I grew up in a home defined by female violence and male detachment. Our days were spent avoiding unpredictable outbursts from my mother and relishing the warm wisdom radiated in occasional, casual inattention from my father. As time progressed, we also came to define ourselves by how we adapted to – and disguised - my oldest sister’s eating disorder.
Disorder. Huh. I guess that sounds right for the time: a living room is disorderly. A drunk on the street is disorderly. My sister was an unfortunately messy room in the carefully stiff order of my parent’s lives.
Inside, however, my sister has always been to order what a hurricane is to a coastline.
My very earliest memories are of two kinds: the ways in which I displeased my mother and the means she used to express that displeasure; and the cozy late nights I stayed awake with my oldest sister as she ate her way through all the food she could get her hands on while we watched bad 1970’s television, and how I waited outside the bathroom while she threw it all up again before we went to bed.
Until I was in college, I was unable to remove the gloss of sisterly camaraderie from those secret nights. By the late 1970’s I could name what was wrong “bulimia”, but that word is far too limited for what was going wrong with her, and far too clinical for me to use in connection with my deeply loved sister until many years after I recognized it.
By the time I was 6, she had left home for college. From then on, my attention to the minutiae of her disorderliness was fragmented:
1978, the year I visited her student apartment and the only food she had was a pack of almonds shared in the dark.
1985, the year of her 3rd pregnancy; I stayed with her a month, providing care for her two daughters and feeding them the diet she proscribed: figs, almonds, carrot juice, and sprouted wheat crackers. The girls had golden skin from the carrots.
1987, the year of her 4th pregnancy: staying with her again, I watched her eat 2 whole rotisserie chickens after the kids were in bed, then vomit them all up again.
Throughout this time, and really, for as long as I can remember, she has remained infinitely attentive to nutrition, agriculture, food production and distribution, and, most specifically, the contents and methods of processed foods and how that impacts health. She’s had stints with iridology, enemas, cleanses, supplements, soil, methods of pesticides, lab dissection of ingredients, ground-water seepage, food theorists, food journalists - all part of her lexicon.
This is as good a place as any to note that my sister is brilliant: a quick reader who relentlessly pushed me to learn how to read with her before I was 3; like many in our extended family, an adept linguist in at least 10 languages; a prolific correspondent and writer of scholarly articles. One of the quickest minds I’ve ever met.
There came a time when she seemed to be getting better. The entire family agreed: the symptoms seemed to be fading. For the first time in her life I think she weighed more than 100 lbs.
And then I began getting the letters. Thick, luxurious packages of text, scribbled on ingredients lists, Xeroxed articles, napkins containing fragmented, very difficult to follow notes, comments, asides and warnings. Most of her writing focused on foods. What to eat, what to avoid, and in what combinations. It was, as one friend observed, like getting stealth messages from a mental patient.
I’ve come to realize that her bulimia has been repurposed as toxiphobia (the fear of being poisoned). Or that maybe this is what was wrong all along. She definitely feels that the world is a poisonous place, and every day, to live, she has to choose what foods to eat to stay alive, and the best combination thereof to counterbalance the poisons of previous meals. It consumes her.
It’s difficult for me to dismiss her phobias out-of-hand. I believe - I know - that it's all based in facts, distorted facts some of the time, but not blatant fantasy. We live in a toxic world. I think our legacy to our children is wrapped in every plastic bag, wrapper, casing we put on our food and on our bodies. Soaps. sigh...I'm not my sister, but I can (after all these years, all those messages, how could I not?) see her point.