The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman


This is the true story of how Laura Freeman was diagnosed with anorexia at 14 and how the food described in books helped her to recover.  I’m pleased to say that Laura, thanks largely to the support of her wonderful mum, is now doing well, with a successful writing career, a nice husband, and a double first from Cambridge; but she went through a very rough time.

This is an interesting book, even though her taste in books isn’t that similar to mine, but I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about it.  I know all about binge eating disorder, and I can understand bulimia, but I find anorexia difficult to relate to.  But Laura does a wonderful job of explaining it – through the prism of seeing her mind as a library, in which the books have all fallen off the shelves and got in a mess.

Books and food.  She doesn’t talk about whether there was any connection in her mind between books and food *before* she developed anorexia, so I assume that there wasn’t one.  Now, I grew up reading books in which everyone was always eating.  And we’re not talking a cup of tea and a biscuit – we’re  talking huge slabs of cherry cake, crumpets dripping with butter, and “young bathtubs” of whipped cream.  And sardines, but we’ll ignore that bit: I don’t like sardines.  The Malory Towers and St Clare’s girls were always having midnight feasts, with goodies from their enormous tuckboxes (strangely unaffected by rationing). The Chalet School girls ate vast quantities of cream cakes and fancy bread twists.  The Five Find-Outers spent so much time eating sticky buns in the local cafe that it’s a wonder they ever had time to search for clues.  The Famous Five, the Mystery gang and all the others consumed large picnics followed by equally large high teas.  Even the Ingalls family, who lived in the middle of nowhere and had no money, were always eating Ma’s “good” food.

Is there some sort of connection between all that and my eating disorders?  No: I honestly don’t think there is.  Probably because there’s never much connection between the amount of food eaten by characters in books and their weight.  About the only one who worried about her weight was Caroline Scott in the Wells books, who went through a phase of turning down second helpings of afters … before magically losing all her “puppy fat”, developing a perfect figure, and being swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard.  In about 1987, a kind old lady assured me that I’d lose my “puppy fat”.  I’m still waiting.  And, anyway, none of them eat for no specific reason, or to punish themselves.  They only eat at “occasions”.  Like midnight feasts.  I really want to say that I’ve just discovered the answer to eating disorders, and that it’s that you need to have high teas and midnight feasts with a gang of mates rather than eating your way through the contents of the fridge (or, if it’s empty, the freezer) for no reason whatsoever.  How lovely what that be?   But, sadly, it isn’t, because if I ate even one of those high teas, I would put on 3lbs.  This does not happen to people in books.  Lucky them!!

There’s a definite negativity about overweight characters in books, though.  It’s just that their weight is shown as a character trait (a bad one) rather than as a function of what they eat.  It’s OK for Frederick “Fatty” Trotteville to be fat, because he’s supremely self-confident, but it’s made very clear that no-one would want to be like the unfortunately-named Alma Pudden, or Linda Fischer, or even Hilda Jukes who gets picked on despite having a very kind personality.

Strangely – well, strangely to me – Laura Freeman doesn’t see it like that.  She picks up on books portraying being thin as being a negative thing.  The examples she gives are Charlie Bucket and his family, painfully thin because all they can afford to eat is cabbage, Anne Shirley being very thin when we first meet her, because no-one’s really looked after her until she goes to live with Matthew and Marilla, and Mary Lennox looking “thin and yellow” because she’s been living in “unhealthy” India.  I suppose I take the point.  There’s a lot of talk in books about feeding people up, especially after they’ve been ill.

She doesn’t mention that until the end of the book, though.  Most of it is an account of the different books she read as she recovered, and how the food described in them, and the way in which it was described, appealed to her and made her want to try it.  I suppose that’s what I should be writing about, but they weren’t really my favourite books, so I haven’t really got much to say about them.  Interestingly, they weren’t the sort of books you’d usually associate with food.  The writings of the First World War poets.  And Charles Dickens: the only food I associate with Dickens is the gruel which poor Oliver Twist had to eat in the workhouse.  Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie.  Elizabeth David’s recipe books.  Harry Potter.  They aren’t my books, as I’ve said, but it’s a wonderful account of how books can help people, and I’m so glad to know that Laura is now doing so much better.

There are more books about eating disorders than there used to be, but it’s still a subject that’s not talked about very much, and this is a really different take on it.  I feel like I’ve just written a load of stuff about myself rather than about Laura’s book, but books like this are important for people who’ve got their own issues, and you’re bound to try to relate what they say to yourself.   An interesting read.