Wednesday 15 August 2018

The anorexic who read her way back to wellness

Non-fiction: The Reading Cure, Laura Freeman, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, 272 pages, €21.09

Canon fodder: Laura Freeman namechecks no fewer than 169 works of literature
Canon fodder: Laura Freeman namechecks no fewer than 169 works of literature
The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Tanya Sweeney

Feasting on words helped Laura Freeman overcome an eating disorder. The resulting book makes for a heady, gluttonous reading experience.

It seems a curious premise for a book - that reading the fancy (and not so fancy) vittles from the great literary canon can help a person overcome a complex psychological disorder. That feasting on words about food might somehow lead to being able to feast, eventually, on food itself. And yet for Laura Freeman, who developed anorexia in her teens (a by-product of bullying at an all-girls' school) and was diagnosed at 14, reading proved to be a pathway to wellness. Her account of that dark, winding journey is nothing short of absorbing.

Writers have long described what looking out from inside the cage of anorexia is like, and Freeman is careful to point out from the start that this is not a book about the anguish of anorexia. Still, her gorgeous, on-point recollections go some way towards helping others understand the brutality of the illness.

If a healthy mind is a library, with books in order and shelves neatly arranged, the mind of an anorexic is a dastardly scene where "the bookcases have fallen, their glass fronts smashed, their contents in disarray across the floor… Rain and damp have got at the books, spoiling their bindings and soaking their pages".

Anorexia is not, Freeman explains, about vanity. "There is a misunderstanding... that the anorexic aspires to the maypole body of the catwalk model or the red-carpet Amazon," she says. "Not at all. It is not the prettification of self that drives the illness, but annihilation of self."

Like many others with an eating disorder, Freeman began, initially, to eliminate food groups. Soon, she was weeping with tears until she choked when faced with a small bowl of yoghurt. She refused Nurofen for her searing headaches because they had a sugar coating. The anorexic mind, she notes, is perversely logical. A spoonful of porridge, made with water, that leaves you shivering even in six layers of clothes, amounts to a 'good' breakfast. Amid it all, her appetite for reading remained voracious, unbothered.

A year after she left university, and in recovery from her condition, she came across Siegfried Sassoon's description of a breakfast of boiled eggs, served with toast, tea and cocoa in Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. "Sassoon's exhilaration in the hunt, the fortifying effect of the eggs and cocoa at dawn, planted a thought: that hearty-warming food night lead to a richer life than the mean, restricted one I had been living."

In time, losing herself in the deliciousness of reading helps to distract her busy mind and keep the venomous voices in her head "bridled". Food, she realises from the great words of other, is something to be celebrated. And writing of it has helped her make sense of an illness that takes much of its power from nonsense.

Via the prism of the books she has read throughout her life, Freeman recalls her own childhood and adolescence, through to her current life as a freelance writer.

As she recovers from her illness, she returns to the books that she read as a "hale and Haribo-hearty child", hoping that it can restore her old, unthinking way of eating and return to a childhood of "crumpet wassailing and chocolate carousing".

Freeman namechecks no fewer than 169 works of literature in The Reading Cure, moving from Virginia Woolf's broken biscuits and the sole sunk in a deep dish under the whitest cream in A Room of One's Own; the fortifying quality of Robert Graves' bully beef; the chocolate that makes an appearance on Thomas Hardy's tea table, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, and on the Hogwarts Express.

Dickens' work proves a particularly fertile bed of food imagery, from Mrs Cratchit's brandy-soaked Christmas puddings to Miss Pinch's beef pies. "Not one of his novels is carried off without a meal or two, or indeed a dozen along the way," Freeman observes. "No great enterprise is undertaken without the promise of pie and porter… no celebration complete without a tureen of mock-turtle soup marbled with that." Even the simplest of meals, from plain porridge and tea to the "painted milk in the sweetest, palest colours" of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, take on an unctuous quality. Ironically, the work of cookbook writers and food writers like MFK Fisher, luscious and voluptuous though it is, often left her indifferent.

Freeman admits that, to this day, she still has good weeks and bad, and observes that the Western world is caught up in a pattern of "lunatic" eating, disguised as something more virtuous, health-conscious and wise. Her advice, in the face of wisdom about kale and turmeric, is thus: "Eat cold cherry tart after cricket. Eat a gipsy stew to make you strong. Eat sardines and sausages for winter carols. Eat buttered rolls on top of hayricks. Don't make a Marshalsea prison of rules for yourself - no biscuits at tea, no meat in the week, no pudding, not ever. Don't be Amy Dorrit alone at the mantelpiece when you might be Pickwick dividing veal pie between friends."

Freeman's personal experiences aside, The Reading Cure is an exhaustive, thoroughly comprehensive rundown of the culinary treats from literature. And when you are borrowing from 169 literary greats, the end result is always going to be compelling.

But Freeman's writing - clear-eyed, ambrosial, impassioned, bountiful - elevates this from bring a simple reference book. Though she has clearly experienced anguish and despair, this is no one's idea of a misery memoir. Admittedly, the parade of culinary imagery, ambrosial as it is, comes thick and fast. For the reader, this can veer close to a heady, gluttonous reading experience. Yet The Reading Cure is the work of a true-blue bibliophile, and it's impossible not to be seduced by Freeman's love of prose. It's essential reading not just for those who love food, but words. Come dine with her.

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