Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 13, Number 1
Copyright © 2018
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Essay by Robert Radin
I. Nicole and Julia
I first heard about anorexia on a Wednesday night in the summer
of 1978. It was cruise night on Van Nuys Boulevard and my friend
Neil Baumgarten was heading over in his Nova SS and wanted me to
I didn’t like cruise night. I didn’t like the glare of the streetlights,
and the Fords and Chevies with their chrome blower stacks, and the
bikers standing outside Arby’s, their choppers lined up at the curb. I
didn’t like the girls who drove in and out of the Bob’s Big Boy
parking lot with their feathered blond hair and their blue eyeshadow
and their lip gloss and their tube tops and their zip-around jeans. But
Neil was my best friend back then, so I said I would go. I showed
up at his house a few minutes early and his father invited me in and
told me Neil was still in the bathroom getting ready. As I stood there
in the entry I saw Neil’s sister sitting in an easy chair in the living
room. The curtains were drawn. Her mother was with her, talking
to her quietly, but it seemed like she wasn’t listening, and I realized I
had walked in on a family scene I wasn’t supposed to be seeing. Part
of me wanted to leave but part of me wanted to stay so I could make
eye contact with Neil’s sister, so I could exchange a look that would
tell her how I felt, let her know I was in love with her and that
whatever it was she was going through I would be there for her. But
she just stared off into the dark of the room.
Neil finally came out of the bathroom, primed for the night. We
went outside and looked up at the mackerel sky. The clouds were
the color Los Angeles sunsets were famous for, that deep red
everyone attributed to the high concentrations of carbon monoxide
Sorry about that, he said. My sister has this disease. It’s called
For many years these words would remain as strange and
beautiful to me as they were that night, sounding more like the Latin
name for a flower than a once-rare illness.
She can’t eat, he said. She keeps losing weight.
I asked him questions but he couldn’t give me answers. I
imagined anorexia as some sort of virus that was eating his sister’s
flesh from the inside, but it wasn’t a virus; it wasn’t something you
could catch. And yet she was dissolving. She was wasting away.
We drove over to Van Nuys Boulevard. At the light at
Kittridge a couple of girls pulled up in a black Trans Am. They
looked older than we were, like maybe they’d already graduated
from high school. The driver was checking Neil out. He rolled down
I’m a male gynecologist, he said.
This was his standard pick-up line. He thought it was a double
The driver leaned over her friend. She had a messy henna-
colored mane and sharp teeth. She wore a black halter top that
showed off her cleavage. She looked like a vampire.
I’m Mona, she said. This is Gretchen. You guys want to go
We followed them across Ventura and into the hills, stopping
on a dead-end street. Neil pulled up the emergency brake.
They’re into us, he said. So none of your bullshit.
He was referring to my habit of bringing up unsexy subjects at
Fine, I said.
We got out of the car. Neil walked over to the Trans Am and
talked to Mona for a few minutes. Then Gretchen got out and he
slid into her seat and closed the door.
Gretchen approached me with a look of resignation. She had
the same tangle of hair that Mona had, but she wasn’t a vampire.
Let’s get in your car, she said.
But it’s nice out, I said.
We sat down on the sidewalk.
Have you heard of anorexia nervosa? I said.
It’s when a girl starves herself, she said.
I was confused. Neil hadn’t described it like that.
It’s a bad disease, I said.
Why are you talking about this?
I know someone who has it.
Gretchen drew her knees to her chest.
Mona’s going to fuck your friend, she said. So we might as
well do something.
As we drove home that night Neil told me he got to third base
with Mona, which meant she gave him a blow job.
She knows what she’s doing, he said. I’m definitely going to
see her again. Do you want to make it a double?
No, I said.
So you’re going to stay a virgin the rest of your life?
That’s the plan.
We drove past the Busch brewery. The red light on the south
building was flashing, which meant they were boiling the malt. I rolled
down the window and breathed in the hops. It was my favorite smell
in the world.
Do you think your sister’s still awake? I said.
Stop talking about my sister, he said.
I met Julia the following fall, in Miss Ushijima’s 2-D art class.
She sat by herself in the front of the room and I sat in the back with
a group of stoners. I didn’t smoke pot but I knew if I sat with them
Miss Ushijima would expect less of me.
Miss Ushijima was an odd bird. She was a gardener as well as
a painter and would show up to class with dirt clods in her hair. She
taught us color theory and how to blend and crosshatch and stipple.
I did a watercolor of a deer and a charcoal drawing of a potted plant.
Miss Ushijima stood next to me and watched what I was doing,
smelling of soil and dill, never saying a word.
Julia wore jeans and baggy sweatshirts, but I could see the
tendons in her neck and the hollows at her jawbone. I would stare at
her for half the class but she never looked up from what she was
doing. Every once in a while she would go up to Miss Ushijima and
ask a question in a barely audible voice; then she would walk back to
her table, her head down and her shoulders hunched.
She was a real artist. I first realized this during one of Miss
Ushijima’s workshops, where students shared their work in progress
and asked the class for feedback. Julia showed us a pencil drawing
of a mother giving her young daughter a bath. Both the mother and
the daughter were looking down into the tub, so you couldn’t see
their eyes. This gave the drawing a certain intimacy. I still remember
the detail in the mother’s housedress, the large cuffs at the sleeve, the
buttons up the front. I remember the mother’s hair, the way Julia
was able to show the weight of it, pulled back in a bun, and the
daughter’s hair, shining wet and plastered to her cheek.
It was inspired by Mary Cassatt, Julia said.
The class mumbled. Nobody knew who Mary Cassatt was.
One morning we were drawing landscapes with pastels and I
decided I needed olive green. I could have asked the stoners, but I
knew there was a good chance they had eaten theirs. Instead I got
up to sharpen a pencil and on my way back made a detour to Julia.
Can I borrow an olive green? I said.
She searched my face to make sure I was trustworthy. Then
she reached under the table and pulled out a small wooden case and
opened it. Inside were trays of pastels, arranged by color and shade.
They were so perfect, lined up next to each other, still in their paper
wrappers. I felt the way I had as a kid when I opened up a new box
of crayons. I didn’t want to use them; I just wanted to look at them.
Julia picked out the olive green and gave it to me. I looked at
the landscape she was working on. The trees were blue and the
mountains were red and the sky was a swirl of orange and yellow.
It was inspired by Art Nouveau, she said.
I love his work, I said.
Then she disappeared. I searched for her in the hallways during
passing periods and on the quad during lunch, but she was nowhere
to be seen. I asked Miss Ushijima what had happened but she
wouldn’t—or couldn’t—tell me anything.
I finished high school and started college and got a part-time job
delivering flowers. My very first delivery was a bouquet of roses for
the manager of an old movie theater. As I walked into the lobby I
was filled with nostalgia: This was where I’d first seen Willy Wonka
and the Chocolate Factory.
A woman my age with spiky red hair and freckles was standing
behind a counter tearing tickets. She wore a blue pantsuit and a
black bow tie and I thought she was the manager, so I gave her the
bouquet. She was beaming, until she read the card and realized it
wasn’t for her.
Just a minute, she said. I’ll go get her.
She returned with the real manager.
You need to check before you give someone flowers, the
I felt like an idiot and wasn’t sure whether I was only going to
make matters worse, but I drove back to the flower shop and
wrapped a dozen daisies in green tissue paper and got in the delivery
van and returned to the theater and gave them to the woman in the
Her name was Nicole and she was best friends with Julia. She
told me this on our second date, as we stood in a lower-level gallery
at the Norton Simon, studying Degas’ The Laundress. It reminded
her of something Julia would do.
She has anorexia, she said. Do you know what that is?
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t believe they knew each other.
She’s been hospitalized twice, she said.
I wondered whether this was why Julia had disappeared. I
didn’t let on that I’d had a class with her, because then I’d have to
admit that I’d liked her.
Every time Nicole and I got together with Julia she acted like
she was meeting me for the first time. It was painful to realize I
hadn’t made an impression on her.
The three of us would go to a movie and at the end of the night
we’d drop Julia off at her parents’ house—she still lived at home.
Then Nicole would begin her postmortem.
Her hands are purple.
Her collarbone is sticking out.
Her thighs are smaller than her calves.
She was worried about her friend, but it was more than that.
Her feelings were mixed up with her own ideas about beauty, with
her insecurities about her appearance. She always compared herself
to other women. When we were in line at the supermarket checkout
she’d flip through the pages of fashion magazines and show me the
photographs of the anorexic models. She was both fascinated and
repulsed by them, and she had the same split response to Julia. I
didn’t understand any of this at the time.
Hilde Bruch’s The Golden Cage: The Enigma of Anorexia
Nervosa had just been published in paperback. Nicole had read a
review of it and bought a copy. We’d get back to her apartment and
she’d sit down on the couch and start reading passages to me, but I
couldn’t look at her—the cover of the book was too disturbing. It
was a picture of an emaciated woman, her long red hair tied back in
a ponytail, her head craned forward, accentuating the line of her jaw
and the length of her neck. Her skin was pinched tight at her
cheekbones, her lips pursed. Her eyes were two hollows. Her head
was inside a cage.
In the fall of 1981 Nicole and I took a day trip to Tijuana. We
played with mariachi marionettes at a souvenir shop and had tacos
and beer at a restaurant off the Avenida Revolución. That night we
held hands and walked around the strip. There was a thick wind
blowing up the avenue, hot like a Santa Ana, and so many American
girls, come down to get drunk for the first time. They were
staggering around, unable to protect each other, the low riders calling
to them from their cars. But it was the American men they needed to
worry about: They stood outside the clubs, smoking cigarettes,
Nicole found the whole scene distressing and wanted to leave.
We took a cab to the border and got through customs fast, but it
took us an hour to find our car. It was somewhere around Chula
Vista that I started feeling it. I pulled over and got out.
What are you doing? she said.
I climbed the guardrail and kept on walking until I was far from
the lights and the cars, until I was lost in one of the long stretches of
chaparral that bordered the freeway. I got down on my knees and
broke into a sweat. Nicole caught up with me and I tried to hold it in.
I didn’t want to throw up in front of her.
I was sick for most of the following week. Nicole let me stay
at her apartment and when she got home from work she made me a
pot of white rice and poured me a glass of ginger ale.
I recovered in time to go to a Halloween party with her and
Julia. I dressed up as Alex DeLarge, Malcolm McDowell’s
character in A Clockwork Orange. It was Nicole’s idea—somehow
she’d come by a jumpsuit and a bowler hat and a codpiece and a
pair of jackboots. She put eyeliner and mascara on my right eye and
for the penis nose she painted a toilet-paper roll the color of my
skin—Boo Radley-white—and glued a red pom-pom on the end. I
fastened it with an elastic.
She was much less extravagant with her own costume. She
went as a sexy sailor, which wasn’t much of a stretch since sailor
tops were in back then and she wore them all the time anyway. Julia
wore a green dress and a heavy blue cardigan.
Midway through the night I found myself standing alone at the
snack table. Nicole was off talking to the host’s parents, who were
both English professors at the university. I was intimidated by their
erudition and worldliness, so I was keeping my distance.
Julia came up behind me.
I still don’t understand how you got sick, she said.
I think it was the beer, I said. I drank it from a glass.
Joan Armatrading’s “I’m Lucky” came on the stereo. I asked
Julia if she wanted to dance. We found an empty space in the middle
of the living room and swayed back and forth. She was looking at
her feet, lip-syncing the refrain.
I can walk under ladders . . . I can walk under ladders . . .
The drums kicked in. I took her hand and led her through a
series of turns. She was graceful, but her body offered no resistance.
It made it harder for me to keep the rhythm. There was nothing to
When Nicole and I got back to her apartment that night she
read to me from The Golden Cage, then we went to the bathroom
and she removed my eyeliner and mascara. As I was brushing my
teeth I noticed her scale under the sink. I pulled it out and stepped
I’ve lost 10 pounds, I said.
You look good, she said.
It began a week later. Nicole and I went to an Italian restaurant
with red leather booths and lattice archways festooned with plastic
grapes and a mural that depicted the journey of the grape from the
vine to the bottle. We ordered a house salad and a large mushroom
pie. I’d been thinking that I wanted to stay at this weight, or maybe
lose just a little bit more, and I thought I could do it if I cut down on
the dairy in my diet—milk, yogurt, ice cream, butter. But I hadn’t
thought about cheese. I imagined it congealing inside me now, filling
my veins and intestines, and when the pizza came I didn’t know what
I’m not that hungry, I said.
We had an unspoken agreement: When we went out for pizza
we synchronized our eating, to make sure we got an equal number
of pieces. If I didn’t have any, then neither could she.
Just have one slice, she said.
Fine, I said.
The whole way home I cursed myself for giving in. When we
got back to her apartment she put the leftover pizza in the refrigerator.
You can take it home with you, she said.
I went into the bathroom and studied myself in the mirror. I
thought I could already see it: My eyes were a little bit bigger, the
planes of my face a little bit sharper.
I bought a book called the Nutrition Almanac. I’d heard
about it from a nutritionist who had a talk show on Pacifica radio.
He frequently consulted the book while he was on the air.
There were tables in the back that listed the nutritive
composition of every food I could possibly imagine eating. I
consulted the tables every day, looking for substitutions, foods that
would provide the same amount of protein with less fat, fewer
carbohydrates, fewer calories. I went over the numbers in my head,
searching for the perfect combination. Once I found it I could stop, I
told myself. Then I wouldn’t have to think about food at all anymore.
This is how I settled on tuna fish. It was, according to the
Nutrition Almanac, a high-value food, which meant it had a high
ratio of nutrients to calories. Every day I ate a can of tuna mixed
with half a cup of bulgur, a stalk of raw broccoli, and a lemon. The
lemon wasn’t high-value, but I liked the feeling of the ascorbic acid
burning through me, stripping me down to the bone.
When the hunger pains came I closed my eyes until the white
spots stopped flashing in my head. I waited for the pain to settle into
my stomach. I told myself each spasm was cutting away a little more
Nicole was worried. She urged me to see a specialist, an
endocrinologist her doctor had recommended. I was moved by her
concern and agreed to go.
She sat in the waiting room reading Glamour while the
endocrinologist measured the length of my arms and legs and the
diameter and circumference of my head. He pressed at the hollows
in my body, talking to himself and nodding the whole time, as if he
were checking off items on a list.
It could be a dysfunction in the satiety center of the
hypothalamus, he said, causing you to think you’re full before you
really are. Or it could be lesions in the limbic system of your brain.
Or an irregular output of vasopressin and gonadotropin. I’d like to
admit you to the hospital and run some tests.
I remember feeling amused at first, as his diagnoses were so far
off the mark, as he was so clearly refusing to see my problem for
what it was. But when I met Nicole in the waiting room and told her
I wasn’t coming back and she got upset I couldn’t reassure her,
because he’d planted a seed of doubt. For the first time I wondered
whether the starvation I’d thought was under my control never really
was. For the first time I wondered whether that sense of control was
really my body tricking my mind.
Nicole wouldn’t relent. She asked me to see someone she’d
read about in the L.A. Times, a psychiatrist named Marvin Kashner.
He ran an eating-disorder program at a nearby hospital. At our first
session I told him I had a super-fast metabolism.
I eat something and I crap it right out, I said.
It takes 40 hours to pass a meal, he said.
Not for me, I said.
He looked at me in disbelief. Then his beeper buzzed.
There’s an emergency on the unit, he said. Please excuse me.
I sat there for half an hour before I realized he wasn’t going to
return. I went back to the hospital lobby, where Nicole was once
again sitting on a couch reading Glamour, and told her what had
happened. She begged me to give Kashner another chance. But the
same thing happened during our second session: He got a message
on his beeper and left. This time she went to the front desk to
complain, and as I stood there waiting for her a group of girls came
out from behind a locked door and passed through the lobby. I
recognized them right away by their skinny arms and their skinny
necks, and by the way they carried themselves, with a self-possession
that bordered on arrogance.
III. The Politics of Fasting
I read “A Hunger Artist” for the first time in the spring of 1983,
in a hotel room in Mexico, the day after Nicole told me she’d met
someone else. I weighed 90 pounds.
All I could think of was this: Kafka knew what it was like to
starve himself. He knew. The rest of the story was lost on me. I
missed his commentary on the position of the artist in a culture that
has no true use for him. I didn’t recognize the symbolism at the
story’s end, the hunger artist as the Jew and the panther as the rising
fascist state. And most of all I didn’t understand the real reason the
hunger artist died, that it wasn’t because he went too long without
eating—it was because people stopped watching him. I would
starve myself for another two years—and lose another 10 pounds—
before I understood this.
The idea of going to Mexico began in an art history class. The
professor was an Englishman named Taylor. He stood on a stage in
a 500-seat lecture hall, wearing sandals and brightly colored dashikis,
showing us slides of famous paintings. Each painting had a story—
some sort of intrigue he elaborated—and through these stories he
gave us a sense of the social and economic forces at work at the
time. Then he would go on to connect the moment of the painting to
the present, teasing out the parallels between, for example, Goya’s
Disasters of War and the massacres taking place in El Salvador.
On the final day of class, with everyone anticipating a
particularly dazzling lecture to end the semester, a hunched,
nebbishy-looking man in an ill-fitting suit walked onto the stage,
saying he’d be giving the final lecture in place of the professor, who
had taken ill. This stand-in professor proceeded to give a dull
treatise on Monet’s use of blue, laced with asides about Professor
Taylor, questioning his sanity and the soundness of his reasoning,
until his voice began to change, picking up some of the patter and
music of British English, and he stood straighter, and took on more
and more of the mannerisms we’d come to know him by, until the
timbre of his voice was fully restored and he peeled off his shabby
professorial clothes and he became Professor Taylor again, standing
in front of us like a hippie superman.
There’s a federal agent with us today, he said. He’s been with
us all semester. He wants me to shut my mouth. He wants me to
give you a copy of Janson’s History of Art and tell you to go off
and read it and then give you a quiz. But I can’t do that. They can
try and have me deported. They can try and have me killed. I don’t
He walked off the stage. Everyone in the lecture hall stood and
It was a disquieting moment, seeing this man I’d admired the
whole semester being worshipped like a rock star. There was
something self-promoting about it, a kind of cult of personality he
was encouraging that ran counter to everything he’d taught us. I
wondered if I was the only one who felt this way.
I was walking through the food court a few days later when I
stopped to talk to a soft-spoken man with a long beard and a
ponytail who was selling copies of a magazine put out by the North
American Congress on Latin America. He invited me to the inaugural
meeting of a group called the Network in Solidarity with the People
of Guatemala. I thought about it for a moment. I wasn’t sure I was
ready to take this step, but Professor Taylor had made me feel like I
needed to do something.
That night I sat with seven other people on the floor of an empty
classroom at the south end of campus and learned about a massacre
in San Francisco Nentón, in the department of Huehuetenango. The
Guatemalan army had entered the village and rounded up all the
people and marched them at gunpoint into the village church. Then
they took the women out in groups, back to their homes, and raped
them and cut off their heads with machetes. Then they went back for
the children, took them into the coffee fields, threw them into the air,
and stabbed them with bayonets. Then they went back for the men,
led them into the street, tied their hands behind their backs, cut off
their ears, gouged out their eyes, burned them with blowtorches,
peeled off their skin, and shot each of them in the back of the head.
Then they piled all the bodies back into the church and set it on fire.
The major American news outlets didn’t report the story. The
Reagan administration was suppressing any information that might
undermine its covert operations in Central America.
I went to a demonstration in front of the federal building on
Wilshire Boulevard. The man with the Castro cap was there; I
recognized him from the Network meetings. He set up the PA
system, introduced the speakers, and talked to the reporters from
By midday I was dizzy. I remember looking up at the federal
building, at the scrim that covered its exterior, shimmering in the heat,
making the building look like a mirage, a phantom that might
disappear at any moment. I sat down on the ground and tried to
steady myself, to let my hunger settle, but I couldn’t stop the white
lights flashing in my head. The man in the Castro cap approached
me and asked if I was okay.
You should get something to eat, he said. We’ve got rice and
I just need a minute, I said.
In the afternoon we made signs that said No U.S. Blood
Money to Guatemala. We held the signs and chanted Not a penny,
not a dime, funding death squads is a crime. Then we drew
outlines of bodies on the front steps of the federal building with chalk.
Inside each body we wrote a statistic: the number of Guatemalans
who had been murdered since the war began, the number of CIA
operatives in the country, the amount of money being funneled
through Israel to purchase the Galil rifles that were used to kill
civilians. The federal employees had to step over the bodies to get
into the building.
As I think about it now I wonder what would have happened if,
instead of holding a sign and chanting in chorus with the other
protesters, I had gone to the front steps of the federal building and
declared a hunger strike. Maybe it would have changed everything.
Maybe it would have changed nothing.
You starve yourself in response to an external pressure. It may
come from family, or friends, or from images you see in the media.
But your starving quickly becomes more than that. It becomes a
means by which you express your anger.
Anorexia is a hunger strike. The difference comes down to
who gives the starving its name. With anorexia it’s your family, your
friends, your doctors. With a hunger strike it’s you. You declare the
meaning of your fast so people know how to interpret your behavior.
But you have to do it soon, almost as soon as you start starving,
because if you get too far into your fast your hunger will make you
silent. This was what happened to me. Even if I’d gone to the front
steps of the federal building that day, no one would have believed me.
I decided to go to Mexico one morning while taking a shower at
Nicole’s apartment. I told her my plan as I was standing in front of
the mirror, combing my hair.
There’s a priest who’s running a refugee camp on the Guatemalan
border, I said.
Please don’t, she said.
The night before I left she handed me a small package wrapped
in green tissue paper. It was a new edition of Kafka’s collected
stories, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.
I kissed her. A thank-you kiss. Then, even though I didn’t
want to kiss her again, I kissed her again, because I thought that was
what people did before an extended separation.
It had been so long since we’d made love. I thought it was
because I’d transcended the needs of my body. I didn’t realize my
loss of desire was a physiological response to my starvation.
I can’t do this, she said.
When I first started starving myself she liked it. But now my
skin was yellow, the blond hair that once covered my arms and legs
having receded into something finer, white. My veins were blue at
my wrists. My hip bones stuck out like the wings of a bird.
We sat down on the couch. She put her arms around me.
I don’t feel that way anymore, she said.
It came over me all at once, a nausea I couldn’t relieve because
there was nothing inside me to throw up.
I arrived in San Cristóbal on a drizzly day in May. It was
exactly as the guidebook described: cobblestone streets, baroque
buildings with brightly colored façades, green mountains all around.
I went directly to the Museo Na Bolom, a research institute
dedicated to preserving the culture of the region’s indigenous people.
It was also known as a meeting place for activists protesting U.S.
intervention in Guatemala.
There was a tour in progress when I got there. The guide was
German. She was wearing a huipil, the traditional tunic worn by the
women of the region.
This was given to me by a woman from Tenejapa, she said. The
rows of diamonds represent the movement of the sun through the
heavens. The curls on each side are butterfly wings. They symbolize
the night sky.
She spread her arms wide.
The design came to her in a dream, she said.
After the tour was over I approached her and asked if she knew
anything about El Rosario, the refugee camp on the border. She
squinted and asked me if I was with Americas Watch.
I’m from the United States, I said.
I don’t understand, she said.
I belong to the Network in Solidarity with the People of
You have no business going to El Rosario, she said.
I got on a bus headed toward Tapachula the following morning.
I wanted to go for a walk on the beach, collect my thoughts, figure
out what to do.
The road down the mountain was winding and narrow. When
we got to the bottom the driver pulled over and opened the door.
Three cops got on and walked down the aisle to where I was sitting.
I took out my passport and a 5,000-peso note.
Not here, Flaco, they said.
I grabbed my bag and followed them off the bus. They led me
to their car and asked where I was from and where I was going and
the purpose of my visit. The bus driver honked his horn. One of the
cops raised his hand, indicating the driver should wait.
They asked to see my papers. It’s all part of the shakedown, I
reminded myself. I had read about it in my guidebook.
Your visa isn’t stamped, they said.
I was told I didn’t need it, I said.
You were told wrong.
The bus driver honked again. This time they waved him on. He
closed the door and drove away.
You need to come with us, they said.
I took a $10,000 note out of my wallet and gave it to them.
It’s all I have, I said.
Comitán is just down the road, they said.
They got in the car and back on the highway. I started walking.
Sunset was still several hours away, but the cicadas were already
I reached Comitán just after dusk. The zocalo was lit with
strings of white lights, left over from la dia de las madres. There
was a group of men sitting on the bandstand.
Pinche Flaco, they said.
I wanted to tell them to fuck off, but I didn’t want to get my ass
I went to a little market off the zocalo and cashed a traveler’s
check. I bought two cans of tuna fish, a box of cornflakes, and a
two-liter bottle of water.
I found a cheap hotel a few blocks away. Twelve rooms
arranged around a courtyard with a maguey tree. I remember
thinking it strange, having a maguey there, when you could go into the
countryside and see them everywhere. Maybe it was because
Mexico was in the middle of a drought. The maguey required very
little water and bloomed beautiful purple flowers when it was allowed
The room was dark and dirty. The walls were green, streaked
with water spots. There was a twin bed in the corner, with a picture
of Our Lady of Guadalupe over the headboard, and a small dresser,
and a nightstand with an old phone. I put down my bags and called
Nicole. She picked up on the second ring. I could hear the
apprehension in her voice.
I’ve decided not to go to the camp, I said. I was thinking you
could come here and we could travel together. We can go to
Palenque and Chichén Itzá.
I have to tell you something, she said.
I’m eating again, I said. You’ll see.
I have to tell you something, she said.
I took my bowl and my fork and my can opener out of my bag
and went to the bathroom. The tuna was packed in oil. It had more
calories that way, but I’d been unable to find tuna packed in water
anywhere in Mexico.
I drained the oil into the bathroom sink. I filled the bowl
halfway with cornflakes and crushed them into crumbs with my fist.
I scooped the tuna out of the can with the fork and mashed it into the
cornflakes. I went back to the bed and sat down and opened the
bottle of water and took a swig. Then I took a small forkful of the
tuna mixture, chewing it slowly, pressing it against my palate with my
tongue to extract all its flavor, waiting as long as I could before taking
the next bite. I needed to pace myself. I needed to make this meal
last all night.
Robert Radin’s work has appeared in Salon, Marie Claire, Per
Contra, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. His short
story “Live Action English”—which first appeared in the Spring
2015 issue of the Apple Valley Review—was included on the list
of notable stories in The Best American Short Stories 2016, edited
by Junot Díaz and series editor Heidi Pitlor.
◄ Previous page Apple Valley Review, Spring 2018 Next page ►
II. The Art of Fasting
Many years later—long after I’d gained my weight back—a
series of articles about male anorexia appeared in the popular press.
A reporter from my local newspaper, seeking to cash in on the
perceived trend, contacted a therapist I was seeing to find out if he
had any clients who would be willing to be interviewed. The therapist
asked if I was interested. I wasn’t.
The fascination with male anorexia was short-lived. Most men
had no interest in reading stories about men who were starving
themselves. Neither did most women. As a result no one ever
examined the most interesting part of the story: When men started
showing up in treatment programs, most of the female patients
refused to speak to them.
I can imagine all kinds of explanations for this. Maybe they had
unresolved conflicts with their fathers. Maybe they had fears about
their sexuality that would be difficult to work through with men
present. But I think it was something else, something at once simpler
and more complicated: They were displaying a territorial instinct.
They knew it was different for men. They knew that however much
a man’s problem with food might resemble a woman’s, it wasn’t the
same. There was a question implicit in their anger, and they already
knew the answer: A man couldn’t have anorexia.
The story of anorexia begins in Siena in 1353. A young girl
named Catherine was on her way home from a visit to her sister’s
house when she had her first vision of Christ. He was in the sky,
looking down at her, radiating a golden light.
She gave her life to Him that day. When she turned 17 she
entered a Dominican order and began fasting as a way to display
her devotion. She came to believe that being thin was a sign of
spiritual development, of a strong moral constitution.
She starved to death in 1380, at the age of 33. In 1461 she
was canonized. Women around the world followed suit, starving
themselves to attain holiness.
The practice reached its height during the 16th century, when a
woman who claimed to eat nothing, or only the most symbolic of
foods—the juice of a currant brushed across her lips with a bird’s
feather once a week—drew crowds from miles away, members of
the clergy gathering round her bed, observing her for days on end
until they were convinced she was truly divine.
In the 17th century this began to change. The new self-
starvers—miraculous maidens as they came to be called—were not
affiliated with a particular faith; it was a private religion they were
cultivating, a sense of mystery that had been missing from their lives.
On May 23, 1810, 21-year-old Eleanor Wentworth began a
fast at her family’s home in Derbyshire, England. People flocked to
see her, only this time the men who gathered round her bed were
physicians instead of pastors or priests.
Everyone who met Eleanor was struck by her vitality and good
humor. But, like all miraculous maidens, she had a secret: Whenever
there was a break in her surveillance, usually late at night or in the
early hours of morning, her sister would sneak in with a piece of fruit.
On June 2, 1811, Eleanor’s doctors found the pit of a plum
under her pillow. She denied their accusations, claiming it was the
first food she’d eaten in over a year, and rather than publicize her
apparent breach, they agreed to let her continue her fast, only now
they would take regular stool samples to verify the truth of her claims.
Eleanor made good on her promise and stopped eating altogether.
On July 20, 1811, she died.
Her story was in all the newspapers. It made for good copy,
so good that American and European dailies started regularly
featuring articles about fasting girls, rendering their images in before-
and-after drawings, the before drawings always in front view and the
after drawings always in profile, to accentuate the girl’s emaciation.
The first woman ever diagnosed with anorexia was known as
Miss A. This was the pseudonym her physician, Sir William Gull,
gave her in a paper he published in the spring of 1873. Miss A.
wound a rose-colored ribbon around her waist every morning, he
wrote, never letting herself exceed its measure.
Gull was in the midst of a debate with the French neurologist
Charles Lasegue at the time, the two of them feuding over who had
been the first to use the term anorexia in the medical literature. In
fact it was Lasegue, though he called the disease he observed
l’anorexie hysterique because he viewed it as fundamentally
psychological in nature. He spent much of his time considering the
patient’s relationships with family members before making his
diagnosis, and was, in this way, much closer to contemporary
thinking about anorexia than Gull, who saw the disease as a purely
Doctors had long used the term hysteros—the Greek word for
uterus—to designate diseases that were thought to afflict only
women. Designating a disease as a form of hysteria reinforced the
myth that women were irrational and needed to be cared for by men.
By labeling anorexia a form of hysteria, Lasegue made it gender-
specific, something only women could get.
Gull didn’t believe this. He was just as chauvinistic as Lasegue,
but he didn’t want to talk about emotions; women were just bodies
for him, and he believed their problems were treatable only through
medicine. And yet this conviction led him to a startling conclusion: If
anorexia was a disorder of the central nervous system rather than the
uterus, then men could fall victim to it too.
There was nothing resembling male anorexia until the end of the
19th century, when the hunger artists began appearing in Europe and
the United States.
The first hunger artist was a British doctor named Henry Tanner.
As a young man Tanner had gone several days without food on
account of an illness and felt better than ever. He believed his
accidental fast had given him access to a secret, spiritual force that
would not only preserve his strength but increase it. He came to the
United States in 1848 and began practicing medicine, lecturing his
patients on the virtues of temperance, even prescribing fasts as a cure
for certain diseases.
In 1880 he heard about Molly Fancher, the so-called “Brooklyn
Enigma,” a woman with supernatural powers who claimed to have
gone years without eating. Fancher had become a national celebrity,
prompting the renowned doctor William Hammond to offer to
observe her to verify the truth of her claims. She refused—for the
sake of propriety, she said. Tanner then wrote to Hammond and
volunteered himself for observation. When Hammond declined,
Tanner moved to New York City and set himself up in Clarendon
Hall and began a fast.
By the 11th day the medical community caved in. The
newspaper coverage had become so sensational that doctors, like
everyone else, were clamoring to get a good look at Tanner. People
paid 25 cents a head to view him, his body backlit during the evening
hours to cast shadows that would make him look even thinner. He
received upwards of 100 letters a day, including one much-publicized
missive from Molly Fancher herself, the contents of which he
On the 40th day he broke his fast. A small table was set in
front of him with all the foods he’d asked for, an audience of 6,000
standing rapt as he ate a quarter of a peach, devoured a giant
Georgia watermelon, and drank a glass of rice milk in a single gulp.
When he finished off half a pound of broiled beefsteak and half a
pound of sirloin the theater burst into wild applause.
But his success was his undoing. When the New York Times
reported that he had made approximately $1,000 from his stunt, the
medical establishment turned against him, dismissing his experiment
as little more than a circus sideshow. They pointed to those first 11
days, when the fast went unmonitored by any credible doctor. They
noted how he had been taken out for haircuts and photo shoots and
walks through Washington Square, all opportune times for him to
sneak a bit of food. While it was true he’d lost 35 pounds, he’d held
up well all things considered, far better than possible had he really
been starving the entire time.
Tanner disappeared not long after, a bit richer but having lost
the true object of his quest: scientific proof of the benefits of fasting.
But he’d spawned the next entertainment craze.
In the spring of 1922, two years before he died, Franz Kafka
wrote a story called “A Hunger Artist,” in which he chronicles the
demise of the art of fasting through the tale of a man who refuses to
quit, who keeps practicing his craft long after the public has lost
interest. Kafka presents both the mundane and the grotesque details
of the hunger artist’s life: the cage he imprisons himself in, the black
tights he wears to exaggerate his emaciation, the pretty young women
who help him to a table set with food when he breaks his fast, so
repulsed by the sight of him that they burst into tears.
As a young man Kafka read about the hunger artists in the
Prague dailies. Their stories made a deep impression on him, in
particular the story of a man who starved himself inside a glass box
in a Berlin steakhouse, fat men and their fashionably dressed wives
dining all around him, gorging themselves on rare beef and red wine.
This image haunted Kafka for many years.
Like all of Kafka’s characters, the hunger artist is blinded by his
reason. It leads him to do things that are self-destructive. At the end
of the story he tries to explain his starving to the overseer of a group
of workers who have come to clean out his cage:
“I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger
artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you
shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t
admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?”
“Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist.
These are his last words. The men bury him and put a panther
in his place. Soon there are people gathering around the panther’s
cage the way they once did for the hunger artist, mesmerized now by
the great cat pacing back and forth, its every movement a show of
strength and freedom.