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(Un)triggering Anorexia: A Cognitive Literary Analysis of Lia "the Liar" in Wintergirls (2009)

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Abstract

The importance of authorial intention has been debated extensively in literary studies. In cognitive literary studies, however, the effects books provoke in readers are of greater relevance. With an unreliable intradiegetic narrator, ambivalent about her denial of hunger, Wintergirls (2009), a US YA anorexia novel, embodies the spiraling network of lies that feeds this condition. This essay takes Wintergirls as a starting point to discuss the therapeutic or harmful effects of literature, over and above the intentions of the writer. Adopting a cognitive literary perspective, this essay proposes the concept of an "unreliable reader," and uses that concept to demonstrate that the novel has a self-triggering potential to reinforce anorexia. This is an unusual approach, inasmuch as it runs counter to previous positive literary criticism of Wintergirls, but it is a perspective in urgent need of reconsideration for the sake of disordered readers.
(Un)triggering Anorexia: A Cognitive Literary Analysis of Lia the
Liar in Wintergirls (2009)
Rocío Riestra-Camacho
The Role of Writers and Readers
In 1969, Louise Michelle Rosenblatt, one of the early proponents of
reader-response, declared that twentieth-century literary critics had
sought to dissociate the interpretation of the text from the author’s
intention but those efforts “did not, however, lead to a systematic
understanding of the reader’s contribution.
1
Fifty years before her
essay, T. S. Eliot developed Washington Allston’s “objective
correlative” to describe textual features that have the same emotional
impact for the author and the reader.
2
According to Rosenblatt, the
objective correlative was erroneously interpreted to mean aspects of
the text that “somehow elicit[ed] an automatic response from the
presumably passive reader.”
3
For Rosenblatt, this intepretation
equated the act of reading to that of responding to a set of traffic
lights, whereas “any reading is far more complex than such a simple
stimulus-response situation.”
4
Nearly three decades after Eliot, in
1946, W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, two of the most
eminent proponents of the New Criticism school of thought, removed
the author from the picture entirely with their coining of the
intentional fallacy.” Rather than an author conveying intent through
an objective correlative to a receptive reader, then, they argued that
the intentions of an author were simply not pertinent to the reading or
evaluation of a piece of fiction. The postmodern vision of Roland
Barthes in “The Death of the Author” was likely influenced by the
ideas of Wimsatt and Beardsley, and proved widely influential to a
generation of critics.
5
By the 1990s, however, literary critics like
Alice Templeton asserted that the author had been too easily put to
death.
6
Rather than achieving the renaissance of the reader, she
argued, the postmodern “death of the author” had overstated the
status of academic literary critics at the expense of audiences in the
street. Readers had been “too easily generalized or idealized” since
literary criticism obscured the part played by their diverse, individual
interpretations.
7
Among others, narratologists Marisa Bortolussi and Peter
Dixon have questioned critics’ tendency to consider their acts of
reading as broadly representative and to ascribe their own
interpretations to a singular common reader.
8
Cognitive literary
scholars take this objection a step further. Some claim that studying
the diverse psychological effects of texts on readers is the function of
literary criticism.
9
In that sense, cognitive literary studies starts from
an assumption that Emily Troscianko says is diametrically opposed
to Wimsatt and Beardsley’s focus on the text itself. Instead of
limiting the critical focus to the textual object alone, that is,
Troscianko sums up the cognitive approach as assuming “that what a
literary work ‘is’ can be best understood by investigating what it
‘does’ (because words on the page are not literature until they start to
do things cognitively), and that there is therefore no better starting
point for literary investigation than the psychological effects of great
works of fiction.”
10
Troscianko herself has studied these effects,
conducting a survey on the fiction-reading habits and self-reported
effects of reading on people with and without personal experience of
an eating disorder. A key finding of the study was that fiction
thematically related to eating disorders has a clear potential to
exacerbate related attitudes and behaviors.
Arguably, Troscianko's approach shares feature with reader-
response criticism. Hans Robert Hauss, one of the key scholars of the
latter, has argued that the interpretation of a text varies according to
the experiences lived by the readers, with the result that they do not
always share the motivations the author had when writing the piece.
11
Cognitive literary studies defends this same idea. This becomes clear
in the study of unreliable narration. Contra rhetorical accounts of the
role of the author in unreliable narration, which claim that a narrator
is unreliable only when held up against an implied author, Ansgar
Nünning disagrees, noting that this viewpoint “appears to provide the
critic again with a basis for . . . the correctness of an interpretation.”
12
For him, a narrator is unreliable according to “the reader’s or critic’s
psychological disposition, and system of norms and values.”
13
In
short, an unreliable narrator is the product of a reader’s interpretation
strategy: it’s how she makes sense of narration that departs from her
own standard of normalcy.
Despite the similarities between reader-response and
cognitive literary studies, their approach to literature differs widely.
Rosanne G. Potter insists that while reader-response does not
integrate scientific perspectives, cognitive literary studies does.
14
One
of the implications of this is that cognitive literary studies
incorporates variables like age or gender into the investigation of
readers’ responses to texts, asking how these and other factors
influence the reception of a literary piece.
15
Moreover, cognitive
literary critics are increasingly interested in psychological variables
among readers, including mental illness and functional diversity.
16
Through insights from psychologythe pillar of cognitive literary
studiessuch critics seek to analyze what Troscianko has referred to
as “particular embodied cognitive reading situation[s].”
17
This
particularity establishes a fundamental difference from
postmodernism, where the possibility of defending a multiplicity of
interpretive perspectives leads to a relativist position where “anything
goes.”
18
In cognitive literary studies, a particular type of reader is
defined around variables of study which are the common ground of
psychological practice. Cognitive literary scholars’ interest in both
psychological and literary research can then be exploited in
therapeutic programs that enlist fiction to promote mental well-being
(or “bibliotherapy”).
19
The opposite pattern of implementation can
also be contemplated: scholars can analyze the negative effects
provoked by reading certain booksthat is, their iatrogenic effect.
Troscianko herself focuses on investigating the reading situation of
people who suffer from eating disorders from this perspective, and
has gathered data about the harmful effects of literature dealing with
eating disorders (EDs).
20
In this journal, Emma Seaber has explored the reinforcement
potential of anorexia memoirs, noting how Marya Hornbacher’s 1998
Wasted is misused by patients “to exacerbate their anorexic thoughts
and behaviors.”
21
Her conclusion was cautious about the role
exercised by literature in the development of an eating disorder,
claiming that it would be preposterous to posit that Hornbacher’s
memoir is capable of causing anorexia, as it has not been established
that any text can trigger the disorder in healthy individuals.”
22
Seaber’s observation regarding healthy cohorts is particularly
relevant. Indeed, the study by Jennifer Thomas and colleagues she
references found that anorexia memoirs did not trigger eating
disordered behaviors in a sample of undiagnosed subjects; their
explanation was that the potential iatrogenic effect might be limited
to vulnerable populations.
23
In this sense, Seaber conceded that “there
does appear to be a special relationship between particular writing
and reading practices and anorexia identity formation and
maintenance for some readers with a predisposition to eating
disorders.”
24
Leslie Heywood’s thesis is in line with Seaber’s, and
places an emphasis on the “textuality” of eating disorders. Heywood
explores how emaciation is attained through obsessive academic
practices of reading and writing, where “the bodies [are] sacrificed to
textual models.”
25
In Starving, Writing, and Imprisonment, Maud
Ellmann insists that reading and writing supplants the act of eating,
comprising an “inverse relationship of words to food” because
anorexics “read . . . voraciously.”
26
Abigail Bray, who employed the
label “reading disorders” to refer to anorexia, submitted that
“anorexic reading practices” are a “perverse irrationality” because
their consumption facilitates autophagy.”
27
Nieves Pascual agrees,
arguing that for them, “the written word can actually take the place of
food.
28
This noxious correlation between eating disorders and the
habit of reading ED fiction seems specific to the anorexic pathology,
and it has not been found for other texts which prompt self-
destructive behaviors.
29
Ironically, practitioners of bibliotherapy have supported the
use of ED literature for anorexia patients, out of the supposition that
a cathartic-driven identification with the struggling character would
encourage the patient to initiate recovery.
30
Others have insisted on
the idea that the genre depicts characters gaining agency over their
bodiesMelanie Goss, for example, coined the term “self-
destructive agency” to denote the empowerment of protagonists in
ED fiction, including in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls.
31
In
this essay, I am not arguing that such literature should be censored.
Yet the evidence suggests that bibliotherapy with ED fiction does not
work for patients suffering from eating disorders. If an intervention is
planned, literary analysis should be conducted beforehand, since
researchers need to first delve into the complex consequences that
reading a book can have for the mental health of audiences before
beginning to exploit their supposedly therapeutic potential. This is
one of the reasons I consider the analysis of Wintergirls crucial.
Troscianko’s experiment opened up an interesting line of research,
which stands behind the aim of this essay: namely, analyzing how
people with an ED use ED-related fiction to “deliberately exacerbate
an eating disorder.”
32
One of the works participants in Troscianko’s
experiment resorted to more frequently to trigger anorexia is
Wintergirls.
Authorial Intention, Readerly Uses
Now the highest-rated novel in Goodreads.com’s ED fiction
category,
33
Wintergirls debuted on the New York Times bestseller list
in 2009.
34
The novel is a first-person narrative told by an unreliable
protagonist, the 18-year-old Lia Overbrook. Lia suffers from
anorexia and self-harm. After she has a falling-out with her friend
Cassie, Lia learns that Cassie has died from bulimia, complicating
the protagonist’s life and forcing her to confront her illness.
According to Lisa Zunshine’s Theory of Mind (ToM) theory,
35
average readers associate the thoughts narrated by a character to
corresponding actions.
36
If a character refuses food, they assume that
she is not hungry, is unwilling to eat, or that she dislikes the food
being offered, among other possible explanations. These kinds of
“scripts are complicated when the narrator is unreliable, as Lia is.
37
Without being sure about the narrator’s intentions behind her
continuous rejection of food, readers may ask about the author’s
intention. For Linda Oatman, the author intended the novel as a
model of hope for readers with anorexia because rather than leaving
them drowning in despair, . . . she brings both reader and protagonist
up for light and air, skilfully instilling and infusing hope.”
38
Her
optimistic view of the novel is shared by a fair quantity of critics;
39
according to Dorothy Karlin, for example, Wintergirls can even be
interpreted as a text with a “messag[e] of body acceptance,” written
with “a desire to help readers.”
40
Oatman sought out the author’s intention in an interview and
inquired about the representation of hope in her novel. Anderson
responded: ending on an encouraging note is part of my moral code.
Teenagers need to see a model of hope and growth.”
41
Despite this,
she noted that the metaphors of light-as-hope Oatman had identified
throughout Wintergirls were neither intended nor conscious
choices.
42
Oatman also addressed the controversy around Wintergirls
about its possible “copycat effect” among teen readers prone to
anorexia, asking Anderson whether writers have a moral
responsibility regarding the possible reactions sparked by their
work.
43
Anderson did not reply clearly to this, declaring that the
stories she writes stem from the heart, and that she could not allow
this one to be bound by factors and opinions external to it.
44
On
another occasion, she answered more adamantly, claiming that her
book is a depiction of the horror of anorexia, not a glamorization of
it.
45
Paradoxically, Anderson herself confirmed in another
interview that even though she was never diagnosed as anorexic,
disordered eating was definitely a piece of [her] life.”
46
Assuming a
degree of autobiographicity in Wintergirls, then, one might join
Pascual, who wonders “to what extent can the writing of an
autobiographical text reinforce the process of remission?
47
,
48
Pascual
goes on to suggest that such texts in fact reinforce the pathology,
both for authors and for readers, “who can be lured into catching the
illness.”
49
Kelsey Osgood shares this view of anorexia memoirs in
her own autobiography about the illness, remarking how they can be
used as guidebooks” because of their strongly contagious nature.
50
Megan Fogg’s take is equally vital; as a reviewer who developed
anorexia after reading Wintergirls, she warns that “many of the
writers behind this supposedly ‘pro-recovery rhetoric remain
seduced by their illness, and this ultimately permeates the
language.”
51
It is my view that Anderson’s ethics, in the sense of aiming
to write a hopeful novel for teenagers, are irrelevant. On the contrary,
the intentionality of the readers is a more useful starting point when
considering how Anderson’s audience approaches the book. As Kent
Bales proposed as early as 1987, “considering a reader’s intention,
then, is multiply improbable. Yet it is necessary . . . if empirical
research into why readers read differently is to proceed beyond very
simple levels.”
52
I submit that one goal of Anderson’s Wintergirls readership
is that of reinforcing hunger self-denial. Although I concede that
readers of Wintergirls play an active role as consumers who choose
what to read, and despite the fact that their capacity to critically
receive this novel cannot be ignored, subjects with eating disorders
display strong cognitive biases. Essentially, they present attentional
and memory biases which prompt them to evaluate texts and images
as weight and shape related, which hamper their ability to escape
harmful interpretations of eating disorder fiction.
53
In fact, even for
those readers aiming at collecting information about the disorder to
escape from it, possibly motivated by Wintergirls’s multiple positive
reviews, the protagonist’s unreliable narration cancels out this initial
aim. In one powerful review of Wintergirls, Ellen Ricks declared that
despite her former intentions to fight the early signs of an eating
disorder, she quickly started to mimic the narrator’s habits.
54
Ricks
gathers evidence of others who do the same, particularly in blogs
which glamorize eating disorders and quote the novel as a model for
anorexic practice. Here we might predicate the existence of an
“unreliable” reader, whose objective would be to willingly read
fiction intended for healingyet with the intention of doing
themselves harm. Fogg in fact admits that Lia’s “perception of the
world is so drunk with delusion and toxicity that ‘disordered readers’
cannot help sinking into this intoxication themselves.”
55
She ends by
insisting on the need for ED writers to be honest about their
audience.
56
For her part, Ricks’s conclusion is that there is no doubt
“that Wintergirls was written with the best of intentions” but being
“too well-written” is one of its fatal flaws.
57
Specifically, the veracity
of Lia’s account offers excessive evidence for vulnerable readers to
initiate or worsen their disordered condition. Anderson herself
emphasized that she wanted to portray “the ugly truth,” the “truth on
the page” of an eating disorder and, significantly, admitted that “the
book is raw and disturbing and scary as hell, because it tells Truth.”
58
The veracity of Wintergirls is inextricably linked to the
representation of the protagonist’s unreliability, since pathological
lying plays a relevant role in anorexia. In particular, two major
categories of dishonesty can be distinguished. On the one hand, there
is unintentional denial, which could be motivated by distorted
information processing, a neurological or psychotic impairment. The
second category entails a deliberate denial or refusal of self-
disclosure (including ‘faking good’), expressing an avoidance of
feared consequences or a need of self-determination” with regard to
food intake.
59
In short, anorexics lie to avoid eating. In line with the
latter category, Lia is mostly a deceptive charactershe has even
been described as “a master of deception.”
60
The way the narrator
resorts to deliberate obfuscation coincides with the strategies of
anorexics in such a way that readers with the condition do not find
Lia “unreliable because [their] values are not in discord with the
narrator’s.”
61
Their failure to interrogate Lia’s deception reinforces
the core of anorexia pathology, since, as Nünning argues, “an
unreliable narrator . . . [works] as an interpretive strategy by which
the reader naturalizes textual inconsistencies that might otherwise
remain unassimilable.”
62
The fact that Anderson aimed to portray anorexia truthfully,
selecting an unreliable narrator to do so, is understandable but
problematic. For Lia is not a mere liar: as will be seen in the
following analysis, her role as an unreliable narrator often consists in
revealing the truth whilst at the same time denying it. Tellingly, Lia
equates eating with lying. Recalling her stay at a psychiatric center,
she remembers how she “bit, chewed, swallowed day after day and
lied, lied, lied. (Who wants to recover? It took me years to get that
tiny. I wasn’t sick; I was strong).
63
Touches of magic realism are
sprinkled across the permanently ambivalent representation of her
psyche. Overall, such flourishes attain a curious effect where the
portrayal of the reality behind anorexia, with its persecutory
delusions, is a matter of fantasy and unreliability only for those
currently outside the condition. Troscianko’s point supports this
interpretation, when she contends that “a strongly pathological
interpretive filter can result in highly selective readings of texts.”
64
Without assistance, vulnerable readers are left to their interpretive
biases to resist the ambivalence which characterizes Lia’s powerful
narrationas well as anorexia itself.
65
Etymologically, the term anorexia means “lack of hunger”
(an, no; orexis, appetite). Nonetheless, people with anorexia
display constant hunger ruminations.
66
Feminist theorists emphasize
that its seemingly contradictory nature speaks of a metaphoric food
denialthe “crystallization of culture” of what is wrong with society
in its glamorization of women’s skinniness.
67
Identifying the cultural
components of anorexia, as some feminists have done, is essential
work. Yet I disagree with their emphasis on psychoanalysis-based
accounts of a disordered corporeality, where the androgenization of
an emaciated body arguably protects female flesh against a feared
sexuality.
68
Joan Jacobs Brumberg maintains that the poor
heterosexual adjustment” which feminists propose as the
explanatory aetiology for anorexia nervosa” is absurd, since
anorexics are not in search of beauty or romance.
69
Clinical evidence
suggests that the root of anorexia’s ambivalence is in fact mediated
by volitional attitudes towards food, namely by means of the
anorexic’s creating a conditioned reflex of denial and disgust around
food. These chains of ruminations feed back on themselves because
anorexics’ priority is denying hunger.
70
Moreover, suppressing
ruminations is a cognitively demanding task, and “deliberately
focusing attention away from negative thoughts and feelings may
reinforce tendencies to thought suppression,” a phenomenon which is
associated with recurrence rather than remediation of the affects
aroused.
71
In that sense, anorexia is an ego-syntonic condition, which
the patient does not often want to recover from but exacerbate. I
specifically suggest that such conditioning and ruminations are
further strengthened via reading about similar mental states of
fictional characters with anorexia, such as is the case with Lia in
Wintergirls.
Sweet, Sweet, Filthy Food
Lia Overbrook, the intradiegetic narrator-protagonist of
Wintergirls, moves easily through contradictory messages about
hunger throughout her stream of consciousness. Strikethrough print is
the main formal feature that Wintergirls employs to indicate that its
narrator is unreliable.
72
I will focus on it as a strategy to deny hunger,
which is its chief function.
73
Early in the novel, for example, at her
stepmother’s suggestion to have breakfast, Lia muses “because I
can’t let myself want them, because I don’t need a muffin (410), I
don’t want an orange (75) or toast (87), and waffles (180) make me
gag (8). What is particularly triggering in this passage is the fact that
the various options for breakfast are categorized according to their
caloric value.
74
In Willems’s terms, this is anorexic-specific content,
and Ricks speaks clearly of its iatrogenic effect: the “calorie counting
. . . that [is] mentioned frequently in the novel took over my life.”
75
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) asks writers to
avoid content focusing on numbers, and this is standard practice in
anorexia recovery groups.
76
Strikethrough is not unique to this passage, however. In this
same scenario, Lia replies that she will have some cereal, but her
stepmother finds her serving too small. The narrator’s interior
monologue proceeds as follows: I could eat the entire box. I
probably won’t even fill the bowl” (5). This is a dichotomous line of
thought where, on the one hand, Lia admits that she would be
capable of ingesting a disproportionate amount of cereal. This desire
is formally negated, and appears in opposition to the opinion Lia
takes as legitimate, according to which she will not manage to top off
her plate. This textual trait embodies the struggle between Lia’s
ordinary self and her ill persona, where her “anorexic thoughts
‘correct’ what was originally said.”
77
Eventually, Lia adduces that her
stomach is “upset,” so she really cannot eat any more cereal (5).
Hence, Lia acts as a canonical unreliable narrator: her credibility to
be exempt from further eating, based on an imaginary stomach pain,
is compromised in the minds of her readers, since she admits wanting
to eat more.
This visual technique is also employed to negate feelings of
hunger at the high school party Lia attends in order to help out at the
food selling stands. (Helping out at a foodstand is one way Lia
engages in a paradoxical form of self-control; individuals with
anorexia will sometimes purposefully put themselves in the way of
appetizing food that others, but not themselves, will “succumb” to.)
One of the mothers helping there suggests that she try one of the
cakes. Lia, without censoring her opinion at first, muses I would
love a seven-layer bar. I would love to pick up a piece of fudge,
gossip about the latest episode of whatever, bite the fudge, laugh”
(200). Immediately afterwards, nonetheless, she decides that the cake
is not tempting but sweat-inducing (201). Similar to the breakfast
example, the narrator exposes her true wishes about tasting the
pastries, but only briefly. The different versions of the verbal
periphrasis “I would love” represent her longing for sweets and for
community, neither of which is fulfilled. Observing the mothers
around her, Lia cannot avoid noticing how they “slap their thighs,
wiggle their butts, pinch their bellies” (200).
From this reflection, Lia starts experiencing contradictory
feelings. While she rejects the vulgar ways the mothers eat, and the
result this has had on their bodies, she nonetheless begins to feel
tempted. For this reason, she resorts to her particular graphic way of
burying her thoughts, meditating: my traitor fingers want that fudge.
No, they don’t. They want a seven-layer bar and some weird muffins
and those pretzels. No, they do not. They want to squish the
marshmallows and stuff them into my mouth. They will not” (202).
Lia’s thoughts appear divided, as one part of her wishes to succumb
to sweets whilst the other denies it. The pattern “no, they do not” is
repeated twice, whereas the third time the structure contains an
excruciating variation. Now the voice in Lia’s head does not deny the
wish to eat in the present tense. Shifting decisively to the future
simple, Lia admits her wish and hence takes a step further, denying
herself its fulfilment. Chun argues that this narration represents the
standpoint of a disorderly eater who is caught up among the
conflicting meanings society constructs through food, as she is aware
of the pleasure provided by it but empowers herself by turning that
awareness into refusal.
78
Lia’s vacillation seems to chip away at her
choice to refuse food. However, vulnerable readers may focus on
how she overcomes her perceived weakness, rather than on the
repressed yearnings themselves.
A similar effect is attained when Lia goes to her mother’s
house, when Dr. Marrigan is baking some muffins and the
protagonist is particularly hungry. Some moments before taking them
out of the oven, Lia displays a contradictory rationale about the
physiological need to eat or not do so: “I’m hungry I need to eat. I
hate eating. I need to eat. I hate eating. I need to eat. I love not-
eating” (145). Just like in the high school example, the stream of
uncrossed-out thoughts is triadic and the third element overrules the
previous ones. When thinking that she loves not eating, Lia idealizes
her capacity to reject what her organism is in dire need of. This lie,
however, is more difficult to maintain than the preceding ones. Lia’s
hatred towards eating is motivated by the effects it has, but
convincing herself of the pleasure behind the deprivation is not so
easily sustained; the physical and psychical suffering she experiences
blend together in this passage: I burn my fingertips pulling the
muffins out of the oven. They want to jump into my mouth. No, they
want to roll themselves in butter and honey and jump into my mouth,
one, two, three, four. And then some Moose Tracks ice cream and
then some graham crackers and a jar of chocolate frosting and three
bags of popcorn (152). This is the longest application of crossed-out
print throughout the novel, via which the narrator delves into a quasi-
oneiric description of her yearning about eating. This set of
imaginary thoughts mimics a binge-eating episode, in which subjects
experience feelings of depersonalizing and a loss of control before
food. This is exactly what is happening to Lia, for whom sweets and
popcorn have become alive. The anthropomorphizing of food,
characterized as capable of experiencing desires (“want”), much like
her treacherous fingers above, contributes to the depersonalization
effect. Moreover, the appearance of this verb acknowledges her
deceptive strategy, because it places the agency on the food, which is
not willing to get inside of her. In truth, of course, Lia is the one
wishing to consume it.
The typographical technique is not only exploited in passages
dealing with lies about eating. Halfway through the novel, Lia
decides to exercise compulsively in the middle of the night. After
twelve, she is ready to go to the basement to “to burn away my leg
muscles until the sun comes up to exercise moderately for twenty
minutes so I’ll sleep better” (99). Her behavior here is also
paradigmatic of a disorderly relationship with the body. The
compulsion to exercise is a common feature among ED patients,
particularly in underweight ones. Exercising is defined as excessive
when it “significantly interferes with important activities, occurs at
inappropriate times or in inappropriate settings, or continues despite
injury or other medical complications.”
79
Lia is aware of the
unhealthy routine of exercise she imposes on herself. For this reason,
she employs two hyperboles, the verb “burn away” and the time
clause “until the sun comes up.” She knows she will not be
exercising for six or seven hours and that her muscles will not
literally be set on fire, so the correlation established between these
two facts represents her wish to see her body emaciated and
potentially obliterated entirely. The fact that this thought is stricken
out is contradictory, given that the information which is not crossed
out is not true, either. Lia will not work out for some minutes, but for
longer, and her motivations are unrelated to sleeping, since the
protagonist wants to burn calories, with the result that none of the
lines of opposing thoughts is reliable at any point. Through that
process, a vulnerable reader reinforces two abusive cognitions about
exercise: its addictiveness and a way of justifying it as a strategy to
sleep better.
The wish to see the body disappear, which motivates the
refusal of food and compulsive exercise, is a typical attribution of
body image disorder or “dysmorphia. Hilde Bruch was one of the
pioneers to tackle it. Today, the concept of dysmorphia is popular
beyond its original clinical context.
80
This popular currency,
however, has deteriorated its meaning as well as its connection with
anorexia. Patients with anorexia do not imagine that their bodies are
larger in size than they are in actuality. Their perception is subject to
contextual changes, such as temporary bloating.
81
Looking at a
mirror, revealingly, allows subjects with a disordered body image to
verify their emaciated state.
82
It is thus interesting to consider the
passage that enlists the topic of proprioception: I wanted to draw my
thighs, each the size of a couch, on his [the shrink’s] carpet. The rolls
on my butt and my gut would rumble over the floor and splash up
against the walls; my boobs, beach balls; my arms, tubes of cookie
dough oozing at the seams” (81-82). Lia is aware that this is not her
true reflection, because she refers to it in the past and denoting a
sense of volition (“I wanted to draw”). In these musings, the body fat
becomes unstable; it is almost referred to in liquid terms. The verb
“splash up,” for instance, alludes to an image of immense waves
breaking against the rocks, emphasizing notions of size and weight.
The narrator also describes the flesh of her arms in fluid terms. She
continues: “The doc would have been horrified. . . . and he would
have adjusted my meds again, one pill to make my self-of-steam
larger, another to make my craziness small. So I drew a blobby
version of me, a fraction of my real size . . . (82). Lia seems wary of
the consequences of drawing herself in an exaggeratedly large way,
namely being given more medication. Significantly, Lia admits that
this adjustment in treatment would be a way to reduce her
“craziness.” This attests to the fact that the protagonist knows that her
perception of her body is a distortion.
Readers are likely to become confused at the end of the
passage, notwithstanding this explanation: the drawing she
eventually produces is a “blobby” one, constituting “a fraction of
[her] real size.” Opposing this to the first part of the scene, it is clear
that Lia draws a version of herself closer to reality than her
imagination prompts her to do. Describing it as “blobby,” however,
means that the size of the drawn figure is too small and
unrepresentative of her dimensions. As a stubborn character, Lia
makes the effort to be right about her lies. The contrast established
between her bodily distortion now and that of previous passages with
regard to food and physical exercise is noteworthy, as it provokes a
sense of ambiguity about what the narrator truly thinks. The
strikethrough technique does not appear in this latter example,
significantly. Her insistence upon knowing her “real size” calls into
question all the lies left uncrossed-out next to her initial crossed-out
impulses. The doctor is unaware of Lia’s thoughts; readers, on the
contrary, are granted access to them in full, which complements the
information they have about the narrator’s rejection of fatness.”
Even though strikethrough is the most evident formal
technique employed in Wintergirls, it is not the only self-triggering
trait of the novel. The passages where visual indexes of this kind are
missing leave Lia’s lies unspotted, which makes their reception
ambiguous. The most aggressive deception Lia resorts to occurs
between pages 185 and 187. The message “Must. Not. Eat” fills them
in their entirety. These pages invite a misunderstandingare they Lia
denying herself the right to eat or do they transmit an imperative to
readers? Both? Indeed, Ricks believes that “while this is an unusual
and interesting way to illustrate intrusive thoughts, without proper
context, these pages function as a collection of destructive mantras
with no counterpoint. For me, the experience . . . was akin to . . .
reading ‘thinspo.
83
Whichever way it’s read, that is, the ultimate
message is a celebration of the self-willingness needed to sustain
food refusal.
Lying knowingly, Lia also makes use of the modal
periphrasis “have to” as a means of disavowing food. In one of her
visits to see her mother, Lia attempts to skip breakfast again, arguing
that “You aren’t supposed to push me. I have to feel safe with food”
(155). By this point, it is evident that Lia never eats food feeling safe
about it. Her apparent feelings of safety are based on not eating.
Beginning this excuse with the phrase “not supposed to” makes
explicit the idea that Lia is aware that her discourse is a
presupposition, not a fact. Her mother realizes the prefabricated
nature of her daughter’s discourse, too: she calls it “the stupidest
thing I have ever heard” (155). Ignoring her daughter’s lies, Marrigan
gives Lia eggs, two muffins, and an orange juice. Upon seeing this,
Lia thinks “The orange juice is a virus attacking my insides,”
replying that she will not have any (155). Lia perceives the orange
juice as dangerous, claiming that its intake will harm her; in anorexia
pathology, food is often imagined as a source of illness.
84
Even
though the narrator claims that the orange juice will make her ill as if
she truly believed so, readers can never be sure.
In a parallel situation, Lia says that “the measuring spoons
want to stick sugar and butter and molasses into my mouth. I pretend
I am allergic to the ingredients. One taste and my lips and tongue will
swell up and I will choke to death” (198). Lia’s
anthropomorphization technique is used here to grant spoons the
capacity to poison. Nonetheless, the protagonist is aware that their
infectious properties are a product of her own imagination. The
narrator hyperbolizes her self-deception, simulating she is allergic to
sugar, butter, and molasses, when she associates tasting them to
suffering an episode of anaphylaxis. This final image of death,
though fantastic, provokes a powerful sense of aversion.
Disturbed beliefs of the kind hitherto reviewed permeate at
least ninety-five percent of the book, according to one reviewer,
and many critics argue that these beliefs can be exploited by anorexic
readership.
85
For critics such as Greta Olson, scenarios like these
invite readerly vigilance: “the narrator will be diagnosed with
pathological untrustworthiness, and the reader will choose the
therapeutic strategy of reading against the grain.”
86
Contra Olson, I
submit that this is only the case for those who have the analytical and
psychological tools to remain impervious to Lia the liar. The
protagonist’s self-willingness to avoid eating is only questioned at
the end of the novel. In her distorted stream of consciousness, Lia
muses: “I can’t remember what it’s like to eat without planning for it,
charting the calories and the fat content and measuring my hips and
thighs to see if I deserve it and usually deciding no, I don’t deserve it,
so I bite my tongue until it bleeds and I wire my jaw shut with lies
and excuses while a blind tapeworm wraps itself around my
windpipe . . .(209). Verbs related to rationalityplanning, charting
and measuringcontrast with her illogical sense of volition: Lia is
conscious that not eating is part of her specious decision-making,
based on “lies and excuses.” The fact that she resorts to the image of
her sealed mouth and the bitten tongue captures the immense
suffering she feels when self-imposing such permanent food refusal.
Here Lia begins to realize how fragile her network of lies is.
To demarcate the shift, the novel introduces a set of images dealing
with snow and ice: cold and/or rigid, but capable of transformation.
During a passage when her mother desperately asks her to eat
because otherwise she will die, Lia replies that she is exaggerating.
However, as if it were an epiphany, she takes a spoon with soup and
starts remembering the same recipe her grandmother used to prepare.
Lia muses, “but I can’t let me taste it. The first sip would melt
through the sheet of ice that is keeping me suspended over an open
hole” (233). For the first time, lies are represented as brittle, but also
as composed of a certain materiality which encourages the reader not
to discard them, because truth is “an open hole,” a terrifying abysm
for those who approach it. Still, Lia soon decides to confess her
illness to a new psychiatrist, Dr. Nancy Parker. She had never
admitted her condition to anyone before, and her resolution to do so
consists in giving up the lies strengthening the illness.
To start to follow clinicians’ instructions instead of her own
lies is the beginning of Lia’s rehabilitation. I agree with Karlin that
the end of the novel, where the protagonist admits that she is
“melting, is a positive image of recovery, which suggests the
destruction, at least partially, of the unreliable narrator.
87
However, it
is problematic to claim that this ending inspires readers to initiate
recovery themselves, as Oatman does.
88
The narrative space given to
the perspective of the unreliable narrator is far more relevant than the
space granted to Lia’s initial stages of healing.
89
There is no time for
the unreliable narrator to become reliable, nor for her to
metamorphose into a role model, having romanticized anorexia for
more than fifty chapters. As Olson insists, unreliable narrators tend to
remain unreliable throughout a book. More importantly, perhaps, is
the role of the reader, once again: when they finish a book,
unrealiable readers will have based their reading on deceptive
motivations. In the case of anorexic readers, they will have read a
story with the intention of keeping their disorder afloat.
90
Wintergirls: Keep Away from Vulnerable Readers
This paper has explained some of the problems with relying on
authorial intention to anticipate audiences’ interpretations of their
texts. This issue has been debated for decades, from the rise of
reader-response through postmodernism and reaching into cognitive
literary studies. An advantage of this last approach is to consider the
role of readers in relation to psychological variables of study, thus
allowing for the systematic exploration of the effects of literature on
specific people. More particularly, it enables critics and researchers
to explore the therapeutic or iatrogenic potential of fiction. While the
author (and several critics) of Wintergirls view it as an aid to readers,
offering them hope of recovery, this analysis has concluded that there
is almost nothing therapeutic here for vulnerable readers. Instead, it
has revealed features of the text which are potentially iatrogenic,
particularly to exacerbate food refusal. Strikethrough, in its
ambivalent portrayal of the protagonist’s denial of hunger,
contributes to creating an unreliable narrator of great authority
among vulnerable readers. (While Lia may be hesitant about her
unreal thoughts, she is stalwart in the stubborn refusal of food based
on this mental farce.) This narration overshadows any gleam of truth,
even at the end of the novel when Lia reforms her unreliability. It can
be thus concluded that Wintergirls is a novel with self-triggering
capacity for readers vulneratble to or suffering from eating disorders.
NOTES
1
. Rosenblatt, “Towards a Transactional Theory, 36.
2
. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems,” 15.
3
. Rosenblatt, “Towards a Transactional Theory, 37.
4
. Rosenblatt, “Towards a Transactional Theory, 37.
5
. Barthes, “Death of the Author.” See Rock, “Designer as
Author,” n.p. For an updated view on Barthes, see Freshwater, “Reading
Mixed Methods, 136.
6
. Templeton, “Sociology and Literature,” 26.
7
. Templeton, “Sociology and Literature,” 26.
8
. Bortolussi and Dixon, Psychonarratology, 8.
9
. See Lauer, “Going Empirical,” 1, and Richter, “I cannot endure,”
75.
10
. Troscianko, Kafka’s Cognitive Realism, 9.
11
. Hauss, Rezeptionsästhetik-Zwischenbilanz,” 325.
12
. See Booth, Rhetoric of Fiction; Nünning, Reconceptualizing
the Theory,” 35.
13
. Nünning, Reconceptualizing the Theory,” 47.
14
. Potter, “Pragmatic Research,” 601.
15
. See Mar, Oatley and Peterson, “Exploring the Link,” 408.
16
. See Savarese and Zunshine, “Critic as Neurocosmopolite,” and
Baena, “Recognition and Empathy,” 1.
17
. Troscianko, “Feedback in Reading,” 170.
18
. Edwards and Usher, Postmodernism and Education, 26.
19
. Hynes and Hynes-Berry, Biblio/Poetry Therapy, 2.
20
. Troscianko, “Literary Reading and Eating Disorders”.
21
. Seaber, “Reading Disorders,” 485.
22
. Seaber, “Reading Disorders,” 485.
23
. Thomas et al., “Evaluating the Effects,” 423.
24
. Seaber, “Reading Disorders,” 485.
25
. Heywood, Dedication to Hunger, 7.
26
. Ellmann, Hunger Artists, 58.
27
. Bray, “Anorexic Body,” 421.
28
. Pascual, “Depathologizing Anorexia,” 47.
29
. For instance, even though fiction about suicide has been
claimed to be consumed by suicidal subjects, no empirical data supports a
correlation between reading suicide fiction and increased suicide risk; see
Patnoe, “Fiction, Reality,” 10.
30
. Troscianko, “Literary Reading and Eating Disorders,” 14. For
examples of this posture, see McAllister et al., “Things You Can Learn,”
553, and Tapia, “(Don’t) Think Pig!” 7.
31
. Goss, Bodily Harm, 6.
32
. Troscianko, “Literary Reading and Eating Disorders,” 1.
33
. Troscianko, “Literary Reading and Eating Disorders,” 6.
Willems, “What Is Normal,” 6.
34
. Amazon, “Wintergirls,” par. 1.
35
. For a review of this figure, see Olson, “Reconsidering
Unreliability.
36
. Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction, 4.
37
. Herman, Emergence of Mind, 10.
38
. In Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 64.
39
. Koss and Wilson, “Who I Was,” 58; Karlin, How to Be
Yourself,” 72; DaCosta, “Romantic Relationships,” 56; Stevenson,
Wintergirls (review),” 195; Bodart, “Young Adult Authors,” par. 20.
40
. Karlin, “How to Be Yourself,” 85, 79.
41
. See Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 64.
42
. Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 67.
43
. Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 67.
44
. Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 67.
45
. DaCosta, “Romantic Relationships,” 5.
46
. Quoted in “Madwoman in the Forest,” par. 1.
47
. Pascual, "Depathologizing Anorexia,” 345.
48
. Anyhow, “therapeutically speaking, reading about people with
eating disorders may elicit similar responses from readers regardless of the
framing of them as fictional or factual, whether because readers ignore the
framing or because even when cognitively salient to readers, it is irrelevant
to health-related processing and outcomes (Troscianko, “Literary Reading
and Eating Disorders,” 14).
49
. Pascual, “Depathologizing Anorexia,” 344.
50
. Osgood, How to Disappear, 26.
51
. Fogg, “Sublime Madness,” 55.
52
. Bales, “Intention and Readers’ Responses,” 13, emphasis in
original.
53
. Williamson et al., “Cognitive Bias,” 143.
54
. Ricks, "'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson,” par. 1.
55
. Fogg, “Sublime Madness,” 53.
56
. Fogg, “Sublime Madness,” 57.
57
. Ricks, 'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson, par. 6.
58
. Anderson in “Madwoman in the attic,” par. 1617 and par. 31,
capitalized in original.
59
. Vandereycken, “Denial of Illness,” 352.
60
. Glenn, Laurie Halse Anderson, 111.
61
. Olson, “Reconsidering Unreliability,” 97.
62
. Nünning, “Unreliable, Compared to What?,” 6669.
63
. Anderson, Wintergirls, 28. Further references to this work will
be cited parenthetically in the text.
64
. Troscianko, “Literary Reading and Eating Disorders,” 14.
Additionally, see Baker-Pitts, “Going Hungry,” 447.
65
. ED therapist Valente “believe[s] [young adults] don't yet have
the cognitive stability, experience, or intellectual discernment to be able to
sort through what’s really happening in that novel (quoted in Ricks,
'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson, par. 13).
66
. Warin, Abject Relations, 114.
67
. See Orbach, Hunger Strike; Bordo, Unbearable Weight, 139.
68
. For examples of this psychoanalytical approach, see Chernin,
Hungry Self, 11718; MacSween, “Anorexic Body,” 59; Heywood,
Dedication to Hunger, 25; and Orbach, Hunger Strike, 48. See also Bartky,
Foucault, Femininity,” 102.
69
. Brumberg, “Fasting Girls,” 102.
70
. Zucker, “Emotional Experience,” 333.
71
. Watkins and Teasdale, Adaptive and Maladaptive,” 2.
72
. Glenn, Laurie Halse Anderson, 112.
73
. For other uses, see Karlin, “How to Be Yourself,” 85.
74
. Kia Jane Richmond interprets the use of strikethrough in this
passage as a censoring strategy (Mental Illness, 136) while DaCosta also
believes that Lia is divided between two selves, inasmuch as “the
characters’ mental illnesses comprise a second voice” (Romantic
Relationships,” 32).
75
. Willems, “What Is Normal,” 73. Ricks, 'Wintergirls' by Laurie
Halse Anderson,” par. 4.
76
. Ricks, “'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson,” par. 18.
77
. Glenn, Laurie Halse Anderson, 108.
78
. Chun, “Girls Who Do Not Eat,” 47. Orbach defends the idea
that anorexia can actually empower women (Hunger Strike, 16).
Additionally, recall Goss’s notion of “self-destructive agency.”
79
. El-Ghoch et al., “Appearance vs. Health,” 51501, emphasis
added.
80
. See Bruch, “Perceptual and Conceptual Disturbances,” 199.
81
. Espeset et al., “Link Between Negative Emotions,” 518.
82
. Espeset et al., “Link Between Negative Emotions,” 525.
83
. Ricks, “'Wintergirls' by Laurie Halse Anderson,” par. 10.
84
. Just like during the Middle Ages, when miasma theory was en
vogue, in anorexia it is common to imagine that food, particularly the fat it
contains, infects the organism through mere contact with it. See Warin,
Abject Relations, 120.
85
. Fogg, “Sublime Madness,” 52. See also Seaber, “Reading
Disorders,” 490 and Willems, “What Is Normal, 86.
86
. Olson, “Reconsidering Unreliability,” 94.
87
. Karlin, How to Be Yourself,” 85.
88
. Oatman, “Images of Hope,” 64. See also Karlin, How to Be
Yourself,” 79.
89
. This conclusion is supported by Fogg, who advocates for
granting further space to “post-recovery-enlightenment—i.e., the character’s
realization of the truth and decision to pursue health” (“Sublime Madness,”
52). See also DaCosta, Romantic Relationships,” 7; and Troscianko,
“Literary Reading and Eating Disorders,” 14.
90
. Olson, “Reconsidering Unreliability,” 95.
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Thesis
Full-text available
In my thesis, I compare three memoirs written by recovering/recovered anorexics: Wasted (1998) by Marya Hornbacher, How to Disappear Completely (2013) by Kelsey Osgood and An Apple a Day (2012) by Emma Woolf. I read these works within the framework of the illness narrative/autobiography and compare the ways in which they represent the lived illness experience of anorexia nervosa. For this comparison I borrow ideas and concepts developed by theorists working on disability, mental illness/health and anorexia, which enables me to explore the portrayal of illness, diagnosis and recovery in the memoirs while also investigating the underlying notions of health, normalcy, disability and difference that precede the general understandings of these terms. In this way, I can determine to what extent the general explanatory models of anorexia have either been internalised or subverted in these autobiographical narratives, as well as form an understanding of how the practice of diagnosis influences the experience of living with anorexia and the ways in which recovery is conceptualised by these authors. In interpreting the various representations of illness, diagnosis and recovery, I employ concepts from the field of autobiography that can aid me in reading the narratives from a literary perspective, as well as works about the illness narrative as a genre in order to place these three memoirs in a context of other illness life writings.
Article
Full-text available
This article explores the relationship between eating disorders and reading behaviors, arguing that there is a meaningful difference in a minority of readers' approach to and understanding of anorexia life-writing, and of literary texts more broadly. To illuminate this distinction, this article begins by considering the reported deleterious influence of Marya Hornbacher’s anorexia memoir, Wasted, elaborating the ways Hornbacher offers a positive presentation of anorexia nervosa that may, intentionally or not, induce certain readers to “try it” themselves. This is followed by an exploration of how Hornbacher’s own reading praxis is implicated in a discursive feedback loop around anorexia narratives. It concludes with a discussion of disordered reading attitudes in relation to the emergence of the “pro-anorexia” phenomenon.
Article
Psychonarratology is an approach to the empirical study of literary response and the processing of narrative. It draws on the empirical methodology of cognitive psychology and discourse processing as well as the theoretical insights and conceptual analysis of literary studies, particularly narratology. The present work provides a conceptual and empirical basis for this interdisciplinary approach that is accessible to researchers from either disciplinary background. An integrative review is presented of the classic problems in narratology: the status of the narrator, events and plot, characters and characterization, speech and thought, and focalization. For each area, Bortolussi and Dixon critique the state of the art in narratology and literary studies, discuss relevant work in cognitive psychology, and provide a new analytical framework based on the insight that readers treat the narrator as a conversational participant. Empirical evidence is presented on each problem, much of it previously unpublished.