I was so intrigued by the premise of The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite that I ordered a copy from my library as soon as I read the reviews. The book is based on Freeman’s experiences of anorexia nervosa, and how reading eventually helped her recover from the disease. As she explains, she isn’t cured in any sense – she still cannot bring herself to each chocolate, and has daily struggles to eat enough and not walk excessively – but she has recovered enough that she is no longer in need of hospitalisation or bed rest.
The book details her love affair with books of all kinds and how, gradually, the books themselves started to influence the way she wanted to live her life. It starts with Dickens. Freeman decides in 2012 to read all of Dickens as a celebration of his 200th birth year. Food is a major theme in Dickens’ novels, and as she starts to realise that the generous, food giving people are the ones we like, she discovers that she doesn’t want to be aligned to those cruel food-refusers that pepper his books.
“As I read my way through Dickens I made a tally of the Squeers and Pumblechooks, Miss Charlottes and Miss Sallys, each keeping those in their care short: not one with an ounce of goodness in them. Why, then, when I shuddered at their viciousness, did I think it right and reasonable to keep my own body so short and so cold, fed on thin gruel and make-believe?” (p.32).
From Dickens Freeman reads stories of war – Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden. Then it is on to wanderers – Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee. Without her really consciously being aware of it, food in these books begins to make an impression on her. They start to change her attitude to life, and then to food. Because if she doesn’t eat, she cannot live. Finally, by chance, she happens upon the food writers: MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David. After seeing Monet’s Galettes on display at the National Gallery, Freeman remembers a description of Fisher being instructed in ‘The Making of The Tart’. Such is the description, Freeman makes her own version of an apple tart and allows herself one sliver. ‘It was the most delicious tart in all of England’, she writes (p. 113).
At this point, as a reader, one thinks that Freeman is well on her way to a more regular relationship with food. But then. But then. Clean eating arrives. For all I have been horrified and annoyed by clean eating over the years, with it’s clean v dirty, well v unwell, green v pretty much everything else mantras, I always watched with skepticism. (I am skeptical of all food-related fads). But Freeman, with her vulnerability and susceptibility to food, succumbs. This, for me, is the most powerful part of the book.
“This disgust of food dressed up as an almost religious virtue. Those monstrous voices that I had battled with for years, those voices spitting against the filthiness of eating, the same of appetite, those bullies and demons came roaring back. What had once existed only in my unhappy mind – disgust for food, an obsession with a clean, pure, empty stomach – was now bodied forth by siren-beauties and ‘wellness’ bloggers in books and newspapers, on restaurant menus and in shopping baskets” (p.121).
The clean eating brigade does serious damage to Freeman’s progress. Pretty soon the ‘jabberwock’ comes roaring, howling back and Freeman relapses into seriously restricted eating patterns. This part of the book is tough to read, but compelling. If you’ve ever wondered whether the clean eating brigade did any damage to anyone, look no further than these pages. Gradually Freeman starts another recovery journey. She finds a kindred spirit in Virginia Woolf, and then turns to children’s stories.
Most children’s stories have wondrous food descriptions and experiences (think Rowling, Blyton, and Dahl for instance). But there are more to such stories than simply food, as Freeman discovers when she revisits them. In stories like Pollyanna and What Katy Did, the girls are described as angels after their falls rendering them unable to walk. Freeman pushes back against this idea. “Being bedridden does not make you saintly and sweet-natured. It makes you cross and querulous and self-pitying” (p. 177). More like Colin in The Secret Garden whose descriptions of cantankerous behaviour she praises for being more accurate than the sweet, injured girls Pollyanna and Katie. Reading about illness in these stories helps Freeman realise how much better she is than before. How much progress she has made. It helps too that in books like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, being thin is not seen as a virtue but as a lack. Both Mary and Anne, upon arriving at their new homes, are deemed too thin and encouraged to ‘fatten up’, giving them more energy and joie de vivre than before.
I read The Reading Cure quickly, consuming it with a fascinated curiosity. Freeman’s frankness in discussing her illness, her understanding that she will live with it always, and will have to keep the demons at bay probably all her life is honest and makes for hard but refreshing reading. As someone fascinated by food stories, I loved the way she weaves the books and their meals into her story. It is not all sweetness and light though. There are dark moments here. For anyone who has ever struggled with the voices in their head, Freeman’s book is frank and open, giving insight into her mind and her struggles.