Elena Vanishing by Clare B. Dunkle and Elena Dunkle: A Review


Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Chronicle Books
Source: Raincoast Books

Nafiza: It is a curious experience to read Elena Vanishing after reading Hope and Other Luxuries. A few years ago, I returned to Fiji after a decade and when perusing the city, the buildings, the sugarcane fields, I felt as if I had dual vision. I was looking at the landscape as a person returning home to something familiar but at the same time, I was also viewing the landscape as something completely foreign. That is the kind of feeling I get when reading Elena Vanishing. The narrative is simultaneously foreign and familiar.

I don’t know if you will agree with me, Janet, but I think I would recommend that people read Hope and Other Luxuries first before reading Elena Vanishing because the latter lacks the detail of the former and when read together, the whole “story” has a lot more weight to it.

Seeing the world from Elena’s eyes is jarring and sad(der). There is a moment when she observes that she feels closer to her online forum friends than she does to her own family (ARC* 103) that I find unbearably heartbreaking. Reading this made me realize even more keenly that eating disorders should not be dismissed as desperate measures to attain physical perfection. Eating disorders stem from mental issues that are deleterious in nature and are far more serious than simple calls for attention. Eating disorders need to be treated very seriously because otherwise we’ll be left with an epidemic on our hands without any knowledge how to fight it.

Therefore, Elena’s recollections about various other girls in her life, schoolmates and classmates, who are either already anorexic or on their way to becoming anorexic is even more sobering and reflective of the pervasive nature of this disorder. Rather than being a rare condition, anorexia appears to be widely spread among young girls and women who seem to gain comfort from denying themselves what they need. Elena’s thoughts about meeting the other anorexics in the eating disorder treatment facility were, frankly, a bit horrifying, as though losing weight is a competition and only those strong enough to lose enough are allowed among the echelons which are ruled by the thinnest. The sense of community fostered among the patients at the treatment center gave me flashbacks to Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.

Janet: I’m glad you mentioned the reading order of the memoirs, Nafiza. I had similar thoughts: Clare’s perspective, especially towards the end of Hope and Other Luxuries gives glimpses into what Elena was experiencing, but has a much more holistic view of how Elena’s struggle affected the family. I think we brought up in the review of that book that we had little sense of the family’s connections outside of themselves. Elena Vanishing, on the other hand, tells the story as Elena experienced it. The memoir reads like a certain breed of YA novel: narrated by a protagonist who is so absorbed in her own narrative that she utterly lacks perspective on what is really going on. In novels, this type of narrator is unreliable and skilled at concealing this essential unreliability. This sounds like a harsh condemnation of Elena; I don’t mean it as such. Rather, I want to emphasize how completely her inner critic rewrote her internal narrative (to the point where she believed she had always hated boarding school, that she had been miserable there, and that Clare had made her stay despite her unhappiness) and limited her ability to judge events and people accurately. Elena and Clare as authors do an excellent job of conveying this limited perspective. Reading, I felt caught up in Elena’s experience, almost persuaded that she was, as she believed, in the right and that there was no problem, that everyone else was overreacting.

It was also startling to see how thoroughly Elena-ruled-by-eating-disorder constantly manipulated the people and objects around her. They could give her food, but they couldn’t make her eat; they could make her eat, but they couldn’t make her really put the food in her mouth; they could make her swallow but they couldn’t prevent her from purging afterward. As a master manipulator, Elena emotionally detached herself to a horrifying degree from the people trying to save her life. I found myself wondering about the various degrees of manipulation we/I practise upon others and on the degree to which we/I detach from others, and why.

Both memoirs gave me, if you’ll pardon the pun, plenty of food for thought.

Nafiza: The degree to which we detach from others, yes, but also, the degree to which we detach from ourselves–how our minds manipulate our bodies into doing things that are not good for us. Reading Elena’s story made me realize acutely that it not just external factors that play a role in a person’s life but internal (and internalized) factors that are also a prominent cause for the people we become and the situations we find ourselves in. This may seem obvious to the outsider but when you are thick in the middle of a self-destructive journey, the awareness that you contribute to your own destruction is hard won and often never won. The realization of your own contribution to your situation can mean the difference between recovery and death. In Elena Vanishing one of the most evocative scene is when the anorexia that plagues Elena manifests itself as a woman (the tattoo, I believe). Elena’s struggle becomes pronounced and more tangible as she visualizes the disease that is constantly with her. 

Elena is an unreliable narrator but because I had read Clare’s account, I was not persuaded by her voice as I was well aware of that her perspective was faulty in that it was entirely one dimensional. The wonderful part about the book is how Elena’s characteristics that Clare talks about are illustrated–for example, her storytelling. Though Elena uses this storytelling as a shield against her mother more times than not, we see an echo of the little girl in the stories. Clare also talks about how caring Elena is and we see that once and again when Elena takes younger patients under her wings. 

Elena Vanishing is not an easy read by any means. Elena succeeds in drawing in the reader to experience for herself (though a shadow of what the actual experience must have been) the life an anorexic leads. When your entire self is reduced to a number and when you’d rather die than eat. I remember in Hope and Other Luxuries Clare and Elena talk about there being no survivors of anorexia and that makes glad this Elena’s record of her journey through this disease exists. The book is not just important for its contribution to further understand of the disorder but also its existence is also invaluable as it proves to those who are currently suffering from anorexia that there is hope for them yet, that they, too, can beat the disorder. 

Janet: The differences in the stories Elena and Clare choose to tell are fascinating. Obviously, since these books are memoirs not fiction, memories are curated rather than crafted; the memories and experiences focused on in Elena Vanishing reveal what was important to Elena’s journey, while Clare focuses on sometimes completely different episodes in Hope and Other Luxuries; however, as memoir is literature, there is also that element of choosing which particular memory and which aspect of that memory most effectively conveys what the authors want to tell.

My favourite two parts of Elena Vanishing are in chapters eighteen and nineteen, when after years of pain and frustration Elena chooses life and when, having chosen life, she experiences a major break-through due to the perception of the people charged with her treatment. The former is satisfying viscerally and poetically. The day Elena chooses to recover is one of the fascinating points of convergence with Clare’s narrative; it was a significant day for both of them, although their experiences of it are vastly different. The latter is intellectually as well as viscerally satisfying, and it is wonderful to see to the doctors and counselors at the treatment centre doing their best for Elena – and their best actually doing good rather than harm. 

Neither memoir is an easy book to finish; both narratives are powerful and frightening in the terrible reality of what they convey. That these stories carry grace and hope as well as nightmare is a testament to the endurance and love of the authors and the people who held them through the years described. The back cover of Elena Vanishing states that the memoir is “a must-read for anyone whose life has been affected by an eating disorder”; I would go farther and say that it is a must-read for any teen or adult with the maturity to grasp the story without being unbearably overwhelmed by its contents. I write unbearably overwhelmed because most readers at some point will be overwhelmed by the wrongness of what happens; this reaction is rooted in empathy and good; and I hope that Elena Vanishing and Hope and Other Luxuries will be widely read, for they are extraordinary and, I hope, transformative; but I would advise caution when giving these stories to readers who may be unready for the suffering – particularly the suffering caused by other people – at this stage in their lives. I would be remiss not to point out, however, that nobody is ever ready for events like those Elena endures, and that Elena’s humour and cleverness make for moments of relief in the darkness of the narrative.


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