The author’s responsibility in addressing serious issues

Reading about bulimia made me a better bulimic.

Back in college, I was bulimic and borderline anorexic. It was a difficult time, all the craziness of the undiagnosed bipolar disorder and my perfectionistic, driven nature and college life colliding into one confused person’s head; it was almost inevitable that I developed an eating disorder.

Even early in the battle, I wanted help. For me, help meant knowing exactly what beast I was battling. Knowing meant researching. Researching meant reading books and articles and internet sites. Reading meant more information on how other bulimics do it . . . and put ideas in my head. I have to be deliberately vague on this, but there were certain things I did that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. I became more adept at destroying myself. 

Keep in mind that none of the books, sites, etc., were pro-eating disorder. These were not pro-ana, pro-mia sites. This information was designed to help recovery, help promote understanding, and help, period. But my warped mind took the information intended to help and twisted it.

Thankfully, I’ve recovered. But the experience sometimes makes me wonder how information can help or harm us, and whether my experience is at all typical, not just for eating disorders but other disorders, too.

I just finished reviewing two novels. Wintergirls deals with eating disorders. The Stormchasers tells about an unmedicated bipolar man and his normal twin sister. Both are well written, well-researched, and engaging stories. I walked away with a greater understanding of two illnesses that I have experienced; other people, healthy ones, would probably learn a lot about bipolar disorder, bulimia and anorexia if they read these books.

If you asked either author what their intent was (besides writing a fabulous novel), they’d probably say that they wanted to understand these diseases and help others understand them, too. If someone asks me about my novel, dealing with suicide and mental illness, I would probably say that I want to help others find hope, help others understand what a bipolar person deals with.

But does it really help?

I’ve wrestled with this in my novel. Will a reader walk away from my book with a greater understanding of mental illness? Or will my character reinforce an unhelpful stereotype about bipolar people?

If I write about my eating disorder in fiction, will readers understand what goes on in the mind of a bulimic or anorexic? Or will some young woman find ideas for hurting herself? Or will the work be a trigger for someone wrestling with this problem?

To a certain extent, this is out of my control. I can’t control who picks up my book, how they choose to respond, or how they perceive my intentions. I’m responsible for writing the best possible book that I can.

But part of this responsibility is knowing the possible ways others may respond, being mindful of my audience. (This is why I choose to stay silent about certain aspects of my eating disorder; I don’t discuss the numbers or techniques unless the situation calls for this information.)

So here’s where I need some feedback.

Writers, how do you handle issues like this?

Readers, when you read a novel, how do you react to the portrayal of characters with serious issues? (Think, eating disorders, mental illnesses, alcoholism, etc.)

  • Do you think stereotypes are reinforced?
  • Do you understand the problems better or worse after reading the book?
  • If you’ve dealt with that issue personally, did the details/actions/characters trigger memories or cause you to backslide in your recovery?

I’d love to hear from people who have issues like mental illness, eating disorders, etc., but I realize that privacy is a concern. Feel free to comment anonymously or email me directly. (See “contact” tab at the top for email info, or to message me on Facebook.)

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16 thoughts on “The author’s responsibility in addressing serious issues

  1. Such a good point. One of my best friends in college was bulimic and she first learned about it at an eating disorders lecture in high school. Obviously the speaker didn’t intend to teach the girls how to be bulimic but that’s what ended up happening.

    The first time I heard about it was from a high school teacher – her roommate had it in college and had almost died from it. The stories she told were all about how sick her roommate was, all the pain it caused etc. Not how thin her roommate was etc. Maybe it’s a ‘know your target audience’ kind of thing.

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    1. Paula, I first heard about bulimia from classmates in elementary school when our former teacher was rumored to have had bulimia. I remember thinking, “oh, I’d never be able to do that!” I have no idea if that rumor was true, though I felt very bad for the teacher. Thanks for reading!

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  2. Stories help us feel less alone in our disorders, but unless someone is obviously writing non-fiction I do not consider them in fact an “expert.” So I suppose we really are reinforcing generalizations unless our stories hold out hope. Novels don’t always resolve, nor should they, so that is the crux.

    I read fiction to feel less alone or to escape. I read non-fiction to learn.

    My 2cents.

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  3. Laura, your experience and the questions reminded me of Romans 7:5 where Paul writes, “For when we were in the realm of the flesh, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in us, so that we bore fruit for death.” He is saying that knowing something is a sin can actually cause us to desire to commit that sin, and now you’ve got me wondering if it is the same in dealing with disorders. Sorry that this is more like adding to your questions than answering them, but this is the way you got me thinking.

    On one of your questions, though, I do have an answer (or at least an answer for me): “Do you understand the problems better or worse after reading the book?” I think what I’ve come to realize is that when I read novels like that I end up understanding the author’s view of the problem better, not necessarily the problem itself.

    Great thought-provoker today, Laura. Thanks.

    Tim

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    1. Tim, I appreciate your thoughts. That verse in Romans seems so ironic: knowing what sin is makes us want to sin. I think it’s probably more accurate for eating disorders than mental health stuff, since eating disorders tend to feed upon competition (with oneself and other eating disordered people) and knowledge (about the “how’s” of the disorder) doesn’t necessarily help. Whereas, in my experience, I’ve been helped by the knowledge about bipolar disorder (and depression, etc.) that I’ve gleaned from research.

      Good answer to my question, too. The author’s worldview makes all the difference in how a problem is portrayed. I hope my writing brings others hope rather than hurt!

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  4. I did the same thing. It just became an obsession where I would research it, get info from these books that were meant to help people only to take out bits here and there to put into some weird diet I would put myself on.

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  5. Stories can help us place our challenges in a bigger picture. Brokenness becomes more broken as it becomes isolated through self-analysis. The only thing more powerful for providing needed context for nurture is community.

    …And I certainly know something about the dangers of trying to heal yourself through books. My ex-wife has DID and her reading always creates new projections.

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    1. I’m so sorry you went through such a rough time with your ex. I hope that she can get help for her disorder, even if she has to stop reading entirely! Thank you for sharing.

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  6. Very interesting post Laura. I have suffered with depression for over half my life, but for a number of years now it has largely disappeared although unfortunately I have had a bout recently even though it wasn’t severe. I’ve written a book about depression, not a novel, very much from someone who has suffered it as opposed to someone like a doctor who has studied it from a distance but never suffered it themselves. We need accounts ‘from the front line’ so to speak that tell it like it is ‘warts an’ all’ which are honest. The point you are making could be applied to any kind of thing in the public domain. If we watch a TV program about a suicide, the worry is will someone copy it in real life. In that respect, as individuals, as creative people we should think carefully about what we write, whether we are writing to genuinely help other people, or whether we are writing for sensationalism’s sake or to make a quick buck.

    Christians have a responsibility to God, to be true and honest to other people, and to have pure motivations for what they do, whether privately or publicly. Heaven forbid that anything we might write might harm someone in any way, and I think in the light of this we need to pray to God that we are honest but not necessarily overly-graphic in our explanations of the troubles we have gone through. A little reflection is always a good thing I think.

    There is then a dichotomy here, a thin-line between sharing helpful information and being sensational for it’s own sake. Depression, bulimia, bi-polar, anorexia etc etc are hardly glamorous things so perhaps our approach should be more matter-of-fact, and goodness knows all these conditions are so very common, especially in the wealthy western countries of the world. Thanks for posting.

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    1. Tim,
      You raised a great point about our motivations. I’ve gone over my work multiple times, hoping that my work is helpful and not harmful. Thanks so much for reading and for the thoughtful comment!

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  7. Hi Laura, incidentally, I wrote a piece about depression which I put on my blog a while back; you can find it here at: http://tchildschristianityblog.blogspot.com/p/thoughts.html The piece in question I entitled ‘Sad All Over’. If you have the time, perhaps you could take a look and see what you think. It’s just a prose piece on depression really.

    I think that, if we are honest about our experiences, whatever they might be, that is a great start; if we pray for pure motives, God will certainly give us them, even if as writers like everyone else we want to be successful and make money and have a career and the like.

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  8. I actually tried to be anorexic and bulimic in middle school bc i had heard of it, there is pressure to be thin and perfect, but more because even at that age my emotional issues were already starting. i never could make myself throw up. i just tried to be “in control”. i took some diet pills, and tried to exercise a lot and tried to control my eating. i don’t think i really wanted to be really thin, and it never took great control, but i tried this. i don’t think it lasted more than a year?? I just saw it on tv, i know. and i think there was a movie about it….may have lasted more than a year, maybe seventh to ninth grade. different times i felt like i had no friends, no one, and no hope. and this gave me something to focus on…..i so wish things had been different for me!!!! 🙂 hopelessness has been a big issue for me in my life. 😦

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