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.

This entry was posted in Anorexia nervosa, Elena Vanishing, Writing craft. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *