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.

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