Why I Wrote A Dangerous Daughter
“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.” Sigmund Freud.
My story began more than 50 years ago. At the age of 13, I began refusing food, and my weight dropped dramatically. This was seen as wayward, even wicked, behaviour. Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), a primitive and brutal practice in the 1950s, failed to cure my mysterious condition. Partly to protect my parents and sisters from witnessing my decline, and partly as a last ditch effort to ‘cure’ me, I was exiled from my family in New South Wales, and spent several painful years with relatives in Perth, Western Australia. By the age of 15, starvation had wreaked extensive damage to my body and mind. I was given two months to live.
I was inspired to write the novel A Dangerous Daughter by the need to understand my past. Rather than exorcising my demons, the creative process pulled me back into those dark years. Reliving the trauma slowed the writing process, but the thought of helping other young people and their parents kept me going.
In the 1950s in Western Australia, the term “anorexia nervosa” was not generally known, although the illness had been identified as early as1873 by Sir William Gull. So, it was inevitable that the victim was often blamed for her incomprehensible symptoms. Miraculously, through the work of my psychoanalyst, and my own fierce will to survive, I went on to write this book, and hopefully to help others who are grappling with anorexia. In doing so, I felt I had ‘come out’ to an unsuspecting world. I also wished to give hope and courage to patients and their families battling with anorexia.
In late 2019 I was approached by the ABC TV 7.30 Report to give an interview about my experience as a survivor of anorexia nervosa. I did so, with some trepidation. Baring my soul was scary, knowing most of my peers knew nothing of the childhood illness that had almost killed me. I was afraid of a resurgence of the criticism and blame I’d endured during my teenage years.
The popular view of anorexia, as typically promulgated in the media, was that it began with a decision by a (usually) young girl or boy to stop or restrict eating so that they will become fashionably thin. Nothing is further from the truth. Today, a child displaying symptoms such as I did in the 1950s, is highly unlikely to be removed from his or her family. Instead, commonly and ideally, the whole family takes part in the treatment, in recognition of the crucial role of the family in the patient’s recovery.
During the long, slow and painful process of writing A Dangerous Daughter, I received encouragement from my three children when the going got tough. I wanted them to know the truth about their mother, and to craft a work they would be proud of. I hope to reach out to other sufferers of this disease, and to show readers that anorexia nervosa is an illness, like cancer or COVID-19, rather than a life choice. Blame and shame have no part in the treatment of anorexia.
Note: A DIFFERENT VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE BLOG “THE DIARY HEALER” by Dr June Alexander