Anorexia, Suicide and Dreaming
"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, July 2006
I recently read Kate Bornstein's new book, Hello, Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. I read it really fast because I was interviewing Kate only two days after I received the book, or actually I received a Word document because the galleys weren't yet ready. This turned out to be okay, because I could print out the book single-spaced and in a small font, so it only came to 70-something pages instead of around 200 in the actual book. This was useful because of all my chronic pain (fibromyalgia), which makes it difficult to turn the pages of a book, believe it or not. But that's a subject for a different column, I just wanted to give you some context. More context: I'm writing this with voice activation software, which is how I've written everything for well over a year now.
But anyway, back to suicide, I mean Kate Bornstein's book, which looks really beautiful in the PDF so I will certainly be excited when I behold the finished volume -- I'm a writer, so of course I have a fetish for books! Okay, I'm feeling a little nervous about the topic of suicide, so I'm just gonna start right away with the alternative that made me break down in tears and starts sobbing for longer than I can remember. It's number 81. Starve yourself. Here's what Kate says:
Starving yourself is a valid alternative to killing yourself, but only just barely.
If you're starving yourself either by not eating or by throwing up what you eat-or if you're thinking about doing that-it doesn't make you a bad person, but you do need medical help. Use another alternative in this book to stay alive while you stop doing this one. This alternative is the most deadly in the book.
Did I already tell you that reading this made me break down and starts sobbing for longer than I can remember? Starting around age 12, I was anorexic -- I hated my body and my desires and the world around me and I wanted to disappear, but also I wanted to take control of my body from my parents who sexually abused me. Before I read this section, I hadn't thought of this as an alternative to suicide -- it's funny, as a teenager, almost all of my friends were suicidal at one time or another, and even though I was just as depressed as any of them I never really wanted to kill myself. I always wondered why. I didn't really feel much hope then.
Then reading number 81 in Kate Bornstein's book was incredibly terrifying and liberating. It made me realize that one of the things that helped me to survive was anorexia. Instead of thinking about killing myself, I could think about how many calories were in that bagel I just ate, whether the salad dressing was no-cal or lo-cal, how to hide my food in napkins and discard it when my parents weren't looking. I didn't have healthier options, and that's what's so liberating about Kate's book: it puts all the choices on the table, even the ones that might kill you but might also save your life. What an incredibly brave and honest choice for Kate to make.
When I was sobbing and feeling overwhelmed, I went back to number 2. Take a deep breath and touch yourself. That was helpful. Then I went to cruise Buena Vista Park, which was also helpful -- after crying, I felt so much more present. At the park, I fucked this guy in between trees, which was fun enough, but the best part was when he kept holding out his hand as we were walking down the hill and I was stumbling in the dark -- he thought I was drunk, and he didn't want me to fall. I don't drink -- that's another thing that saved my life in high school, drugs and alcohol -- but I got to a point when they weren't helping any more. Actually, for a while they were making things worse. So I stopped, which was difficult. It still is, sometimes, even though it's been five years.
Anyway, I'm so glad that Kate includes sexuality as a central part of a book of alternatives to teen suicide. This has already gotten her banned from Fox Lane High School in wealthy Bedford, Connecticut, where a businessman complained, "why would a person, who is neither man nor woman, who is obviously confused, come to speak about gender, much less teen suicide?" It's funny, because one of the things that ended up getting her banned was a link to a phone sex website -- phone sex was another of the ways that I survived my teenage years, though it wasn't as important as drugs or anorexia.
In Kate Bornstein's book, she talks about things to do instead of killing yourself, rather than reasons not to, which I think is an important tactical shift. Her goal is to encourage people to create lives free from assigned identities, as much as possible, and she invokes a beautiful quote by Minnie Bruce Pratt, who says, "Our imaginations are in thrall to the institutions of oppression." I will admit that I got a little scared at the beginning of the book, when Kate invokes "the path laid out by the founders of the United States of America." She means the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but of course I thought mostly about slavery, genocide and imperialism. Kate also suggests, a few times, calling the cops. Of course, this might not work too well for most people of color, anyone who is undocumented, someone with a felony record, most transpeople and anyone with a conscience. I'm certain that Kate knows all of this -- I just wish she included an analysis of the criminal "justice" system in the book; this could also save lives.
One of the strengths of Kate Bornstein's work in general is her ability to talk about complicated issues in a very easily understood away, which I think disproves the academic mythology that complicated issues require complicated language. But I wonder also if there's a danger in using simplistic language to talk about complicated issues. I'm thinking of one of the dictates in the book -- "don't be mean." Such a message is often used to silence people with critical perspectives. I know that's not Kate's intention, but if someone said to me as a teenager, "don't be mean," I would've wanted to kill them. Actually, I still would.
But when Kate suggests, "become a more frightening monster than the one they think you are," "frame your own debate," "go completely batty," and "throw away morals," how could I not be in love? When I put down the book, I immediately started to wonder what my life would look like if I could truly embrace and sculpt and transform my fantasies in order to mold the world into something I could live with. I'm completely serious when I say that I look forward to reading the book again -- I want to breathe more, to touch myself again and again, to cry, to dream.