Gaining: The Truth About Life After Eating Disorders
What inspired you to write this book?
Answer: I began this book after a brief relapse of anorexic behavior and thinking warned me that I still didn’t understand why I had developed my adolescent eating disorder, much less what it meant in the larger context of my life. Also, I’d noticed that the personalities of my classmates who had eating disorders in school remained strikingly similar to mine even decades after we recovered – what explained that? Shortly after I began my research for the book I entered Bennington College’s MFA program, and the first section of GAINING became my Masters thesis.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Answer: Not every subject I contacted was willing to talk, and few were willing to be interviewed on the record. There is still such shame associated with these illnesses. I find this very sad. It’s comparable to people with diabetes or a familial predisposition to cancer being ashamed of their illness. Eating disorders are biologically based illnesses, yet the common perception is still that the anorexic or bulimic is somehow at fault – as if she chooses to be sick. To get people to open up for this book, I promised anonymity, which included changing the identifying details of their lives.
They were further encouraged when they realized how many core habits, perceptions, and struggles we had shared throughout our lives. Even in their forties, some of my interviewees still suffered from the belief that they alone shied away from intimacy, or were terrified by conflict, or felt trapped by the compulsion to be perfect, or turned to weight loss as a form of comfort when under intense stress. Most of those I interviewed kept these tendencies secret because they were ashamed. The recognition that they were not alone was a powerful incentive to share their stories in GAINING, as was our shared hope that the book may help others.
What would it take for this book to be a success?
Answer: The outpouring of reader letters and people driving long distances to my talks has been so gratifying! I feel that this book is a success because it has helped people connect the dots in their own lives, to make sense of a syndrome that seems so baffling and that has been the source of such misplaced shame and blame. I hope especially that those who have been living with the half-life of eating disorders (recovered to the point of eating well but still not living well) will find their way to this book and be inspired to complete the process of full recovery, at whatever stage of life they may be.
Can this book help family members of eating disorder patients or is this book designed specifically for individuals with eating disorders?
Answer: Both! Most of us have friends, colleagues, or family members who struggle with eating disorders – or we ourselves have battled these syndromes. GAINING is an attempt to make sense of eating disordered behavior – behavior that, on the surface, makes no sense or is downright perverse. My hope is that the insights readers gain will empower individuals with this history and their friends, teachers, doctors, or relatives to become more informed, aware, and successful in fighting these disorders.
I particularly hope that parents will gain insights that they can use to prevent eating disorders in their children. Children who are prone to eating disorders are often very stubborn and sensitive. They need to be gently helped to develop flexibility, resilience, and a sense of humor about themselves and the world around them. They need to develop the coping skills to manage anxiety and keep their problems in perspective.
These skills are especially critical during the emotionally turbulent pre-teen and teen years, when anxiety often leads to imitation of those stick-thin celebrities and other superficially “perfect” ideals.
Beyond such specific relevance, however, I hope readers will realize that our culture’s preoccupation with superficial looks-based “perfection” has helped to create a psychological cage for millions of gifted and intelligent women and, increasingly, men. Society is deprived of the full energy and talent of anyone who obsesses about whether she is thin or fit or youthful enough to meet the artificial standards set by air-brushed celebrities and supermodels. By unlocking our selves, we release our power to change the world. This ultimate message of GAINING applies to us all.
Do you have a book tour? Is there a schedule available so people can meet you in person?
Answer: I’m trying to keep up! The schedule is changing constantly, but I have most public events posted on my website: www.aimeeliu.net
Will you continue to write books? What is your next step?
Answer: Oh, writing is essential to my life! I hope to write MANY more books, of all kinds. The next step is a book that expands on some of the fascinating discoveries I’ve made in GAINING, and opening them up for a broader readership – beyond the strict theme of eating disorders. But I also hope to spend more time talking in person with women and girls about the information and insights contained in GAINING. There is nothing so rewarding as the look of hope and self-recognition that I see in the faces of mothers and daughters who have been trying so hard to recover – and who recognize in my findings the missing link to their own health!
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Answer: Too much to answer briefly here! But here is just one small example:
I’ve long observed that people with histories of anorexia and bulimia share certain core personality traits, but when I checked with UCLA researcher Dr. Michael Strober, I was astonished to learn that the reason for these similarities is genetic. I’d assumed the parallels were due to similar family dynamics, or cultural conditioning, or the physiological effects of the eating disorders. Dr. Strober pointed me to the wealth of new research proving that the reason these people have such similar temperaments lies in their DNA. One study, for instance, showed that traits such as perfectionism, inflexibility, self- doubt, cautiousness, and a need for rules and order had been prevalent among women with eating disorders for years before they ever got sick. Even more astounding to me, however, was the almost total absence of these traits among women who were matched for age and intelligence but had never had an eating disorder. Clearly, the causes of anorexia and bulimia involve more than fashion’s emphasis on thinness or fad diets. Moreover, I realized that even a distant history of eating disorders can serve as a kind of lens, through which we can learn so much about who we are today. I find that fascinating!
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
Answer: I’ve written 1 memoir, 3 novels, and co-authored more than 5 books of nonfiction, in addition to GAINING. They’re all so different that I don’t really have a favorite. At first glance, it seems quite crazy to write in these many different directions! However, in retrospect, I realize that many of the currents running through my new book have also run through my novels. So, while none of my fiction has dealt explicitly with eating disorders, my stories have revolved around issues of identity and the quest for a solid sense of self. We write what we know! My main characters have had a variety of obsessions, but all have been temperamentally intense and persistent. These qualities, I understand now, are related to the same qualities that underscored my anorexia.
Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Answer: I would suggest that they consider this book not only as a source of information about eating disorders but also as a kind of prism through which they could have a larger conversation about the relationship between biology and identity; between genetics and society; between psychology and religion. I would also suggest considering the symbolism implicit in eating disorders. Many of the themes that come up in GAINING will resonate with every woman, not just those who have battled anorexia and bulimia.