that way. You’re being silly. You’ve got it all wrong! And she would take me by the hand, and we would walk back to a normal life . . .

But Elena just said, “Yeah, so?”

I felt anger and confusion and pain rise up to choke me. It was all wrong! So wrong!

“And so, what about the puddings I brought you?” I snapped. “Did you just purge them?”

“No, I never purged the puddings.”

“But why?”

I was really angry now. The puddings had made me angry. Those puddings represented everything I didn’t know back then, despite my best efforts to learn. They represented everything that still made no sense.

“You count every calorie!” I said—but I realized I wasn’t saying it, I was shouting it. “You watch every bite! Those puddings—they must have been torture! Why did you let me feed them to you? Why did you act like you wanted them?”

She said, “I did it because it made you happy.”

I put down my laptop. I hurried off to the bathroom. I sat down in a corner on the tile floor, and I cried.

Those puddings were and are the saddest thing in this entire story. They were love and confusion and hurt and redemption. They were the gift of the magi.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a prison cell, Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California, by Joseph R. Dunkle, copyright 2017. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Characters, Elena Vanishing, Food and drink, Writing craft | Leave a comment

So Many Things That Were Beautiful

A Veiled Vestal Virgin, Chatsworth, England

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt begins on page 428.

The next morning, Elena fought off her drug-induced fatigue to continue the discussion of her memoir. “I’ll leave you my journals,” she said, taking them out of her nightstand drawer. “Read anything you think will help.”

And, as she got out of the car at Clove House, she told me, for the first time in years: “Write lots!”

I drove home slowly, trying to think of how to write about what I was learning. The more I tested this world, the more like the bottom of the ocean it seemed, and I couldn’t stifle my suspicion and concern at finding myself there. The cute daydream substitutions of the Disney mermaid’s world—water for air, fish for birds, seaweed for grass—seemed like nothing more than a pretty fiction set up to hide the grim reality. Because what was the bottom of the ocean, after all? A dreary gray underwater wasteland that stretched for mile after barren mile.

Back at the orphanage, I brewed a double-strength cup of coffee. I brought it down the hall to my room, opened up my laptop, and tried to write. I conjured up my own daughter and studied her traits and attitudes as if I had only just met her.

Who is she? I wondered. What does she have to say for herself?

Elena had never put up with bullies. She had always had a chip on her shoulder. That cocky attitude appealed to me. I let it do the talking:

For every woman who sighs to her girlfriends, “If I could just drop fifteen pounds”—check this, bitches, I’m proof that you could. For every girl who cracks on Day Three of the diet and wolfs that chocolate shake—tough for you, babe, here’s what you could have had. I’m all your insecurities, the ones you try to pretend don’t matter—but the minute you see me, they do.

Hey, we all feel them. I’m just the one who’s strong enough to do something about them. The rest of you, you don’t have the drive. You don’t want it badly enough.

You’re not willing to die.

I am.

Oh, God! I thought. That can’t be right, can it? That can’t be what she thinks—not my little girl!

Like a balloon deflating, the writer side of me faded away. It was the mother who was reacting now. I saw my daughter as a toddler, clutching my finger for support. I remembered her grabbing for Joe’s and my hands and swinging on them, skipping, almost jerking our arms out of our sockets as she jumped as high as she could.

That exuberant little girl never simply walked anywhere. Everywhere she went, she danced.

And I found myself starting to type.

My daughter is disappearing. Fading away. Letting go of everything she loves. My youngest baby, my little girl, is dying.

What do you say when someone you love is standing on a building ledge? What can you do besides scream?

Tears were on my cheeks now. I wiped my eyes angrily. Why was I writing this? This wasn’t helping me understand Elena!

But I couldn’t stop myself. I kept typing.

Every parent has nightmares. We try our hardest not to think about the worst thing that could happen. But when we hear a father interviewed on the news . . . When we read a family’s released statement . . . When we catch sight of a milk carton photo, we think, That could be my child.

Over the years, my worst fears for my daughter have crystallized into a terrifying daydream, a daydream so frightful that I have never told it to a single human being until now. It has stayed in the realm of things too terrible to mention. I haven’t wanted to bring it to life.

I stopped.

Was I really going to do this? Was I really going write it down?

Because this was one of my secrets.

My daydream is this: I am receiving The Call. A voice is saying, “I’m so sorry. It’s about your daughter,” and I continue to hold the phone, but I can’t hear any more. It doesn’t matter. I already know what the voice is going to say.

This nightmare scene has been with me for years. For decades, in fact. I’ll see that news story, read about that grisly discovery, and The Call plays out in my mind:

“I’m so sorry. It’s about your daughter.”

And I know what’s coming next.

In all the years that The Call has been with me, I’ve never imagined past this point. I’ve never figured out my reaction. Never even begun to consider the funeral. Never pictured myself living with the news, moving on, making sense of it all, healing.

“It’s about your daughter.” And after that, a hole that my thoughts can’t get past. A bright red hole, endless, perfectly round, like the entry wound of a bullet.

“I’m so sorry. It’s about your daughter.”

And after that:


I pushed away the laptop and stumbled up from the desk. I forced myself to stare at the green field outside until its wavering image finally came into focus. Tufts of grass six or seven inches long swayed back and forth in the breeze. Time to mow. Three songbirds flew past the window very quickly, in a tight jet-fighter formation. The dumpster in the back parking lot was filling up. The door to the orphanage kitchen was ajar.

This isn’t going to work, I thought. I can’t hold these two different people in my head, the daughter who’s cocky and oblivious and the mother who’s desperately afraid. I’ll go insane before this story is finished.

But then the writer in me woke up and stretched again.

Cocky? Oblivious? Is that really true?


Elena wasn’t a clueless plastic Little Mermaid, shouting insults from the safety of her coral towers and deadly water-air. That wasn’t my character. I didn’t have her right yet. Before I could conjure her, I needed to learn more.

So I sat down with Elena’s journals and notebooks and worked my way through them.

Elena had written beautifully about Drew Center, I discovered. Her fellow patients came to life on the page. And this episode with her friend Mona in boarding school was quite vivid. I was sure there would be a place for it.

As the hours passed, I skipped around, pulling folded sheets of paper out of notebooks and skimming their contents. Senior year was brief and laconic, as I had expected it would be. Elena’s image was perfect by that time. Her shield was impenetrable. Even her journal couldn’t get inside anymore.

And here, at the beginning of college, was a long list of impossible daily rules:

No junk food.
Exercise every day.
Study hard.
Work hard.
BE hard.
No tears.
No meat.
No eating after 9 pm.
Get up at 6 every day.
Bed before 1 am.
800 calorie max on weekdays.
Weight day is Friday.
Days will be planned, and that plan will be followed.
Tidied room. No slacking. No laziness.
I will not be a failure!

I felt a stab of pain. This wasn’t what Joe and I had wanted for our daughter as she embarked on her college career. We had wanted her to love learning and make lifelong friends. Where had she learned to be so harsh and strict with herself? Not even a monk could keep all these rules!

Yes, yes, the writer in me said, but never mind that now. Look closer! What does this say about my character? And my imagination brought me the image of Elena, writing down the list of rules, firm, purposeful, and satisfied.

I felt a little tug of self-recognition. I, too, liked to write down lists of priorities and rules. Of course, I also had the good sense to break them almost at once. Elena, it would appear, held on to hers. Was that better discipline? Or was it desperation?

I didn’t know. I needed to see more.

I picked up another journal, the one I hadn’t wanted to read. Reluctantly, I edged into the year we had all spent dealing with Valerie’s depression. Elena’s entries reflected my own thoughts at the time: turbulent, alternately furious and despairing. No, this was no perfectly poised mermaid, gliding triumphantly through her strange, poisoned world.

But maybe it was too soon. Maybe the eating disorder hadn’t taken over yet.

I turned to the beginning of the next year. Let’s see: where were we all then? Joe and Elena were already back in Germany. They had flown home without me. I was staying in the States for another week to get Valerie settled in at college . . .

The college she would run away from three months later.

I put my hands over my eyes. They were still wet, the eyelashes slippery with tears. Suddenly, I felt so exhausted that I wanted to curl up right there and pull a blanket over my head. I couldn’t do this! Why did I say I would do this? It was too hard! Too hard to go back there . . .

But my writer mind kept prodding me: What about the character? This isn’t about you! What about her?

So I dropped my hands and picked up the journal again.

This past year was not a sweet sixteen, Elena had written, but I did learn a lot about inner strength, about holding on.

Inner strength—yes! This was a character I could bring to the world. She wasn’t sassy and silly. She was a realist. She was fighting. She knew she had to hold on.

Resolutions? I have a few, some good, some bad. But right now, I am starving, my throat aches and my hands are kinda shaking. I better lie down.

So it was already here. The eating disorder was already eating her alive.

Then came the sentence that told me my character saw it all. She knew she wasn’t floating through some coral wonderland. She saw the whole dreary, empty truth. I read it over and over while the tears ran down my face, and it was the saddest, simplest, clearest, wisest statement about anorexia nervosa that I have ever read. It stood like an epitaph for all Elena had lost, and like a verdict that summed up all she would have to suffer:

I miss so many things that were beautiful.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of A Veiled Vestal Virgin, Chatsworth, England, by Joseph R. Dunkle, copyright 2005. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Writing craft | Leave a comment

Daughter as Character

the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco Bay

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, beginning on page 422, immediately follows the last excerpt, in which I agreed to help Elena write her memoir. Now, for the first time, I began to apply my technique of character observation to a living person—my own daughter. The results surprised me.

Elena lit up with real excitement for the first time in months. “Let’s start right now!” she said. “Get your laptop.” And she came over to sit on my bed.

I picked up my laptop and sat down facing her.

“Okay,” she said. “Ask me anything. I’ll tell you anything you need to know.”

I couldn’t help but feel touched at her faith in me. She really thought I could do this! So I opened up the laptop, and I thought about my daughter as if she weren’t my daughter—as if she were one of my characters instead.

What did I need to know?


“Okay, let’s start with something that’s really hard for me to get,” I said. “Tell me about purging. What’s it like? Have you done it often? When was the last time you purged?”

“The last time I purged was over a month ago,” Elena said. “I can’t purge at Clove House, but when we were at home, I purged almost every meal.”

What? Almost every meal? Oh my God!

That was the mother in me. I could feel the panic and hurt clawing my chest. I could feel that helpless Victorian mother, wringing her hands and whimpering out her protests: All those pizzas I ordered for you? The cake I made that you used to love? Why? Why do you do this to me? Why do you hate me so much?

But the writer in me couldn’t help but feel fascinated. And it was the writer who spoke.

“Almost every meal? Weren’t you afraid we would hear you? The house was full of people. We must have been right in the next room.”

“There’s no way you’d hear me,” Elena said. “I’m one of the best purgers I know because I learned from the best, Mona in boarding school. You could stand right next to my restroom stall, and you still wouldn’t hear me. You’d swear I was talking to you the whole time.”

Purging right next to me in a restroom stall? Carrying on a conversation and vomiting? My stomach twisted, but I fought down my feelings of disgust.

Notice the cool poise, the writer in me pointed out. My character is speaking with real confidence. This is a skill she’s mastered, and she’s proud of that skill. It makes up part of her hidden world.

“So, I’m trying to wrap my head around the experience,” I said. “It’s really hard for me to see the appeal. It’s nasty! Whenever I throw up, I feel horrible and shaky, and my throat burns from the acid.”

“Yes, but that’s because you’re sick. It’s not like that when you purge. It feels great, actually. Any pain you’re in, purging will make it disappear.”

I wanted to shove this idea away with both hands and then stomp on it. But instead, I forced myself to be fair.

“It’s true,” I said, “that when I’ve gotten migraines, I’ve thrown up sometimes, and that stops the migraine immediately. I don’t know why it does that.”

“Plus, there’s the whole ritual of it,” Elena said. “There’s the preparation for it: putting a towel around you, tucking your hair up. You put a little toilet paper in the bowl so no one will hear, and you get all ready.”

My mind ran through this imaginary scene. As much as I didn’t want to watch it happen, I could see the comfort my character was taking from it. She’d been raised on small rituals—the Sign of the Cross, grace before meals. And she liked them. Elena had OCD.

But then . . . I could feel my own throat tighten up. I felt water gather in my eyes.

“But you’re getting ready to gag,” I pointed out.

“Not really for me,” Elena said casually.

That squashed my mental image. My scene was wrong. I had to pay attention.

“When you’re new, you have to gag,” she explained. “You stick your finger down your throat, and you purge a little bit, and then you stick your finger down your throat and do it again. Some people use other things so it won’t mess up their nails. But the thing is, if you’re a pro, you don’t have to use anything, you can completely control the whole process. But when you’re starting, you kind of take it slow, and you work at it . . .”

I was silent. More and more, I let this realization sink in: My character worked very hard at this. She is a pro.

The realization began to bear fruit. I caught glimpses of my character, younger, worrying about her nails, practicing to get this right . . . And ripping off fake nails when she ruined them?

No wonder I’d seen her yanking off her French nails!

The mom in me was standing by, mourning, wringing her hands, but the writer in me was hard at work now. The writer knew that only by watching, only by paying attention, would I gain that true awareness of character. One small trait would reveal another. This couldn’t be rushed or interfered with. I’d only learned about my character Miranda’s cutting by paying attention to the look in her eyes when she noticed a scrape.

Now, Elena was ticking off techniques, informative and practical, like a seasoned guide giving a lecture to a tourist.

“ . . . and some people purge by color . . .”

“By color?” I interrupted.

“Yeah, you eat things one by one, and you eat a certain-colored food first. Say, you eat a certain kind of veggie. And then, when you purge, you know when you get to that color that you’ve gotten it all out.”

Okay, I had to admit, that was clever. Gross—horribly gross! But clever.

“It sounds very scientific,” I said.

Elena laughed. “Well, we’re not stupid!”

She was sounding so relaxed but so animated right now. I must have sounded like that when I was lecturing Susan on folklore. This was something very close to this character I was studying, very safe for her.

“Anyway, you control it, that’s the thing,” she concluded. “Some people purge just so much, but not more. It’s up to you. It’s the best feeling . . . It’s more addictive than smoking.”

More addictive than nicotine? Wait a minute! How could that be right?

“But what’s addictive about it?” I asked. “Is it the thought that you’re getting rid of calories?”

“No. It’s just—well, think about it: you’re prone to anxiety already, and your stomach is full and unsettled. And then you purge, and you feel nice and empty inside, and your stomach is settled down, and you wipe your mouth, and you check in the mirror, and you go through your postpurge ritual . . .” She pauses. “I used to purge just water.”

Okay, that was just plain crazy! I couldn’t understand it at all.

Or . . . could I?

Be fair!

My imagination brought me feelings from when I had been very nervous. I could remember my stomach feeling so unsettled that I thought I was going to throw up. If those nervous feelings were very intense, day after day, never letting go—and I thought of that Critical Voice, yelling down its vulgarities and insults—wouldn’t I try anything I could to find a little relief?

No! said the mother in me. No, no, no! Think of the waste! Think of the nasty acidic old used food!

And I felt my stomach give a lurch.

“But still, vomiting . . . ,” I protested.

“No,” Elena interrupted. “Everybody thinks that, and it’s wrong. Vomiting when you’re sick is completely different. It’s very uncomfortable, and you can’t stop it. You can’t control it—it’s not anything like purging.”

Control. I thought about that. I thought about this hidden skill, this secret sense of control.

But then I thought about something else. But how hidden had it been, really?

“All those doctors I watched you talk to during the Summer from Hell,” I said. “Did they know you purged?”

Did they lie to me? demanded the mom.

“Nah,” Elena said. “Dr. Costello and the other hospital doctors probably thought they knew what they were looking for: dingy teeth, brittle nails, that kind of thing. I’ve always been very careful about that. It’s the little things that give you away.”

Quieted, the mom settled down, and the writer took over again. In my imagination, I saw my character going through her daily life, using her body like a mask, like a shield. She was watching over its details in order not to give away the secret life going on inside . . .

But at the same time, sadness was starting to well up inside me. It was exhausting, this strange new world I was having to see.

“Did you tell Dr. Petras?” I asked. “Is that why he diagnosed you anorexic and put you in the hospital?” And, even though I tried my best to stay in my writer’s mind, I fidgeted at the thought. This was still a sore point with me.

I couldn’t help it. I just despised that man!

“No, he didn’t know,” Elena said. “And I don’t think he guessed, either. I didn’t tell him very much. He just got lucky with his diagnosis.”

Lucky?! shrieked the mom. But I shut her down.

“Well, what about the psychiatrists at the children’s hospital?” I went on. “What about Dr. Costello?”

“No, I didn’t tell them. They seemed to think that there were anorexics and bulimics, and the anorexics restricted, and the bulimics purged. They knew it wasn’t that simple by that time, but it still seemed like a lot of them thought that way anyway.”

This struck a chord with me.

“You know, I think I remember reading that back then,” I said, “about the difference between anorexics and bulimics. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t think you purged.”

“There is a big difference, but it doesn’t have to do with purging,” Elena said. “Tons of anorexics purge.”

Elena and I worked all evening. She talked while I took notes, and if she wasn’t as vivacious and alert as the old Elena, she fought off the sedation more effectively than she’d done in weeks. Then she took her evening pills and vanished into sleep while I lay awake, studying my notes.

This is amazing! I thought in a rush of excitement. She’s really committed to this! She really is letting me into her world.

But it was a creepy world, a world that made my skin crawl.

I thought of the Critical Voice, harping away day and night. I thought of vomiting, turned into an addictive pleasure. I thought of teeth and nails, not as parts of a regular person, but as a kind of disguise instead. I thought of doctors, not as professionals who healed and helped, but as bumbling detectives to be fooled and put on the wrong trail.

Nothing that I touched in this new world was turning out to be the way I thought it would. A normal person couldn’t survive here for five minutes.

My imagination called up scenes to show me, building them out of the comments tonight and out of the bits of information I’d learned over the years. Before, this information had been a source of worry for me. Now, it gave me important clues. I needed to see this strange new place. I needed to learn about the character who lived there.

Toilets became faithful allies in the quest for independence. Trash cans guarded secrets. Kitchens became a frightening, bewildering muddle.

This was a misty place, where details blurred and scenes swam in the fog of perpetual starvation—a fog I could relate to from my experience of serious blood loss. Touch and feeling, I remembered, had become stronger and more reliable than vision. Over time, touch must start to supplement sight in this foggy world.

Touch. Hands wrapped around the thigh meant victory. Hunger pangs meant reassurance. The curve of the collarbone turned into a kind of worry stone, to be touched and rubbed again and again.

Gingerly, I tested out my theories about this dim world, which rippled with unforeseen dangers and unusual suggestions. It was an austere place, that I could easily understand. There was no abundance here of any kind. Everything had to be measured out and rationed, from food to action to breath.

Little by little, the world I was building began to feel like the undersea world of the mermaids Elena loved so much.

This was a lesser world.

It was a fragile, attenuated existence.

It survived on borrowed light.

It was such a hard place for the delicate creature who drifted through it! No wonder so many of her brothers and sisters ended up dead.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco Bay by Joseph R. Dunkle, copyright 2016. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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I Agree to Write Elena’s Memoir, Elena Vanishing

Elena Dunkle several days after her miscarriage

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt starts on page 419. A few days before this episode, Elena had cut herself badly, and she and I had reached a real low point in our relationship. Then, the day this episode took place, Elena and I attended Family Day at her eating disorder treatment center. The programs there opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know about anorexia nervosa and about my own daughter.

Elena and I drove home in silence. My head hummed and whirled with all the new information I’d learned. I thought of my earlier decision: I’m done! She’s a closed book. I thought of how I had thrown up my hands and told myself that no one could understand my daughter.

But that was the coward’s way out. Understanding was possible.

It had to be possible—because it was necessary.

But how? I had tried, hadn’t I? I’d tried, and I’d failed. Elena and I didn’t talk anymore. We’d lost the energy to talk.

How could we bridge the gulf between us?

Understanding. My brain knows only one way to get to understanding. When I have a question I can’t answer, I write a story. I watch my characters, and I learn from what they do. Over the years, my characters have taught me many things I’d never even begun to guess before working with them.

And Elena has the mind of a writer, too.

Since the Summer from Hell, Elena had wanted to write a memoir about her anorexia. She’d asked me every few months if I would help her. Each time, I had told her no, that this was her story to tell, not mine.

But was that really what was behind my no?

Wasn’t I really just pushing all this away? Wasn’t I just refusing to get involved? My telling her to write the story herself was a way of saying (to myself, at least): This isn’t my problem. This is somebody else’s problem. And I have problems of my own.

Now, as I drove, I turned my mind to look at my characters, one by one. Paul, my werewolf woodcarver, pale and sick with his deadly contagion, afraid for those around him. Kate, plucky and serious, determined to figure out a way to vanquish goblins. Poor little Izzy, the ghost without eyes who had been my wayward daughter Valerie. Martin, whose adventures had gotten tangled up in my own unhappy life.

As I’d written about them, I’d learned things that no one else around them knew. I’d discovered things—all kinds of things—that even they didn’t know. I loved all my characters, even in their weakest moments. Even the villains had a chance to tell me their side of the story.

Had I been denying my own family this same closeness?

Elena and I reached the orphanage, and I parked the car in the horseshoe-shaped driveway. It was going to be a busy night here. There was only one spot left. In silence, Elena and I walked past grandparents talking on their cell phones, past a father pacing the hall with his fretful baby, past a trio of children running by with dollar bills in their hands to feed into the vending machine.

I unlocked our door. Elena walked in and dropped her backpack by her bed. “I’m glad that’s over!” she muttered, stretching.

I was still standing by the door.

I should say it, I thought. But it was going to be hard—I could see that already. It would be harder than anything I’d ever tried. Maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I didn’t have enough of the gift.

And what would be the cost if I failed?

But then again, what was the other option? Keeping my head in the sand? Protecting myself? Leaving my own daughter to carry her burden of stress and pain while I played with my imaginary friends?

“Elena,” I said, and there was something in my tone that made her stop and look at me. Probably I sounded like I was about to deliver one of those “mom” pronouncements that make children want to roll their eyes. Yes, that must be it because I could see Elena’s face falling into her polite, distant mask.

And I thought, I do not see how this is going to work.

“Elena,” I said, “you’ve asked me to help you write a book about your eating disorder. If you still want me to help you, I will.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Elena a few days after her miscarriage copyright 2009 by Elena Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Books and reading, Creativity, Elena Vanishing, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Folklore and Psychology

Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, beginning on page 404, conveys a concept near and dear to my heart: the stories we gravitate toward reveal aspects of ourselves that we don’t consciously understand. This episode took place at a particularly bleak time in Elena’s therapy. She was on an enormous quantity of psychiatric medications and was a somnambulant shell of her former vivacious self. I was staying with her in lodging while she underwent full-day therapy at an eating disorder center about a thousand miles from our home. The therapy wasn’t going well.

It was the morning of our weekly family-therapy appointment, the one day a week when I got to have a pleasant chat with a real living, breathing person who was looking me in the eye. Today, Susan, the therapist, leaned toward me and remarked brightly:

“Elena says you think she’s possessed by a devil.”

Well, isn’t that lovely! I thought.

Elena and I had been at Clove House for about a month. She was marginally more wakeful but still very subdued. To me, she seemed like a zombie, and our relationship had gotten so bad that neither one of us tried to converse anymore. Elena wanted to go home; I wouldn’t take her. That was where things stood.

It was true that I hated Elena’s eating disorder so much that I pictured it as a devil. My imagination showed it to me as a big, ugly, flabby demon with shiny, sweaty skin, crouching at the center of her soul. It opened its wide, froglike mouth and guzzled down great gulps of loneliness and isolation. It grew fat and sleek on her misery. Meanwhile, it let fall just a few crumbs of peace now and then—just enough shreds of satisfaction to keep Elena working hard to feed it that feast of hunger and pain.

Of course, Elena knew perfectly well that my imagination showed me everything in images like that. It pictured problems in metaphor and story. That’s how I could write. But Elena must have known that Susan wouldn’t get this, and she hadn’t made any attempt to explain. She must have gotten a good laugh out of telling Susan about this devil and watching the therapist’s shocked reaction.

Possessed by a devil—what a stupid thing to say!

“Well, I certainly don’t think Elena needs to go through an exorcism with bell, book, and candle, if that’s what you mean,” I said.

Susan tilted her head, very professional and interested and coy.

“Can you tell us what you do mean?”

Us? There was no us, as Susan knew perfectly well. Elena was sitting beside me on the couch, but mentally, she was a world away. Her eyelids were drooping, and she had sunk into the cushions. Ten to one, she was already half asleep.

That left Susan, and Susan had brought this topic up with that slightly smug smile that says, Until proven otherwise, I am going with the assumption that you are a superstitious, ignorant moron.

Oh, yeah? I thought.

Time to open up a big ol’ can of academia.

“You know I’m a writer,” I said. “My writing is based on folklore—on myths. These are the oldest stories we have, and even today, we still can’t stop telling them. They center on themes that are ancient and universal. Pluto drags Persephone off to the underworld; the Phantom of the Opera drags Christine off to the caverns below Paris.”

In my mind, my goblin King brushed his striped hair out of his bony face and gave me a wry smile.

You, too! I told him, and he nodded.

“Stories like that exist in every country, in every language,” I went on. “I think they explain how we deal with the psychological demands of our world. They may even have to do with how our brains are wired.”

“I see,” Susan said cautiously.

I could tell that Susan was disappointed. She’d probably been angling for emotional hot buttons between Elena and me. Maybe she’d hoped for a nice knock-down-drag-out fight over religion. But Elena was almost asleep. And I wasn’t a professor’s child for nothing.

“When it comes to anorexia nervosa,” I said, “the first thing I think of is Ophelia. Did you know that Ophelia-style mermaid stories occur all over the world?”

Susan fidgeted. “Ophelia isn’t a mermaid.”

“The story repeats all over the world,” I said again. “Ophelia is just the best example. Think about it: think about who Ophelia is. She’s the girl who’s been used and tossed aside. She more or less admits that she slept with Hamlet, and she may even be pregnant. Then Hamlet turns on her. He tells her that he doesn’t love her and won’t marry her, and that she can’t marry anybody else, either. Presumably, he’s reminding her that she’s no longer a virgin. He insults and humiliates her. He even kills her father.

“So Ophelia does what wronged girls and unwed pregnant girls have done since the oldest days of story. She finds some water nearby, and she drowns herself.”

Susan glanced at Elena. “But to get back . . .”

“Compare that to the Little Mermaid,” I continued, ignoring her. “And I mean the real Little Mermaid, not the Disney one. Andersen’s mermaid gives up everything to win her prince—not unlike Ophelia. But her prince doesn’t love her. She even has to dance for him and his bride on their wedding day. Her sisters try to persuade her to kill the prince, but she throws herself into the water instead.”

As I spoke, I remembered the day when my mother first introduced me to that story, the story where the mermaid doesn’t win her prince. So powerful was the spell it put me under that I could remember everything about where I was with the new book she had bought me: in my parents’ room, sitting on the edge of their bed as the two of us turned the pages. My feet were swinging. They didn’t touch the ground. That book was a board book, I was so little. It was designed so preschool children wouldn’t spoil the pages.

A preschool board book about a woman, brokenhearted, unlucky in love, who can either commit murder or lose her own life. Wouldn’t Susan have a field day with that!

Not that she would ever hear about it from me.

“So, I ask you,” I went on in my blandest lecturing voice, “why has the legend of the Little Mermaid stayed with us? Why is Ophelia one of the most memorable teenage girls in literature? Why are there pools all over the world, watched over by the spirits of drowned girls who pull men down to their deaths?”

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Pools?”

“You’ve never heard of a rusalka?” I countered. “That’s either a drowned girl who was wronged and killed herself, like Ophelia, or a water nymph, like the Little Mermaid. Either way, the rusalki are predatory spirits that haunt sources of water, and they drown men without pity. Deadly female water spirits show up all over Europe and Asia. I know of a mythic water demon like that from Hawaii.”

Susan leaned forward, intent again—but probably just intent on bringing this lecture to a close. She asked, “But how does this ‘water demon’ relate to you and Elena?”

That was a good question.

I didn’t know.

“It’s a pattern,” I concluded. “An age-old human pattern, like Pluto kidnapping Persephone. But this particular age-old human pattern has a special meaning for Elena. She surrounds herself with images of mermaids.”

And she didn’t even grow up like I did, I thought, with the tragic mermaid who loses her prince. In her generation, they’ve tampered with the story to make it work out to a happy ending.

When was it? I mused. When did my daughter first start showing me pictures of mermaids and Ophelias? She would do Internet searches and scour library books to find them. Most important was Millais’s famous Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, so delicate, surrounded by flowers. Her clothes spread wide, and mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up . . .

Was it? Yes, it had to be. It must have been after the rape.

Would I be sharing that with Susan?


“So, if you sum up the patterns,” I concluded, “the mermaid/Ophelia embodies a history of sexual violence or mistreatment. She wanted a normal life, but it was a man who took that life away from her. Heartbreak drove her into the water—or back into the water. It was a step from life toward death, and the mermaid is happy to repay the favor. Think about this: the mermaid is the strong one when she meets a human man. He’s the one who needs to fear for his life. Is that why mermaids bring mistreated girls such a sense of satisfaction? Is that why they seek out water? Because mermaids have transcended a man’s mistreatment, and now they can kill?”

Susan declined to comment. I brought up religion, she was probably thinking. I wanted indignation, vulnerability, and a reexamination in a new light of this family’s most fundamental structures. I wanted to break something open, to get something started. This has nothing to do with what I wanted.

Well, no. Because her approach had been idiotic.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the Mermaid Fountain, Allerton Garden, Kauai, copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Books and reading, Folk traditions, Hope and Other Luxuries, Jungian archetypes, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Line-edit Stage of The House of Dead Maids

Flower from the Canadian Rockies

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt starts on page 395. Elena was in treatment at Clove House all day long, seven days a week. I was living with her in a small room in a former orphanage and driving her back and forth to treatment. Elena was so drugged out from all the medications they gave her that she couldn’t stay awake. She could barely even speak. I was lonely and beside myself with fear over whether Elena would survive. It was a horribly depressing time for us both.

During this dark time, I was working on a dark book, doing final edits (line edits) on The House of Dead Maids. It’s worth noting that I first wrote The House of Dead Maids back in early 2006. I blogged about its beginning here. That manuscript was finally going through line edit in early 2009, three years after I’d written it. It had been sold first to Simon & Schuster and then, when my editor there left, to Holt. Seeing a book make it all the way to print often takes years in the trade publishing world.

That night, I tossed and turned. My head hurt, and I felt horrible. My peace of mind was gone, and so was my comfort.

“I don’t feel good,” I told Elena the next morning as she smoked and we watched the Canada geese. “I’m getting a cold. I couldn’t sleep last night.”

Elena flicked the ash away. There were big bags under her eyes, and her face looked puffy. “I feel like s***,” she groaned, in agreement or in competition. “My head is killing me.”

“It’s going to rain again,” I ventured after a minute. “More thunderstorms on the way. No wonder those great big peripatetic geese don’t need a pond.”

Elena rested her aching head on her hand as smoke dribbled out of her lips. She didn’t bother to come up with a reply. And when she went to treatment, she didn’t bother to change out of pajamas, either.

“Why get dressed,” she muttered, “if I’m just going to sleep?”

The next day, or maybe a day three days later, or maybe a day a week later (they all felt the same), I dropped Elena off at Clove House and went back to the room to read manuscript printouts.

The Wuthering Heights manuscript full of ghosts that I had written when Valerie ran away was back again, all grown-up like she was. It had reached the line-edit stage, the very last stage before my editor passed it along to the art department and it got made into a book. All I needed to do at this point was to make sure that every single word sounded perfect.

That was good because it distracted me from the fact that I had no other writing to do. Since bringing Elena to Clove House, I hadn’t found the time or courage to start another new manuscript.

Now I carried the printout to the bed, picked up my red Sharpie fine-point pen, and got to work.

I was not the first girl she saw, nor the second, and as to why she chose me, I know that now: it was because she did not like me. She sat like a magistrate on the horsehair sofa, examining me for failings.

“I mustn’t take a half-wit, though,” she said reluctantly, as if she would like to do it. She seemed to consider idiocy the greatest point in my favor.

“Oh, our Tabby’s no half-wit,” countered Ma Hutton. “She just has that look. You did say you wanted to see an ugly one, miss.”

Miserable and sick, blowing my nose until tissues littered the bed, I lingered long and lovingly over this manuscript. The descriptions were so firm and decisive. The characters—even the dead ones—were so vivid.

Could it be true? Was this really my writing?

In the safety of my room, I stood for a while and stared out the window. Thunderclouds massed behind the suburb and rolled in over the deserted playground. Rain hissed down on the gray sidewalk outside, and then hail tapped and rattled on the glass.

The chipmunks and the geese were gone.

If I were at home, Joe would be making special runs to the grocery store to bring home medicine and snacks for me. And Valerie wouldn’t let me hold baby Gemma with this cold, but she would bring me cups of tea. She might even show up at my bedroom door and say, “Get dressed, woman! Dad called and got you an appointment. I’m driving you to the doctor.”

But Valerie and Joe weren’t here, and I didn’t have the strength to go down the hall to the kitchenette and make that tea myself. So I huddled under the blankets and shivered and reached for my line-edit printouts.

Soon I was safe in familiar scenes I’d plotted three years ago, watching two little children play with their dolls by a crackling fire while ghosts crouched in the shadows nearby. I let myself get lost in the story, as if it weren’t my work at all but an old book I’d found in a forgotten corner of a library.

Did I really write this? It sounded so confident—so unlike the person I’d become.

Would I ever have the nerve to write like this again?

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a flower from the Canadian Rockies copyright 2010 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Books and reading, Characters, Editors, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Elena Asks for Help with her Memoir Again

San Francisco skyline from the shore near Fort Baker

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt comes from page 374. By this time, Elena was a residential patient again at an eating disorder treatment center we’re calling Clove House. She had finally revealed an important trigger in the development of her eating disorder: she had been violently raped at thirteen years old by a stranger at a party. Then, the year before this excerpt, when Elena was working in the college dorms, she had revealed her anorexia nervosa diagnosis to her bosses and peers as part of a diversity training session held by the counseling center. The very next day, Elena’s boss had demanded that she see a psychologist and had asked that psychologist if Elena was fit to do her work. The day after that, she had fired Elena.

The shame and fury of this unjust firing had brought back Elena’s eating disorder with a vengeance. She had spent months taking out her rage on her own body. Sadly, Elena had then become pregnant, but the eating disorder had so damaged her health by that time that she had lost the child.

It was at this point that Elena again asked me to help her write her memoir. She wanted her story told, but she couldn’t face the pain of it herself.

At that point, neither could I.

Clove House had done medical testing. Elena’s eating disorder had stunted her bones. She would never have the height or the full woman’s figure she should have had. It hurt my heart to know that, to know this had happened on my watch. But we had trusted Dr. Eichbaum. We had trusted his diagnosis: ambitious, dramatic—but nothing to worry about.

So much to look back on. So much to regret. And maybe Elena was thinking the same thing.

“I’ve been working on my memoir,” she began.

“Good for you!”

“We have lots of time to write in our journals,” she said, “so I’ve been trying to write things down. But I can’t. I just can’t do it.”

Immediately, I slipped into writing-workshop mode. “Maybe you’re overthinking it,” I said. “You don’t have to hunt for big words or perfect explanations. It can be as simple as the stories you’ve told me tonight: just think how you would say them to me, and write them down like that.”

Elena broke in on this well-worn advice. “No,” she said. “It isn’t that I can’t write it. I just can’t do it.”

She turned back from the view of the window and glanced my way, and for a fraction of a second, the pain she was in shone out through her eyes. It seared its way into my soul.

Raped at thirteen, a goofy, silly girl, unable to defend herself or shed the shame. Locked up and bullied in one hospital after another, until her trust in authority figures was broken. Stressed out, pushed along through high school and college, forced to pretend that she was in complete control, that she had this, that she could get past it. Betrayed by her bosses at the university after all her hard work, belittled for the very condition she couldn’t control—for the one part of her ambitious existence that she had carved out to belong to her, that was nobody’s business but hers. And then, the baby, her own little butterfly baby, with its own light, perfect heartbeat . . .

Yes, I could understand why she couldn’t do it.

“Well . . . Maybe it’s just not time yet for your memoir,” I said awkwardly. “It’s something that can wait until you’re ready.”

Elena looked back at the view outside. Her brows were furrowed. She was chewing on her lip.

“I just wish,” she said, “that you could help me.”

And that pain seared through me again.

“I—I just think that it isn’t my book,” I said. “It’s not what I’m good at, not at all, it’s the way you think, it’s what you do well. I’m right here, though. I’ll read what you write. I can help you write it . . .”

Elena’s expression didn’t change. “Sure,” she said, and she let the matter drop.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of the San Francisco skyline from the shore near Fort Baker copyright 2016 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Elena Vanishing, Writing craft | Leave a comment

Pulled in Too Many Directions

Duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, from page 304, follows closely on the last one. I was struggling to complete any writing at all while I watched my daughter becoming dangerously ill. But my publishing house and I were trying to complete work on The Walls Have Eyes. I had deadlines. The work had to get done. To this day, I can’t reread The Walls Have Eyes without feeling nightmarish amounts of anxiety and guilt.

Elena and I sat and chatted and swapped favorite songs and YouTube videos for half a happy hour or so. Then she gave a yawn. “I’m going to go lie down,” she said. “I’ve been up since four, studying.”

“How about letting me fix you a little lunch,” I offered. But I already knew what the answer would be.

“Nah, not right now. Later.”

Later . . .

That meant never.

“I could do with a break,” I said, following her across the living room. “How about a Sherlock Holmes?”

Elena and I both adored Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. As far as we were concerned, he had been genetically engineered to play that role.

“Okay,” she said. “But I get to pick which one.”

“Caramel corn?” I offered, turning back to the kitchen.

“Yeah!” she answered.

Yes! I thought. A win! And I sprinkled the caramel corn into two bowls with a generous hand—even though I knew I would be the only one to finish mine.

Sometime later, my daughter finally headed off to bed, and I returned with the stacked bowls to the kitchen. I snacked on the rest of her caramel corn while I opened up my laptop again. Martin’s story was going through final edits, under deadline. I had to do my writing!

I opened up the file again, stared at the black letters against white, and waited for my imagination to bring me the right film. I waited while it flitted through scenes of YouTube kittens and the Sherlock Holmes episode. He was brilliant! That nervous twitch, the sudden turn of the head away from the villain . . .

Now I was seeing the interior of the pantry. Was there anything in there that maybe Elena would eat later tonight?

I closed my eyes and took a long, calming breath.

Finally, the turbulent rush of images stilled, and I could focus on the text again. I was in a dusty room. Martin had a lump in his throat. He was hugging his dog . . .

“Mom!” Elena yelled from her bedroom. “The cat peed in here again, all over my pillows!”

And poof! Martin was gone.

“You’ve got to keep your door shut!” I called back.

“I do keep my door shut! They sneak in!” Which was certainly true. And they were my cats, after all.

I set aside my laptop to go retrieve the pillows and wash them. That’s a good use of time, too, I thought, perking up. I’ll separate the laundry. It’s starting to pile up. I’ll wait to work on this file until the house quiets down tonight.

Anything to put it off. Anything to keep from living through Martin’s sadness as well as my own.

“Close the door,” Elena murmured as I carried the offending pillows out of her room.

Lately, Joe and I had been discussing a plan with our Georgia kids. Clint was scheduled to go into Air Force basic training in the spring. Valerie’s lease would be up in March. We’d offered to bring Valerie out here to live with us while Clint was going through his training. But this thought awakened a new swarm of worries in my mind. So much needed to get done—

Specifically, Martin’s book needed to get done.

Joe knew this, too. At dinner, he asked, “So, how much writing did you get done?”

“Not too much,” I said, thinking with guilty misery about the neglected file. “I don’t know where the time went.”

Where had my time gone today? What had I accomplished? A few pages of edits, a bowl and a half of caramel corn, and three loads of laundry.

Joe didn’t comment, but I could see the disappointment on his face, and that disappointment hurt. I just wasn’t very good at balancing my priorities, I thought. I didn’t have the knack of pleasing everybody at once.

Joe and I washed the dinner dishes. Okay, no more commitments now. I would get to that file—very soon. But first, I would practice piano, just for a few minutes, just to clear my head. That would take my mind off my worries.

Or would it?

Lately, even the piano made me feel guilty and unhappy. Week after week now, I didn’t seem to get any practicing done. Each time I saw the piano teacher, my old friend, I felt her patience with my lack of progress. But it hurt. I was failing even at my hobby.

Now, I ran through last week’s song over and over. My hands were so clumsy! They never seemed to be where my brain told them to be. But slowly, the plaintive melody formed under my fingers. It was a little piece in D minor. It sounded like a Russian folk tune.

As I played, my mind filled with scenes of snow. Then a city floated up among the snow drifts, all gray columns and gray stone, with a white, frozen river threading through it.


There was a broad window with light shining out, golden light that sparkled like champagne. Tall men in black evening dress floated past the golden window, clasping pale women in flowing ball gowns.


A peasant clumped by beneath the window, out on the icy street. His long brown beard was snowy, and his feet were wrapped in rags.


Elena was at my elbow.

“Can’t you do that later?” she begged. “I was up all night studying for my exam.”

In my mind, I reached for the snow-filled city again. “But I can’t keep putting it off,” I said. “I never practice anymore!”

“You can practice while I’m at school.”

“But I don’t. That’s when I write.” Try to write, I corrected myself.

“You can write while I’m asleep.”

“But I don’t! It’s too late in the day by then!”

“Mom, please.”

The city was gone. Elena’s face was all I could see now. It was exhausted. No, not just exhausted—drawn and pale.

Remorse and worry shot through me. She’s sick again, I thought. She just got over being sick, and now she’s sick again!

“Please?” Elena said again.

So I stopped.

I need to drop these piano lessons anyway, I thought. We’ll have a baby in the house soon. And I’ve got deadlines. I need to save up my time for writing. And speaking of writing, I need to get back to Martin.

The edits wouldn’t go well, I realized with gloomy certainty. They were going to be . . .


But they had to get done. They had to get done!

Anyway, it was good that Martin was facing these kinds of scenes. He needed to learn that life wasn’t going to be all that I had hoped for him. I had wanted him to have reader friends, but that wasn’t going to happen now. He would have to get used to loneliness and neglect.

Even my characters wanted things I couldn’t give them.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a duck family near Arnhem, The Netherlands, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Characters, Daily life, Hope and Other Luxuries, Writing craft, Writing distractions | Leave a comment

Sadness in Real Life Means Sadness in My Novels

Gustav, victim of the Vasa shipwreck, Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

This excerpt, from page 302, describes a time when my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa was once again taking control and she had moved back home with her father and me. I was worried sick and miserable about her. My two cats were taking advantage of the situation to escape into the backyard as often as they could. We lived on a very quiet street with no through traffic, but I felt they weren’t safe outside.

My writing started to reflect my worries about Elena’s health and the cats’ safety. It’s no accident that today’s excerpt contains a dead cat.

After a couple of hours, Elena would get up, blinking sleepily, wrap the fuzzy blanket around her middle, and shamble off to smoke a prenap cigarette on the patio.

“Mom!” she would call about half the time. “Simon and Tor got out again!”

Would the cats be okay? It was just one more thing to worry about, but I couldn’t fight on every front at once. Joe, Martin, Elena, Simon and Tor, Valerie and Clint and the grandbaby . . . I was starting to have to pick my priorities, and Martin and the cats were losing.

Oh, well. At least the cats loved it outside. And Martin—

Martin was having to grow up.

Last year had been the most successful writing year I’d had. I had brought in almost as much money as Joe did. But this year had been completely miserable. Martin’s first adventure had come out, but the publishing house had shoved it down a hole. They had done no marketing at all. Almost no one knew that his first book even existed.

I didn’t feel it as a blow to me personally. I had never felt like a real author. But the thought of Martin and his dog Chip out there on their own, having the adventure of a lifetime . . . They should have had reader friends to go with them on that journey.

First, I had failed to help Elena. Now I’d failed Martin, too, and my sadness over these failures soaked into his world. They didn’t change who Martin was, but they changed what happened to him.

One afternoon, I sat at the kitchen table and sipped my coffee. My laptop was open, and I was rereading a marked-up Word file, working on some last-minute revisions. But I wasn’t seeing words. I was seeing what Martin was seeing.

He was face-to-face with heartbreak and loss.

Martin couldn’t make up his mind about the skeleton slumped over the table. One second, it seemed small and pitiful. The next, it seemed uncanny and horribly inhuman, and he wanted to smash it with the nearest heavy object he could find.

Rudy had told him that the people who hadn’t gotten picked for the domed suburbs had lined up to be given euthanasia shots.

“I guess I’d want to die at home too,” Martin murmured to Chip. “You know, have a little peace and quiet.”

Because skeletons were only people, after all—people who had faced the ultimate rejection and experienced the ultimate failure.

Martin plucked up the courage to come closer. Dry brown skin encased the bony hand in a glove of its own making. It lay in that flattish nest of fur that was piled up in the basket. A pet basket to match the little paw print bowls in the kitchen. A cat bed. The pale fur belonged to a cat.

A vision wove itself together in Martin’s mind of the house before the dust, when the neat row of potted plants in the kitchen had been green and flourishing. The world was ending, and people were forming long lines to get their shot. But this man with the paw print bowls couldn’t do that. What would happen to his cat? He couldn’t just put her outside and not come back. He loved her too much. So he gave his cat poison and stroked her until she lay still, and then he took poison himself. And the soft fur of his cat was the last thing he felt as he drifted away into death.

Martin’s throat ached. He knelt down and buried his face in his dog’s shaggy fur. “I wouldn’t leave you, either, Chip,” he said. “Not ever.”

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of Gustav, victim of the Vasa shipwreck, Vasa Museum, Stockholm, Sweden, copyright 2015 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

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Jungian Themes Again

Crow in front of Maximilian sunflowers, Berkeley, California

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

Other excerpts from the memoir have highlighted the fact that for me, story creation is like a guided dream. I usually discover later that my stories have been helping me work through issues that matter to my conscious and unconscious mind, in the way that Carl Jung suggested dreams did. Today’s short excerpt, taken from page 259, provides another example of that “dream” imagery.

On a cool day in November, Joe was away on one of his trips. Once again, my cats lounged beside the big brown armchair while I typed on my laptop, black words against white. But I wasn’t seeing black and white. Martin and Chip, his computerized German shepherd, were standing in a parking lot full of derelict cars.

What does a parking lot look like, I wondered, when it hasn’t been used for fifty years?

Not like a parking lot anymore. The rust-colored cars weren’t on asphalt. Weeds had sprouted and sprung up. No, not weeds, summer wildflowers. The cars were almost buried in big dense groups of yellow Maximilian sunflowers.

I smiled. I remembered playing in Maximilian sunflowers when I was little. I started to type.

Chip cavorted through the yellow flowers, then pounced. Seconds later, he came prancing up with a stick. He sidled into Martin, knocking him off balance, and whipped his bushy tail back and forth. Yellow petals went flying like confetti.

Then Martin looked up and saw the ruined skyscrapers of the abandoned downtown ahead of them. When he saw them, I could see them, too.

About a mile away, a cluster of thin buildings reached improbable heights, as if some giant hand had come down from the sky and pulled them toward the heavens. Some were faced with polished stone, still stylish and dignified. Others were faced with panels of mirrored glass. These had shattered and left dark squares here and there, so that their sides looked like surreal chessboards. Flocks of birds swooped in and out and gave their solid lines the illusion of movement.

I thought about that for a quiet minute—that ruined city.

The phone rang, and my view resolved once again into two unconscious cats and my green backyard. But I didn’t wince as I answered it. My life contained plenty of peace nowadays.

“Hey, Mamacita!” said Valerie’s voice. “I’ve got something to ask you. Do you think Clint and I are too comfortable?”

“Hello, honey,” I said. “I guess I don’t know. What do you mean by ‘too comfortable’? Comfortable sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, but we’ve been dating for almost two years,” Valerie said. “That whole time, we haven’t gone out with anybody else. We don’t even argue. It’s like we’re an old married couple already. Don’t you think we’re too young to be that settled?”

My black sheep daughter, too settled. That idea felt so good that, mentally, I took off my shoes and ran barefoot through it. Valerie, settled and comfortable, like part of an old married couple. Yellow petals whirled into the air around me.

Ruins, yes. The ruins of old structures, old habits and old ways of being. But from the ruins, new flowers were springing up. Life and growth was all around me.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a crow in front of Maximilian sunflowers, Berkeley, California, copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

Posted in Anorexia nervosa, Jungian archetypes, Story creation, Writing craft | Leave a comment