I have a pen pal. I have a few, actually, but this one has been a faithful correspondent for longer than any of the others. She and I met right after I had graduated college, when she was still a senior. I was auditing a creative writing class she was taking, but dropped it once I got a job, and she emailed me, asking to meet up some time, maybe trade writing. During our first and only social lunch, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we both struggled with eating disorders. There was nothing visibly sick about either one of us––I ate a cheese omelet, if I recall correctly––but these things just have a way of coming out in conversation. Our six years of writing to one another has proven to be one of the most educational endeavors of my whole life, mostly because she is so insightful and intellectually courageous.
Years ago, she told me of a high school classmate, Jenny, whom she referred to as “That Girl.” We all know That Girl––the first girl in your community (however you define that) to be stricken with the anorexia, the one who disappears suddenly in the middle of a school year and whose teacher tells the class where they can send get well cards. When my pen pal first told me about Jenny, it was with a twinge of envy. You see, Jenny was then attending a top-tier medical school, and my pen pal was sure she knew why. “In my head,” she wrote me, “the story automatically goes: ‘Jenny is clearly trying to become a doctor and help little girls with eating disorders cause she’s recovered and wants to help other people be as great and successful as she’… Don’t you sometimes just feel ‘that should be me,’ the one who is so over this that she can put herself back into it safely?”
But then, just this year, my pen pal, feeling down on herself and wanting to rub salt in the wound, decided again to Google Jenny and see what great strides she had undoubtedly made. What she found, instead, was an obituary. Jenny had passed away due to complications from anorexia at age 27. My pen pal went through a kind of grieving process that I recognized very well. A few years ago, I was idly Googling lost acquaintances and decided to look up a young woman I had met in my fourth and final hospital stay. Whitney was not someone I would have been likely to become close to had I met her under normal circumstances. She was three years my junior, a sweet if somewhat conventional high school cheerleader who has been transferred to the psychiatric unit after a stay at a medical center. We lost touch a few months after we both went home, but because the last time I saw her, she looked so wholesomely attractive and seemed motivated, I always thought of her as someone who would survive. So I was surprised to come across her death notice in a local paper rather than her Facebook profile. She was only 22. And I felt this uncontrollable urge to mourn her in some way, to do something outward for her, to let someone, anyone, know that I felt her loss. I fumbled about, mining for pieces of information about her online and listening to an old mix CD of pop songs she had given me. Eventually, I found her address in an old notebook and wrote her parents a letter telling them how sorry I was, how sad. I don’t know if they ever got it.
In addition to writing about eating disorders and psychology, I write a lot about the Hasidic community, which is a significant population where I live in Brooklyn. People are often quite befuddled at this choice in topic––why would you want to write about these backward, insular people? What could be interesting or admirable about their lifestyle? What I tell them without fail is this: in 2011, when Leiby Kletzky was kidnapped and murdered at just shy of nine years old, the entire Borough Park community––indeed, Jews from all over the country––came out to grieve. Videos of the funeral show a sea of black hats from beneath which comes one big wail of mourning. In their tradition, there are prescribed ways both to publicize and to digest your grief, and the volume of your rituals depensd on how close you were to the victim––veritable concentric circles of bereavement. In the secular world, grieving in such overt ways––tearing one’s clothing, eschewing greetings, and so on––is frowned upon, if not downright taboo. Where can we go to scream to the heavens and let them know we are suffering, our world suffers, without these young women? We, the community of the eating disorder, the once and future “sad girls,” the whole world, have lost Jenny and Whitney and many others. As Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, “In the Kafkaesque departments of this bureau of hunger… who is obliged to make reparations to me for the thought abandoned, the energy never found, the explorations never considered?” To whom do we cry?