Hope and Other Luxuries: A Mother’s Life with a Daughter’s Anorexia by Clare Dunkle: A Dialectical Review


Hardcover, 560 pages
Expected publication: May 19th 2015 by Chronicle Books
Source: Raincoast Books

Janet and I received review copies of this book from Raincoast Books and as this is a rather heavy book in terms of the themes it tackles and the experiences it narrates, we decided to buddy-read it. And since we were buddy-reading it, we decided to have a conversation about it. And this conversation is what follows in lieu of a traditional review. We do go into more depth and Janet particularly raises wonderful points about the book that I think make for wonderful reading. We will be doing a similar review for Elena Vanishing that Elena Dunkle and Clare Dunkle wrote together so if you like the format, let us know.


Nafiza: Well, whoa. I slunk into this book not expecting…anything. This is the first memoir I’ve read ever and for some reason, I was convinced that I’d be bored, but I wanted to try the book anyway. And now that I’ve read the first 150 pages, I am forced to reassess my preconceptions. I confess that at the beginning the pace is slow. Can I even complain about that? It’s her life she’s talking about, not a book. The prologue packs a punch and I was right there with her as she gives up her cat and I felt her pain. I liked how she rooted her mothering to her own childhood and her own experiences with her mother. And I was extremely surprised when it was Valerie who had the problems and not Elena as the book had led me to expect. Some of the things that struck me the most were:

1. How Dunkle never spares herself. I mean, she leaves herself open to some severe criticism and judgement by strangers who read the book and point out that she completely missed the signs where Elena was concerned. This frankness and honesty made me appreciate the book and her a lot more.

2. I have a niece whom I love very much. She is only 2 at the moment but when Dunkle spoke about how even though she had done everything a good mother is supposed to do where the food her children eat, the books and culture they consume are concerned, her children had both somehow become victims of either themselves or society, I felt concerned. Dunkle speaks about how she was scared of being judged as a bad mother by strangers, friends and acquaintances who’d see her daughters’ sicknesses and blame her for them. And it made me realize that you can only do so much for a child. You can love them but you can’t live their lives for them. You can’t make their choices for them.

3. Dr. Petras, that German doctor who was so unnecessarily harsh with Elena. I don’t understand why Dunkle stood by and let him attack her verbally. Maybe she was shell shocked at the moment but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t speak up and there I am judging her. I wasn’t in her shoes and I’ll never be in her shoes so I don’t know. What kind of a doctor was he? He made the correct diagnosis though. I wish he had said how he came to that conclusion.

Janet: I was similarly struck by Clare’s insight that her own mothering and personal struggles (shall I say quirks? faults? strengths?) were a result of her own childhood and her family as a semi-neglected child. Trauma done to one generation never afflicts that generation alone but carries the burden and original pain, perhaps wearing a different skin, onto the next generation and – who knows? – the generations after that. That is very apparent, though not as explicitly stated, in Hope and Other Luxuries.

Maybe it was my imagination, but I saw a series of related themes that built on each other. The first hundred and fifty-odd pages were about the heart: Clare’s heartache growing up as an isolated child among adults who were her world, and then who left; as a girl ostracized by her classmates; as a girl and woman of imagination who forced the imagined worlds to close, because she thought it was the right, the normal thing to do. This section is also about people with bad hearts: bullies and other people who bulldoze their way through other people’s lives, leaving behind a trail of wreckage; Valerie’s aching heart, and her attempts to express and relieve pain.

The next theme that emerged – mind you, the themes overlapped to the point of being almost indistinguishable – was that of the mind. Clare is utterly confused by what has happened to her daughters and to herself. She faces labyrinthine nightmares of bureaucratic dead ends and policy traps. We feel her frustration as her world is populated, however briefly, by mindbogglingly obtuse doctors, hospitals, officials, and practices that seem designed to increase the suffering of families in trouble. The enemies here have bad minds as well as bad hearts: the cruelty and illogic of certain episodes is Kafkaesque in proportion.

The passages in which Clare describes her imaginative worlds and writing are spellbinding. The descriptions of Clare’s imaginings and of her characters made the characters and Clare’s particular way of imagining stories come alive; I could almost see them emerge before my own eyes.

My main complaint for the first part of the book is that I occasionally lose track of where, geographically, Clare is, and what year it is, but I’m inclined to attribute that to myself. On closer review, signposts are there; gripped by the narrative, I spedread right past them.

Nafiza: I think I got frustrated by Clare’s inability to accept the diagnosis that trained professionals repeatedly kept giving her. Obviously, I’m just a reader and I cannot have any idea what she was going through but her insistence that the doctors were somehow wrong or jumping the gun was baffling to me. Especially when everything she said and fought against being true are later proven in the book. I struggled to understand but I suppose that’s part of reading a memoir. You have to accept and observe and not judge. I try.

I, too, got confused about how much time passed and when the seasons changed. Also missing from the narrative were other people. I felt that Clare and her family lived in isolation or perhaps a vacuum because there are barely any mentions of people other than immediate family. She does mention her close friend and her extended family but that’s about it. Maybe it’s because I have such a large family and if I were to write a memoir of my own, it’d be about a 1000 pages long because 400 would be spent explaining who everyone is, haha.

I found the discussion on the lack of survivors of anorexia nervosa to be particularly poignant. I honestly didn’t know much about the eating disorder and this book is revealing all sorts of things. How much of the eating disorder is related to food and physical issues and how much of it is due to emotional and mental trauma. That scene in Clove House where Elena and the other patients present a skit of sorts showcasing the multitude of voices in Elena’s head sent chills down my spine. Imagine having to live with that cacophony in your head.

Janet:The dearth of survivors shocked me. I had no idea the survival rate was essentially nonexistent; I’d thought anorexia was like depression – that yes, you will struggle for all your life but most people, eventually, pull through it, and though relapses occur the disorder is ultimately treatable. Elena’s bitterly sarcastic plan for her memoir – making it fit the existing fiction featuring eating disorders – is a poignant indictment of the book industry, or at least that neat and tidy portion of it. What Elena tells Clare in passing about how doctors gravely misunderstood and, frankly, mistreated patients – and how that has changed – was one of the most incomprehensible parts of the book for me, not on account of what was said but in how terribly, devastatingly, murderously wrong the doctors were. It is worse than the insurance companies’ determination to avoid paying for the treatment that, alone of all the things people in the world, stood between Elena and death.

The second half of the book reminded me of one theory for why children like formulaic stories. According to this theory, the reason children go through a sometimes extended phase during which they devour formulaic series in which the hero faces basically the same problem and the sidekick has the same quirk (for example) is because it reflects their own experience that growth comes in cycles. That they struggle time and time again with the same problems and that growth is not a linear experience. In the second half, Clare is left spinning her wheels as Elena does the same thing over and over again. She even recognizes the pattern, particularly when the disorder has Elena manipulating everybody who is trying to save her, but finds hope too hard a lure to resist. Or maybe it is that hope is too hard a pattern to break. It was frustrating reading, because Clare’s frustration and sense of helplessness come right through the page. At the same time the cycle does move, slowly, toward resolution, and more of Elena’s experience is illuminated in all its topsy-turvy glory. I found it simultaneously eerie and perfectly normal, the matter of fact way Elena talks about her experience and perspective. She doesn’t need to argue because she knows that black is white. It’s the rest of them that don’t get it.

By the time Clare had her breakdown, I was amazed that she had lasted so long. The ending (happy, thank God!) felt almost too sudden after the 500+ pages of bewildering embattlement. I don’t imagine it felt that way to Clare; I think it is only that a book needs a solid ending, and she found it earlier in the renewal of happiness than fiction tends to.

Valerie really does come across as a hero. The ending of the epilogue – what did you think of that? I thought it struck a fine balance between present happiness, and the awareness of that happiness and how precarious and precious it is.

Nafiza: I confronted my ignorance about eating disorders while reading this book too and every time Clare thought about the stereotypical image of an anorexic, I felt guilty because I, too, have bought into the stereotype. That a person can appear normal on surface while being utterly different underneath is nothing new, and yet somehow we don’t think it applies to people we think we really know. Elena’s matter of fact narration about her purging habits was eerie and once again, preconceived notions about what anorexia is bubbles to the surface. There is such a disparity between what the media shows us and what the reality is.

The idea that one can never move on from an eating disorder is sobering especially because the trigger (food) is not something one can avoid if one wants to live. This is why I’m looking forward to reading Elena’s account of her illness though I know it will be perhaps a more difficult read–or maybe easier to read because like you, I felt frustrated, just as Clare must have, at the repetitive pattern developed as Elena tried to battle her way out of her disease. 

The things (I’m trying to use as benign a word as possible though several other, more rank, ones come to mind) the doctors told these impressionable and severely vulnerable girls incensed me. Doing what they did and saying the things they did caused Elena, at least, to alienate the one person who could have helped her the most. Though the relationship between Elena and Clare deteriorated so quickly that it surprised me, I didn’t think there was more to it until Elena mentions what she was told and I had an “aahh” moment. Clare hints at the lack of knowledge about eating disorders and I’m curious about the kind of research that is occurring in the field.

I think Valerie’s presence and happiness were the only things that kept Clare and her husband holding on to hope. She lived through her crisis and managed to find happiness despite everything and this probably gave Clare and her husband that precious hope. The ending of the epilogue–it just brought home the fact that you cannot complete a journey without changing in some irrevocable way. My interpretation of that ending is that Clare, no matter how happy she gets, (I dislike speaking in absolutes because I don’t want it to seem like I’m speaking for Clare), will always have a sense of how hollow, and at the same time how precious, happiness and the present moment are because anything can change in the next second. Hope does become a luxury and sometimes it takes a different kind of courage to continue hoping. It would have been so much easier for  Clare and her husband to give up because they were tested so harshly. That scene when Clare and her husband finally speak out baldly about Elena’s seemingly unpreventable demise was heartbreaking. And yet, perhaps it was that very conversation and refusal to accept her death that pushed them into pushing Elena in the right direction. 

Any last words?

Janet: I’m also stunned by how much I didn’t know about eating disorders. The connection with OCD, for example. It’s terrifying to imagine how neatly all these issues (for lack of a better word) fit together to shape the nightmare world that had Elena so captured that she chose day by day her own death. She had it planned out: perhaps eating disorders are the ultimate case of Stockholm syndrome. Elena’s friends in treatment, like her, could not imagine life beyond anorexia/bulimia and treatment – how do you help someone whose whole world revolves around starving herself so she can see her friends again as they wait to die? I think you’re right, that Clare and Joe’s revolutionary resolution to undermine Elena’s goal by making her dying as uncomfortable as necessary – to disrupt the OCD fueling her eating disorder – saved her life. No parent wants to have to use tough love, but sometimes there is no other way to express love for a child.

I have some trepidation about reading Elena Vanishing. It won’t be easy watching Elena – and Clare and the rest of their family – suffer through it all again. I’m glad we’re reading this together! (me too!)

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